Courtesans and Carnal Commerce

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Diego Rivera was clearly fascinated by the riches of the Aztec market at Tlaltelolco. His mural, painted in 1944-1945, visible today on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, glories in the vibrancy of an imperial economy. Vendors hawk while merchants bicker, counting with upright fingers. Nearby, slave-traders examine the teeth of human stock. Tortillas are there, too, close to belly-up frogs. Dogs, deer, iguana, and fish lie in good order or, like a fat little xolo dog, they mewl and squirm—all soon to be purchased, cooked, and eaten.

Figure 1.  Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).
Figure 1. Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

The most arresting figure, however, is a woman in white (Figure 1). Central to the composition, she hikes her skirt and invites the attention of several leering men. One of them, to upper left, looks like a Rockefeller! At Rivera’s coy insistence, we are all voyeurs. Almost alone in the murals, the woman’s body faces the viewer. Her bright red lipstick, elaborate costume, and long loose hair, described and illustrated in Aztec sources, heighten the wanton allure. Never one for the nuance, Rivera surrounds the lady with an aureole of calla lilies, likely to be Rivera’s coded image for female privates (his portrait of Natasha Zakólkowa Gelman, painted a year earlier, in 1943, uses the same framing device).

Rivera’s lady is, of course, an Aztec prostitute or āhuiyani, someone who gives pleasure but in debased or self-indulgent ways, a “flower woman” (Karttunen 1983:8; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:198). She “lives in wickedness….she goes about in gaudy dress, drunk, besotted,” “shamelessly, presumptuously, conspicuously washed and combed”; she “sells her body” and “paints her face…her hair falls loose”; she goes “about…in the market place,” “places herself at the market, adorns herself at the market place” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:12, 13, 55, 89). Yet, the stern judgment in these phrases from the Florentine Codex—its main promoter was, after all, a Franciscan—does not offer a complete picture, for such women performed openly in sacred dances with warriors (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:93, 98-99, 102, 110; see also Durán 1971:435, in a somewhat opaque source that may refer to more elevated “kept women” who had their own “guardians or duennas”).

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.
Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

The “harlot” could also comfort a sacrificial captive. She “caressed him….made him forget his sorrows. And when the time came for the bathed one to die, the harlot took everything…[t]hat which he wore he placed upon her; that which he had when he had been living in the likeness of another, had walked with his head high…had gone in high esteem” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:155). A peculiarity, drawn to my attention by Karl Taube, is that depictions of young and older harlots in the Florentine Codex show them standing on water, grasping flowers in one hand and, curiously, the glyph for water in the other (Figure 2). It is possible but, on reflection, unlikely that this sign merely reinforces the first letter in āhuiyani (from ā-tl, “water”). Underfoot, gripped in the hand, the symbols hint at deeper and more complex meaning.

For a Mayanist, this evidence raises an obvious question. Did such women exist in the Classic period? And, if so, what ambivalences, if any, surround such commercialization of the female body? Most treatments of female identity among the ancient or Colonial Maya do not mention prostitutes (e.g., Joyce 2000) or allude to them in secondary citations (Ardren 2008:8). One source does describe the prostitute in Yucatan but as a being “constructed as an ethnic outsider and an enemy” and, in the Books of Chilam Balam, a figure whose very label is an insult to be thrown at others (Sigal 2000:68, 223).

Yet the early dictionaries refer widely to such figures. For a rapid cull of terms:

Colonial Tzendal (Ara 1986:319, 504): Most terms relate to adultery or fornication but also, when postfixed by xichoc (“man”), to sodomy.

putañero                                lav
putañear                                lael

Colonial Tzotzil (Laughlin 1988, I:221, 253, 263-264): roots based on sexual penetration (kob) and, perhaps, scourging (maj) and “lust” (mul), with the added nuance of concubinage.

whore                                    ‘ix ta majel; kobvan; majavil ‘antz
whoremaster                        mulavil xinch’ok

Colonial Yukatek (Bolles 2001): associated with agouti or hares (tzub), the latter a well-known attribute of the Moon Goddess and a symbol of procreation. For tzub, the meaning is quite explicit: “la muger mala de su cuerpo ora sea publica ora no…Ah con tzubul: puta que ella se comvida y vende” (Bolles 2001); ya’om ties to pregnancy.

manceba (concubine)           tzub
mala mujer de su cuerpo     ya’om
puta pública                           ix kakbach

It could be that these words express a purely colonial preoccupation, a priestly concern for rooting out vice and controlling sexuality. By that view, little prostitution existed before the Spaniards. Such words merely reflected the prurience of missionary minds. But this cannot be the whole story. Speaking of young men, not long after the Conquest, Diego de Landa refers to the wide use of prostitutes: “bad public women”…“who happen to ply this trade among this people, although they received pay for it, were besieged by such a great number of young men, that they were harassed to death” (Tozzer 1941:125). Possibly, as some suggest for the Aztec evidence, the Colonial sources conflated a more accepted Pre-Columbian practice of marketable sex with later versions seen in negative light (Arvey 1988; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:200). As to price, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing of Nicaragua, records that the going rate for such acts was 8 to 10 beans of chocolate (Tozzer 1941: 95fn417). To put this in perspective, buying a slave was only 10 times that much (ibid). In all likelihood, sex work was a lucrative business throughout Mesoamerica.

Figure 3.  SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).
Figure 3. SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

For the Maya, a key piece of evidence came to light with the discovery of the Chiik Nahb murals at Calakmul, most of which date to the 7th century AD (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012; Martin 2012). Concerned with trade, these paintings appear within what must have been a market facility built at the height of competition between the great cities of Calakmul and Tikal (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:Figure 2; for the standard source on this conflict, see Martin and Grube 2000:104-111). The viewer wonders at the erotic beauty of the serving ladies, their body paint, their jade jewelry. The women pour drinks, offer atole while dressed, at times, in diaphanous clothing that reveals breasts, areola, and plump thighs (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).
Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the woman offer hospitality and welcome accommodation or participate in marketing, but in subtly sexualized ways. Karl Taube has noted similar trading ladies in figurines from the Alta Verapaz, also bejeweled, gowns slung low, hair carefully coiffed (Figure 4; Houston et al. 2006:110, fig. 3.4). Vending women have been seen, too, in other traditions of Lowland Maya figurines (Halperin 2014:fig. 3.36). Many wear hats, perhaps to show that they came from far distances, but possibly to protect a delicate complexion. They both are and are not a standard vendor, involved in trade yet outfitted in ways that appear anomalous.

Unfortunately, the glyphs associated with the principal lady in the Calakmul paintings, the “Lady in Blue,” resist easy decipherment (Martin 2012:78-79). A more overt example of “good time gals,” from a bowl dating to about AD 600 may connect to a term for “water-place,” IX-HA’?-NAL (Figure 5, Coe 1978:pl. 11; Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.18). These women, certain to be goddesses, service older deities. They stroke their sides, fan faces or hold up mirrors while the men daub their mouths or faces. Most carry exactly the same name—a token of shared identity?—or use a sparse description, IX, “female.” The watery attribute of Aztec prostitutes seems more than a coincidence. It may reflect some widespread notion of “watery women” or “women of watery locales” whose sexual behavior differed, in unsettling, less controllable ways, from that of other ladies.

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).
Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Another term occurs with paramours of God L on the celebrated “Princeton Vase” (K511, Coe 1978:pl. 1). Repainted in parts, their glyphic labels involve two securely deciphered signs, IX, “lady,” and NAAH, “building”—the finale female, just by God L, is described as one of “five” (HO’) such women, quite a harem. The less clear sign is the head variant of the number “two.” It could read CHA’, suggesting a homophone for “metate,” cha’, thus linking the ladies to a gendered place, a “house of grinding stones.” But there is another possibility. The head variant has a human fist, fingers obscured, atop the head of a youth or young woman. The fist corresponds exactly to the glyph for OCH, “enter” (Stuart 1998:fig. 8) and may spell out a term for “entered” (“penetrated”?) lady. Thus, by this second analysis: IX-OCH-‘Female’-NAAH, “lady of the entered/penetrated-female house”…or “brothel.” Still, it is unclear how this would relate to a semblant deity name on Palenque’s Tablet of Temple XIV:C9.

The main point is that these women are unlikely to be spouses. A plausible view is that they traffic in generous reception and consumption, with more than a hint of physical favors to come. Two ideas arise. The first is that, at Calakmul the Lady in Blue embodied, if not a real historical person, then the essence of gracious hospitality. Or, as a bolder suggestion and a nod to the eroticism of the murals, she operated as an exemplary or deified procuress, patronized rather than punished by the state, a facilitator who attracted other kinds of business. She labored, it seems, away from direct male supervision; she took charge. There was no partner, no husband. In one image, a young woman, a mere drab, perhaps a unique depiction of a Maya slave, served as her assistant (Figure 2). The Florentine Codex says of the procuress: “She is of a house…She induces, seduces with words, incites with others. Adroit of language, skilled of speech, she is a fraud…She receives guests. She secures recompense, payment from others. She robs one—she constantly robs one” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:94). However, if present at Calakmul, such a woman discharged a role of dignity and importance.

