Its 2016. Chinese New Year was on Feb. 8th, which marked the transition into the year of the Monkey. The Monkey is the ninth of the 12-year cycle of animals that make up the Chinese zodiac.
Since the Year of the Monkey comes to us from the Chinese zodiac, it makes sense to start off in China. Probably the most famous of Chinese mythological monkey’s is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Sun Wukong is a main character in one of China’s four great classical novels- In English called Journey to the West, or, sometimes, just Monkey. Written in the 16th century, the novel is an account of a Buddhist monk who travels to India to obtain sacred texts, and of course, as with any good pilgrimage, he goes through many trials and tribulations. Sun Wukong, the monkey king, is one of three disciples who are sent by the Buddha to help the monk on his quest.
The novel itself, and the character of Sun Wukong, have strong roots in Chinese folklore, and so we see Sun Wukong- or versions of him- in Chinese tales both before and after the famous novel. He is a popular character, spanning from the distant past all the way into contemporary Chinese culture. Anecdotally, the story of Journey to the West was actually the inspiration behind the popular manga series Dragon Ball.
To get a feel for Sun Wukong, we’re going to look at the story of how he came to be known as the Monkey King. According to legend, Sun Wukong was born from a magic stone that sat on the top of a mountain, called the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The stone itself was formed according to various mathematical proportions representing the solar calendar, degrees of Heaven, and other sort of cosmological elements, and it had been absorbing the powers of heaven and earth since the beginning of time. Eventually, a sort of womb formed inside of this magic stone, and out of it came a stone egg.
When the wind blew on the stone egg, it hatched a stone monkey, who could move and behave like a normal monkey. Upon being birthed, the monkey bowed to each of the four cardinal directions, and a golden beam of light shone out from his eyes. The golden light caused a bit of a stir in the heavens, but once the stone monkey began eating and drinking the light began to fade, and the Greatly Compassionate Jade Emperor of the Azure Vault of Heaven determined that there was nothing special about this monkey.
On the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, the stone monkey quickly made friends with the other monkeys and developed a rapport with the other animals. He enjoyed the earthly pleasures of eating, drinking, and playing with the monkeys – normal sort of monkey activities. After a hard day of playing, the monkeys would often go together to bathe in a stream. One day, while bathing, the monkeys began to wonder where the source of the stream was. Where was the water coming from, they mused. The decided to find out, and all the monkeys ran through the forest and climbed up a wall of rocks, eventually arriving a huge waterfall, cascading down the rocks out of a spring.
At this point, one of the monkeys suggested that if any one of them was brave enough to walk through the fall, find the source, and return in one piece, they would make him their king. The stone monkey stepped forward and volunteered to go. He closed his eyes and leapt straight into the waterfall. When he opened his eyes, he was standing before an iron bridge. As he walked along the bridge, he saw on the other side of it what appeared to be a house.
With that, he returned and told the other monkeys what he had found. The brave ones followed him back into the fall, across the bridge, and into the house, where they immediately began to trash the place- fighting over beds, clamoring with the pots and pans, and moving everything around, as monkeys tend to do. After awhile, once the had tired themselves out with their riotous behavior, the stone monkey spoke up. He said that they had all agreed if any one monkey was brave enough to go into the fall and return, they would make him their king, and that a man who breaks his word is worthless… So, it was time to make them their king. With that, all the monkeys prostrated themselves before the stone monkey, their new king.
As king, his first order of business was to make the word “stone” taboo, preferring instead to be called, “Handsome Monkey King.” And so, Sun Wukong got his name and his title.
Life is good for awhile on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, and the Handsome Monkey King organizes his subjects into different groups, giving each a role. Days were spent collecting food and lounging in the sun, and evenings were spent in their house behind the waterfall.
After awhile, however, the Handsome Monkey King became depressed. He began to think about death. The other monkeys tried to reason with him, reminding him that they had parties every day and lived a life of luxury in a beautiful paradise. But, the Monkey King reminded them, while he was happy now, a time would come when he was old and weak, and in death he would not continue to live in freedom amongst the blessed. With that, all of the monkeys began to weep.
One monkey, a gibbon, spoke up, explaining that there were only three creatures that were free from the Wheel of Reincarnation – those who had attained enlightenment – Buddhas, Sages, and Immortals.
The Monkey King was thrilled to hear this, and he was determined to travel into the human world to find one of these enlightened beings and learn the secret of immortality himself. He packed his things, bid the other monkeys farewell, and set off on his journey. The verse translation of the tale of Journey to the West is quite lovely. Here is a brief passage:
The Heaven-Born monkey, whose conduct was so noble,
Left his island to drift with heaven’s winds.
He sailed oceans and seas to find the Way of Immortality,
Deeply determined to do a great deed.
The predestined one should not have vulgar longings;
He can attain the primal truth without care or worry.
He is bound to find a kindred spirit,
To explain the origins and the laws of nature…
Sun Wukong, the Handsome Monkey King, goes on to have many fantastic adventures on his quest for Immortality. When looking at the origins of the character of Sun Wukong, many scholars have suggested that he actually has roots in the Indian deity Hanuman, who is also a monkey… well, sort of.
