Rituals of Resistance
Walking the Path of the Sun Across the Sky
When I first passed along the Guatemalan lakeshore to the Cofradía Santa Cruz, where Maximón spends much of the year, I was out walking. I didn’t know where I was, and there, in a physical, temporal crossroads, I found San Simón, Maximón, Rilaj Mam or simply “Mam,” adorned in bright colors, with smoke and noise all around, and moonshine ritually prescribed. Maximón is a figure in the cosmology of the Tz’utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlán, in the western highlands of Guatemala, who reside next to Lake Atitlán, an ancient volcanic lake surrounded by three younger volcanoes, and witness the sun’s path across the sky.
Maximón is not alive, but he is also not dead. He has a face, but really he has several faces. He has a body which is in many pieces, and underneath his clothes, he is tied together with special knots by his priest, the telinel. Most of all, he is not always a “he” but can assume any form necessary, so it may be better to refer to Maximón as Mam, meaning ancestor, grandfather or grandchild, as the figure’s adherents usually do. On this day, I was lost, but Mam was sitting there, smoking a cigar, surrounded by a bizarre assemblage of Christmas lights, noisemakers, canyon water and small people seemingly wandering around the space in some semblance of pain and ecstasy. For my part, at 6’5”, I hardly fit in the room, but my eagerness to bear witness was rewarded with hospitality, an encounter that continues to shape how I think and teach and encounter human beings on the face of the earth.
I spent thirteen months among the people of Santiago Atitlán, in the orbit of this ancient being who symbolically hangs from the world tree, the axis mundi, the spot where the umbilical cord of the world comes out of the earth. I watched most of this as an observer, but had pieces of it explained to me by Vincent Stanzione and Robert Carlsen whom I have known most of my life. I was not so concerned with why things were happening at the time, but without their introductions and whispered explanations, it wouldn’t have had such a large impact on me. In this way, I come to this material in the opposite direction from a scholar, because I walked in first, and after spending time listening and watching, I began to read about the history and the context I found myself in. Today, by blending the stories I heard, and the research I read, I am going to share one version of this story with you.
For thousands of years, the Tz’utujil Maya have lived on the shores of Lake Atitlán. They have watched the sky, tilled the earth and walked across the face of flowering mountain earth as they participate in the passage of time. They have a proud tradition of dyes, weaving and orienting themselves towards both the past and the future.
Over it all, the sun passes during the day, the moon watches the night, and the relationship of what we might consider opposites infuses the life of the pueblo. This includes day and night, dark and light, young and old, wet and dry, male and female, earth and sky, death and life. But in Santiago Atitlán, I learned, these are not really opposites; they are parts of a greater whole, the passage of time, the life cycle of both the individual and the community, and the path of the sun across the sky.
For five hundred years, the Tz’utujil have been resisting the conquest of outsiders, partly through adherence to the rituals of their past. By adapting to the introduction of Christianity and the expectations of missionaries and rapacious colonizers, the Tz’utujil have guarded their traditions, and continue to practice their vital rituals of sacrifice that help renew the earth, and do the human work of helping carry the sun across the sky. As it was told to me, the Tz’utujil understand themselves to be agents in the turning of the seasons and the passage of time, and during the liminal space of Semana Santa (Holy Week), when the world is upside down, they have tasks to carry out as part of the grand cycle. This cycle can be seen in the life span of an individual and a family, and the community at large, but also in the return of the rainy season, and the passage between the sunset and the sun rising again. The sun does its part, but the community in turn has a relationship and a responsibility to do its work to make the world ready to be reborn again in the glorious morning of a new day.
Tz’utujil more or less means “people of the corn plant” and it will be helpful to keep this plant in mind as we proceed. From a single kernel resting in the earth, after being watered, the corn plant sprouts and begins to grow. As it grows, it changes, matures, develops different parts, appropriate to each stage of its life. When the plant is ready to bear fruit, it in turn is preparing to die. When the fruit is full grown and possibly harvested, or allowed to fall to the ground, the plant from that single kernel dies, and goes back into the earth. The fruit of the corn plant… is it dead after it is detached from the stalk?