What to make of the scenes at Calakmul? According to a recent, cross-cultural review, compensated or venal sex tends to divide by practitioner, ranging from streetwalkers and occupants of brothels to “well-educated and often financially secure” courtesans (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Eroticized entertainment did not always lead to consummation. As an exalted outlier, the geisha or geiko of Japan seldom—at least in the ideal—consorted sexually with clients, especially after the system began to coalesce in the 18th century (Downer 2006:223). Whatever the status, sex workers left archaeological signatures in the form of cells or “cribs,” characteristic forms of consumption, such as “alcohol and luxury food consumption…in binge economies,” and, “in the case of high-end prostitutes, an investment in wearable wealth” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:46). Indeed, a sexual purpose may explain the buildings with tightly packed, benched rooms near sweatbaths at Piedras Negras (e.g., Structure O-3; Child 2006:fig. 4.23; also Houston et al. 2006:117, fig. 3.13). Globally, the cultural impact was great. An entire volume of comparative scholarship extols the arts of the courtesan, from music to poetry and dance (Feldman and Gordon 2006).

Prostitution has been described as the “oldest profession” and as the “oddest,” an “illicit commerce in which it is the labor performed, rather than goods or distribution system, that is the object of state control” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Yet how “illicit” was such commerce? In Roman Pompeii, prostitution was quite “licit” if heavily exploitative (McGinn 2004:261-262). At the least, there is evidence of ambivalence. In Edo Japan, various shogun or city officials tried to restrict the “floating world,” the demi-monde of sex workers, musicians, and actors, to sectors like Yoshiwara, near modern-day Asukasa in Tokyo (Screech 1999:53). But this was not because of disdain for sex. The most likely reason was curtailment of possible places for intrigue or periodic anxiety that the values of the “floating world” would soften society.

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).
Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

More the point, the “Lady in Blue” raises basic matters of identification. Scholars often refer to “noble” ladies or “idealized elite” women and goddesses in imagery of the Classic Maya period. This applies to Jaina figurines, too (O’Neil 2012:409). But what if an entire category of Maya society has been overlooked? As Michael Coe observes, the females participating in enema rituals could have been ladies of pleasure (personal communication, 2014). Consider the fully-modeled container at the Princeton Art Museum, with its flower-markings, elaborate dress, and loudly painted lips and forehead (Figure 6). Or the Early Classic scene on an enema pot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1993.441) and tapaderas on Early Classic food bowls (K1550, K189). Then there is the image, from the Princeton Art Museum, of an elaborately dressed woman giving an enema to a trader (Figure 7). Could “elite” ornament or jewelry only have been the commissions of dynastic figures and other nobles? Or, consistent with cross-cultural data, were some baubles ordered in quantity by courtesans?

Sex work has its own history. As one example from archaic Greece, the high-status hetaira—the most polished of courtesans—was probably fashioned under the impetus of aristocratic males, who sought to redefine their own masculinity by interaction with such females (Kurke 1997). Through women’s bodies and, tragically, through their abuse, men worked out what it meant to be men (Glazebrook and Henry 2011:9). Perhaps this same aestheticized redefinition of roles affected the “pretty ladies” of the Classic period.

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).
Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

The curious feature of the Calakmul evidence is its contrast with Rome, which was less involved in direct control of sex work and accorded it some degree of “autonomy” (McGinn 2004:263). If correctly identified, the practices shown there and elsewhere bear the heavy impress of polity. The building in which the murals were found can only have been a royal commission, involving painters and scribes of the highest and most inventive attainment. This was no casual commerce but a systematic use of female bodies for dynastic advancement.

Acknowledgements: Mike Coe, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube were most helpful with comments

Sources cited:

Ara, Domingo de. 1986. Vocabulario de lengua Tzeldal según el orden de Copanabastla, editd by Mario Humberto Ruz. Universidad Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Ardren, Traci. 2008. Studies of Gender in the Prehispanic Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research 16:1-35.

Arvey, Margaret C. 1988. Women of Ill-Repute in the Florentine Codex. The Role of Gender in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture, edited by Virginia Miller, pp. 179-204. University Press of America, Lanham.

Bolles, David. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language,, accessed June 2, 2014.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordiero Baqueiro. 2013. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 8-59, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Child, Mark B. 2006. The Archaeology of Religious Movements: The Maya Sweatbath Cult of Piedras Negras. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.

Coe, Michael D. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Princeton Art Museum, Princeton.

Dieseldorff, Erwin P. 1926. Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker im alten und heutigen Mittelamerika. Julius Springer, Berlin.

Downer, Lesley. 2006. The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or Artistes? The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, 223-242. Oxford University Press, New York.

Durán, Diego. 1971. Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Feldman, Martha, and Bonnie Gordon, eds. 2006. The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Oxford University Press, New York.

Glazebrook, Allison, and Madeleine Henry. 2011. Introduction: Why Prostitutes? Why Greece? Why Now? Greek Prostitutes in the Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE, 3-13. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Halperin, Christina A. 2014. Maya Figurines: Intersections between State and Household. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hartnett, Alexandra, and Shannon L. Dawdy. 2013. The Archaeology of Illegal and Illicit Economies. Annual Review of Anthropology 2013 42:37-51.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2000. Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Karttunen, Frances. 1984. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kurke, Leslie. Inventing the Hetaira. Classical Antiquity 16:106-150.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

McCafferty, Sharisse D., and Geoffrey G. McCafferty. 2009. Alternative and Ambiguous Gender Identities in Postclassic Central Mexico. Que(er)ying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 30th Annual Chacmool Conference, edited by Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, and Michelle Janse-Smekal, pp. 196-206. Archaeological Association, University of Calgary Press, Calgary.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2004. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

O’Neil, Megan E. 2012. Anthropomorphic Whistle. Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, pp. 404-409, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Screech, Timon. 1999. Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820. Reaktion Books, London.

Sigal, Pete. 2000. From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Tozzer, Alfred M. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatan. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.


A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin) and Peter Stuart (Hampshire College)

Among the many people depicted in Room 1 of the Bonampak murals is an official named Aj K’an Yuyum (Figure 1). His portrait, near the back corner of the chamber, is somewhat damaged and effaced. He seems to be a high-ranking noble, and he stands close by three elaborately dressed dancers on the center of the room’s lower register. In front of him is a similarly dressed man who bears the title sajal, often used for political and military figures of high elite status.

The hieroglyphs of his name caption are well preserved, and the first two glyph blocks of his name clearly read AJ-K’AN-na 2yu-ma. The remaining glyphs of his caption are syllabic spellings but are more difficult to make out fully: AJ-2ch’a-ta? ?-ma-ni (see Miller and Brittenham 2013:Figure 145). Perhaps one or both give a title based on some unknown place name.

Figure 1. Aj K'an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 1. Aj K’an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals.  (Watercolor copy by  H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)

Beyond his role as a named spectator at Bonampak, little can be said about Aj K’an Yuyum and his position in the local royal court; no other references to him are known. Here we would like to concentrate on his personal name, especially the unusual word spelled with the doubled yu sign and the main-sign form of ma. This combination is very probably an ancient attestation of yuyum, a word found in historical and modern sources for “oriole.” The noble’s full name then be would be “Yellow Oriole,” conforming to a widespread pattern of personal names based on colors and animal terms.

Yuyum is a word for “oriole” in lowland Mayan languages, including in Yucatecan and Cholan. Its first known attestation is in Beltran’s 18th century list of Yucatec faunal names as “un ave parecida al oropendula,” referencing a species closely related to orioles (see Perez 1898). It appears in modern Yucatec as well as yúuyum,“oriole” (Bricker et. al. 1998:319). In Bruce’s vocabulary of Lacandon yuyum is simply attested as “cierto pajaro” (Bruce 1968). Importantly, we also find it cited in Aulie and Aulie’s dictionary of Ch’ol (1978: 214) as yujyum, “bolsero espalda amarilla (icterus chysater),” specifically referencing the Yellow-backed Oriole.

A number of oriole species are common in the Maya region. These include the well-known Baltimore Oriole (which winters there), the Hooded Oriole, the Altamira Oriole, the Spotted-breasted Oriole, the afore-mentioned Yellow-backed Oriole, and the Streaked-backed Oriole. Whether all of these species were ever considered under a single term is difficult to know, given the vagaries of faunal classification in Mayan languages. Besides yuyum, there appear to be a number of more isolated words for different types of orioles: kubul in Yucatec (Bolles 2001), tzap’in in Itzaj (Hofling 1997:633), and kupulik in Ch’orti’ (Wisdom 1940), for example. Yet the consistent gloss of yuyum and its cognates as “oriole” across both Yucatecan and Ch’olan makes for a reasonable case that the word may be old and widely diffused in the lowland region.

FIgure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)
Figure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)

The only known representation of orioles in Maya art comes from another famous Maya wall painting, the Preclassic murals of San Bartolo (Figure 2). In the murals from Structure sub-1-A, we see depicted on the north wall a representation of a hanging nest surrounded by three small birds. This hangs from a tree that grows atop a cosmic mountain of emergence, associated with concepts of “flower mountain” in Mesoamerican mythology (Taube, et al. 2005:15-16). The small, extremely cute birds that flutter around the nest are yellow in appearance, with black bordering their wings and tails. Due to their coloration, and the fact that they do not have black on their backs like most Central American orioles, these are most likely Yellow-backed Orioles (icterus chysater), which are known to reside in the Maya area, and especially in higher elevations. Significantly perhaps, this is the very species given as the meaning of yujyum in Aulie and Aulie’s Ch’ol vocabulary, as noted earlier.

