The monkey is one of the most fascinating animals; since they are so similar to humans, they have fueled our curiosity and interest too.

From “Simia” to “Monkey”

The word monkey, from the Latin “Simia”, has the same etymology as “similus” which means similar and also simulate which means to imitate. As well as their physical dexterity in imitating us, their facial expressions resemble those of man, all of which has made it the mirror of human virtues and vices. In many cultures primates represent curiosity, greed and some of the baser human instincts.

The devil inside?

European art is full of representations of “devilish and corrupt” animals like monkeys, a symbol of humanity devoid of reason, but also of the devil, paganism and lust. We are told of the devil in the form of a Monkey who appeared to Saint Dominic in the San Sisto monastery, and he sent it back to hell by making it disappear into thin air with a single blow of a stick. In two paintings from 1948, ‘Head I’ and ‘Head II’, the artist Francis Bacon depicts himself in ‘bestial’ form. The animal element which we can see in the form of a monkey is fused with the human element, the beast prevailing more than the man, the monkey more than the artist. In symbolic iconography the monkey represents on the one hand the tensions of man and especially the artist in imitating and reproducing the act of creation; on the other hand it also represents man reduced by his instincts.

Beyond cult and myth

The Howler Monkey (Batz) was one of the major deities in Maya mythology: in particular, this figure was seen as protector of the arts, including music as well as scribes and sculptors. In the Maya calendar, the howler monkey denotes the eleventh day of the month, which is associated with the arts in general. In Buddhism the monkey is the symbol of gluttony and an untrained mind. The monkey features in the fable of “the four brothers in harmony”, quoted in a text from “the fundamentals of discipline” (Vanayavastu), told by the Buddha Sakyamuni to his disciples to teach them the importance of mutual respect. In Nepal, in Kathmandu, we find the Temple of Swayambunath, better known as the “Monkey Temple” as it is populated by an army of monkeys. This sacred place is dedicated to the primordial Buddha, Adi Buddha, who according to Buddhist mythology was revealed in the flame of a lotus in the center of a lake.

Psychological theories

We can state that the image of the monkey belongs to the unconscious depths of man, to the ancient depths which are far from his conscience, and this is what gives the image its dark, devilish aspects. In this vision the monkey is like the devil (Jung alleged that the devil is God’s monkey). The monkey is also a symbol of its psyche and mobility. Thoughts leap from one place to another just like a monkey, unable to hold onto ideas, curious, imitating and repeating. The primate is the symbol of the relationship between animals and human beings, nature and culture, mankind and god.