Guatemala is a land where culture, tradition and faith dug their heels in resolutely to fight the Spanish conquerors who came centuries ago. Seen here, 'DAWN: Giant of Cayalá' by Guatemalan sculptor Walter Peter Brenner.
A temple that houses an idol in modern attire.
You grow curious and want to see what offerings the devotees have brought. Cigars and booze. You may even catch a few people smoking in various corners inside the temple, blowing out rings of smoke into the air, blissfully.
Welcome to Guatemala, a land where culture, tradition and faith dug their heels in resolutely to fight the Spanish conquerors who came centuries ago. The visitors brought along with them Catholicism which they imposed upon the Mayans in this South American country.
Local people had no other way but to budge, accept Christ and Madonna as their new gods, but a stroll along the streets of Guatemala today would convince you how cleverly they doped Christianity with their Mayan deities and beliefs.
Or how else could an idol with a cigarette tucked in his mouth and glass of liquor in front of him stand besides the usual crosses and statues of holy Mary in this Catholic country?
With a cowboy hat and sunglasses, the statue wears the mien of a villain culled from a Clint Eastwood movie. You soon find that all of Guatemala is peppered with his shrines!
Who is he? What has he got to do with booze, his favourite offering?
San Simon also known as Maximon is a folk saint in Guatemala. Often depicted as an idol sitting on a chair with a cigar in his mouth and a drink by hand, this figure goes back to a priest who lived in the country 300 years ago. Such a cult figure was he that people from far away lands came to seek his blessings or to get cured from fatal diseases. But he had his weaknesses also. Simon received anyone who came with offerings like tobacco, liquor, money and, his favourite, tortillas. His contemporaries swear, Simon could be trusted with anything but women.
Legend has it that a few fishermen before they left for sea sought the help of San Simon to protect the virtue of their wives. The prayer backfired. On their way back they found to their horror that their wives were all madly besotted with a happy Simon. In fact, they caught the priest on the dirty act. The church took stringent action when it came to know about the adulteration of its belief in Guatemala, and Simon was promptly excommunicated, his church taken over. Could that finish Simon off? Guatemalans rallied around their new hero (his boozing, smoking, and other vices made him perhaps dearer to them) and built a church exclusively for him. When it was burned down by the authorities, people took him to their homes.
Centuries later, you can still see the idols of San Simon shifted from home to home every year as an homage to how he had to live centuries ago. Simon exists in a moral grey area, but holds forth an identity for the people of Guatemala who were forced to accept the raw end of a deal from the Spaniards.
San Simon, in spite of his shady sides, is the symbol of resistance and national integration for the Guatemalan people.
No wonder, the controversial popular saint finds expression in works by great writers like Miguel Angel Asturias (the 1967 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) and the poet Hugo Carrillo. Today, in museums, in offices and in tourist leaflets of Guatemala, you can see pictures of San Simon proudly depicted.
So what should you give him as an offering?
Good rum. And cigars.