A good amount of work remains to be done on the identification of various bird species and other fauna represented in Maya art. We hope this small observation on the written and painted appearance of orioles will prove a useful contribution in such research.

Sources Cited:

Aulie, Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Mexico D.F.

Bolles, John. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language. FAMSI. On-line resource available at

Bruce, Robert. 1968. Gramatica del Lacandon. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico D.F.

Hofling, Andrew. 1997. Itzá Maya – Spanish – English Dictionary, Diccionario Maya Itzaj – Español – Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Miller, Mary E., and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. The University of Texas Press, Austin.

Perez, Juan Pio. 1898. Coordinación alfabetica de las voces del idioma maya que se hallan en el arte y obras del padre fr. Pedro Beltran de Santa Rosa, con las equivalencias castellanas que en las mismas se hallan. Imprinta de la Ermita, Merida.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, and David Stuart. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala. Part I: The North Wall. Ancient America 7. Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, Barnardsville, NC.

The Chocolatier’s Dog

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Top and Side views of Monumentt 89 from Tonina (Adapted from Graham and Mathews 1996:118).
Top and Side views of Monumentt 89 from Tonina (Adapted from Graham and Mathews 1996:118).

The wonderful carving known as Monument 89 from Tonina, Mexico, is a small (36 cm. long) three dimensional sculpture representing a crouching dog. The animal rests on its belly and turns its head to the side and slightly upwards, perhaps to engage a viewer who would have seen it in its original setting. Apart from the cute subject-matter, Monument 89 is dear to my own heart, for it was the short inscription on the doggie’s back that gave a the key clue supporting the decipherment of the tz’i syllable sign back in the mid-1980s. As I argued then (Stuart 1987) the first of the four glyphs reads U-tz’i-i, for u tz’i’, “his dog.” The remaining glyphs name the owner of the animal.

U-tz’i-i / AJ-ka-ka-wa / 2-WINIKHAAB? / AJ-?-K’UK’?
u tz’i’ aj kakaw cha’ winikhaab(?) aj ? k’uk'(?)
“it is the dog of the cacao-person, the two-score year ?”

Comparison of the second glyph of Mon. 89 with a standard spelling of ka-ka-wa.
Comparison of the second glyph of Mon. 89 with a standard spelling of ka-ka-wa (kakaw).

In revisiting this sculpture I would like to draw attention to the dog’s owner, who was largely passed over in my earlier study. Interestingly, he seems to be labelled as aj kakaw, “the cacao person,” or “chocolatier.” The designation immediately recalls several personal references recently described in the murals of Calakmul, accompanying depictions of people cosuming various foods and handling other types of commodities (Carrasco Vargas and Cordiero Baqueiro 2013). The people are simply designated with titles such as aj ul, “the atole person,” aj atz’aam, “the salt person,” or aj may, “the tobacco-snuff person” (Martin 2013). These descriptors seem to refer to specialized roles in Calakmul’s palace economy, perhaps indicating sellers or tradespeople who dealt with specific commodities. The surviving portions of the Calakmul murals do not refer to any “cacao person,” but it would seem we have such a designation at Tonina in reference to the little dog’s owner. The final two glyphs seem to tell us something about his age, stating that he was into his second k’atun of life (20-40 years old). The final glyph of the name phrase, also a title of some sort with the aj- prefix, is difficult to analyze without closer inspection of the original stone.

The Ratinlinxul Vase (K584) (Photograph by Justin Kerr)
The Ratinlinxul Vase (K584) (Photograph by Justin Kerr)

An interesting connection between dogs, merchants and cacao was pointed out many years ago by Eric Thompson, in his discussion of the famous Ratinlixul Vase (Kerr no. 594) (Thompson 1970:137). He saw this vessel as a likely representation of a wealthy merchant being carried along in a hammock with a retinue of helpers, including a dog beneath. Thompson linked the image to Landa’s mention of rituals in the month Muan, when owners of cacao fields would sacrifice a dog with “markings of the color of cacao” during feasts in honor of the gods Ek Chuah, Chaac, and Hobnil. I’m not sure if I agree with Thompson’s connection to Landa, but his overall idea that the vase shows a trading party seems reasonable on the face of it. Alternatively, Justin Kerr has made a good case that this vase probably depicts a deceased lord on an underworld journey, with a dog serving as his guide to Xibalba’ (Kerr 2001). One could easily make a case that the Tonina dog carving, placed above Burial 1, was likewise a helpful guide for the deceased.

Call me sentimental, but I lean toward the idea that our Tonina dog wasn’t some Maya take on Cerberus, but rather was a real animal once beloved by a real person, apparently a chocolatier connected to the royal court of Tonina. The notion that some ancient Maya had pet dogs might seem a bit unusual in light of archaeological evidence that canines were part of the human diet in many ancient Maya communities, yet we have pretty good indications that, in elite circles at least, dogs were also often trusty companions. Soon my colleagues and I on the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico La Corona will publish an analysis of a charming sculpture excavated in 2012 that clearly portrays a seated royal lady in the company of her pet dog, shown running happily across the floor in front her throne.

For now, then, we can perhaps add a bit more to the story of the tz’i’ of Tonina: its owner was not the king, but rather someone close to the royal court who was a seller or distributor of chocolate, a key commodity in any ancient Maya royal household.


Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordiero Baqueiro. 2013. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 8-59, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Kerr, Justin. 2001. The Last Journey: Reflections on the Ratinlinxul Vase and Others of the Same Theme.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 14. Center for Maya Research , Washington, D.C.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1970. Maya History and Religion. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

A Game with a Throne

by Stephen Houston, Department of Anthropology, Brown University

For GS on his birthday

Epigraphy is, among others things, an exercise in good hygiene. As specialists, we tidy up. Through our drawings, a complex surface reduces to light stipple, a series of edges to inked lines of variable width. The results are there for all to see, in the form of legible images that facilitate study, comparison, and reproduction.

Yet the images do not quite capture a stone. Each sculpture has its own quarry marks and irregularities; there are peck-marks or chisel lines, along with signs of careful or rough handling. Such details seldom make their way into an epigraphic drawing. Nor, with a few exceptions, do our site maps, even good ones, display sculptures as they were first found. Instead, monuments appear in orderly rows, as though still standing (e.g., Graham and von Euw 1975, 2:6, 2:7). They are in the places where they should be, or might have been when freshly placed, not as they were when discovered.

At Caracol, green to Maya fieldwork—this was in 1985—I confronted the curious afterlife of Maya texts. The carvings seemed anything but tidy. Most lay in shocking disarray, broken into pieces, some far-flung. Later, at Dos Pilas, in 1986, I resolved to record such patterning. Fortunately, at that site, most monuments were still in original position. They had not much shifted from the time of the Maya Collapse.

It soon became clear that, with few exceptions, the stelae at Dos Pilas were hacked just above the butt. Felled by blows of an axe, the sculptures, cut at the “knees,” toppled either backwards or forwards, not by the impact of tree fall, but from concerted ancient effort. There was behavioral information here, worthy of mention. Inspired, I drew the plans of all sculptures at the site, their cross-sections (where possible), even the profiles and block arrangements of hieroglyphic stairways (e.g., Houston 1993:fig. 2-8, 3-3, 3-7, 3-8, 3-9, 3-10, 3-14). My maps showed fall patterns at larger scale, especially of the stela at the site (Houston 1993:Site Map 1, Grid L5, Site Map 3, Grid P5). I was not alone in this interest. Looking at Panel 19 after its discovery in 1990, Ed Shook, a wise, old hand at Maya archaeology, observed that many blows of an axe had played across its surface.

To me, this approach represented the future of epigraphy as a field discipline. Sculptures could and should be shown by presumed initial placement or as flat, reproducible surfaces. But they were also three-dimensional things tumbling through time—pieces of transported, worked stone touched variably by nature, reverence, and malice. As rocks, they had dimension, weight, signs of quarrying, chipping, knapping, chiseling, polishing, and painting, features that could be processed and massaged statistically. Yet, from my perspective, the conversation between lithicists and epigraphers has yet to begin beyond these faltering steps. (Enterprising students take note!)

The fact is, most sculptures get moved after discovery. Yet not everyone is inclined to note their original position. A photographer may pivot or adjust the monument to the right angle for photography. Or, as at Tonina in recent decades, archaeologists appear to trundle texts off to the local museum, where provenience is known to few (and God). Find-spot is certainly not mentioned in any public display or report available to scholars. This seems more than an oversight—it is an out-and-out shame. Initial documentation is the key, as is the act of making those observations available to others.

At Piedras Negras, where I worked from 1997 to 2000, and again in 2004, sculptures have shifted many times. Their original position is usually reconstructible and shown as such on maps. But their archaeological placement, as objects left by the Maya, remains enigmatic, in key examples. Héctor Escobedo, my co-director, found that J. Alden Mason—a gifted prose stylist and indifferent excavator—had heaped at least 4 to 5 m of backfill atop Stela 18. (Héctor was looking for the axis of Structure O-13, the pyramid that backed the stela.) Despite diligent search, we continue to be only vaguely aware of the original location of Stela 40, a monument showing ancestral rites that came from the terrace in front of Structure J-3.

Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City. Photograph by Mary Dodge.
Figure 1. PIedras Negras, Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Guatemala City (Photograph by Mary Dodge)

Throne 1, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Etnología in Guatemala City, is a more fortunate case (Figure 1). Found shattered in a recessed, corbelled niche in Structure J-6 of the palace, it had been duly recovered and pieces reassembled in their current form; a few small fragments, daubed bright red, occur in storage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (see Figure 2 for J-6 and its access stairway, as cleaned off in 1933). The throne plays an important role in Maya cultural history, its ancient destruction being taken by J. Eric Thompson as possible evidence of “superstitious fear” by later Maya or of “revolting peasants” enraged at this “symbol of their civil bondage” (Thompson 1966:108).

Figure 1. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 2. Piedras Negras, Structure J-6 and frontal stairway, 1933 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

Not long ago, while looking at the image taken by Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., of the throne after its initial clearing, I realized that a more precise documentation of the Throne 1’s afterlife was possible. A fuller study would involve a closer study of patched edges on the original in Guatemala City, especially of the horizontal text on the bench itself, but the photograph taken by Satterthwaite in 1932 spells out where many of the blocks were first found. By looking at outlines and areas of exposed carving, and inserting cleaned images of those fragments, one can see how the throne was broken apart (Figures 3a and 3b). I suspect that some of the blocks had been removed unwittingly when workers cleared fill. Too late, Satterthwaite, who tended to work out of the camp, found the error.

Figure 2. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3a. Position of blocks when found, Throne 1, 1932 (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)
Figure 3b. Identifiable blocks, with higher-resolution images inserted (Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives)

The throne was an obvious casualty of violence, just as Thompson said. The left and right sides of the throne had been removed from the niche and placed face-up, more-or-less in correct, relative position. But the human faces that adjoined them, also face-up, had been moved in one case—that of the figure to the left—all the way behind a frontal column. The snout of the witz lay on the step of the outer doorway. Strangely, the hieroglyphic supports, although in correct relative position, were both face-up, yet with each top touching the other in opposed position. The special targets of violence, and their weakest points structurally, were the human faces and points of transition to the witz. It seems likely that the throne back had been dragged out of its niche and only then attacked. One possible culprit, as suggested by David Stuart from Lintel 10 at Yaxchilan, is the final ruler of that site, K’ihnich Tatbu Jol (Stuart 1998).

Figure 5. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)
Figure 4. Interior stairway leading from area of Throne 2 to upper, western room, 1999, Operation PN34a-18 (photograph by Zachary Hruby)

The area of the throne was excavated by Ernesto Arredondo and me in 1998, and the area proved to have shallow stratigraphy (Houston and Arredondo 1998:108-109): an earlier, wider building, and bedrock only about 40 cm. below the final floor of Str. J-6. A stairway, only partly preserved, led from the throne room to an elevated floor to the west—this may have allowed the ruler to approach the throne without stepping outside to public view (Figure 4). No diagnostic sherds came from the lower level, but it surely dated to the Yaxche period, from about AD 625 to 750. The visible throne room was certainly Chacalhaaz in date, c. AD 750 to 830. Indeed, Throne 1 gives us a more precise date for this building known as cha-hu-ku-NAAH, perhaps Chahuk Naah, “House of Lightning” or “House of Thunder”: its dedication, probably written as EL-NAAH, took place on the Period Ending of, Nov. 3, AD 785. It is likely to have been Ruler 7’s first great commission in the Acropolis, a dramatic reconfiguration of Patio 1, the space in front, as a place for reception of tribute, captives, and visitors, but never of equals.

Figure 4. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 5. Piedras Negras Throne 3, found in fill within Structure O-17, 14 cm. long, found in 1999 field season (Drawing by Stephen Houston)

Other fragmentary thrones are known at Piedras Negras. The University of Pennsylvania found one, Throne 2, re-used in the Str. K-6a ballcourt ([] 11 Ajaw *18 Ch’en. Aug. 21, AD 662 [Martin-Skidmore correlation]), and our project found Throne 3 (Figure 5) in the fill of Str. O-17, possibly an unfinished structure.

I believe the presence of two shattered thrones, both connected to Ruler 2, Itzam K’anahk, suggests some refurbishment of the Acropolis, where such thrones were presumably placed. Perhaps they had been destroyed during that construction and their pieces inserted into fill nearby. Throne 3 is probably earlier because of its ch’ok title. Indeed, it may be the sole remains of his very accession throne, for Ruler 2 was only 12 years of age when he succeeded to power.

Luis Romero, a Guatemalan archaeologist who worked with us on the Piedras Negras Project, has subsequently restored the J-6 stairway, finding at least one new cache in the process. When I last saw it, in 2004, the throne room looked sorry indeed, a hole punched in the back by idle looters, and the roots of a ramon tree curving in threatening arc towards the wall. The Throne Building is as forlorn as it was when left by assailants in the 9th century AD.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I thank Eric Schnittke of the Penn Museum Archives for permission to reproduce Figures 2 and 3.


Graham, Ian, and Eric von Euw. 1975. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 1: Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Houston, Stephen D., and Ernesto Arredondo Leiva. 1999. In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 3, Tercera Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 105-118. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1998. Una Guerra entre Yaxchilán y Piedras Negras? In Proyecto Arqueológico Piedras Negras, Informe Preliminar 2, Segunda Temporada, eds. Héctor Escobedo and Stephen Houston, pp. 389-392. Informe entregado al Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1966. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Jean Genet, a Forgotten Mesoamericanist Epigrapher

by Eric Taladoire, Université de Paris

In 1933, Benjamin L. Whorf published his article on “The Phonetic Value of Certain Characters in Maya Writing,” in which he tried to re-open what many considered an old, obsolete hypothesis of the phonetic decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs. This first essay was quickly followed by a second, mostly similar text in 1935: “Maya Writing and its Decipherment.” To say the least, it was rather coldly received.

Richard C. E. Long, a fervent supporter of S. G. Morley and J. Eric S. Thompson’s readings, published a strongly argued criticism in the same issue of Maya Research, a journal published by Frans Blom between 1934 and 1936 (Long 1934). Whorf’s ideas and the linguistic approach were therefore rapidly discredited, all the more since Thompson added later his own cantankerous comments of these articles (1950: 311-13). Even though Tozzer (in Whorf 1933: ix) wrote: “with great acumen and courage, Whorf dares to reopen the phonetic question,” the door was quickly closed again. As Houston, Chinchilla Mazariegos and Stuart (2001: 96) have remarked, “Benjamin Lee Whorf’s unsuccessful efforts seem to have discredited such interest in the language behind the glyphs.” They further added that, while Whorf’s global vision of Maya writing finally proved correct by attributing a phonetic value to “certain characters,” the article was overflowing with mistakes and insufficient arguments (Houston et al. 2001:153).

The first question about this brief controversy bears on the origin of Whorf’s articles. In the 1920’s, the rejection of the phonetic value of Maya writing was almost a dogma. Blom, all the same dubious of Morley and Thompson’s interpretations, thought that the decipherment should rely on the study of existing languages (Nielsen 2003). According to Nielsen, Blom would have directly encouraged Whorf in 1933. We must wonder to what extent Blom himself had been influenced by Jean Genet, an amateur Mayanist who independently renewed this theory, formerly sustained by French epigraphers like Brasseur de Bourbourg and Charencey. Contrary to the then-dominant theory, Genet gave a new impulse to the phonetic hypothesis, and following Bowditch (1901), argued about the historical content of numerous inscriptions. We know through Blom, who read French, that he had been exchanging letters with Genet for several years, and that he had read several of his books (1934, 1935). Who is Jean Genet, a long forgotten Maya epigrapher? As Houston et. al., wrote, he would be “One of the most neglected and tragic figures in Maya decipherment … This remarkable epigrapher who seems to have had a formidable and precocious intellect” (2001: 282-98).

The Man

Jean Genet has fallen nowadays in an almost complete oblivion, and he is only mentioned for his edition of Landa’s Relation (Davoust 1995, Stuart 1988). In his comparative study of the exactness of the reproductions of Landa’s drawings in the different editions, Stuart insists upon the quality of Genet’s 1928-29 publication: “The two volumes … contain an excellent introduction and notes by the editor. This was the first version to rearrange the calendric data of the manuscript so that the year begins with 1 Pop, a practice followed by some later editions” (1988: 30).

We cruelly miss information about him. His work attracted Houston’s attention just in time to recover some memories from Guy Stresser-Péan, who met him. It has been also possible to gather some data in the Paris Police Department, where still exists a file on the inquiries related to his suicide (Darrieulat 1998).

