Skip to main content



MONKEYS . Monkeys have played a complex and ambiguous role in the religion and folklore of diverse cultures. Although deities in monkey form have occasionally been venerated as psychopomps, tricksters, or intercessors, simians have more commonly been viewed as comical or degenerate simulacra of human beings. Both responses suggest a perception of these animals as challenging boundaries and categories, a theme that in the modern world remains implicit in much visual representation and fictional and scientific narrative. Despite a tendency among premodern authors and artists to be vague and generic about nonhuman primates (a confusion that persists in nontechnical discourse conflating, for example, tailed "monkeys" and tailless "apes"), human responses to simians, especially in regions in which the latter abound, have often been species-specific, reflecting characteristic features or behaviors of particular primate groups.

Perhaps the most widely attested response to anthropoid primates has been the notion that they are degraded or fallen humans, whose bestial status reflects punishment for a transgression. Thus a Jewish legend holds that the men who contrived to place idols atop the tower of Babel were turned by God into apes, and in a Greco-Roman tale a diminutive race of humans who attempted to deceive Hercules were punished by the gods by becoming "tailed ones" (cercopes). A Muslim story holds that apes originated when a group of Jews were cursed for violating the Sabbath, and an Algerian tradition traces them to a human group deprived of speech by divine wrath. According to a medieval European legend, when God visited Adam and Eve after the fall, Eve concealed some of her numerous progeny out of shame over her sexual activity, and, as punishment, God transformed the hidden children into monkeys. Although such tales reflect the anthropocentric prejudices of monotheist religions, they are not confined to Europe and the Middle East. The motif of transgression and metamorphosis into a simian is preserved in the Mayan Popol Vuh, and it also occurs in Southeast Asia, in the tale of a wicked couple who are tricked by a god into squatting on red-hot bricks; when their backsides are burned red, they flee in shame into the forest. Similar stories, often involving punishment for sexual license, are the commonest explanations of simian origins among tribal groups in India, and cast doubt on the frequent assertion that Hinduism's now-robust cult of Hanumān derives from a hoary and indigenous tradition of "monkey worship." Comparable tales have been reported concerning the orangutans of Indonesia and the chimpanzees of the Ivory Coast. Japanese folktales involve many instances of cross-species transformation, yet those involving monkeys nearly always feature the one-way metamorphosis of a human who has incurred divine punishment. Even in the case of Hanumān, a sense of transgression of divine powers and of being "marked" as simian in punishment is found in the tale of his jaw (Sanskrit, hanu ) being disfigured by Indra's thunderbolt. The abundance of such stories confirms Horst Janson's assertion that, when faced with the discomfort aroused by the similitude of simians, humans in general have tended to become "Darwinists in reverse" (Janson, 1952, p. 13).

Veneration of monkeys has been more sporadic. The earliest attested instance, in ancient Egypt, was directed toward a single species of baboon known to Greco-Roman authors as cynocephalus or "dog-head" because of its canine facial appearance. In contrast to other monkeys who appear in Egyptian art as leashed pets or performing grotesques, this animal was considered sacred and associated with both sun and moon. Images of seated male baboons, hands raised in adoration of the rising sun, adorn the columns of several temples, and mummified animals were commonly interred in a seated posture. Sculpted baboon images often display erect penisesa mark of lasciviousness in the view of later observersthat probably indicated the connection of both the sun and the animal with fertility. Yet the baboon was also associated with the moon and sacred to the moon god Thoth, a healer and magician, scribe of the gods, and guide of deceased souls. In some myths, the baboon taught hieroglyphics to Thoth and wore his lunar orb on its head. Its image regularly appeared atop scales, signifying postmortem judgment, over which Thoth presided. The god himself was sometimes depicted in the form, or with the head, of a baboon. The humanlike menstrual cycle of the female cynocephalus, which further linked the animal to cosmic rhythms, was noted by some ancient writers, as were temples where troops of semidomesticated baboons were fed by priests.

Elements of Thoth worship were transposed onto the Greco-Roman mystery cult of Hermes Trismegistoswho was likewise a magician, healer, and psychopompand gemstone rings carved with images of ithyphallic baboons enjoyed a vogue in the late Roman Empire, possibly as aphrodisiac charms. But the more common response to the Egyptian baboon-deity in classical Mediterranean cultures was scorn and ridicule. A minor decorative motif in Greek art, monkeys appear to have had no sacral significance; rather, they commonly represented ugliness, sycophancy, and immorality. Aristotle's brief observation that anthropoid primates constitute a morphological category situated between humans and quadruped animals would later definitively establish the "link" occupied by these animals in the medieval "great chain of being." The Romans sometimes kept monkeys as pets, but held the sight of one in a dream to be an evil omen. Roman writings, including Galen's accounts of his dissections of Barbary apes (a nearly tailless macaque native to North Africa and Gibraltar, and the best-known monkey in the ancient West), reveal discomfort with their likeness to men, exemplified in the punning aphorism of the second century bce poet Ennius: "The ape, that vile beast, so similar to us" (Simia quam similis turpissuma bestia nobis).

