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Ann Murdy | profile | all galleries >> Semana Santa in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Semana Santa in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala

In 2005 and 2006 I traveled to Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala to take in the sights, smells and sounds of Semana Santa in this indigenous lakeside village. Since that time I’ve witnessed the ceremonies of Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala and the cities of Oaxaca, Teotitlán del Valle, Pátzcuaro, Uruapan, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro and Santa Fe de Laguna in Mexico. In all of these places I took in wonderful experiences however, I would have to say that Semana Santa in Santiago Atitlán remains the best. The reason why I still treasure my time there was because of the blending of the indigenous Mayan Tz'utujil culture with the mix of Catholicism.

During Semana Santa in Santiago Atitlán the people celebrate both the resurrection of Christ along side the rebirth of Maximón known as Rilaj Mam. Maximón is a Mayan deity known as the "ancient one". He is made from the wood of the Palo de Pito or the "whistle tree". Semana Santa is the most important cultural event in this town. The week also represents the five most dangerous days at the end of the Mayan calendar. On Wednesday of Semana Santa Maximón is hung in his own chapel next to the church. He is hung so the earth can be reborn again. On Good Friday Maximón is brought back to life where he once again rides the shoulders of the Telinel, the man who is the official caretaker, dresser and carrier of Maximón. The Mam comes back to life at the same time that the crucified body of Christ is being carried out of the church. The Telinel carries the Mam right up to the coffin of Christ and dances next to it. Some say he steals the show away from the crucified Christ.

One needs to keep in mind that in Santiago Atitlán the Tz'utujil people believe that Rilaj Mam and Christ are brothers. Easter has a different meaning here. When Christ is sacrificed on the cross his blood is spilt to give rebirth or a flowering of the earth. It is believed that Christ’s sacrifice transforms the world of death back to the greenness of life and rain to the region. Semana Santa is a time to bring the world back to life.

Rilaj Mam is known as the great transformer of matter, life and soul. He can cure the sick or make people ill. He is always seen dressed with two Stetson cowboy hats, a necktie, silk scarves tied around his neck, embroidered pants, boots, a cigar or cigarette in his mouth and bottles of alcohol at his feet. He is said to be the demon of our vices. He loves to party, dance, drink and be merry.

The Mam is cared for by the cofradía Santa Cruz. The cofradía cares for the Mam year round. The cofradía is a brotherhood system that has been used in Santiago Atitlán since colonial times. There are twelve confradías in Santiago Atitlán representing each of the disciples. Every year the Mam is moved around to another cofradía house and he receives a new Telinel to look after him. He has become a major tourist attraction today in the village. Tourists are asked to leave donations when they visit the cofradía house. These donations are used to pay for the celebrations in the village, pay for musicians and keep the Mam happy.

Semana Santa starts on Domingo de Ramos with a procession of women carrying palm leaves with flowers. A statue of Christ on the burro is used in this small procession. On Monday all of the saints inside the church are taken down from their nichos and they're placed on the floor. The nichos and the walls of the church are then cleaned and dusted. After this is completed the saints are put back in place one by one. Women then enter the church with huge plastic jugs of water so young boys can clean the floor.

On Monday evening the Telinel and the Cofradía Santa Cruz go down to the lake and wash the Mam’s clothes worn throughout the year on three stones. The washing of his clothes symbolizes a cleansing of the filth from the world. Throughout this ceremony the matraca can be heard. Only the men from the cofradía are allowed to wash the clothes.

On Tuesday evening the Mam is redressed in new clothes. This nighttime ceremony takes place completely in the dark. During this ceremony the Telinel will adorn him with his purple and white belts, scarves, necktie, boots, pants, Stetson hats and cigar. Around nine o’clock in the evening the doors of the Cofradía house are closed to the public, the lights are turned off and a Mayan band begins to play music until the Mam is fully dressed in his new clothes by the Telinel. Afterwards the lights are turned back on and everyone pays their respects to the Mam.

On Wednesday the newly dressed Mam is prepared for a procession to the Mayor’s office. The Telinel carries him on his shoulders along the procession route. Once there, he is placed on his royal reed mat with baskets of fruit that have been brought in from the coast. After the reception at the Mayor’s office he is brought to his capilla where he is hung. He will stay in this position until the afternoon of Good Friday when he is brought back to life.

When one awakes up early on Good Friday morning the villagers are busy creating mutli-colored sawdust carpets being made with stencils in the streets and on the plaza of the church. The village is covered with arbors decorated with pine needles, bananas, pineapples, kixlan kum, the coroza palm flowers and other fruits from the region. Men and women begin entering the church carrying huge candles in their hands. Slowly they crawl on their knees to the altar of the church. The fruit from the coast used in the Mam procession now adorns a scaffold in front of the main altar. A life size statue of Christ is placed on the floor atop of a huge cross. Women scurry to sew flowers onto his loincloth. Toward the front door of the church a glass coffin adorned with multi-colored twinkling lights and artifical flowers is prepared. Everything from the mattress to the pillow where the crucified Christ will rest his head is sprayed with super sweet smelling aerosol to purify everything. The church begins to fill up with people standing in line to kiss the Christ figure and weep over his body. By now the entire church is full of smoke from copal incense being burned. At twelve noon the Christ figure is lifted up in front of the main altar and placed in a hole in the ground. The people believe this hole represents the navel of the earth. By now the church is at a capacity. It is an overwhelming experience as the clouds of smoke from the copal incense makes it difficult to see the Christ figure. Many people weep as a band in the doorway of the church plays a mournful dirge. Once this part of the ceremony is completed a mass takes place.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the Saqristans begin to untie the Christ figure from the cross. These men hold a powerful position in the Cofradía system in the village. These men are the singers and sacrificers of Christ. Slowly the Saqristans bring the articulated and lifeless body of the Christ figure off the cross. The glass coffin is now brought forward by men dressed in fire red shirts with thin black stripes, embroidered bird pants with stripes and an ikat sash around their waist. They are responible for carrying the coffin with the Christ figure in it until early the next morning. The Santo Entierro is placed in the glass coffin and these men slowly make their way out of the church. It takes forever for the men to move the coffin out of the church and down the steps to the plaza as they take three steps backwards and two steps forward. By now the plaza is packed with people to witness the glass coffin mingle in the crowd as the Telinel with Rilaj Mam on his shoulders merrily dances by. The Mam will return to Cofradía Santa Cruz whereas the coffin with Christ will be processed around the path of the sun known as the four corners of the world until dawn.

I am truly grateful for witnessing this amazing experience in Santiago Atitlán.
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Lady Kissing Christ
Lady Kissing Christ
Boy kissing Christ
Boy kissing Christ
Men carrying glass coffin
Men carrying glass coffin
Palm Sunday Confession
Palm Sunday Confession
Candles in church on Good Friday
Candles in church on Good Friday
Spraying Jesus
Spraying Jesus
Spray Away
Spray Away
Cofradía Man on Palm Sunday
Cofradía Man on Palm Sunday
Mother and daughter
Mother and daughter
Palm Sunday Procession
Palm Sunday Procession
Telinel with the newly dressed Mam
Telinel with the newly dressed Mam
Telinel praying over Rilaj Mam
Telinel praying over Rilaj Mam
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