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A monkey effigy jar from ancient Mexico


The monkey is a rather tame animal which sits like a man. Also it teases the young women; it begs from them, extends the hand, continually offers its hand in their presence. To speak, it whistles shrilly.1 Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI – Earthly Things, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1963, p.14. 

Thus Sahagún, the 16th century Franciscan chronicler, described the behaviour of monkeys after they had been caught by hand while young and thereafter were raised and tamed.

Indeed, the monkey sculpted on the Melbourne vase (fig. 1) sits like a man and its limbs are almost human. The long fingers without a thumb and the long prehensile tail characterise it as a spider monkey which, with the howler monkey, are the two common species that inhabit the tropical lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala. The head with its typical bulging forehead and protruding snout projects from the cylindrical vase which represents the body. The effigy rests on the two feet and the tail, like ceramic tripod vessels, and has been skilfully carved from a single block of translucent tecali marble. 

Objects made from this material are found throughout Mexico. Tecali is a carbonate of lime, an aragonite with a hardness of 3.5 to 4.0 on the Moss scale, and is distinguished from alabaster, a dense gypsum that can be scratched with the fingernail. The few alabaster objects that have been discovered have rough and pitted surfaces. Tecali marble is also known as banded onyx (note the layers of different shades of colour), Mexican onyx, and Tehuacan marble and is quarried in the region of Tecali in southern Puebla.2 Gordon F. Ekholm, ‘Excavations at Guasave, Sinaloa, Mexico’, Anthropological Papers, American Museum of Natural History, vol.38, part 2, New York, 1942, p.1. Carved tecali artefacts first appeared in Mesoamerica in the late Pre-Classic period (300–200 B.C.)3 Richard A. Diehl & E.G. Stroh, Jr, ‘Tecali Vessel Manufacturing Debris at Tollan, Mexico.’ American Antiquity 43, 1, 1978, p.74., objects of superior quality have been reported from Teotihuacan, dating as early as A.D. 150–250,4 Before Cortes, Sculpture of Middle America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, figs 109, 110, 117. and they were most popular in the early Post-Classic period, A.D. 900–1200, to which this effigy can be assigned.  

Without the aid of metal tools it must have been laborious to carve the vase. The inside was hollowed out by means of a tubular drill, probably of bamboo, and abrasives such as sand with water. The various drill cores were then broken off and the inner wall smoothed. This method is evident in a marble vase from Oaxaca, in which the exterior relief decoration had been carefully finished before attempting to drill out the inside. For some reason this procedure was not completed and the drill marks are clearly visible (fig. 2). 

Although some monkeys may have been kept as household pets, as Sahagún’s description suggests, their frequent representation in pictorial manuscripts, ceramics and low relief sculpture indicates that they played an important role in the belief systems of Mesoamerica. Because of its antics the monkey was generally associated with amusement, pleasure and licentiousness. When depicted with almond-shaped ear pendants or pectoral (oyohualli) it represented song and dance. But the monkey also symbolised sinful behaviour that entailed punishment by death, hence its association with the death god. Most of these attributions were shared by the ancient Mexicans and the Maya.    

The monkey in Mexican traditions

According to the native sources of the central Mexican highlands four successive cosmological eras preceded the last world age that of the Aztecs, and each era ended in a cataclysm. The second world age was presided over by the wind god, Quetzalcoatl, and was destroyed by great hurricanes, after which the human population was transformed into monkeys. This event is illustrated in a post-conquest pictorial manuscript, Codex Vaticanus A or Rios (c. A.D. 1570–89)5 Codex Vaticanus A or Rios, in Antiguedades de México Basadas en la Recopilacilacon de Lord Kingsborough, vol. 3, Mexico, 1954. that shows anthropomorphic monkeys jumping about amidst clouds of dust (fig.3). 

An interesting parallel in Hindu mythology of the epic period of India, involving the relationship between monkey and wind, has been pointed out by Seler.6 Eduard Seler, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 4, 1923, p.456. Hanuman, the famous monkey chief of the Ramayana epic and still a favourite divinity, was also called Maruti, ‘child of the wind’, because his father was the god of wind. His mother was a celestial nymph who had been cursed to assume simian shape. His large face or monkey jaw is likewise accounted for in legendary manner, as the god Indra tried to slay him with a thunderbolt and broke his jaw. Hence he received the name Hanuman, ‘He of the [broken] jaw’.7 New International Encyclopedia, vol. 9, New York, 1903. Whether this comparison is fortuitous cannot be explored in this context. 

Although the monkey does not inhabit the cold Mexican high-lands, its head is pictured as the eleventh of the twenty day signs of the calendar (fig. 4). The Mexicans called it by its generic name ozomatli and did not distinguish between the howling and the spider monkey. When depicted with an oyohualli, an almond-shaped ear pendant cut of shell, the animal appears as a dancer (fig. 5). It is also shown with a small multi-coloured rectangle on the cheek, an attribute of Xochipilli-Macuilxochitl, deity of music, dance and games (fig. 5a,b). As it was customary for the deities of the Mexican pantheon to interchange certain attributes, the monkey can also be shown as the young maize god, wearing a cornplant with an ear of maize on its head (fig. 5c). Occasionally the animal wears a peculiar green head covering of malinalli grass which symbolises transitoriness and rejuvenation. 

fig. 4 a&b

The monkey as the eleventh day sign
a. Codex Nuttall, Dotvr Publications, New York. 1975 fol. 83
b. Codex Vaticanus Β (3773) created 13th or 14th century

Facsimile reproduction – Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Graz, 1972, fol.66

fig. 5 a&b

The monkey with almond-shaped pendant as a dancing animal
a. Codex Bordia. 13th or 14th century A.D.