He was born on July 3rd 1903 in Boulogne sur Seine, in a Paris suburb, from a shopkeeper family. This lower middle class origin probably allowed him to live comfortably at the time. The National Education registers did not disclose any evidence of University studies, nor even of any college degree (Baccalauréat), which is quite puzzling. We know from his activities, that he read English and Spanish fluently, while his letters are generally written in French. His annotated Landa’s translation proves it. His publications confirm moreover that he could read Maya texts, and as noted by Houston, Nahuatl too, an uncommon practice among Mayanists. Did he study away from home, in a provincial college? Did he have a preceptor? This is unlikely in his family context. No clue can help us decide, but it remains unlikely that he would have been self-taught. We only know that in 1921, when he is 18, he already owned a bookstore in Boulogne, where he sold very expensive and specialized books such as the Chilam Balam of Tixcoco and Teabo and Brasseur de Bourbourg or Léon de Rosny’s publications. Did he inherit them? Anyway, his financial resources allowed him to rapidly open a publishing company, which he used to publish his own researches.

In 1923, he married Madeleine Perchet, a young woman with a high academic level, which is unusual in those years, and they moved to Paris. Madeleine herself was the author of the Catalogue des catalogues de la librairie française (Section littérature) (Madeleine Perchet: T.1. Editions Genet 1929). She helped her husband in his researches till their end. Genet opened a new bookstore on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, in Paris, where he started buying more books from foreign sellers. He also exchanged books, with W. Gates for instance, as confirmed in their correspondence (quoted in Darrieulat 1998). He seemed somewhat restless, though, since in February 1927, when he is accepted in the Société des Américanistes, he gave another address (199-201 Rue de Grenelle) while he moved next year to the 2 Bis Rue de Vaugirard. Rivet gave another address still: 106 Boulevard Saint-Germain, that appears in the Revue. Such confusion might result from differences between the bookstore, the home address and the publishing activities. Anyway, those addresses are all located in rich and academic districts. He only left Paris for a brief stay in Spain (possibly looking for books) and a trip to Mexico, to which he briefly alluded in a letter to Beyer (quoted in the Porrua Dictionary).

The Police Department archives and registers office confirm he had a brother, Louis (who died in 1962) and a sister, Julia (who died in 1944). He never had children, and it is still legally impossible to inquire on indirect heirs. This is far from anecdotal since it bears on what happened to his manuscripts and the books he owned. We know (Darrieulat 1998) that part of his documents belongs to France National Library, which suggests that he either donated them or they were transferred after his death.

The Great Depression of 1929 provoked probably some financial difficulties that added themselves to personal problems. Genet’s wife had an incurable disease, and he was turning blind (Blom 1935). Desperate, he informed several colleagues of his intention to commit suicide on December 16 1934 (he was 31 years old) (quoted by Blom, 1935: 295). Last, but not least: in unknown circumstances, Genet lost almost all the manuscript from the Etudes Maya-Quichées volume 2. Trying to recover a rough sketch, he postponed his suicide to December 18. Short summaries of the articles were deposited at the National Library, and it seems, through brief allusions (Blom 1935) that some unpublished texts were sent to Blom and to the German linguist Wolff, in Berlin. Genet and his wife committed suicide on December 18, 1934.

This brief biographical sketch does not clarify Genet’s contribution: this surprising, isolated individual developed an intense activity during 13 years. Blom, who seemed to know him more personally, is the only one to provide a few indications about his personality, describing him as quiet and shy (Blom 1935). He added: “France has lost one of her distinguished scientists.”

His activities and social relations allow us to deduce some complementary elements. In France, first, his relationships with other Americanists seemed rather loose. He only joined the Société des Américanistes in 1927, where Paul Rivet was his sponsor. According to Stresser-Péan (pers. com. to Stephen Houston, in Houston et al. 2001), some degree of animosity would have existed between Rivet and Genet, for possible political reasons. Another explanation could be the criticism forwarded by Genet about Rivet’s hypothesis on the Polynesian migrations to America (1927). Genet’s criticisms were often tough and violent. About Aubin’s translation of the Histoire de la Nation mexicaine, he wrote for instance: “The translation, or more exactly the tentative, is worth nothing”.(Note 1) He similarly (and wrongly) wrote a violent diatribe against Förstemann’s hypothesis on the astronomical interpretations of the Dresdensis, asserting they would rapidly be discredited (Revue, p. 36)! Anyway, it is Rivet who mentions the publication by “our colleague” of the first issue of the Revue des Etudes Mayas-Quichées (Mexique, Guatemala, Honduras) in the Journal de la Société, in 1934. Finally, in his book co-authored with Pierre Chelbatz, Genet revised his position and granted Rivet’s hypothesis more consideration (1927: 70). Whatever the cause of antagonism between the two scientists, Genet’s link with the Society rather laid with the librarian H. Vosy-Bourbon.

It is indeed Vosy-Bourbon who wrote in 1928 a rather complimentary review of Genet and Chelbatz’s book, Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés (Mexique, Guatemala, Honduras): “a well-constructed book, a good effort” (Note 2) (JSA XX: 398). He also qualified the Esquisse as a good historical synthesis and Landa’s translation as a useful research piece “that still need many errata”. Wholly, these comments are not exactly enthusiastic. Lucien Febvre’s review of the Histoire des peuples Shoshones-Aztèques (Amérique du Nord et Amérique centrale) is even more critical: “a rather loose study… One gets the impression, reading Genet, that a tremendous work of recollection, classification and publication is necessary… M. Genet gets entangled in the legendary narration of origins and migrations of these peoples… A book more analytic than synthetic.…”(Note 3) (JSA XXI: 284, 1929). As a matter of fact, the best reviews can be found in other publications, by Nippgen (Histoire des peuples Shoshones-Aztèques: L’Anthropologie XL: 523-25. 1930; Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés: Société d’Ethnographie-E XVII-XVII: 245-46, 1928; Esquisse: Société d’Ethnographie XVII: 245. 1928) or Warnotte (Histoire des peuples Shoshones-Aztèques: Société des Américanistes de Belgique-Bulletin I: 34-39 1928; Esquisse: Société des Américanistes de Belgique-Bulletin I: 91-96 1928).

Genet’s three main books are indeed quite repetitive compilations of data, even if the global well-written corpus represents a rather clear synthesis of common knowledge in the 1920. The lack of enthusiasm from French reviewers stems from two considerations. First, the three volumes are redundant, to the point of the textual reproduction of some sentences or paragraphs from one to the other. We find, for instance, p. 50 of the Histoire des peuples Shoshones-Aztèques, and p. 35 of the Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés the same sentence: “We must be careful in our use of Las Casas’ books, his information, bearing on indigenous traditions, being often unconfirmed”.(Note 4) Second, in the three books, Genet dedicates a large part of his text (up to 60 pages) to a critical study of the sources. He insists heavily upon the urgent need of annotated critical editions, as occurs with Greek and Latin texts. For many of his French colleagues, who readily accepted most texts as they are, this approach is unusual, while several foreign colleagues coincide with him. It is no coincidence if it is precisely this contribution of Genet that is remembered.

Genet’s death was only mentioned briefly in a neutral note in the Journal, on January 8 1935, signed by Créqui-Montfort, very different from the necrology by Blom. Even if Genet attracted some interest in France, it differs from the fame he acquired internationally, which indirectly confirms his relative isolation. From his American, German or Mexican colleagues, on the contrary, Genet was the focus of a deeper interest. He exchanged regular letters with Blom, Beyer, Whorf, Juan Martinez, Roys, Callegari, Scholes, Villacorta and even with Morley, in spite of their disagreements (Blom 1935). He sent them copies of his manuscripts, of his books. He exchanged letters and books with Gates. In 1934, Blom asked him to write in Maya Research.

These exchanges are echoed in Genet’s Revue, where we found reviews of Roys’ The ethno-Botany of the Mayas, Chilam Balam of Chumayel, Beyer’s A discussion of the Gates Classification of Maya Hieroglyphs, Villacorta and Villacorta’s Codices Mayas, La Farge and Byers’ The Year bearers’s people) (Revue des études Maya-Quichées I (1): 33-36, (2): 81-84). Supplementary evidence stems from his bibliographies where most references are to foreign authors including numerous Germans (Seler, Lehmann, Schmidt.).

These chosen, mostly epistolary, links testify to Genet’s open-mindedness towards Mesoamericanist researches abroad, which contrast strongly with the relative decline of French interest in those years. They also reflect Genet’s specific preoccupations, in continuity with the French tradition. He shows no interest for the current discussions on calendric correlations: he merely dedicated two pages to the problem in his Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés. He made almost no use of the rapidly accumulating archaeological data, specifically of stelae and monuments, as noted by Houston (et al. 2001). His scarce references to Maya monuments come mainly from Spinden, with a few photos by Charnay and Stephens and Catherwood’s drawings (1913). Meanwhile, many recent photos by Morley, Maudslay and Maler were already available. In other words, he shows deliberately little interest in images and inscriptions while he was obviously aware of their existence: he illustrated two of his books with a very good photo of the Leiden plaque and with one of Maler’s drawings of some Naranjo glyphs. He mainly focused upon manuscripts, whether Spanish or indigenous. He thus followed fully the French tradition of Brasseur de Bourbourg, Charencey and Rosny. It appears clearly in his systematic use of the Maya-Quiche term, in their wake. As stressed by Houston Genet deserves more attention in spite of his deep insertion in the French tradition (et al. 282-98); as an outsider he all the same differentiated strongly from the mainstream, and offered some quite interesting and surprising remarks that sometime leave us speechless.