In that fruit, there is the ember of life, and if planted in the earth and watered, the corn plant will reproduce yet again, but always drawing on the past. This is a way of encapsulating some of the ideas we are discussing today, and each of us can in some capacity relate to it. As a human being, you have a belly button after all, and through it, you are connected to your mother and your mother’s mother, and her mother, and so on backward through time.
In this milieu of death, rebirth, sacrifice and fertility, my feet brought me close to the outrageously excessive Maximón of Santiago Atitlán. Through the ancient rituals, of which Maximón is but one center, the excruciating cycle of death and joyous rebirth is carried out and enabled by his priests every year. Maximón, Lord of the Middle, Lord of Tobacco, is lord of many things. Mam is a fluid, enterprising, shape-shifting, crossroads figure with tremendous potency. The deity fits into many tellings of the past, taking the role of one of the Ancient Ones for the traditionalists, Jesus’ hero twin for Popol Wuj readers, a Judas-figure in the Christian telling, and even the devil for others. This is to say Maximón is many things to many people, and if there is a “truth” here, it is not in English, and it is not written down. I offer here a retelling of what I witnessed and heard, but to understand it may require some time on the edge of the volcano with the “working people,” as Mam’s adherents refer to themselves.
Maximón exists against and despite the efforts of the Spaniards to eradicate signs, symbols and practices of pre-Columbian religion. The figure endures even today against an onslaught of foreign money and outside Christian missionary actions. Guatemala, to the extent that this designation matters to the deity’s adherents, has a long painful history of colonial conflict and interference. The Spaniards came as early as 1524, and worked to undermine, suppress and destroy the religion, worldview and even the way of life of the Maya people they found. In Santiago Atitlán, as in so many places invaded and violated by Europeans, this story is the same, but also quite different. For in Santiago Atitlán, among the Tz’utujil people, a culture remains that predates the Conquest, that has disguised itself by absorbing and adapting Christian symbols, rituals and practices and carries on even into the present. Hence Mam’s many faces, many roles, and many ways of fitting into stories of the world.
As I encountered the cofradía where Maximón resides, a physical space with Catholic origins in the Conquest, but now a kind of fraternal organization that also provides space for cultural resistance, I found something I recognized. Driven by some impulse, I had intentionally avoided learning anything about the history of the place or the people. Amid his priests, associates and hangers on, the figure resonated with me on a level I struggle to put into words. His origins resemble other Mesoamerican stories, but are in other ways unique to Santiago Atitlán. Mam was carved from a tree, who volunteered to help protect the people on their path across the face of the earth, as well as maintain a balance in the sexual energy of the pueblo. After taking human form, Mam began to cause some of the same problems he was asked to help address. Ever the dynamic trickster, Mam created a space which now provides room for cultural resistance and rituals of renewal that are enacted every year. I was not looking for “religion” or history, but I certainly understood the drive to remain who I was no matter what the men with guns had to say about it. And there we were! The mighty shape-shifter with centuries of trickstery resistance and a wandering fool looking for transformation.
But consider this. Maximón dies every year. Mam is symbolically dismembered, mirroring the creation story, but he does not lose his potency. His pieces are like entire generations of plants, human families or bundles of time. And every year they are bound together again by his telinel, and Maximón again sits and smokes and has drinks poured for him, and again he travels the paths and again he breeds, and breathes and bleeds, and dies and is born again. For my part, I simply listened and watched and am able to consider the tremendous human tragi-comedy that repeats itself in and around the figure of Mam.
The death and rebirth of Maximón are tied to a pair of concepts, Jal and K’ex, which taken together become “Jaloj-K’exoj.” “Jal” is the change manifested by a thing as it evolves through its individual life cycle; life arises from death. “K’ex” is the seed of generational change, a making of new out of the old. It is said that grandparents have “replacements” when they procreate, and when their offspring procreate again. A person in turn creates a new person who is an extension of them, all related backward in time to the mighty world tree from which we all spawn. We might consider this Jaloj-K’exoj a keyhole through which to peer and begin to understand, or at least bear witness to the way the Tz’utujil have come to terms with their place on the face of the earth.