Technically, Hanuman is a Vanara- which is a mythological race of half human/half-monkey people that are found, most famously, in the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana, in which Lord Hanuman plays a central role. Typically, Hanuman and other vanaras are depicted as a monkeys, and over time the term vanara has become largely synonymous with monkey. He is an extremely popular deity in India even to this day.
One of the most common themes we see in iconography concerning Hanuman shows him carrying what looks like a rock or a chunk of earth in the palm of his hand. That chunk of earth is actually a mountain, and the image comes from a story in the Ramayana.
The Ramayana is hundreds of pages long and very complex- stories within stories within stories- but very basically it is the story of Lord Rama, who is an incarnation of Vishnu. Rama’s wife, Sita, who is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, who is Vishnu’s consort, gets abducted by the evil 10-headed Demon King Ravana, and a massive battle goes down between Rama’s party and the rakshasas- or demons. Of Rama’s followers, probably the most prominent are his brother, Lakshmana, and Hanuman, who are both totally devoted to Rama.
At one point, during the war with the rakshasas, Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, is struck by sort of a magic spell that renders him unconscious on the battlefield. The use of magical weapons is very characteristic of the battles in the Ramayana, which makes things really interesting. Someone will shoot an arrow that transforms into thousands of snakes and then someone else will shoot an arrow that transforms into a bunch of eagles that eat the snakes- so its pretty cool. And these kind of supernatural projections are called astras.
So, when Lakshmana is struck by this particular astra that causes him- and most of the rest of the army- to fall into unconsciousness, Hanuman remains unscathed. And actually in most versions of the story Rama does too, but he is so beside himself with grief over Lakshmana that is basically unable to function. So, Hanuman consults
Hanuman is blessed with the ability to transform his size, as well as possessing incredible strength, but due to a some debauchery in his youth he also carried the slight curse that he wasn’t able to use his powers unless someone reminded him of them. The sage explains that the only way to cure Lakshmana and the rest of the army is by way of a rare herd that is only found on Dronagiri mountain, in the the Himalayas, and he must be treated before sunrise if the cure it to work. With that, Hanuman asks permission to go to this mountain to get the herb, which, of course, Rama grants him with much enthusiasm.
So, Hanuman sort jumps slash flies the 1500 or so miles from Lanka to the Himalayas. It is dark out, but Hanuman recognizes the mountain because it is illuminated by the magical herbs growing there, but he is unsure which herb is the right one to treat Lakshmana. Fueled by the intensity of the situation, Hanuman grows into an enormous size and uproots the entire mountain, placing it on his shoulder. He carries it back through the sky to the island of Lanka.
The evil demon king, Ravanna, gets word that Hanuman is coming with the mountain, and he commands the sun to rise early, knowing that if Lakshmana isn’t treated before sunrise he is doomed. Mid-flight, Hanuman sees the sun- Surya- beginning to creep into the sky. Surya, the sun, is a god, too, and was actually Hanuman’s guru, or teacher, throughout his youth. Despite this, Hanuman grabs the sun and holds it down, under his arm, still carrying the mountain on his shoulder, and arrives back at the battlefield in Lanka in time for the herb to be administered. Lakshmana is saved, along with the rest of the army who had come under the curse, and there is much rejoicing. Hanuman apologizes profusely to the sun, and is forgiven.
There is actually a spot in the Himalayan mountains that bears a large scar, which people say is where Lord Hanuman uprooted the magical mountain.
Hanuman and Sun Wukong are two of the more famous monkey characters from world mythology, but there are also innumerable folk tales from throughout the world that feature a monkey character. Not always, but fairly often, monkey characters are painted with a playful nature and they manage to get themselves into some sort of trouble, and then must extricate themselves. The next story we’ll be looking at is a South African folk tale that definitely expresses that idea.
This story begins with another frequently touched upon quality in monkey lore, which is the monkey’s insatiable appetite. Monkey is hungry. And, in fact, hunger forces him to leave his home and travel in search of food. Bulbs, beans, and insects have been exhausted in his own land. So, he goes to stay for awhile with his great uncle, Orang Outing, who lives in another part of the country, and he works for him for awhile.
Eventually, monkey wants to go back to his home land. To compensate him for all of his work, Orang Outang gives this nephew a fiddle and a bow and arrow. The bow and arrow, says Orang Otang, can hit and kill any target, and the fiddle, when played, will force anything to dance.
When monkey got back to his homeland, the first creature he ran into was Wolf, who filled him in on all of the latest gossip and also complained that all morning he had been trying to stalk a deer with no success. Monkey immediately showed Wolf the bow and arrow, saying that if Wolf showed him the deer he would take it down. When wolf took monkey to the deer, monkey was ready. He let loose an arrow and the deer fell.
They made a delicious meal together, but rather than being grateful, wolf grew jealous. He wanted the magic bow and arrow for himself. He begged monkey to give it to him. When monkey refused, wolf began to threaten him. Just then, Jackal passed by and saw the two squabbling. Wolf claimed that monkey had stolen the bow and arrow from him, and he was simply trying to reclaim it.
