"Fanciful in the extreme" - Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck, raconteur extraordinaire

30 April 1875, on Walpurgis Eve, the French or Austrian or British antiquarian, cartographer, artist, explorer and raconteur extraordinaire Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck died allegedly at the age of 109 in Paris.

"Ah! that was vary true story—but Miss Wardour, she is so sly and so witty, that she has made it just like one romance—as well as Goethe or Wieland could have done it, by mine honest wort." (Sir Walter Scott “The Fortunes of Martin Waldeck“)

Lions in Pre-Columbian America?
Absolutely, at least according to  Jean-Frédéric Waldeck

As late as the last century, people in many parts of the Northwest doused all fires during the night between April 30th and May 1st and lighted them anew, while the denizens of the Otherworld, spirits and the fae, walked the Earth and cattle and sheep were driven through two fires to ensure their health among general merrymaking and maypole dancing. Based on the description of Witches’ Sabbaths, Walpurgis Night was described as the most important meeting point for all the creatures of the netherworlds, gathering in high places, such as the Brocken in the mountain range of the Harz in Lower Saxony, to work mischief and dance the night away. There is one story told by now less a figure than Sir Walter Scott himself that is set in these very Harz Mountains, that of “The Fortunes of Martin Waldeck”, drawing heavily on local folklore. The tale is quickly told. “The solitudes of the Harz forest in Germany, but especially the mountains called Blocksberg, or rather Brockenberg, are the chosen scenes for tales of witches, demons, and apparitions,” the Wizard of the North introduces the scene, and the Brothers Waldeck, three poor charburners, had just helped to stone a Capuchine priest out of their village of Morgenbrodt for preaching against the locals dealing with the resident demon. Said fiend, argued the youngest of the three, Martin, “is a good demon—he lives among us as if he were a peasant like ourselves—haunts the lonely crags and recesses of the mountains like a huntsman or goatherd—and he who loves the Harz forest and its wild scenes cannot be indifferent to the fate of the hardy children of the soil“ and promptly, the brothers run across one of the spirit’s Sabbaths at the Brocken, Martin takes three lumps of coal from his fire, they turn into gold in the morning, we’re in the money, thinks Martin, buys himself a baron’s title and a castle and, naturally, the whole thing ends in tears when Martin, cut by his assumed peers, strikes one of them death. The story, Scott wrote, was “taken from the German, though the Author is at present unable to say in which of the various collections of the popular legends in that language the original is to be found.” One Mr von Waldeck, though, claimed that he was the one German who had narrated it to Scott in the first place when they met in Scotland around 1815, but then, this Waldeck, Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck, was indeed a raconteur extraordinaire.

 “comital Methuselah” -
y photograph of centenarian
Jean-Frédéric Maximilien Comte de Waldeck

Novelist Ludwig Kalisch, a bit of a raconteur himself, wrote of a “comital Methuselah”, a stately old man he would have met at a hatter’s in Paris in 1868. On assignment for the popular German magazine “Die Gartenlaube”, Kalisch decided to investigate and asked the alleged centenarian Count Friedrich von Waldeck to tell his story. Naturally, the accomplished anecdotist complied and launched an autobiography that involved him with nearly every celebrity dead by 1850. Allegedly born in 1766 in Prague as the scion of a minor German noble family, the tribe relocated to Paris when Johann Friedrich was ten. Lead astray by an immoral priest with the credo “Amuse-toi! Fais comme moi!“, the young, gifted Bohemian noble lived the high life, had to flee to South Africa before the Revolution came, returned during the climaxing terreur, became a friend of Danton, saw the end of Citoyen Capet and wife, accompanied Boney to Egypt and sailed with Surcouf, met Scott and Byron in London, Cochrane in Chile until the purported polymath decided to turn explorer and archaeologist and made significant discoveries among the old Mesoamerican ruins deep in the jungle and what not. Showing Kalisch the scars ball, sabre cuts and rattlesnake bites had left on his ageing but still able body, the one he dragged every day up and down at least once to and from his flat on the fifth floor despite his advanced age, the count left quite the impression with Kalisch and the thousands of credulous subscribers of the “Gartenlaube”. Little, if anything had, in all probability, occurred in the way Waldeck reported, but at least there were two achievements he could enter in the books as his by right. One was exploring in Mexico, the other was the reworking and re-publishing of half forgotten Renaissance smut, the I Modi (The Ways). Back in the 1520s, Marcantonio Raimondi, Italy’s first notable printmaker, recognised the brilliant idea of taking advantage of a new mass medium to peddle porn en masse and published 16 engravings of sexual positions, somewhat pretentiously labelled “De omnibus Veneris Schematibus“, once crafted by a student of Raphael. Poet Pietro Arretino had versified 16 saucy sonnets to go with the images, the whole package was probably the first publication of the modern age that coupled erotic images with appropriate texts and was promptly banned by the church and all copies destroyed. Some fragments survived, but Waldeck claimed he had found the whole set of “Aretino's Postures“. In a convent near ancient Palenque in Mexico, of all the places.

Waldeck's take on 16th century erotica - engraving from his 1850s publication of "I Modi"

The 19th century’s sultry imaginations of nunneries taken for granted, “Amuse-toi! Fais comme moi!“, there is no convent around Palenque and its old Maya ruins, but, for once, Waldeck really was in Mexico. Even if his antecedents of going north on his own to explore after he left Lord Cochrane in Chile, repelled by the mariner’s brusque manners, is another myth of Waldeck’s as well as his claim to have mapped Yucatan for the first time. During the 1820s he already had indeed contact with ancient Mesoamerican art. Hired by a Parisian publisher to enhance drawings from an 18th century travelogue about Palenque, “Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City“, Waldeck created small works of art. In every sense, since he made the Mesoamerican ruins look like Egyptian relics, supporting a current theory that the place was built by a Lost Tribe of Israel or the other. When he finally went there, in 1825, strolling around Mexico after getting the sack from an English mining company that had originally employed him as an engineer, Waldeck did explore Pre-Columbian sites for the next eight years, Palenque and Uxmal among them, and gave his imagination free rein. Reliefs of rain gods he saw became elephants, ancient Maya kings and priests wore Phrygian caps, the whole architectural setting became more and more Egyptian with lions populating the scene and all that. The engravings Waldeck crafted were brilliant and, as his patron Lord Kingsborough mentioned, "fanciful in the extreme." Waldeck’s collection of engravings, called “Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province d'Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836“, published in 1838, did considerably influence contemporary academic discussions about the origins of Pre-Columbian civilisations and the idea of contact between the Americas and the Old World in antiquity to this day. Waldeck, however, settled in Paris for good, continued to tell tale tales and did engravings until his alleged 100th birthday in 1866 when Kalisch met him. He died a few years later, on Walpurgis Eve of the year 1875, one of the few proven dates in his biography, allegedly of a heart attack after ogling a pretty girl on the Champs-Élysées.

Seeing the elephant, e.g. on the head of Mayan royalty while the wife strikes a classical pose

And more about Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck on:


and the I Modi on: