San Simon – Guatemala’s Playboy Saint
At the end of my last post on beautiful Lake Atitlan I wrote that I would see you next in the city of Antigua, but we’ve decided to take a detour to see something that wasn’t on the original itinerary. By we, I mean a group led by expert guide Victor Romagnoli for Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad with which we have travelled many times over the past twenty-five years and never been disappointed. This tour is a specialized one-off designed by Victor and will include all seven countries that make up Central America. A few days ago we arrived in Guatemala from Honduras and I have been blown away by this very unique country. It is the only one in Central America where a significant number of the population are Indigenous Mayans. During our stay in the market town of Chichicastenango where the population is overwhelmingly Mayan, I got my first glimpse of the syncretic religious practices that incorporate Catholicism with traditional Mayan gods. Our group saw it again with the cult of Maximón in Santiago Atitlan and when our local guide Tony mentioned that there was another, quite different shrine between Lake Atitlan and Antigua we all said we need to see it. So here we go to visit San Simon in the village of San Andrés Itzapa. Won’t you join us?
Who is San Simon?
Well if you were a practicing Christian, you would probably say he was one of the more obscure apostles who was given the moniker Simon the Zealout to distinguish him from Simon Peter, the alpha apostle and from a brother of Jesus also called Simon. His symbol is, of all things, a saw. Here is a sculpture of him in the ancient Saint John Lateran basilica in Rome by Francesco Moratti with saw in hand. One of the many explanations for his death in England, Egypt, Persia, Armenia or Iberia (take your pick) was that he was sawn in half.
So far, so good – just another proselytizing apostle who met a grisly death. His Saint’s Day is October 28th. Keep that in mind.
Now the title of this post refers to a playboy saint and the guy up above doesn’t fit that bill at all. So was there another St. Simon or San Simon as the Spanish speaking world would call him?
In the last post we met Maximón, tucked away in his moveable shrine in the village of Santiago Atitlan. Now he fits the bill as the cigar-smoking, money grubbing, hard drinking, womanizing rascal we might rightly describe as a playboy or more accurately perhaps, a roué or wastrel. But a saint? Hardly. Is it just a coincidence that October 28th is also Maximón’s feast day? Maybe not.
We are headed to the small village of San Andrés Itzapa which is about five miles (8 kms.) off the Pan-American Highway near the city of Chimaltenango, to find out more about this mysterious character. Our local guide Tony tells us that there is a permanent temple or shrine to San Simon here that draws pilgrims from all over Latin America.
Actually we never seem to come to a town, but all get out on a country road where there is a lane too narrow for our bus to enter that apparently leads to the shrine. Immediately on stepping off the bus I can smell the acrid fumes of what could be burning rubber. Tacked to a telephone pole at the end of the lane is this poster and there’s a fascinating story behind it that’s not apropos a visit to San Simon.
This is Sandra Torres, former first lady of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012. But like Hilary Clinton, being second fiddle was not enough. She wanted to succeed her husband to the Presidency and tried to run for President in 2011 and replace him when his term was up in early 2012. The only problem was that the Guatemalan constitution forbids relatives of the sitting President to run in subsequent elections and the courts ruled against her. No problem. In a move even Hilary has not thought of, she promptly divorced her husband Álvaro Colom and ran again in 2015, losing to a comedian, Jimmy Morales who ran on the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief”. Morales found that running a country was no joke and by the time his term was up he was apparently both corrupt and a thief. Reenter Sandra for a third time. Always viewed as corrupt herself and with investigators on her tail, the Presidency would make her immune from prosecution. Sounds familiar. Alas, poor Sandra lost again and was charged with corruption almost immediately by the new President who had run on a promise to “Lock her up!”. Also sounds familiar. Guatemalan politics is nothing if not interesting.
We are also confronted with this banner which has Jesus in the middle flanked by his mom on one side and I presume, San Simon on the other. Even I can decipher that this is some type of spiritual centre.
I will save you the time of translating this. Here is what it says according to a pretty lousy internet translator, but it gives you the gist.
You have problems in love, you do not pay your money, you want to raise your business, you want luck in lotteries or you suffer from supernatural diseases.
You want to know if you can be the victim of a malignant spell, this is your chance to free yourself from everything bad, change your life today, be a trickster.
Even though Jesus is the middleman in this (literally) it appears that the guy on the right is the one to whom these prayers will be made.
Heading down the lane we come upon shop after shop selling replicas of San Simon and just like t-shirts, he comes in small, medium and large. Unlike Maximón who, at least in Santiago Atitlan, sports a beard and in addition to a tie, wears traditional Mayan clothes, these San Simons sport typical western garb. Why their heads are covered in plastic bags, like victims of a Mafia hit, I don’t know.
As we approach a gateway through which you need to pass to get into a plaza in front of the shrine, Tony says to watch out for witches. He says they hang out here to cast spells and hexes for people who want revenge on someone they think has crossed them. Apparently mistresses are the favoured targets. They advertise their availability by smoking cigars and sure enough there is a woman doing just that by the entrance. I don’t want to take the risk of getting hexed myself by taking an obvious photo so I shot her from afar.
The plaza revealed the source of the acrid smoke. There were a number of sacrificial fires burning with Mayan shamans chanting in front of them and I presume those who were kneeling were the hopeful beneficiaries of these requests for intervention.
This video gives a little better idea of the scene. The voice is Tony explaining what’s going on.
It’s time to enter the shrine itself and from the steps I look back and get a closer look at the shamana who appears to be in some sort of trance. In case you are wondering if I was not feeling like a voyeur about to enter a place I thought was peddling pure bullshit, the answer is definitely “Yes.” But, no one who actually believed in this stuff seemed to mind our presence.
Sleeping dogs are always a good sign when entering a holy place. This one was no Cerberus. How it could be comfortable in that position was beyond me, but as the wise adage goes, I let him lie.
This is the interior of the San Simon Shrine and no old time saloon could outdo it in terms of being a smoke filled room.
There he was in all his glory with a line up of dedicated believers eager to ask him for his favour. There were about a dozen in line on the day we visited which, from videos I’ve seen on You Tube was quite a small number. The one thing we were not going to do was get in line and pretend we were supplicants. There is a limit to this voyeurism. But I did get close enough to get a photo of San Simon and was able to observe him relatively close up.
Until I saw the plastic bag over his head, I had assumed the replicas for sale were just wearing the bags to protect them from dust, but apparently it’s part of his shtick. Now I’ve seen statues venerated around the world by believers of many faiths, but I’ve never seen one quite like San Simon, unless you count his alter ego Maximón from yesterday. This was just plain seriously weird.
A closer look reveals, in addition to the hanging snowman, offerings of beer, cigars, rum, food and I suspect his favourite, cash money.
The smoke was coming not only from seemingly hundreds of candles, but also from the lit cigars and cigarettes of San Simon dummies who were seated before the real San Simon. What they were praying for I have no idea.
As if things couldn’t get any more bizarre, at the back of the shrine a scaled down version of a mariachi band was playing. Tony said it was common for shriners to hire a band because apparently San Simon likes his music as much as his booze and tobacco.
So what exactly are people asking San Simon to do for them? Is it good health, luck in love, erasing money troubles – all the usual things people think they should get in exchange for lighting a candle and saying a prayer or two? Well all those things on the wall are photos, plaques and other forms of thanks to San Simon for granting their wishes. The great majority of them are thanking San Simon for getting them the hell out of Guatemala!
Some are more mundane like a new car and a couple of motorcycles or a nice fat baby.
My research for this post also turned up the fact that a lot of drug dealers or worse come here to ask San Simon to make sure they don’t get caught. They don’t tend to leave behind obvious evidence of thanks, but hey, that new car and the motorcycles had to come from somewhere.
Visiting the shrine of San Simon was something I will long remember and reaffirms once again, why travel is so vital to a better understanding of the world. You can be an armchair traveller all you want, and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic that’s all any of us can be, but I yearn for my next Adventures Abroad trip.
In the next post we will definitely get to Antigua. See you there.