The Kerkopes were sons of the Titan Okeanos (Oceanus) by Theia, a daughter of the Aithiopian (Ethiopian) king Memnon.
They were proverbial as liars, cheats, and accomplished knaves. They once stole Heracles’ weapons, during the time he was the penitent servant of Omphale. He punished them by tying them to a pole he slung over his shoulder with their faces pointing downwards, the only way they appear on Greek vases. The sight of Heracles’ dark-tanned butt set them all to laughing, so that Heracles let them go free. But it’s all fun and games until you tick off Zeus. My name’s…
You know what I love about humans? The contrary coincidence that we are as complimentary as we are [contrary]. In normal person speak, that is to say, we’re as alike as we are different. And how is that manifesting in your earballs today? Monkey gods! My nerd brethren will be extra excited to know it’s not just Sun Wu Kong.
Monkeys inhabit the tropical rainforests of Africa, Central America, South America and Asia, and so the peoples of Africa, Central America, South America and Asia have monkeys in their faiths and folklores. Monkey mythology is an important part of both Hindu / Buddhist lore (India) and Zodiac / Taoist / Buddhist lore (China). In the various tales… the monkey is portrayed initially as foolish, vain, and mischievous. Yet, in each tradition, the monkey learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption. The monkey thus embodies the themes of repentance, responsibility, devotion, and the promise of salvation to all who sincerely seek it. Monkey lore in India dates to at least 500 BCE and the monkey god Hanuman. Revered for his bravery, strength, and dedication to justice, he is connected to the sun, the wind, and thunder. Monkeys in general are revered in several parts of India. Monkey lore in China predates Buddhism, for the Monkey appears in the Chinese Zodiacal beliefs, believed by scholars to date to around 1100 BCE. In some parts of China, the Monkey is the “Great Sage Equal to Heaven.” In Chinese mythology, the monkey god was the afore-mentioned Sun-Wukong, the Monkey King and trickster god who stars in the 16th-century book Journey To The West. Sun-Wukong is the basis for Goku in Dragonball, only one of the biggest anime franchises in the world.
Monkey lore in Japan took hold after the arrival of Buddhism in the mid-6th century CE and the monkey was alternately a messenger to the gods or a physical manifestation of a god. The Monkey was thought to protect against demons as well as disease and is a patron of fertility, safe childbirth, and harmonious marriages. But not all monkeys, or thing that looked like monkeys, were your friend, though I would probably still try to pet it, regardless because -let’s face it- I’m going to die trying to pet something I should have (fingers crossed). If you find yourself in the land of the rising sun, once the world reopens for safe travel, obviously, you’ll want to keep a keen eye out for sarugami. According to folklorist Yanagita Kunio, sarugami are a prime example of “fallen” gods—spirits once revered as gods, but who have since been forgotten. I would have called them forsaken gods, which is twice as accurate and five times as metal. These beliefs never entirely vanish, though, and such spirits often remain as degenerate versions of their former selves, i.e. yōkai or demon. Sarugami look just like the wild monkeys, only bigger and more vicious, a subtle distinction. They can speak, and sometimes they are seen wearing human clothes as well, two less subtle distinctions.
Long ago, before Buddhism arrived, monkeys were worshiped as gods in parts of Japan. The southern part of Lake Biwa in modern-day Shiga Prefecture was an important center of monkey worship, based at Hiyoshi Taisha. Monkeys were seen as messengers and servants of the sun, in part because they become most active at sunrise and sunset. Because of this, monkey worship was popular among farmers, who also awoke and retired with the sun. Over the centuries, as farming technology improved, people became less reliant on subsistence farming. More and more people took up professions other than farming. As a result, monkey worship began to fade away, and the monkey gods were forgotten. Today, monkeys are viewed as pests by farmers, as they dig up crops, steal food from gardens, and sometimes even attack pets and small children.
Sarugami behave for the most part like wild monkeys. They live in the mountains and tend to stay away from human-inhabited areas. Buuut, when sarugami does interact with humans, it almost always ends in violence. Most legends follow a pattern: a sarugami kidnaps a young village woman and heroes are called upon to go out into the wilderness, kill the monster and save the girl. This puts sarugami on the same keel as trolls and brainless monsters, quite a demotion indeed.
It’s not all bad for the sarugami, though. While the early monkey cults had vanished, sarugami worship continued throughout the middle ages in esoteric religions such as Kōshin. In Koshin, monkeys came to be viewed as servants of the mountain deities, or as mountain deities themselves, acting as intermediaries between the world we live in and the heavens. The famous three wise monkey statues—mizaru, kikazaru, and iwazaru (“see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil”)—come from Kōshin and are a prime example of sarugami worship. Three rather famous monkeys hail from the land of the rising sun, usually referred to as “Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, See No Evil.” By the time of Tokugawa/Edo period, from 1603 to 1867, the three monkeys were portrayed in Buddhist sculptures. The message is that we should protect ourselves by not letting evil enter our sight, not allowing evil words to enter our hearing, and finally to not speak and engage in evil words and thoughts, but a lot of folks, especially in the West, take it to mean to ignore or turn a blind eye to something that’s wrong.
