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The Monkey in Folklore and Mythology

Nowadays, scientists distinguish among species using methods based on evolutionary descent. Earlier methods were less precise but more colorful.

The word “monkey” did not enter the English language until the sixteenth century. Prior to then, the word “ape” was the only common term for primates other than human beings. The difference between apes and human beings was never clear either. If somebody called you an ape, it might not be just a metaphor. In History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, and Insects, published in 1647, Edward Topsell included the satyr and the sphinx among apes-the term encompassed any creature that was almost “human” but not quite.

This sort of definition, and not a conventional biological one, must be used when looking back over the lore of apes and monkeys through the centuries. Among the most popular religious figures of China is Old Monkey, who was born when lightning struck a stone. Old Monkey broke into heaven, got drunk on celestial wine, erased his name from the book of the dead, and fought back the armies of Heaven. Finally, he caused so much trouble that the gods and goddesses appealed to the Buddha for help. The Buddha sought out Old Monkey, and their dialogue went something like this:

“What do you wish?” the Buddha asked Old Monkey.

“To rule in Heaven,” Old Monkey replied.

“And why should this be granted to you?” asked the Buddha.

“Because,” said Old Monkey, “I can leap across the sky.” “Why,” laughed the Buddha, “I will bet that you cannot even leap out of my hand,” and he picked Old Monkey up. “If you can do that, you may rule in Heaven, but if you can’t, then you must give up your claim.”

Old Monkey made a tremendous jump and soon arrived at a pillar of Heaven. To show that he had been there, he urinated and wrote his name. Then, with another leap, Old Monkey returned to claim his prize. “What have you done?” asked the Buddha.

“I have gone to the end of the universe,” said Old Monkey. “You have not even left my hand,” laughed the Buddha, and he raised one finger. Old Monkey recognized the pillar of Heaven and realized that what the Buddha said was true.

The Buddha imprisoned Old Monkey under a mountain for five hundred years. Finally, Old Monkey was rescued by Kwan-Yin, bodhisattva of mercy. To redeem himself, Old Monkey had to guard a Buddhist monk on a dangerous journey from China to India. Old Monkey served faithfully, through fantastic adventures in which he did battle with countless demons and sorcerers, and finally became a Buddha in the end. These adventures were chronicled in the epic novel Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Ch’eng-en, in the early sixteenth century. Old Monkey was often depicted alongside solemn portraits of Buddhist sages, but even as a Buddha he retained a mischievous streak.

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