Defending the Biodiversity and First Peoples of our Region
The Maya Monkey
The Maya Monkey
by Rosa Raquel Romero de Barajas
TO THE MAYA THE MONKEY is a divine creature, prominent in mythistory and a source of wonder in this life. The monkey represents both the sacred, the underworld and the man of an earlier creation.
The Maya adoration of the monkey is based on the creation myths of the New World. We live in the fifth existence we learn in the creation myth of the Maya, the Popol Vuh. Once, long before the current world existed, men were made of wood. These hapless people were punished for their sins by being destroyed, and those few who managed to survive, became monkeys. A Maya woman from Campeche tells how her grandmother at the turn of the century told with delight that these wooden men were destroyed in a great flood, and the only survivors, a man named Noah and his family, became the monkeys from which all other primates are descended.
There are many variations on this destruction myth, but the key elements are constant: the men of wood were destroyed in a great flood (or, in a few versions, devoured by jaguars), and the few survivors were turned into monkeys.
The gods, however, refused to give up and then created a nurturing man made of maize. In the Judeo-Christian tradition man is made of dust and in Mesoamerica man is made of maize. Westerners are taught they will return to dust, and the Maya are taught they are nurturing beings.
As survivors of an earlier creation, monkeys, then, are mankind's ancestors. Monkeys are the spiritual progenitors of human beings. Monkeys are, for the Maya, merely other kinds of people. This is one reason why the first Europeans to arrive in Mesoamerica were the source of such amusement. Who were these white, pale monkeys? the Maya wondered. That we Westerners continue to be a source of amusement to the native people of Mesoamerica is self-evident: how many times, when speaking to the Maya, does one see a bemused smile and laughing eyes? (They are, it seems, dealing with simians.) D. H. Lawrence was acutely aware of how his white flesh and hairy face made him ridiculous to the Zapotec in his employ. A certain resentment is evident when he writes of his experiences in Mexico for he found no comfort in being considered a kind of monkey.
This notion of seeing others as non-human is not exclusively Mesoamerican, however. At the time of the Conquest, it must be remembered, Europe had just recently triumphed over the Moors. The collapse of Granada on 2 January 1492 not only provided the loot necessary to finance Columbus' journey later that year, but it was a religious, political and cultural triumph of Christianity over nonbelievers. The Moors, first pushed back from what is now Italy, Switzerland and France, had now been expelled from the entire Iberian peninsula. Thus their presence on the mainland of Europe -- the home of Christendom -- was completely ended.
And this victory (in the name of Christ) had profound repercussions on the Western notion of self. In Spanish this philosophical victory manifested itself linguistically: the very word Christian, "cristiano," came to mean "human." Thus to be Christian was to be human. By implication nonbelievers are other kinds of beings, not quite human. In pragmatic terms, by defining humanness in this way a whole world of rationalization is possible: non-Christians are not entirely human and the commandment against murder does not apply. And to this day this linguistic legacy survives: in Spanish "cristiano" means both Christian and human.
When the Europeans first arrived in the New World they encountered millions of other beings who, like the Moors, Jews and Arabs, were in their minds not quite human. And the Maya (as well as the Aztecs and Incas, for that matter) witnessed the migrations of these new and clever monkeys with very hairy faces and extremely clammy complexions. These new people were a funny, repugnant sort of monkey.
So when the people of the Old World first met the people of the New World, each considered themselves to be human, and the other, different kinds of beings. Is it any wonder that neither really understood the other?
There is an important difference about each group's mindset to be considered. To the European, these other kinds of beings had to be converted to their faith, or destroyed. To the Mesoamerican, these other kinds of beings symbolized the divine, the underworld and the ancient.