And his Work

To evaluate properly Genet’s contribution, we must turn to his work. During his short professional life (13 years), he developed an intense editorial activity. Let us first consider this part, remembering that he first published his wife’s book. He also wrote probably other studies under several pseudonyms, as C. Rouvel Meyer (a financial essay 1927), H. Maitre (a commercial study 1929) or O. Silbermann (Un continent perdu, l’Atlantide 1930!) (Darrieulat 1998). Darrieulat also raised the issue of Pierre Chelbatz’s identity. This author is utterly unknown, and it proved impossible to obtain any clue about him in the National Library. Meanwhile, it has been possible to document an individual by the name of Pierre Batz, a Belizean Indian who served in the British army during the First World War. Genet met him in 1920, seven years before the publication of the Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés. Did Batz really collaborate to this book? Should we rather consider that, for unknown reasons, Genet used his slightly modified name? Reading their supposed co-authored book raises more than doubts: most of the text is an often-textual copy of Genet’s Esquisse d’une civilisation oubliée. Once in a while, instead of “I”, Genet says “us”, as if to give the impression of co-authoring. A possible explanation of his use of Chelbatz’s name may lie in Genet’s editorial projects, since he advertises the publication of a book by Chelbatz alone: “L’éveil des peuples rouges”. This never-published book aimed to demonstrate the dynamic reawakening of indigenous claims in the Americas. Genet mentions the project of modifying the name of El Salvador for that of an Amerindian hero of the resistance against Spanish conquest. Would Genet have chosen Chelbatz’s pseudonym for another editorial project far from his scientific activities? Whatever the case, it remains surprising to see somebody interested in the rebirth of Amerindian identity in the 1920’s, a phenomenon that only occurred in the last decades of the past century, and that contradicts utterly the then-current image of the vanishing American.

To return to our theme, Genet’s production in 13 years is quite impressive:

  • 1927. Esquisse d’une civilisation oubliée (Le Yucatan à travers les âges). Paris.
  • 1928-29. Relation des choses du Yucatan (ed. bilingue). T. I et II. Paris.
  • 1929. Histoire des peuples Shoshones-Aztèques (Amérique du Nord et Amérique centrale). Bibliothèque d’Etudes Historiques. Paris.
  • 1929. Le livre du conseil des mayas-Quichés (Popol Vuh). Paris.
  • 1933. Idea de una nueva historia general de la America septentrional (Facs. de la ed. original de 1746): Catálogo del Museo histórico indiano del Cavallero Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci. Collection des textes relatifs aux anciennes civilisations du Mexique et de l’Amérique centrale 11. Paris.
  • 1934. Du caractère historique des inscriptions et des manuscrits Maya-Quichés. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (1): 4-9.
  • 1934. Notes sur l’écriture Maya-Quichée. Revue des Etudes Mayas-Quichées I (1): 10-22.
  • 1934. Les glyphes symboliques dans l’écriture maya-quichée. Le glyphe symbolique de la guerre. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (1): 23-32. Paris
  • 1934. Bibliographie critique (Roys, Kidder, Beyer, Villacorta). Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (1): 33-36.
  • 1934. L’écriture maya-quichée et les glyphes phonétiques. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (2): 37-63.
  • 1934. Mélanges Mayas-Quichés. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (2): 64-80.
  • Bibliographie critique (Roys, La Farge). Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (2): 81-84.
  • 1934. Sur le sens de la phrase “ lai tzolci pop ”. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (3): 85-91.
  • 1934. Les débuts de l’histoire yucatèque d’après les documents en langue maya. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (3): 92-97.
  • 1934. Les Livres de Chilam Balam et l’origine du mot Chilam Balam. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (3): 98-105.
  • 1934 Titulo de los señores de Totonicapan, por Diego Reynoso. Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, I (3): 107-119.
  • Inédit. Traduction du Titulo Real de don Francisco Izquin, último Ah Pop Galep ó rey de Nehaib, en el Quiché, otorgado por los Señores que le dieron la investidura de su real dignidad firmada por el último rey del quiché, con otros varios principes en dia 22 de noviembre del año de 1558.
  • _____. Les éléments primaires des glyphes mayas quichés.
  • 1927. Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés (Mexique, Guatemala, Honduras). Bibliothèque d’Etudes Historiques. Paris. (Jean Genet and Pierre Chelbatz).

As a matter of fact, Genet’s research started much earlier than 1927, since he published his first two articles in 1920: Les ruines de Mayapan, a compilation of the archives of the Commission Scientifique du Mexique, with some complementary descriptions, and le Roi Cotuha (after Brasseur de Bourbourg’s data). Both texts, with a Histoire tsutuhile, will be included in the Notes d’Archéologie et d’histoire maya-Quichée (Darrieulat 1998).

His true production begins in 1927. He rapidly published the first two volumes of his Relation des choses du Yucatan by Diego de Landa (1928-29), a new translation of the Popol Vuh (1929), his own synthesis and Boturini’s Idea de una nueva historia general de la America septentrional (1933). His translation of Landa was praised (Blom, Nippgen, Vosy-Bourbon, Juan Martínez), an appreciation confirmed by Stuart (1988). Restall and Chuchiak (2002: 657) also remarked that Tozzer “seems to have relied heavily on Jean Genet’s 1928-9 French edition both for his translation and notes”. His three synthesis (Esquisse d’une civilisation oubliée, Le Yucatan à travers les âges, Histoire des peuples Shoshones-Aztèques et Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés (Mexique, Guatemala, Honduras) (the last one with Pierre Chelbatz) are very similar and repetitive texts, as indicated above. As a matter of fact, his main and most suggestive contribution is the Revue des Etudes Maya-Quichées, volume 1 (1934). Among the preserved archives at the National Library, is the index of volume 2 that was accidentally destroyed. It contains a brief summary of the contents:

  • Diego de Landa: Relation des choses du Yucatan (vol. III).
  • Le rite européen, en achat immobilier, d’ “ouvrir et fermer la porte”.
  • La probanza de Cristobal Doria, yerno de Gerónimo de Aguilar.
  • Les chroniques de Gaspard Antonio Chi, historien yucatèque; Histoire de Luum-Citam ó Yucatan, par Gaspard Antonio Chi.
  • Les chroniqueurs indigènes du Yucatan.
  • Le Livre de Chilam Balam de Telchac.
  • Une capitale yucatèque, Mayapan.
  • Etudes sur les migrations huaxtèques.
  • Manuel des études huaxtèques.
  • La religion huaxtèque d’après les vocabulaires.
  • Notes sur l’écriture maya-quichée.
  • Les Incas vers l’Amérique centrale.
  • Les Indiens Gandule du Yucatan.
  • Toponymie mexicaine au Yucatan et mots mexicains dans le vocabulaire maya et dans les autres dialectes apparentés.
  • Les noms de villes et de peuples dans les inscriptions mayas-quichées.
  • Introduction au déchiffrement de l’écriture maya-quichée.
  • La représentation de la terre, du monde et de l’univers chez les Mayas-Quichés.
  • Le prophétisme chez les Mayas-Quichés.
  • L’histoire ancienne du Yucatan d’après les chroniques de Chac-Xulub-Chen et de Yaxkukul.
  • Les rites de fondation d’une ville.
  • Les éléments primaires des glyphes mayas-quichés.
  • Le glyphe “eau” dans les glyphes mayas-quichés.
  • Le Katun 8 Ahau.

Worth noting here is the presence of volume 3 of Landa’s Relation, a study or presentation of the now lost Chilam Balam de Telchac that passed through Genet’s hands, and of three essays on the Huastecs, a rather surprising interest for a Mayanist at the time. Genet’s interest in the Huastecs stems from his erroneous hypothesis of a large migration of the Mayas-Quichés from Florida and the Mississippi basin, towards the Huasteca, then to Yucatan, a theory he largely developed in his books. The loss of his manuscript is really heart-breaking, but we must recall that beside the National Library copy Genet sent another to Frans Blom at Tulane, along with a text we do not know anything about. It is worth mentioning that another copy of this text or a summary would have also been sent to the German linguist Werner Wolff (Le déchiffrement de l’écriture maya 1938: 28, 39).

Following Houston et. al.’s suggestion (2001), we must now dwell upon Genet’s contributions to the decipherment of Maya writing. The most important, and most controversial, is obviously the reintroduction of the theory of alphabetic/syllabic Maya writing (Stuart 1992: 27). It is a fundamental point: is Maya writing pictographic (therefore, can it be pronounced?), phonetic, or ideographic? Following his discovery of Landa’s manuscript, Brasseur de Bourbourg had carelessly made futile attempts at alphabetic decipherments. His hypotheses were rapidly discarded. However, the idea of syllabic writing was long-lasting, in France especially, with scholars such as Charencey or Léon de Rosny. Among its defenders also were Cyrus Thomas (1892) and Daniel Brinton (1870) who argued that the decipherment must rely upon existing Maya languages (Stuart 1992: 26). Blom also sustained this proposal in later years (Nielsen 2003). In spite of real progress in the decipherment of the calendar glyphs and numerals, and of a few identifications proposed by Seler, such as the dog, fire and capture glyphs, systematic failures of alphabetic and syllabic decipherment quickly left open the path to the theory of ideographic reading (Seler 1892, Kelley 1962: 7-8). This approach, strongly argued specifically by the German epigraphers Schellas, Förstemann and Seler himself, was widely accepted by most Mayanists. After 1910, the question of the phonetic character of Maya writing largely discarded, not to say discredited. The most eminent specialists, Morley, Thompson or Gates then dedicated their activities to the systematic register of monuments and inscriptions, to the detriment of decipherment.