No one ever told me if Maximón had a belly button, and as far as I know, Mam has less to do with the corn plant than his counterpart Manawal Jesu Krista. You may find that you are familiar with Jesu Krista’s story. His birth was foretold by an “angel.” He was carried by a virgin woman named Yamry, Andolor or Ana Dolores (Mary), witnessed by the hummingbird, and came to earth to bring change. His ministry is accompanied by pursuit, controversy and a painful sacrifice of self so that the world might be redeemed, the rain might return and the sun might rise again. He is known to many as Jesus, but in Santiago Atitlán, he is more and less than Jesus. Not only are there many tales of his prophecy and coming, there are different ways to interpret these tales. But Jesu Krista is above all a person of the corn, related also to cycles of death and rebirth, darkness and light, and the ever important change of the seasons.
These stories are especially important because they reveal some of the ways the Christian story is accepted and adapted by the Tz’utujil. Jesu Krista is one of them, with a local origin story and a presence among the people. Mam also is part of the myth and history of the people, as well as appearing in the story of Jesu Krista’s ministry as Señor Domingo Ramos on his road to Palm Sunday. What we end up with is not the conquest of a people and the eradication of a cosmology and a way of life, but rather a story of resistance, resilience and continuity to a time before the arrival of Europeans. Much more can be said of how Mam provides a space for gathering, for ritual practice, sacrifice and even a space for “filth” that is part of life. The deity also plays a major role in the Christian rituals of Semana Santa as well as Easter. And here is where you can see the relationship between these two figures most directly.
Maximón’s priests have a 40-day script of rituals of sacrifice and fertility leading up to Easter even as the Christians recognize Lent. Mam takes part in Holy Week activities, aiding his hero twin Jesu Krista as he flees from the Romans, as recounted in the Biblical narrative. But he also takes Jesu Krista’s place in prison on Maundy Thursday so that he can prepare for his own impending sacrifice. The two are bound together, and they provide an insight into a culture that has worked tirelessly across 500 years to protect itself against outside interference. This takes place alongside the central figure in the Christian calendar, the great driver and justification for the Conquest. In the context of Santiago Atitlán, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the scriptural presence of Judas, become but one way to describe the story of the passage of time, the change of seasons, and the human drama that plays out every year.
I learned from my time near Maximón that we cannot tell the story of sacrifice without deliverance, the story of sunset without sunrise or the story of conquest without resistance. These are related, and they play out together. We don’t always understand it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, like the corn kernels in the ground waiting for rain so as to spring forth once again. It has been said that when the Spanish missionaries arrived among the Maya, learned the local language, and shared a tale of a man who spread a message of change and renewal before being taken to a bloody and sacrificial death for the redemption of the sins of the people in order to be raised from the dead, the Maya’s response was a bit quizzical, a kind of “we already know about him.”
Today, Jesus has a flowering coffin in the church, and Maximón sits and smokes in the cofradía. Mam drinks and listens to songs and prayers and breathes in the incense and watches over the people throughout the year. And that’s not all that happens! You never know when you might find Maximón out on the path, but he is also guarding you on the path…, at least if you have properly recognized his importance.
It is perilous to encounter Mam. After all, this is a figure that cannot die because he is already dead and will die and be reborn again. Maximón can see, and if there is one thing that seems remarkably clear, the crossroads are places of change, transformation and indeed danger. We may act like the passage of time matters little, but in the end, we are like the ashes that fall from Maximón’s cigar, only to be swept out of the cofradía door and into the wind. In the end we will be there to fertilize the corn plant as it grows again on the face of flowering mountain earth.
Winter 2021, Volume XX, Number 2
Octavio Pascal Carrasco is a historian of American culture and music with special interest in the processes of social change, cultural resistance and the religious imagination. As an undergraduate student at Princeton University, he worked with Cornel West, exploring the religious dimensions of Tupac Shakur’s music and death. His doctoral work at Union Theological Seminary in New York focused on “the long sixties” as a period of profound awakening in American history. Octavio’s primary mode of transportation is walking, using the “eyes in his feet” to remain connected with his surroundings. He enjoys juggling book loans at ALL the local libraries and likes sea turtles very much.
Excellent resources for further reading are Rituals of Sacrifice by Vincent Stanzione and The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town by Robert Carlsen.
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