I laugh when ignorant people wonder what happened to the Maya. They are still around, and still occupying the parts of Mexico (Chiapas and Yucatán), Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras that constituted the original Maya homeland at its height. There are millions of Maya around. They speak some thirty different major dialects of the Mayan language, most of which are not understandable to Maya speaking other dialects.
When Cortés arrived in 1519, he made short work of the Aztecs. Moctezuma and his people were conquered within a few years. (Their language, Nahuatl, still exists.) It took a considerable while longer for all the Maya polities to fall. The last one, Tayasal, located on the Lago de Petén near present-day Flores in Guatemala, fell in 1695.
But the Maya are still Maya. They managed to survive with their culture not quite intact, yet robust enough to survive under new circumstances, namely Spanish conquest. There are still isolated Maya villages where non-Maya are not welcome. In others, there are strange new Maya gods, such as Maximón (mah-shi-MOAN) whose image appears above. When I visit Santiago Atitlán, I plan to visit him and offer a gift, typically a bottle of aguardiente, cigars, or a pack of cigarettes.
This Maximón is a sort of evil god, midway between the underworld (Xibalba) and the heavens. The Tzutujil-speaking Maya, who inhabit the area, pay homage to him, particularly during Holy Week. According to Peter Canby in his The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya:
In Santiago Atitlán, Maximón is the god of destructive nature, of floods, earthquakes, and storms. A traveler and walker, he is associated with snakebites, is the inflicter of madness, and is worshiped at the mouths of caves. [Anthropologist] Michael Coe associates Maam (Maximón) with the Yucatec god Pauhatun, also known as God N, one of the most powerful underworld gods. In fact, Pauhatun is the quadripartite god taking part in a hallucinogenic enema-ritual depicted on the funerary vase in Michael Coe’s Lords of the Underworld…. It was strange, therefore, to see atitecos [Maya residents of Santiago Atitlán] treating Maximón with such tender reverence, but I knew that this merely reflected the different concepts of evil held by ourselves and the Maya.
To us, evil is something absolute, something to be resisted at all costs. To the Maya, evil is the principle of death and decay in nature and therefore an integral part of life. Gods like Maximón are terrifying, but they’re also part of the earth’s fertility. [Archeologist J Eric S] Thompson notes that “there is a widespread Maya belief that darkness and the underworld are evil, but as [the underworld] reaches up to immediately below the surface of the earth, it also produces crops.”
Among the attributes worshiped in Maximón are those of Judas Iscariot and Pedro de Alvarado, cruelest of conquistadores. I cannot help but think that there is something in the Maya conception of evil that has led them to survive as a culture—if not 100% intact, then at least substantially intact. Compare that with America’s vision of itself as “a city on a hill” acting as a beacon for all peoples, while we slaughter our own children with military automatic weapons.