In this unfavorable context Genet reopened the controversy, proposing a return to the syllabic hypothesis. According to him, the Maya script was composed of pictograms, symbolic and phonetic elements. He wrote: “The Mayas-Quiché graphic system and the Mexican graphic system were similar, and having the same basis: 1) a combination of images 2) of symbolic 3) and phonetic glyphs” (Revue I (2): 37).(Note 5) These last were used according to a syllabic principle. In the Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés, he added: “Beside this rudimentary (ideographic) writing, there existed an elaborated syllabic writing (uooh), only a few signs of which have been deciphered so far” (197). Tozzer (in Whorf 1933: ix) conveyed to Benjamin L. Whorf (1933, 1935) the merits of this revised hypothesis. However, Whorf himself referred in his articles to Genet’s work. Blom and his journal Maya Research was probably the link between both researchers. It would be erroneous to give Genet the sole credit of this rediscovery, since it found a positive echo among many different epigraphers at the time.

As stressed by Houston et. al. (2001:283), Genet correctly deciphered the glyph for “war” through a brilliant comparison with the Nahuatl glyph, which indirectly suggests that he was reasonably familiar with Nahuatl (unlike many other Mayanists). The Nahuatl glyph combines darts and a shield. In the Maya codices (Cortesianus 17, Dresdensis 60, Peresianus 3), we find a glyph that is composed of a shield and a flint point, very similar to the Aztec sign, which Genet reasonably interpreted as the glyph for war. In another text Genet returns to this interpretation, adding that in the Mendoza Codex the glyph of war (quoted by Beyer), composed by the dart (mitl), shield (chimalli) and a speech-scroll (nahua) signs, is not pronounced michimalnahua, but yaonahuac (Revue, p. 69). If his reading is somewhat questionable, this commentary suggests the possible translation from glyphic writing to language. In his Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés (p. 198), he was more precise: “difficulties begin with composed signs: words do not correspond any more to each phonetic sign”.(Note 6) However, Genet did not dare yet make the following step of phonetic reading of Maya glyphs. His comparisons with the Kuna ideographic system prove it: for him, glyphs and syllables remain merely mnemotecnic supports.

He returned to his syllabic approach in his review of Roys’ book (Revue, p.34): “Roys (p. 209, note 4) says that the illness glyph represents a parrot clutching a snake in its claws”…. “This is further proof, as we always asserted, that a large part of the Maya-Quichés glyphs are syllabic.” In another article, he insisted once more, referring to a colonial Maya manuscript he read: “It would be interesting to recover this submission manuscript, since it would probably provide us with the glyphs of the names of the indigenous leaders on one side, and their transcriptions in latin characters, the bilingual aspect we lack for the decipherment of Yucatec inscriptions” (Revue, p. 40 (note 4). In the same comparative perspective with the Mexica system, once again, he returned to his idea, with the name Cam Pech, formed by the snake and the tick signs: “God Campech’s headdress was none other than his name written glyphically in syllables (Revue p. 47). This is the Mexican system for anthroponyms. In other words, if he strongly asserts a syllabic reading, he still cannot make up his mind to affirm the structural link between glyphic writing and Maya languages.

It would have been interesting to see how far Genet would have followed his ideas on decipherment in his lost article “Le glyphe “eau” dans les glyphes mayas-quichés”. As already mentioned, Genet was not really innovative, since his own decipherments follow Seler’s (1892). However, contrary to Seler, he definitely placed himself in the context of the syllabic approach. He thus undeniably played the role of a forerunner, as  noted  by Blom and Whorf. This “acknowledgment” spread among other epigraphers of the era, a fact that deserves our attention today. In 1937, Beyer, who exchanged letters with Genet and quoted him, exploring similar hypotheses, isolated and identified recurrent glyphs groups that he interpreted as phrases. It is also probable that Genet had regular exchanges with the German linguist Wolff, who later wrote Déchiffrement de l’écriture maya (1938). In his book, Wolff, who relentlessly argued for the syllabic hypothesis and the glyphs vocalisation, and therefore considered Genet too careful, quoted at length several of Genet’s articles. There is no doubt that Wolff knew perfectly Genet’s work, so it is quite surprising that in his bibliography, he specifically mentions the Revue des études Mayas-Quichées, vol I, n° 1 and 2. As indicated above, volume 1 is composed of three fascicles, and volume II remained unpublished. Since Wolff’s study was published in 1938, this reference to n°2 raises doubts: is it a typographic mistake? Did Wolff, as Blom, also receive the volume 2 summary? Or did he receive other unpublished texts?

Curiously, in his early articles Yuri Knorozov mentions the works of both Wolff and Genet works, which he must have read or consulted at some point. In his later article, however, in which he proposed the phonetic reading of the “dog” (tzul) and “turkey” (cutz) glyphs, every mention of those authors disappeared (Knorosov 1952). We do not mean to accuse Knorozov of plagiarism: research progresses by successive steps, addenda, and if the Russian epigrapher found some early inspiration in Genet’s texts, he later followed his own path. But we may wonder how Knorozov obtained Genet’s articles, and on which texts he worked. Considering Genet’s habit to distribute his articles, even as preliminary drafts, we may surmise he sent Wolff several texts or notes that somehow ended up in some Saint Petersburg or Moscow library. Again, we can wonder if possible unpublished texts might still exist in that location, or in Blom’s archives at Tulane or in  San Cristobal de Las Casas.

Genet’s second contribution bears on the historic or dynastic character of Maya inscriptions. According to him, the Maya used glyphs as toponyms or anthroponyms: he finds the proof in the incised or carved glyphs on the thighs of the Yaxchilan captives: “One can presume that these inscriptions give the name of said personages (elsewhere described as ‘vanquished warriors’) to indicate their city of origin.” Genet does not really innovate since Bowditch (1901) had already forwarded the hypothesis of historical annotations in inscriptions, a theory that not even Morley rejected, even if he favoured the purely chronological aspects (Stuart 1992: 31). However, Genet strengthened his demonstration of the presence of historical data in manuscripts and on monuments, referring to Spinden’s illustrations (1913). He also argued that day-signs “were used as anthroponyms”. This is all the more surprising since, as noted by Davoust, we find very few mentions of nominal glyphs in the colonial manuscripts that form the basis of Genet’s researches (1995). He therefore deduced this hypothesis by merging epigraphic and archaeological data, an idea that will wait Proskouriakoff’s publication to be definitely demonstrated (1960). In a similar approach, Genet had a premonition of “the performative nature of glyphic reading” (Houston et al. 2001: 283). As stressed by Houston, he wrongly used for his demonstration a very disputable link between Maya inscriptions and the Kuna signs in Panama. This erroneous comparison led him anyway to propose the hypothesis of Maya narrative texts, not only in codices, but also on stelae and monuments. Contrary to Morley and Thompson, Genet guessed the historical and narrative character of Maya texts. It is worth mentioning, lastly, that Genet  wondered in passing about a possible link between toponyms and anthroponyms. Page 64 of the Revue (Mélanges Mayas Quichés), he wrote: “A large number of towns, villages, places bear the name of the families who inhabited or owned them, or the name of the god they adored…” (Note *). It’s a far cry from the emblem-glyph concept, and Genet did not take the point up again, but it is another clue to his intellectual abilities.

In his 1934 note, Blom insisted upon a “startling revelation” he attributed to Genet: Landa was a plagiarist who amply copied the chronicles written by of Gaspar Chi and others. In spite of Blom’s surprise, the hypothesis is not really a revelation, since its roots lie in Valentini’s article (1880; Stuart 1992: 23). The very word plagiarism is anyway an anachronism: the chroniclers of the time never ceased copying one another, drawing on their contemporaries’ texts, data, ideas, even complete sentences. It would have been useful to read Genet’s lost article “Les chroniques de Gaspard Antonio Chi, historien yucatèque; Histoire de Luum-Citam ó Yucatan, par Gaspard Antonio Chi”, to know his exact arguments. A similar point about the original source material in Landa has recently been strongly documented by Restall and Chuchiak (2002). Regretfully, neither Valentini nor Genet is mentioned in their article. In any event, it is worth remarking that, differentiating himself from Valentini, Genet argued that Landa also copied Gomara, who focused mainly on Aztec and central Highland Mexico (Blom 1934). We may wonder to what extent Landa’s plagiarism introduces elements that do not belong in our understanding of Postclassic Maya civilization. This is maybe the true meaning of Blom’s surprise. Genet does not always innovate; he argues and documents his point of view.