Simian semblance took on ominous implications for religions whose scriptures declared the human form to be the "image of God." The stump-tailed posterior of the Barbary macaque was especially problematic, for God had declared in Leviticus 22:23 that all animals were to have tails. A Jewish legend declared that Adam himself was created with a tail, which God later removed as a sign of exaltation over bestial creation. The macaque was hence viewed as a duplicitous beast trying to "ape" human rank. A variant on the story claimed that God himself had cut off the ape's tail as punishment for its presumption, leaving "scars" on its backsidethe ischial callosities, or "sitting pads," common to Old World monkeys. The Patristic writings of early Christianity are strident in their denunciation of "idolatrous" Egyptian religion and often focus on "ape worship" as its most loathsome practice. In medieval sources, the devil was called "God's ape" (simia Dei) because he tried unsuccessfully to imitate God's creative acts, and the monkey in turn was labeled "likeness of the devil" (figura diaboli). Renaissance paintings of the "fall of man" sometimes feature an ape slyly munching one of the forbidden apples; the gullible Eve points to the beast in order to sway her consort's resolve to uphold God's commandmentone instance of a common patriarchal tendency to associate women (as less-than-men) with monkeys.

In time, the Christian morphological preoccupation with monstrous similitudines and "hybrid races" that threatened to erase the boundary between the human self and the feral "other" would influence the response of Europeans to newly discovered primates and people in other parts of the world, contributing both to the racism of the colonial era and to the pseudoscience of eugenics that arose in the wake of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). The association of simians with the "primitive" and "savage" as well as with the infantile and feminine, and the caricaturing of subject peoples and human enemies as "monkeys," has long persisted in Western discourse, as has the whimsical portrayal of simians as human surrogates in visual art. A recurrent theme in popular culture (reflected in such works as the Danish Baron Hollberg's eighteenth-century novel Nicolai Climii iter subterraneum, and the twentieth-century American Planet of the Apes films) has been the discovery of a realm in which simians and humans trade places and confront the contingency of species roles. Late-twentieth-century scholarship has also critiqued the burgeoning scientific literature of primatology as (in feminist Donna Haraway's phrase) "simian orientalism," and asserted that its ostensibly "objective" discourse contains numerous elements of disguised mythos (Haraway, 1989, p. 10).

The rich traditions of monkey gods and heroes found in South, Southeast, and East Asia all appear indebted, to varying degrees, to the ancient Indian epic Rāmāyaa (c. fourth century bce), in which a race of magical, talking monkeys befriend the human hero Rāma and assist him in recovering his kidnapped wife, Sītā. This tale probably penetrated much of Asia in the early centuries of the common era and may have become interwoven with local monkey lore. In many Southeast Asian Buddhist versions of the story, Rāma's principal helper, Hanumān, here identified as a magical White Monkey, is portrayed as a resourceful but lascivious trickster whose amorous and martial adventures sometimes eclipse those of his human master. The tale of his liaison with the Fish Queen, resulting in a marvelous hybrid son, remains a favorite in the dance theater traditions of Thailand and Cambodia and in the visual art of Malaysia.

In Japan's indigenous Shintō tradition, a "monkey deity" (saru gami) named Saruta Biko is attested in texts dating to the eighth century. He belongs to the category of gods associated with liminal spaces such as village boundaries, functions as a messenger between the heavenly and earthly worlds, and serves as mediator between humans and the kami, or spirits, particularly the powerful Mountain Deity. He has a special connection with horses and is used in rites intended to protect them from disease. In later Japanese lore, the monkey is primarily portrayed as a trickster and clown, and is associated with human "outcastes" who, like him, mediate between people and gods, yet serve as bearers of pollution. Today, a highly adaptive local species of macaque is considered the "national monkey" of Japan and is said to be the only animal referred to with the honorific san, otherwise reserved for humans. The work of twentieth-century Japanese primatologists has been cited for its more emotional and sympathetic response to these animals, exemplified by the monkey funerals sometimes held at research labs.

In China, the popular "monkey king" Sun Wukong of Daoist and Buddhist legend, Ming-period fiction, and modern Beijing opera, probably combines elements of the Rāmāyaa and of Southeast Asian White Monkey tales with indigenous lore concerning gibbons and macaques. As the most endearing character in the hundred-chapter novel Xiyou Ji (Record of the westward journey, 1592), Monkey aids a Buddhist monk in a perilous pilgrimage to India in quest of scriptures, displaying the supernatural powers he acquired by stealing peaches and pills of immortality from the Jade Emperor of the Daoist heaven. Plucky and exuberant, he represents both the Buddhist concept of the restive "monkey mind" that must be tamed to achieve enlightenment and the pragmatism and resourcefulness of a homegrown Chinese culture hero. Despite the centuries-long effort of the literati to suppress non-elite lore and the postrevolutionary crackdown on religious expression, a folk Daoist cult of Monkey survives on Taiwan and in Singapore, where he is revered as a trickster, esoteric preceptor, and healer (especially of children and horses), and as an exorcist sometimes invoked through rites of possession.

