Balancing the Cosmos

Transferring the Mam

By Andrew Weeks

Text Index

Note: If you arrived at this page via Mesoweb Search, use your browser's Find feature to locate the text of interest, then click the link to go to the illustrated page. Or click here to go to the beginning of the article.

Go to page: We returned to Santiago Atitlan and the amazing world of Tz'utujil ceremonial to witness the transfer of Rilaj Mam, the figure better know as Maximon, from the Cofradía San Nicolas to Cofradía San Juan where he will hold court for the next year. In former times, when the base for traditional practices was much larger, all the cofradías transferred each year to a new location — in the house of their new alcalde. Now it is only the Cofradía Santa Cruz, that of the Mam, which moves to another established and now-stationary cofradía. In fact this practice, with two cofradías under the same roof, was only instituted within recent memory to allow an equitable distribution of the much-needed funds which the presence of the Mam brings.

Go to page: When one arrives as a visitor, stepping off the boat at the lakeside jetty in Santiago Atitlan, one is surrounded by a group of children crying out "Max-i-mon, Max-i-mon." And if you follow them they will lead you, for a small consideration, up "Gringo Alley" and down rocky streets and sometimes up steps and along back alleys, until you reach a compound very likely festooned with paper decorations and even Coca-Cola pennants.

Go to page: Clouds of strong-scented copal incense might be billowing from a decorated doorway flanked by hanging reeds, and inside a short, stocky figure wearing two fedoras, one atop the other, and festooned with numerous scarves, is being given a drink. As he is tilted back, a small bottle of powerful spirits is carefully presented to his wooden lips. Thirst quenched, for the moment, the Mam resumes his vertical position and, lighted cigarette replacing bottle, regards the next petitioner.

In Cofradía San Nicolas, they are making their farewells to the figure of Maximon amidst much tears and sadness, and possibly some slight relief, for Rilaj Mam, as he is known to the Atitecos, is an intense and demanding guest.

Go to page: The Mam has his own cofradía — Santa Cruz. Formerly it had its own abode, but nowadays it is something of a "moveable feast" — an appropriate phrase since the Mam brings with him prestige and clients, visitors and their offerings. This is shared between the other cofradía locations on a yearly rotational basis.

Go to page: The cofrades take it in turn to dance the Mam to the music of the marimba band they have employed for the festivities. But there is no sign of the outgoing telinel — the Mam's special shaman priest, who will be replaced at this time — and rumors abound. Emotions, fueled by ritual drinking, can run high during these great ceremonial occasions.

Go to page: The Mam is elaborately costumed with two fedoras, ladino-style jacket, Atiteco pants and a multiplicity of scarves. These clothes are all donated — a privilege to be paid for. A stylish fedora, for example, expensive in itself to buy, requires an accompanying donation of Q500 (approximately $60).

Go to page: The Mam is dressed in splendid new attire as part of his rebirth at the beginning of Semana Santa (Easter Week). His clothes from the preceding year are carried in a great bundle by the telinel to a point on the lakeside outside town and given a thorough washing upon three stones by members of the Santa Cruz Cofradía.

With reference to two colonial indigenous texts, John Pohl, a leading expert on the Mixtec codices, writes: "Throughout Codex Telleriano Remensis and Vaticanus A, deities are not only described for their supernatural properties, but detailed descriptions are given of costume attributes, as though dress was considered to be a significant part of the god's persona. Costume and regalia are even invoked in prayers to the gods."

Go to page: When Cofradía Santa Cruz and the Mam move location, all of his many possessions must go with him. These bundles seen here — and there are about forty of them — contain his clothes and shoes from past years, which are stored in the loft above the cofradía house and are well "smoked" by now from the constant haze of copal, candle and tobacco.

Go to page: In the Cofradía San Juan they are getting ready to welcome the Mam, and a coroza palm flower will be hung from the roof. These beautiful and elaborate natural decorations are released from their giant pods and like all of the decorations have great symbolic meaning. The tixeles are starting to dance. The celebrations are beginning, for the Mam does love to party.

Go to page: One day, in between ceremonies, we were taken by Atiteco friends to the place in the hills above the town where the Mam was born: carved from a palo de pito or coral tree, which also supplies the red seeds used by shamans for divination.

Stories of the Mam's origins and his complex nature are legion, and versions of some can be read in Vincent Stanzione's book Rituals of Sacrifice or in Nathaniel Tarn and Martin Prechtel's Scandals in the House of Birds.