Even more frustrating is the loss of the Chilam Balam of Telchac (1927, p. 42). This now lost manuscript, which Genet supposed to be in some private collection in the USA, remained for some time in his bookstore. We are only left with a brief description in Genet and Chelbatz’s book and the mention of another lost note to be published in volume 2 of the Etudes Maya-Quichées (Le Livre de Chilam Balam de Telchac). We consider useful here to reproduce entirely, in French, the summary of the article Genet wanted to publish.

Cet ouvrage m’est passé entre les mains. C’est un manuscrit de 120 pages, copié vers 1759, illustré de gravures en couleurs; en teintes vives, où le rouge et le vert dominent, le tout dans un style européen, mais fortement influencé par les croyances indigènes: certains décors, certains cadres avec des pointillés rappellent des détails du codex Peresianus. Ces tableaux sont d’un intérêt considérable: ils représentent notamment le pays montagneux des Xiu (les collines du Puuc?), la destruction de Mayapan (avec un signe pas très distinct, mais qui est probablement le nom de Mayapan, écrit en glyphe). Le portrait du roi (ah-Mo) chan Xiu, l’arrivée des Espagnols, etc… Il y a, page 21, un tableau qui représente les 13 Ahau. Les chiffres arabes ont été anthropomorphisés, chacun avec une couronne sur la tête; les bras portent différents symboles et les corps sortent chacun d’un plant de maguey. … Pages 23-28 se trouve une copie d’un texte rédigé par Francisco Avan (de Cumkal), texte concernant la conquête du pays par les Espagnols. Page 29, il y a un texte fort intéressant que l’on peut, en substance, traduire ainsi (je cite de mémoire, n’ayant pas le texte sous les yeux): “Moi, je suis le prêtre du 8 ahau; ma charge est de prédire l’abandon des provinces, la destruction des villes.” Ce recueil, extrêmement intéressant, est, je crois, maintenant conservé aux Etats-Unis.(Note 7)

In his Histoire des peuples mayas-Quichés, Genet added a few details. He remarked: “ Le livre de Chilam Balam de Telchac contient quelques textes historiques et surtout des homélies et des textes religieux catholiques traduits en yucatèque” (note, page 42). He precised: “Les chroniques de Tizimin et de Telchac fournissent également de grands comptes d’années, par cycles de 260 ans, sans indiquer non plus le nombre de cycles écoulés ….” (p. 53). On page 59, a final note confirms he saw the manuscript: “Une annotation marginale en espagnol dans le livre de Telchac est encore plus précise: “cette province de Yucatan fut conquise en l’année du Seigneur 980 par le capitaine mexicain Quetzalcohuatl.”(See Note 7)

Still, in the field of epigraphy, Genet announced a curiously premonitory text in the same volume 2 of the Revue (Introduction au déchiffrement de l’écriture maya-quichée). In the summary he sent to Blom, he wrote: “The American nation that invented the writing system that served as a prototype for the Maya, Zapotec, Aztec graphic systems remains unknown … Crossing the real and legendary routes of every traveller, it seems that the origin of writing might be the Gulf of Mexico region, but it remains impossible to assert it. I thought of the Coatzacoalcos river area, but now I have my doubts.”(Note 8) The hypothesis in 1934 of a common origin of the different Mesoamerican writing systems is remarkable. But locating it close to what we presently know as the Olmec “heart land” area, and later as the Mixe-Zoque expansion territory, is all the more flabbergasting; by 1920 archaeologists knew almost nothing about this region and its significance for the study of early Mesoamerica. As noted by Houston, William Henry Holmes had already published in 1907 a report on the Tuxtla statuette, but Genet never mentioned this discovery (pers. com. 2013). He deduced logically the location at the focus point of the three distinct traditions, even if he is utterly wrong on their chronological placement, since he considered the three writing systems as more or less contemporary. The discussion on a possible Olmec or Mixe-Zoque writing system, previous to Maya writing, will have to wait many years until Stirling’s discovery of the Tres Zapotes Stela C, and, much later, of the famous La Mojarra monument.

Genet focused mainly on colonial documents and on the pictographic manuscripts, and only made scarce incursions in the field of archaeology. It is worth mentioning the exception, as his lost article “Les Incas vers l’Amérique centrale.” The summary he sent Blom deserves our attention, wherein he mentions the maritime expeditions organized by the Inca Tupac Yupanqui, documented in the chronicles, or by the Tumbez traders. He then rejects the hypothesis of any sea navigation towards the Galapagos or Easter Island, contrary to Rivet’s theory. He forwards rather the hypothesis of the arrival of Andean groups in Central America, more specifically in Panama and Costa Rica, referring to the presence in the area of Peruvian artefacts. Nothing very new in this respect save that, in Rivet’s wake, he supposes that the introduction of metallurgy in Mesoamerica could be consecutive to these exchanges (1923).

Genet, as we have seen, offered sometimes bold and sometimes innovative hypotheses without being ever able to prove them. He was often wrong in his premises, for example about the Kunas or the chronological placement of the different writing systems. We find another mistake in his interpretation of the “Antonio (sic) Cortés” coat of arms (Revue I-3). He identified in the upper right quarter two glyphs he “read” as Xochitl and Calli (and went so far as, in note 1, reading them as Xochicalco). In reality, the coat of arms belonged to Don Antonio Cortés Totoquihuaztli, Lord of Tlacopan, and both lateral motifs correspond to the Mexica warrior orders (Castañeda de la Paz y Luque Talaván 2010). But Genet nevertheless had an astounding intelligence and perception. Most of his theories and strokes of genius are not revolutionary, because they stem rather from his systematic, attentive and critical approach of the existing documents. His books abound with notes, long quotations, and numerous references. He was obviously on the lookout for articles, new book, and his bookseller activities allowed him to gather many publications. In his short life, he accumulated a large amount of data. He gathered, he compiled, he analysed. His critical approach allowed him to compare the data or to forward his theories in short, always documented texts. The largest part of his publications, as a matter of fact the less interesting, reflects this constant activity, which justifies partly the lack of interest for his books, which are rather compilations than theories. It is in his notes and articles that he demonstrated his intelligence and lucidity, when he forwarded bold hypothesis, those jaw-dropping remarks, as underlined by Houston (et al. 2001: 282-98). Nothing allows us to say that Genet would have revolutionized the decipherment of Maya writing. But we may assert that he brilliantly resurrected an interest in the syllabic hypothesis that permitted the eventual breaking of the Maya code, a spark recognized by his peers yet forgotten by his followers.


(1) La traduction, ou plus exactement l’essai de traduction, ne vaut absolument rien…

(2) Efforts dignes d’éloge, livre bien ordonné

(3) Etude de tissu un peu lâche … On a l’impression, à lire Mr Genet, qu’un immense effort de récolement, de classement et de publication de toutes ces sources est nécessaire … M.  Genet se débat ensuite avec les légendes d’origine et de migrations des divers peuples …. Livre plus analytique que synthétique.

(4) Ce n’est qu’avec précaution qu’il faut se servir des ouvrages de Las Casas, ses informations, en ce qui concerne les traditions des indigènes, étant souvent sujettes à caution.

(5) Le système graphique employé par les Mayas-Quichés et le système graphique des Mexicains étaient analogues dans leur principe et reposaient sur les mêmes bases : 1) une combinaison d’images, 2) de glyphes symboliques 3) et de glyphes phonétiques.

(6) La difficulté commence avec les signes composés: le mot n’ayant plus aucun rapport avec chacun des signes le composant phonétiquement…

(7) I have had this text in my hands. It is a 120-page manuscript, copied around 1759, illustrated with colored engravings, in bright colors, where red and green predominate; the style is European, but with strong indigenous influences: some decorative parts, some frames with dots remind us of elements in the codex Peresianus. Those frames are of considerable interest: they represent for instance the Xiu hill country (the Puuc?), the destruction of Mayapan (with an unclear sign that could be Mayapan’s glyph), King (ah-Mo) chan Xiu portrait, the Spaniards’ arrival, etc… On page 21 there is a frame representing the 13 Ahau. The Arabic numbers have been anthropomorphized, each one with a crown; the arms bear different symbols, and each body emerges from a maguey plant. … On pages 23-28 we find the copy of a text written by Francisco Avan (from Cumkal), that relates the Spanish conquest. Page 29, another quite interesting text may be translated (from memory, since I do not have the text at hand) “I am the priest of 8 ahau; my task is to predict the province abandonment, the destruction of cities.” This very interesting manuscript is, as far as I know, in the United States.  The book of Chilam Balam de Telchac includes a few historical texts, and mostly homilies and catholic texts translated into Yucatec.” “The Tizimin and Telchac chronicles provide also long series of years, in 260 years cycles, without any mention of the number of elapsed cycles….”. A note in Spanish, in the margin of the Telchac manuscript, is still more precise: “this province of Yucatan was conquered in the year 980 by the mexican captain Quetzalcohuatl.”

(8) La nation qui en Amérique a inventé l’écriture qui a servi de prototype aux systèmes graphiques maya, zapotèque, aztèque est inconnue … En recoupant les itinéraires réels et légendaires de tous ces voyageurs, il semble que l’écriture serait originaire d’une contrée située au fond du golfe du Mexique, mais sans qu’il soit possible de préciser exactement. J’ai pensé jadis à la contrée située près du fleuve Coatzacoalcos; mais maintenant j’ai des doutes.

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