Legend has it, long ago the Buddha appeared at Hiyoshi Taisha, a Shinto shrine located in the city of Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture, about the same time a large gathering of monkeys arrived in the area. The collective noun for a group of monkeys is a troop, btw, or a tribe, or because we have the option, a carload and, yes, a barrel. You can say a barrel of monkeys. So the Buddha took the form of a monkey, and foretold the fortunes of the faithful worshipers at Hiyoshi Taisha. This appearance had been foreseen thousands of years prior by Cang Jie, the legendary inventor of Chinese writing, in the neighborhood of 2650 BCE. Of course, the legend also says Legend has it that he had four eyes, and that when he invented the characters, the deities and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet. When Cang Jei invented the word for god (神), [sfx forvo] he constructed it out of characters meaning indicate (示) [sfx] and monkey (申) [sfx] to foretell this event. In other words, “monkey indicates god.” Isn’t that an intersting etymology? To reference a Twitter trend, red flag emoji, red flag emoji, red flag emoji. It’s not that words *never have good backstories like that; it’s that words *almost never have coold backstories. Also, if someone tells you a common word is actually an anagram, tell ‘em I said “Bless your heart,” because that’s even more rare.
Americas: Mayans, Incans, and Tolmecs
In the Americas, the Mayans of Guatemala and Mexico worshiped a howler monkey god, or maybe a pair of twin gods, depending on the story, patron of the arts; music, scribes and sculptors. The Howler Monkey also corresponds to knowledge of history and rituals, as well as prophecy. There is a fabled lost “Ciudad Blanca” or white city in Honduras is supposedly dedicated to the Monkey God. Pre-Columbian Toltec and Maya texts call it “The ancient place where the aurora originates.” In Aztec mythology of Mexico, the monkey was connected to the sun, and was guarded by Cochipilli, the god of flowers, fertility, and fun! My kinda
Among the Classic Mayas, the howler monkey god was a major deity of the arts, both visual and musical. Two monkey gods or two versions of the same god, I’m not sure, have been depicted on classical vases in the act of writing books and sculpting busts. This may be a depiction of a creation story, with the book containing the birth signs and the head the life principle or ‘soul.’ Copán in western Honduras in particular is famous for its representations of Howler Monkey Gods. Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas stated that in the region of Alta Verapaz, the two monkeys were two of the thirteen sons of the upper god, and were celebrated as cosmogonic creator deities. Among the Quiché Mayas in the midwestern highlands, they were held in somewhat less esteem. They’d been turned into monkeys after getting in a scrap with their half-brothers, the Maya Hero Twins, who had top billing as far as the mythos was concerned.
While African-Americans have had to deal with “monkey” as an epithet, peoples in Africa traditionally held primates in high esteem. The root of the word Primate, is Prime, which means first, chief, excellent, and best. Of all the wild things in the wild woods, monkeys and apes were seen as the most intelligent animals, and so they became symbols of wisdom. That’s why Rafiki in “The Lion King” is a baboon, based on the baboon depiction of the god of wisdom Djehuti, Tehuti, or Thoth. Yes, Thoth is usually depicted with the head of an Ibis bird, such as on the fabulous Crash Course Mythology series, but the baboon form was popular too.
In the Ivory Coast, The role of Monkeys as guardians of the crossroads or gateways to the Ancestors can also be found in the God Ghekre or Gbekre of the Baule people of the Ivory Coast. Gbekre or Mbotumbo is both judge of hell and helper of the living against their enemies. Skillfully-carved wooden statues of Ghekre were common and combined animal and human traits.
Egpyt: Hapi and Babi
Over in the old kingdom, you hope it will be a while before you meet the Egyptian monkey god Hapi. Not to be confused with another Egyptian god named Hapi, who was ostensibly a human figure expressing both male and female characteristics. One of the four sons of Horus, Hapi is depicted protecting the throne of Osiris in the Underworld. He is commonly depicted with the head of a hamadryas baboon, and it’s Hapi’s job to protect the lungs of deceased persons being mummified, which is why the canopic jar the holds the lungs is often topped with a a hamadryas baboon head motif lid. When embalming practices changed in the Third Intermediate Period about the 3k years ago, the mummified organs were placed back inside the body, so an amulet of Hapi would be added to the mix to still invoke his protection. When his image appears on the side of a coffin, he is usually aligned with the side intended to face north.
