Jean Genet, a Forgotten Mesoamericanist Epigrapher Reply

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theory, Genet gave a new impulse to the phonetic hypothesis, and following Bowditch (1901), argued about the historical content of numerous inscriptions.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.

Sources Cited

Beyer, Hermann. 1937. Studies on the inscriptions of Chichen Itza. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pub. 483, Contribution 21. Washington, DC.

Blom, Frans, 1934, Note. Maya Research, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 136. Tulane University, New Orleans. 1935 Jean Genet. Maya Research, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 295-296. Tulane University, New Orleans.

Bowditch, Charles P. 1901 Notes on the Report of Teobert Maler. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. II: 1. The University Press, Cambridge.

Brinton, Daniel. 1870. The ancient phonetic alphabet of Yucatan. American Bibliopolist 2: 143-48.

Castañeda de la Paz María y Miguel Luque Talaván. 2010. Heráldica indígena. Iconografía tipo códice en los escudos de armas tepanecas. Arqueología Mexicana 105: 70-75. Ed Raices, México.

Darrieulat, Rémi. 1998. Jean Genet: un américaniste français méconnu. Mémoire de DEA, Université de Paris 1.

Davoust, Michel. 1995. L’écriture maya et son déchiffrement. Editions du CNRS, Paris.

Holmes, William Henry. 1907. On a Nephrite Statuette from San Andrés Tuxtla, Vera Cruz, Mexico. American Anthropologist, vol. 9: 691-701.

Houston, Stephen, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos and David Stuart. 2001. The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kelley, David 1962 A History of the Decipherment of Maya script. Anthropological Linguistics 4 (8): 1-48.

Long, Richard E. 1935 Maya and Mexican Writing. In Maya Research, Vol. 2 (1): 24-32. Tulane University.

Nielsen, Jesper 2003 Frans Blom and the Decipherment of Maya Writing. The PARI Journal 4 (2): 4-9.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1960. Historical implications of a pattern of dates at Piedras Negras, Guatemala. American Antiquity 25: 454-75.

Restall Matthew and John F. Chuchiak IV 2002 A reevaluation of the Authenticity of Fray Diego de Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. Ethnohistory 49 (3): 651-69.

Rivet Paul 1923 L’orfévrerie précolombienne des Antilles, des Guyanes et du Vénézuela, dans ses rapports avec l’orfévrerie et la métallurgie des autres régions américaines. JSA XV: 183-213. Paris.

__________. 1927. Relations commerciales précolombiennes entre la Polynésie et l’Amérique. Compte-rendu sommmaire de la Société de Biogéographie IV (29): 65-68. Paris.

Stuart, George E. 1988. Glyphs drawings from Landa’s Relación: A caveat to the Investigator. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 19. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

__________. 1992. Quest for Decipherment: A Historical and Bibliographical Survey of Maya Hieroglyphic Investigation. In New Theories on the Ancient Maya, pp. 1-63, Elin C. Danien & Robert J. Sharer eds. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Seler, Eduard. 1892. Does there really exist a phonetic key to the Maya hieroglyphic writing? Science 20 (499): 121-22.

Thomas, Cyrus. 1892. Is the Maya Hieroglyphic writing Phonetic? Science 20 (505): 197-201.

Thompson, J. E. S. 1950. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pub. 589. Washington.

Valentini, Philipp J. J. 1880. “The Landa Alphabet ”: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 75: 59-91.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1933. The Phonetic Value of Certain Characters in Maya Writing. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 13, No. 2, Harvard University.

__________. 1935 Maya Writing and its Decipherment. Maya Research, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 367-382. Tulane University

Wolff, Werner. 1938. Déchiffrement de l’écriture maya et traduction des codices (trad.). Paris.

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