Bowl: anthropomorphic monkey effigy

550–300 BCE
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General Description

In the Valley of Oaxaca, Zapotec inhabitants of the hilltop site of Monte Albán and the surrounding areas produced fine grayware ceramic hollow figurines and bridge-spout vessels that depict images of various deities and ancestors, elaborately decorated in relief worked onto the surface of the vessel. In this example, the head, arms, and legs were worked in relief on the surface, and the body of the figure forms the body of the vessel. The figure may represent either a captive monkey dressed as a human, or a man impersonating a monkey. Though their specific meaning is unknown, monkey effigies occur frequently throughout Mesoamerica, often appearing in creation mythology. In a story from the Popol Vuh, the Quiché (K’iche’) Maya book of counsel, the mischevious One Monkey and One Artisan were turned into monkeys by their half-brothers, the Hero Twins. They became the gods of music, literature, and the visual arts and are associated with the planet Mars. The names One Monkey and One Artisan also refer to a single day on the 260-day ritual calendar, Chuen (day of the craftsman or monkey), the day on which the planet Mars becomes visible in the sky. In addition, the 260-day ritual calendars of the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs identify the eleventh of the twenty day names with the monkey: Loo or Goloo in Zapotec, Nuy in Mixtec, and Ozomatli in Aztec.

Monkeys were usually associated with creativity and the arts, as well as pleasure and lascivious behavior. Here, the anthropomorphic monkey reclines blissfully, enveloping the bowl, and displaying his emphasized genitals. Monkeys were imported, perhaps from the Maya area, and kept as pets by both Zapotec and Aztec nobility. This figure wears a bell necklace, and his ears are pierced for ornaments that may have originally been attached to the vessel. The associations of celestial deity and patron of the arts suggest this handsomely modeled vessel was made for ritual use in a temple or shrine during ceremonies marking the reappearance of Mars in the night sky, though it may have also held other libations for fertility rites. Another possibility is that it was an offering in the tomb of a royal person born on the day of the Monkey (Loo). This example stands out in quality compared to the numerous Zapotec vessels in zoomorphic form.

Drawn from

  • Kathy Windrow, DMA unpublished material, 1992.

  • Mary Ellen Miller and Karl A. Taube, "Monkey," in The gods and symbols of ancient Mexico and the Maya: an illustrated dictionary of Mesoamerican religion (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993): 117-118.

  • "Spouted jar (1979.206.947)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009).

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