The origins of the immensely popular Hindu monkey-god Hanumān, also known as Māruti and Āñjaneya, are obscure. Ceramic monkey figurines from Indus Valley sites and a single Vedic hymn featuring a "virile monkey" have led to speculation that an earthy folk deity (yaka) in simian form may have preceded Hanumān's literary debut in Vālmīki's Rāmāyaa. Born of the union of the wind god Vāyu with a celestial nymph who was cursed to assume monkey form, the epic's Hanumān has a rambunctious childhood in which he nearly devours the sun and is wounded and then blessed by the gods. He matures into a sagacious and powerful ally of Rāma who leaps across the ocean carrying his master's ring and message to the captive Sītā, burns the demon city of Lanka with his flaming tail, fetches a Himalayan summit covered with healing herbs to save Rāma's wounded brother during the climactic battle, and ultimately receives the boon of physical immortality as well as Rāma's boundless gratitude. His role expanded in later vernacular retellings of the story, and his independent worship, well attested from roughly the tenth century ce, has undergone dramatic growth in modern times.

Though understood as a devotee of Viu in the Rāma-incarnation, Hanumān is also regarded as an avatar of Śiva, especially in the latter's awesome and destructive persona as Rudra, and is sometimes paired with local mother goddesses as a guardian or familiar. His propitiation by villagers as a boundary protector, by Śaiva ascetics as an immortal yogi, by the mentally afflicted as a shamanlike exorcist, and by wrestlers as the patron of martial arts may reflect ancient practices only marginally associated with the Rāma narrative. His shrines are ubiquitous in many regions of India and draw huge crowds, especially on Tuesday and Saturday, when worshipers seek his protection from malefic planetary influences. Although Hanumān's visual representation spans the gamut from fully simian to humanlike (though invariably tailed) icons, the deity's celibacy and sagacity pointedly contradict the normal Indian perception of simians, and earthly monkeys, especially the black-faced "hanuman langur" and (less commonly) the reddish rhesus macaque, receive only wary respect and occasional protection as his somewhat debased relatives. A god who is said to combine self-assertive śakti (power) and self-effacing bhakti (devotion), Hanumān may be read, especially in the discourse of Hindu nationalism, as a subaltern enforcer of traditional high-caste authority, yet he has more typically expressed the upwardly mobile aspirations of lower- and middle-status groups. At once comic and cosmic, subhuman and supernatural, aggressive and contemplative, earthy and divine, Hanumān exemplifies and theologically transfigures the boundary-challenging role that simians have so often played for human cultures.


Aryan, K. C., and Subhashini Aryan. Hanumān in Art and Mythology. Delhi, 1975. A valuable reference for Hanumān iconography.

Corbey, Raymond, and Bert Theunissen, eds. Ape, Man, Apeman: Changing Views since 1600. Leiden, 1995. A wide-ranging anthology that critically examines the discourse of the emerging sciences of primatology and paleoanthropology in modern Europe and Japan.

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York, 1989. A feminist historian of science provocatively detects hidden agendas and submerged mythologies in twentieth-century American primate research.

Janson, Horst W. Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. London, 1952. A signal study of premodern European responses to anthropoid primates.

Lutgendorf, Philip. "My Hanumān Is Bigger Than Yours." History of Religions 33, no. 3 (1994): 211245.

Lutgendorf, Philip. "Monkey in the Middle: The Status of Hanumān in Popular Hinduism." Religion 27, no. 4 (1997): 311332.

Lutgendorf, Philip. "Five Heads and No Tale: Hanumān and the Popularization of Tantra." International Journal of Hindu Studies 5, no. 3 (2001): 269296.

Mair, Victor H. "Suen wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate." In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology, pp. 659752. Taipei, 1989. A magisterial review of the controversy over the origins of the Chinese Monkey King, this article reveals what is at stake in the claims of indigenous origin and revealingly documents the historical spread of the Rāma tale through Southeast and East Asia.

McDermott, William Coffman. The Ape in Antiquity. Baltimore, 1938. An unsurpassed study of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman materials.

Narula, Joginder. Hanumān, God, and Epic Hero. New Delhi, 1991. The best short work on the subject in English by an Indian scholar.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror. Princeton, N.J., 1987. A study by a noted anthropologist of human responses to monkeys in Japan.

Yu, Anthony C., ed. and trans. The Journey to the West. 4 vols. Chicago, 19771983. A complete translation of Xiyou Ji, the Ming-period novel concerning the adventures of Monkey and his companions.

Philip Lutgendorf (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Monkeys." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Monkeys." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (February 20, 2019).

"Monkeys." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.