The "Shamans" of San Simon

Trip Start Nov 05, 2007
Trip End Nov 29, 2007

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Saturday, November 10, 2007

             First of all, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has been posting comments! I confess I've never been a big blog commenter myself, but now that I'm the author of one, I can see how those comments are a huge motivation to keep writing. It's so much more satisfying to keep a blog when you've got proof that there's a real audience out there!

             One more note before I begin. The story below is about a religion that isn't my own. I've tried to be honest and objective, but I apologize in advance if I have offended anyone who happens to be a follower of this religion. Any skepticism is my own opinion, and may be unrelated to the truth!

             Now, onto the story. One of the goals of my travels, as you may recall, is to learn more about traditional spiritual beliefs. With this in mind, I began asking around Antigua where I might find a shaman. "Go to San Andres Itzapa," I was told, by several different people. "Go to the Capilla de San Simon. You'll find a bunch of them there."

             Well, actually they said all this in Spanish, and I didn't quite get the San Simon part. I found the town of San Andres Itzapa easily enough, a collection of haphazard houses stretching into the hills. The bus stop was right across from the market, and I thought it would be simple to get the information I needed. Yet nobody seemed to recognize the word "shaman." I described who I was looking for to a brightly-dressed indigenous woman selling tortillas.

             "You mean the brujas (witches)?" she asked, then directed me down the street. "Ask for the Casa (House) of San Simon." Hmm, this Simon person must be the big shaman, I thought. I'll try to meet with him!

             I was almost at the house, a large pink concrete building, when a large woman with a red bandana, a short skirt, and a frilly white apron asked me if I'd like a card reading. "I'm Hermana (Sister) Maria," she said, pointing at a cardboard sign above. "We do questions by cards, saturations, burnings for business and special work, for love, for getting rid of enemies, and games of chance," it read in Spanish. "Love your neighbor as you do yourself."

              While I didn't have any particular reason to trust Hermana Maria's skills, I sat down anyway. This was why I had come, wasn't it? It would be worth a few quetzals just to find out what she would do. Hermana Maria shuffled the cards, then had me pick four to place above the pile and three to place below. She turned them over one by one. "Money, love, a good path," she reported, looking at the pictures on the cards. "You will have a lot of money." (I wondered if this was so I'd be more likely to give more to her!) She gathered the cards together again, then put them into three piles. "Past, present, future. Which one would you like me to read?" Since I already knew my past and was living my present, I asked for the future. She commenced to pronounce me rich with all sorts of things once more, eventually turning over every card in the deck. "Now would you like me to do a protection ceremony for you? Only 500 quetzals (about $65)." I politely declined and made my way to Simon's house.

             Much to my surprise, I soon learned that this "house" was a kind of church. Simon wasn't a shaman; he was Saint Simon, one of the original 12 disciples, who had performed miracles and apparently appeared at one time in Guatemala. San Simon sat upon an altar, dressed smartly in a suit and tie. Devotees climbed up to the altar to ask his assistance; others lit candles, hundreds of which sat upon long tables filling the small chapel. The walls were covered with plaques engraved with thanks, such as "Gratitud a mi hermano San Simon por haber curado mi columna vertebral (Thanks to my brother Saint Simon for curing my vertebral column)," followed by the devotee's name and the date. 

          Directly outside the chapel was a pink courtyard, through which I had entered. The ground was dotted with maybe a half dozen circles of ashes, remains from fires. Several burned as I watched. A man with a blue Siemans Mobile shirt dusted an indigenous woman with a clump of herbs. Was this a shaman? I watched as he dumped water, then Pepsi, then some unknown liquid into the fire. Later he asked the woman's family members to join her. Injesting what I assumed was rum, he spritzed them on all sides by blowing with his mouth.

             I asked an onlooker if he could explain all this. "Why do you want to know?" he asked skeptically. "Are you a reporter?" Another man was more helpful. The Pepsi, apparently, brought luck in business, while the water brought peace, health, and love. I tried to ask what people had done to be lucky in business before Pepsi was around, but was unsuccessful in getting an answer.

             After a little while Hermana Maria showed up, still hoping to sell me that protection ceremony, I guess. When she realized I wasn't going to buy, she offered a purification ceremony at a fraction of the price. What the heck, I thought. Journalists have paid far more for good stories before!