Lung-loving Hapi wasn’t the only baboon about in ancient Egypt, but he was definitely the nicer of the two. The other tended to be a little…. murdery….and a bit problematic. Babi ‘bull (i.e. dominant male) of the baboons’ lives on human entrails, which is not outlandish for a baboon, as they are omnivores with tremendous fangs and a well-earned reputation for carnivoration. He also kills all humans on sight, so be sure you know the right prayers and spells to protect yourself, especially after death. Your heart will be weighed against a feather in the Hall of the Two Truths to see if you can get a seat upgrade to paradise. To his credit, though, Babi can use his immense power to ward off dangers like snakes and control turbulent waters, so, like the rest of us, a mixed bag. Baboons also have libidos turned up to 11, so send the kids out of the room now. Babi was considered the god of virility of the dead. One spell in a funerary text identifies the deceased person’s phallus with Babi, ensuring that the deceased will be able to get down, make love in the afterlife. He was usually portrayed with an erection, and that erection is also the bolt of the gate between the night and day *and the mast of the ferry which conveyed the righteous to the Field of Reeds to chill with Osiris. Why, I cannot say and do not wish to Google.
There’s lots of good googling if you look up Hanuman, the Hindu primate deity. Hanuman, depicted as a bipedal monkey with a red face, is worshipped both in his own shrines and as a secondary figure in temples to Rama. You’ll know if you’re at a Hanuman-exclusive temple, because it will be absolutely alive with monkeys. You can’t mistreat a monkey in or around a temple of the monkey god, which the monkeys figured out centuries ago.
Hanuman was the child of the wind god and a nymph. As a little god-ling, he tried to fly up and grab the sun, which he mistook for a fruit. The king of the gods Indra struck Hanuman with a thunderbolt on the jaw, the word for which is hanu, hence his name. Unable or unwilling to behave, Hanuman was cursed by powerful sages to forget his magic powers, cool powers like flight and the ability to become massively large at will, until he was reminded of them. Hanuman led the monkeys to help Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, recover his wife from the demon king of Lanka, which is surprisingly *not modern-day Sri Lanka. Jambavan, the king of the bears, reminded Hanuman of his powers, which allowed him to cross the water demoness-filled strait between India and Lanka in one leap. The Lankans discovered Hanuman and set his tail on fire, but he used that fire to burn Lanka to the ground. He then flew to the Himalayas and returned with enough medicinal herbs to tend to all the wounded in Rama’s army. For his service to Rama, Hanuman is upheld as a model for all human devotion.
Hanuman is also a popular figure among Buddhists in most of Asia, with temples and even whole districts of towns bearing his name. Like a game of telephone, the farther you get from India, the more Hanuman’s story changes. For example, the original Sanskirt telling portrays him as effortlessly chaste, whereas he has wives and children in other traditions. And if his exploits sounded a tiny drill bit familiar, you won’t be surprised to know that he has been identified as the inspiration for the monkey hero Sun Wu Kong of the great Chinese poem Xiyouji “Journey to the West,” and Sun Wo Kong is the inspiration for Sun Goku in Dragonball, so in a way, Dragonball is based on a Hindu god.
There is a wrinkle in our tale of Hanuman, and that’s actual monkeys. Monkeys are wild in India, like deer, racoons, and pigeons. You might rightly surmise by the animals I’ve grouped them with that monkeys are routinely pests, and what pest they are. Think about how clever a racoon is, then make it an acrobat who can understand a train schedule. In Delhi, rhesus macaques have become a menace. Government buildings are practically under siege. Macaques use Delhi’s tree-lined streets to swing between the buildings, damaging power lines in the process. If you’re walking around outside with food, you can almost expect to have a fight on your hands. And you thought seagulls at the beach were bad. Being inside is no safe bet either. The macaques like to enter offices through open windows and destroy paperwork and generally being chaos Muppets.
There are an estimated 40,000 monkeys living in Delhi. That is a pre-covid number, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the macaques have been making hay while the sun shines. But then I suppose you have to factor how dependent they are on robbing humans for food, in which case their numbers may have gone down during proper lock-down, though there would have been a terrifying period of too many monkeys and not enough pack lunches. Many solutions to keep monkey and man separate have been tried and many solutions have failed. For a time, the city employed a crack squadron of the larger black-faced langur monkeys to scare away the macaques. It worked a treat, but the unit was disbanded after animal rights activists protested against keeping the langurs captive. Thankfully for the workers in the area, there is no such concern for the three dozen men who are hired to pretend to be langurs. Before you form the image in your mind, no, they’re not wearing costumes, but I would pay money to see that. They mimic the langurs’ barks and howls to scare the macaques away. Unfortunately, the monkeys return as soon as the primate-impressionists leave.