In the creation myths of the Maya peoples, monkeys play a dominant role. In one version of the Popol Vuh we are told how monkeys first came to occupy their unique place among all animals. Hunahpu and Xbalanque are the Hero Twins who, through clever tricks, deceive the Lords of the Underworld. As the culture heroes of the Maya, their adventures form the basis of Maya mythistory in the same way that the adventures of Ulysses permeate Greek oral tradition. But these Hero Twins had an earlier set of brothers: One Howler Monkey and One Spider Monkey. These older brothers (whose real names were Hunbatz and Hunchouen) were accomplished artists and dancers. But they were also envious of their younger brothers, for they knew that their younger brothers would become the Hero Twins.
As it happened, one day the older brothers took their younger siblings to hunt for birds with the intention of harming them. The older brothers climbed a tree that (through magical powers) knew of Hunbatz and Hunchouen's evil intentions, and began to grow taller and taller, lifting the older brothers ever closer to the heavens. The tree grew so high up that the older brothers were unable to climb down again. In desperation they loosened their loincloths and tried to climb down, but, to their amazement, their loincloths became tails and they became monkeys.
The younger set of brothers, horrified at the fate of their older brothers, ran to their grandmother. When they brought her back to the scene, the older brothers, now turned into One Howler Monkey and One Spider Monkey, began to shake the limbs of the tree violently, tossing refuse down below. One even defecated on his younger brothers and grandmother. It wasn't until the Hero Twins began to play a flute and beat a drum that the monkeys calmed down and becoming entranced, began to dance. They climbed down the tree and followed their younger brothers back home. These dancing monkeys were such a source of amusement, so funny in their antics, so clever in their ways, that the younger brothers and grandmother couldn't help but burst out laughing. Their feelings hurt at being ridiculed, the monkeys ran away to the forest to live high atop the trees forever. This is where they are presently.
This incident is remembered to this day in Maya rituals. Throughout Maya villages in the highlands (Chiapas, Tabasco and Guatemala) men dress up as monkeys and dance in whimsical fashions, and, at times, engage in mischief. These festivals also reenact the disrespectful conduct of One Howler Monkey and One Spider Monkey displayed in throwing branches and refuse down at their younger brothers and grandmother. One purpose of these festivals seems to be that of a gentle reminder to the living: there are consequences for those who harbor malice or deviate from accepted forms of social conduct. But there's more to it than that. The lives of One Howler Monkey and One Spider Monkey are re-lived in these festivals, revealing the importance of mythistory to the Maya.
Monkeys are often associated with the sacred and the divine. They populate scenes of the underworld on Classic Maya pottery; they adorn sculptures and murals throughout the Maya area. Maya monkeys live high in the forest canopy, suspended between the earth and the heavens. They can effortlessly come and go between the ground and the highest point of the rain forest. In contrast, mankind is a terrestrial creature, earthbound. Humans are restricted to the ground and live physically beneath the monkeys. Thus monkeys are above men, in more ways than one. By living close to the heavens, monkeys reaffirm their status as ancestors who merit respect.
That monkeys are associated with the divine is an easy conclusion. As the Popol Vuh tells us, One Howler Monkey and One Spider Monkey only descended when the Hero Twins began to play music. The monkeys dance and are playful. And so is the Sun God of the Maya. Observers have noted that, at least where the kin period glyphs are concerned, where the representation is not of the Sun God, then it is of the Monkey-Man God. The "Monkey-Man God" phrases it rather nicely. To the Maya, monkeys are interchangeable with the Sun God (to see either, one must remember, one must life his eyes to the heavens) and they inhabit a space that separates this world from the heavens and approximate the concept of divinity. They are a kind of sacred person.
The same is true in Classic Maya art: monkeys are either very human-like in dress, pose of activity depicted, or people are simian in their conduct. This is an interesting observation when one considers that in Spanish to call someone monkey, "mono," is to call him (or her), "cute" and a "joker." If in the Romance languages of Europe humans can be "cute jokers" by being called "monkey," it is not surprising to find similar metaphors used by the Maya.
These ideas are further reinforced by the links between monkeys-as-ancestors, monkeys-as-divine and monkeys-as-underworld creatures. Ancestors are ancestors and ancestors are beings who have lived before us. In the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, the Sarcophagus Cover depicts Pacal descending into the Underworld. On his belt is an image of a monkey. Pacal is being welcomed back. As Pacal descends, symbolically, he rejoins those who have gone before him -- including the simians.
According to a Maya scribe from Quintana Roo, the underworld is inhabited by dwarfs, monkeys -- and Europeans. At first it is curious that monkeys are associated with the frivolity of dance and music as well as with death and the underworld. But there is a connection. There are two kinds of monkeys prevalent throughout the Maya area: spider and howler. The spider monkey, with wiry, long limbs is a joyous creature. His face is capable of many expressions and his disposition is kind. The howler monkey, on the other hand, is of more sturdy stock, whose howls sound like someone grieving. One Spider Monkey may be associated more with laughter and pranks, life and joy, while One Howler Monkey may be associated more with seriousness and work, death and duty. Spider monkeys laugh. Howler monkeys cry. And, as we know all too well, opposites attract.
Spider monkeys are frivolous and mischievous. In Classic Maya art they clown, play tricks and are sexually risqué -- in one scene a spider monkey caresses the breast of a woman and in another a spider monkey makes love to the Moon Goddess. In contrast, howler monkeys take life seriously, are hard workers and creative artists -- in one scene a howler monkey carefully crafts a ceramic vase and in another a howler monkey plays beautiful music. The laughter of life is contrasted with the seriousness of life.
That Maya monkeys can be associated with the broad spectrum of human emotion -- from joy to grief -- further reinforces the idea that monkeys are mankind's ancestors, that they are divine and that they are creatures closely linked to humans. Maybe this is why the Maya accepted the Europeans. (The fact that the early Europeans had firearms helped, no doubt.)
Nevertheless, there is something quite comforting about the Maya view of monkeys. It is so easy to identify with the Maya, for their view of monkeys is so generous in spirit. Westerners have also long been fascinated with primates. The work of Jane Goodall with chimpanzees and the plight of the mountain gorilla capture our imaginations. We see so much of ourselves in these simians that we are disturbed, indeed, haunted, when we learn that chimps engage in warfare, murder and, reportedly, at times will consume the flesh of their victims. Rather human-like behavior. The mythistory of the Maya suggests similar views of the primates. In this fascination with primates the peoples of the old and New Worlds are alike.
We are also alike in dark, perverse ways. The Maya thought nothing of killing another human being in a religious ritual, but to kill a monkey was tantamount to murder. Observers have reported that, when on expeditions, Maya guides are grief-stricken if a monkey is accidentally killed. It is almost as if a child had died. In Western history, also, the peculiar prevails: during the Crusades it was perfectly acceptable to kill an enemy's children, provided the were baptized first in order to protect their souls! (And today, our mixed feelings on human life are evident; capital punishment is still acceptable in the U.S.)
The predisposition of the Maya to consider monkeys as a kind of human lends nicely to current science as well. Primates are our closest living relatives, if one accepts the theory of evolution, and the likeness of the monkey to the human is undeniable. This may be why monkeys cannot be anthropomorphized: they are already "anthros," so to speak. Their facial expressions, their bodies, their intelligence and their presence are all very human. The Maya, evidently, recognized this which is why it's very difficult to identify the subjects of their artistic representations as monkeys themselves, humans whose features resemble those of monkeys, or humans disguised as monkeys.
There is something amiss in all of this, however. One reason why humans throughout time have looked at monkeys with such ambivalence -- representing both merriment and death in the case of the Maya -- may lie in man's self-image: monkeys are a reminder that while a monkey may be a different kind of person, a person is definitely some kind of monkey. One reason why it is impossible to anthropomorphize simians is that it becomes a question of degree: how much more of an animal is a howler or spider monkey than is a human? The Maya know the answer to this.
The Maya realize that when we see a monkey, it's like looking in a mirror.
Rosa Raquel Romero de Barajas, one of the founding directors of Mesoamerica Foundation, made her home in Merida.