The remaining tree stump is clearly a focus for rituals. Draped with the remnants of scarves and with a cigar butt inserted in a knot-hole, it seems a simulacrum of the figure of Rilaj Mam in the town. Perhaps this can tell us something about the nature of the Mam and even about the very idea and nature of sacred images.

We were told that a former telinel might employ aj'itz (shamans who cast cursing spells) to enfeeble his incoming successor. As we would see, the telinel needs all his moral and physical strength to fulfil his obligations to the Mam, and his right to the office is regularly tested.

As I was filming the tree, I attempted an involved camera movement: a shot keeping tight on the original stump of the tree and then moving up the newer growth of branches. Each time as I panned up and the image of the highest green shoots filled the lens, a strong gust of wind would suddenly set the leaves dancing against the sky. I took this as a good sign.

Go to page: On the steep paths leading into town, all the transportation of goods must be done by carrying using the ancient method of the tump-line, a cord across the forehead supporting the object being carried. This sort of carrying plays an important part in processional ritual too.

Go to page: Outside Cofradía San Nicolas, the senior alcaldes (heads of the cofradías), with much formal and flowery rhetoric, formally conclude the handing over of the Mam and Cofradía Santa Cruz into the keeping of the new alcalde, that of San Juan.

Go to page: The procession of Cofradía Santa Cruz with the Mam leaves for their new home, Cofradía San Juan, across town.

Go to page: Amongst the possessions of Cofradía Santa Cruz is an urna — a glass coffin containing a figure of Christ. This is seen as a very different Jesus to that which is kept in the church and crucified at Easter, and it precedes the Mam who has been disassembled, wrapped in a patate and securely roped to the top of a glass-doored cupboard by the telinel.

Go to page: The telinel carries his cumbersome load across town. He adopts a swaying, dancing gait even bowed down as he is, for the gods must be danced, it seems, even while in a comatose, dismembered state. For when the Mam is disassembled, his power is neutralized. He is effectively dead.

Go to page: The procession led by the great drum, without whose beats no public ritual seems possible, makes its slow way through the streets of Santiago Atitlan.

Go to page: The urna just squeezes through the narrow passageway to Cofradía San Juan. We had doubted that it would be possible, but the Atitecos knew precisely what they were doing. Just like moving men negotiating a piano into a small apartment, they had their angles perfectly judged, with no to-ing and fro-ing necessary.

Go to page: The telinel follows the urna down the steps into the courtyard in front of the cofradía house. The bundled figure of the Mam sits atop this cabinet of curiosity, roped and supported by the tump-line across the telinel's forehead. There are pictures in pre-Hispanic codices of god images and ancestor bundles being carried in just this way; for example, on the Egerton Roll in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Go to page: Once in the courtyard, surrounded by the packed crowd, the telinel dances his cargo to the strains of a top-rate marimba band. He continues for almost an hour while pausing only briefly. Several times his attendants asked the band to cease, but the telinel insisted they continue, for this was a chance to prove not only his physical strength, but his spiritual fitness for the role as the Mam's bearer and shaman priest. The very title, telinel, implies a shouldering of the burden. And it's said that "no human, of himself, could perform such a feat."

Go to page: The xo', the alcalde's wife and a leader of this cofradía in her own right, is amongst the crowd welcoming the Mam. Behind her, dressed in deepest blue, is a Kaqchikel woman from across the lake. For the Mam has many devotees outside the town.

Go to page: Tixeles, the women of the cofradías, dance together in celebration of the Mam's installation in their cofradía. The band will play almost continuously for the next few days — we heard them from across the lake. Rilaj Mam really does like a party.

Go to page: With Cofradía Santa Cruz ensconced in their new home, the telinel eases into his job of serving, imploring and attending on Rilaj Mam. For this is what gods need — they crave attention and adulation, they want to be fed and watered, they love being cosseted. And nowadays that is the best we humans can do for them.


Later we heard that, only three weeks after the festivities described here, personal internal frictions disrupted the Cofradía San Juan. This may well have a profound effect on the way this ritual year develops, but these events still have to play themselves out before they can be reported upon. One way or another, this certainly demonstrates the state of flux and flow within the traditionalist fabric of this Maya city and the effect of clashing personalities within even as traditional a structure as that of a cofradía.