After Jackal had heard both sides of the story, he deemed himself unable to settle the case by himself, and he suggested the bring the matter to Lion, Tiger, and all of the other animals. For the time being, Jackal proposed that he hold on to the bow and arrow, for safe keeping. Of course, he saw this as an opportunity to use it, himself, to catch some dinner.
On trial amongst the animals, monkey’s evidence was weak. To make matters worse, Jackal testified against him and sided with wolf. Jackal thought it that this way it would be easier to obtain the bow and arrow from wolf and keep it for himself. And, so, the animals found Monkey guilty of theft, which was looked upon as a serious crime, punishable by hanging.
Still hanging at monkey’s side was the fiddle, and he asked the court, as a final request, if he could play one last tune. Monkey was an excellent musician, and as soon as he struck the first note on the enchanted fiddle, the animals became enlivened. Before he had reached the chorus of the old tune that he was playing, the entire court had begun to dance uncontrollably.
Monkey played the same song, over and over, faster each time, until some of the animals began to collapse from exhaustion, though even then their feet were still tapping along to the rhythm. Monkey played on, absorbed in the music, seemingly quite oblivious to the madness that was unfurling around him. Wolf begged him to stop, but monkey just kept right on playing.
Finally, even the mighty lion was showing signs of exhaustion. He growled at monkey, still locked in step with his wife, “My kingdom is yours, if you just stop playing!”
Monkey replied that he didn’t want the kingdom, but merely that lion withdraw the sentence and return his bow and arrow, and also for Wolf to admit that he was, in fact, the one who stole it.
“I confess!” cried wolf, desperate to stop his body from convulsing in the feverish dance. At the same moment, lion withdrew the sentence.
Monkey played just a few more bars of the tune, and then he took his bow and arrow and climbed up high in a tree. The other animals were so afraid that he might start playing again that they all took off running and settled in new parts of the country.
So, things worked out for monkey in that story. Sometimes, however, the fate of the monkey character is less fortunate. This next story is a fairly well-known Filipino folk tale, involving Monkey and Tortoise. There are many variants on it- and, its a story that has been, like so many folktales, adapted into a children’s story, so a lot of contemporary tellings of it are a bit watered down, although originally it was much darker, and we’ll be looking at one of those more macabre versions today.
The story begins once again with monkey’s appetite. He is hungry, and he’s walking along a riverbank looking very sad and dejected. Tortoise sees him there, and noticing he looks a bit down, asks him what’s wrong.
Monkey explains that he is very hungry, and that all of the farmer’s squash was eaten by the other monkeys. He explains that he is on the verge of death due to starvation.
“Don’t worry,” says the tortoise. “Come with me and we’ll steal some banana plants.” So, monkey follows tortoise and they dig up some nice young banana plants and move them to a new location. To replant them, monkey climbs a tree and hangs his plants there in the branches. Tortoise cannot climb, so he digs a hole and sets his plants there.
A few weeks later they went back to check on their plants. Monkeys plants had dried up in the tree, but tortoises had grown tall and produced many ripe bananas. “I’ll climb up and get the fruit,” says monkey, springing up the banana tree, leaving tortoise on the ground below.
Once he reached the ripe fruits, monkey began to to devour them. Tortoise called up to him. “Please give me some to eat!” But monkey only threw him one green banana, eating the rest himself. Once he had eaten every last banana, monkey stretched out in the tree for a nap.
Tortoise was very angry, and thought about how to punish monkey for his thieving. While monkey slept, turtle gathered sharp pieces of bamboo and stuck them all around the base of the banana tree. When they were in place, he cried up to Monkey, “Crocodile is coming! Crocodile is coming!”
Startled, monkey leapt down from the tree and fell onto the sharp bamboo and was killed. Tortoise cut the monkey into pieces, poured salt on the meat, and dried his flesh in the sun. The next day, he went into the mountains and sold the meat to the other monkeys, who gave him squash in return.
As he was leaving, tortoise cried out to the other monkeys, “You are eating your own body! You are eating your own body!”
The monkeys ran and caught tortoise. “Let’s chop him into pieces with the hatchet,” said one of the monkeys.
The tortoise laughed and said, “Ah that is just what I would like. I have been struck with a hatched many times.” He showed them the scars on the back of his shell.
“Then let’s throw him into the water!” cried another monkey.
With this, tortoise began to cry and beg for his life. The monkeys paid no mind to his pleading, and they threw him into the water. Tortoise sank to the bottom, but very soon he came back up with a lobster.
The monkeys were very surprised, and they begged him to teach them how to catch lobsters. Tortoise said that it was very simple. He explained that he tied a string around his waste, and tied the other end to a rock so that he would sink to the bottom where the lobsters were. Immediately, all of the monkeys tied strings to rocks and attached them around their wastes. In unison, the plunged into the water, never to come up again.
It is said, in some places, that to this day monkeys remember this old story, and that is why they do not eat meat.