One complication, which you see in urban animal control the world over, is that people feed the macaques. They are associated with a god, after all. The fact that feeding the macaques is against the guidelines passed by Parliament doesn’t seem to enter into it. You also can’t work on the monkey problem on Tuesdays. That’s the day Hanuman is worshipped, so all monkeys get a free pass, and a free meal, every week. So what can be done? In a few words, not much. The government warns citizens not to make eye contact with the monkeys, as they interpret it as threatening, and avoid getting between a mother and child. If you didn’t go looking for trouble but it found you anyway, the official circular recommends: “Do not ever hit any monkey. Keep hitting the ground with a big stick to make [the] monkey leave.”
Bonus fact: In 2014, the government of India found that Hanuman had been issued a biometric ID card. The card lists a mobile phone number and an address in the western state of Rajasthan. The picture looks like it’s from a painting and it’s not clear whose iris scan and fingerprints were associated with the card.
China: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King
Okay, okay, we’re finally going to talk about the monkey in the room. I saved the best for last, the first name that would come to many minds if you asked them to name a monkey god, though he’s not really a god, he’s just incredibly powerful, or OP as the kids say, the one, the only, the triple-immortal monkey king Sun Wukong. [sfx wrestler walk-on music] Sun Wukong is the main and most enduring character from the 500 year old novel, Journey to the West. The 1900 page book about the 36000 mile journey starts with Sun Wukong’s origin story, then sees him gather a five-man band –a pig demo, a fallen river spirit, a white dragon horse, and a regular human monk– for an epic adventure.
Sun Wukong was born from a rock on the summit of Flower Fruit Mountain and becomes king of the monkeys that live there. He finds more than one way to make himself immortal and goes off on adventures. The idea of living forever really appeals to Sun, so when he returns, he trains the monkeys into an army to take down the Eastern Dragon King by force, so he can take his and all monkeys’ names from the Book of Life and Death, releasing them from the cycle of death and rebirth. He then defeats some Heavenly warriors sent to capture him, gets a post in Heaven only to rage quit when he finds out it has no actual power whatsoever, returning yet again as The Great Sage Equal of Heaven, and committing a series of monkey-shines and outright crimes. He steals quite a variety of things, including the Heavenly Empress’s peaches, the dishes prepared for an important banquet, all the holy wine, and the pills of immortality created by Lao Tzu, which kicks off a war between Heaven and Flower Fruit Mountain, whoopsie-doodles. Wu Kong is captured, but As no weapon or even lighting can scratch him, he is burnt in Lao Tzu’s furnace for 49 days. This backfires on the Jade Emperor of Heaven giving him new powers and making him really angry. When the furnace is opened, he leaps out of it and proceeds to wreck total havoc in Heaven, fighting thousands of Heavenly soldiers by himself. The Heavenly Emperor asks the Buddha for help, and the Buddha outwits and outperforms the egomaniacal monkey king and traps the cheeky monkey underneath the Mountain of Five Elements. Sun Wukong stayed trapped there for 500 years, and we still haven’t gotten to the journeying part of Journey to the West.
The story was not only entertainment, but effectively Buddhist propaganda. Sun Wukong is far and away the most powerful power character in the story, more powerful than the Jade Emperor and all his armies, but he was no match for the Buddha. It’s like if you’ve been reading Deadpool comics for months, then suddenly Deadpool gets beaten the spirit of Bob Ross, so that you’ll want to take up painting and generally be pleasant and soft-spoken and keep a squirrel in your pocket, I don’t know, this analogy got away from me pretty quickly. The story spread with the religion, as well as independent of it, becoming a touchstone throughout Asia. In Japan, the Monkey King is known as Son Goku, for example, while in Korea his name is Son Oh Gong. The story is popular throughout the rest of Asia as well, all the way to Vietnam, Thailand, and even Malaysia and Indonesia.
So just how powerful is Sun Wukong? How about the strongest non-omnipotent character
in all of fiction? Here are just a few of his greatest hits. He could run “with the speed of a meteor” and cover 34,000mi/54,000km in one leap, so Superman better watch his back. Sun Wukong carries a staff that can be as small as a pin or as big as a mountain, but always weighs 8 tons. He can freeze people in mid-fight, not that he needs to, control the weather, and make copies of himself. One of his abilities is called the 72 earthly transformations
In another myth, designed to explain their name (“tail-men” in Greek), Zeus changed the Cercopes into monkeys (from this we have the genus Cercopithecus). In still another myth, Zeus turned them to stone for trying to deceive even him, the stone was shown to visitors to Thermopylae. Acmon, companion of Diomede, insulted Aphrodite and is turned into a bird.
In Greek mythology, Cercopes were two demigods brothers. They were thieves and they even attempted to steal Heracles’ weapons. Zeus changed them into monkeys. This myth, inspired zoologists to name the genus of monkeys depicted in Minoan frescoes as Cercopithecus.
Hart, George (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (PDF) (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-415-34495-1.