Facsimile reproduction, Akademische Druck-und Verlagsanstalt, Graz. 1976, fol.21
b. Codex Borgia, fol. 13

fig. 5c

The monkey with corn plant in headdress
Codex Magliabecchi, The Book of the Life of the Ancient Mexicans,
Facsimile reproduction, University of California, Berkeley, 1903, 12 verso

fig. 6

Association of the monkey with pulque, an intoxicating drink
Codex Borbonicus, fol. 11 (see note 8)

fig. 7 a&b

Day sign monkey with the symbol for excrement on its head

a. Codex Vaticanus B, fol.l (see fig. 4 for bibl.)

b. Codex Vaticanus B, fol.5

fig.8 a&b

The monkey as a sinner with the death god
a. Codex Vaticanus B, fol. 32
b. Codex Laud.fol.II

Facsimile reproduction, Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt,
Gnu. 1970

fig. 9 a&b

Maya day sign ‘chuen’ (monkey)
a. After Thompson 1960, fig. 8:38 (see note 9)

b.After Thompson, A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962, Glyph 755

c. The head of a monkey replaces that of the sun god in the full figure glyphic version
of the day 16 ‘kin’
After Thompson 1960, fig.29:10

fig. 10

Spider monkey fondling a woman
Polychrome plate from Uaxactun, c.A.D. 700-800
After Thompson 1939, fig. 2a (see note 11)

Malinalli is also another day sign which in turn links the monkey with the pulque gods. The connection with pulque, an intoxicating beverage made from the fermented juice of the agave plant, is shown in Codex Borbonicus8 Codex Borbonicus, Facsimile reproduction, Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Gras, 1973, fol. 11., where a monkey head is placed on a pulque jar (fig. 6). Thus the monkey becomes associated with intoxication and promiscuity. But since such excesses were punished by death, the sinful aspect of the monkey is also expressed by the symbol cuitlatl (excrement = sin) on its head (fig. 7) and the animal is shown in close association with the death god (fig. 8).

The monkey in Maya traditions

Here also the eleventh day in the calendar sequence, chuen, represents a monkey, although the symbolic form of the glyph is too stylised to yield any meaning (fig. 9a,b).9 J. E. S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1960, p. 80. Sometimes the head of a monkey replaces that of the sun god as the kin (sun, day) sign, which indicates a connection between the two (fig. 9c). Thompson cited evidence that the Maya regarded the sun as a patron of singing and music, whereas in central Mexico the sun was the inventor and patron of music.10 ibid. 

The Maya distinguished the howling monkey (baatz) from the spider monkey (maax) and, like the Mexicans, considered the animal a symbol of licentiousness and merrymaking. The salacious side of the animal is indicated on a polychrome plate that shows a spider monkey whose arm is extended to hold the breast of a woman (fig. 10).11 J. E. S. Thompson, ‘The Moon Goddess in Middle America’, Contributions to American Anthropology and History, no.29, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1939, p. 145, fig. 2a. Finally, the conversion of man into monkey, as noted for central Mexico, was also mentioned in Maya mythology. 

These observations highlight the multiple connotations of monkey images, although the list is by no means complete. Since contextual evidence is lacking for the marble vase, the actual symbolic meaning of the monkey effigy cannot be ascertained. However, the sculptor of this masterpiece undoubtedly intended the portrayal of a mythical aspect of this whimsical animal. 

 Hasso von Winning, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, California (in 1986). 

Notes

1.             Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI – Earthly Things, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1963, p.14. 

2.             Gordon F. Ekholm, ‘Excavations at Guasave, Sinaloa, Mexico’, Anthropological Papers, American Museum of Natural History, vol.38, part 2, New York, 1942, p.103. 

3.             Richard A. Diehl & E.G. Stroh, Jr, ‘Tecali Vessel Manufacturing Debris at Tollan, Mexico.’ American Antiquity 43, 1, 1978, p.74. 

4.             Before Cortes, Sculpture of Middle America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, figs 109, 110, 117. 

5.             Codex Vaticanus A or Rios, in Antiguedades de México Basadas en la Recopilacilacon de Lord Kingsborough, vol. 3, Mexico, 1954. 

6.             Eduard Seler, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 4, 1923, p.456.

7.             New International Encyclopedia, vol. 9, New York, 1903. 

8.             Codex Borbonicus, Facsimile reproduction, Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Gras, 1973, fol. 11. 

9.             J. E. S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1960, p. 80. 

10.          ibid. 

11.       J. E. S. Thompson, ‘The Moon Goddess in Middle America’, Contributions to American Anthropology and History, no.29, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1939, p. 145, fig. 2a.