             Maria brought me back to her stand, then stopped by a little shop next door to purchase the necessary items (pipes and candles - red for love, green for work, and yellow for protection). I followed her through a courtyard filled with crates of empty coca cola and pepsi bottles; baskets of pineapples, scallions, and pumpkin seeds; plants with enormous leaves; chickens, cats, and dogs; dirty dishes; a rooster tied to a post; and piles of food scraps. "Why don't we do the ceremony in the chapel?" I asked.

             "Because it doesn't work there," she answered. "The power is cut off."

             "But lots of other people do ceremonies there," I pointed out.

             "Well, they wouldn't if they knew," she insisted. 

               Hermana Maria sat down in front of a fire ring in a small room off the crowded courtyard and lit the first pipe. Every few puffs, she stopped, gazed at the way the pipe was burning and made a pronouncement. "You'll have lots of money." Puff, puff, puff. "You'll have a good job." Puff, puff, puff. "Your boyfriend is in love with you." Puff, puff, puff.

             Another woman stopped by during the ceremony and asked to meet with Maria when I was done. Curious to see if she would receive the same happy pronouncements that I had been given, I asked permission to watch. This woman apparently had a different purpose, for Maria spent much longer at the little store and came back with a wide assortment of objects. She began the ceremony the same way, with the puff-puff-puffs and the pronouncements, though these were said too quietly for me to hear. The rest was quite different, though. The woman wrote something on a piece of paper, then inscribed names on two red candles having the form of San Simon. She then gave a white cloth to Maria, who wrapped it in red string and placed it in a glass jar. Other objects soon followed: the paper and a small picture (wrapped), the two San Simon candles (wrapped), other candles (red, white, and blue), the smoked pipes, two packages of something that looked like cinnamon, three kinds of white powder, a dash of sugar, a green liquid (which fizzled a bit), and two kinds of red liquid. After shaking up the concoction, Maria gave it to her client, who took it gratefully and left. Something to do with love, was all I learned.

               Later I visited the shop on my own to discover more about these mysterious powders and liquids. The shelves were full of them: Doble Rapido Suerte (Double Quick Luck), Tres Amores (Three Loves), Spiritual Locion de San Simon, 7 Potencias (7 Powers). On the steps outside, a little girl tried to sell me lotions for love, work, studies.

             "Do they work?" I asked.

             "Of course!"

             "How do you know?" I questioned skeptically.

             "It's in the Story of San Simon," she replied, as if this explained everything.

             I was unfortunately not able to get hold of a copy of said story, though I did get a paper containing the prayer to say to the saint along with the meanings of the different colors of candles and directions on the proper way to display your own statue. (Put him preferably on the ground, with a glass of water, his red candle, his flowers, and burn incense as many times as you can exactly at 12:00 in the afternoon.) I also witnessed one more ceremony in the pink courtyard, by which time I realized that the people conducting these ceremonies were not shamans, but rather regular people who had come to make offerings. This particular offering concerned a black chicken. First, a man rubbed the squawking chicken all over his woman companion. After saying some prayers, the woman did the same for the man and a young child. Mesmerized, I watched as the man took out a long knife, cut the chicken's neck, sprinkled the fire with its blood, then lay its limp body in the ashes. He covered it with several piles of candles, then he and his wife sprinkled on additional offerings (rice? corn? sugar? plastic coated candies?) before pushing the coals with a long pole. The chicken was soon burnt to a crisp. At last I understood why so many stray dogs were poking their noses in the ashes! 

          Now, I'd really love to get Hermana Maria's side of the story here. When I asked her why the family had burned the chicken, she said it was to kill an enemy. Shocked, I asked a girl sitting near the courtyard the same question. "Of course it's not to kill anyone! They do that as an offering to San Simon, for luck in business or other things," she explained. "It's not permissible to pray for evil things." When I told that to Maria, though, she stuck by her story. The question is, does she believe that, or did she have a good laugh at the gullible tourist as soon as I'd gone?

          More generally, was Hermana Maria really a shaman? My guess is no, at least not the kind of shaman I was looking for (although I suppose it's not for me to say -- they say the power of San Simon depends on the faith that you have, and that if you don't have faith, nothing will happen.) Was I disappointed by this? Not at all! I had heard that Christianity and indigenous beliefs are oddly mixed in many parts of Latin America, and what a prime example this was.
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