Monkey head

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General Description

Mixtec artisans excelled at lapidary work and were famous for their extraordinarily refined miniature carvings made in a variety of materials, creating objects of virtually perfect design and workmanship. Smaller decorative ornaments were part of the larger elaborate costume accoutrements for nobility—often worn on the face, forehead, and chest—and projected both elite status and supernatural power.

This greenstone head depicts a monkey with deeply set, penetrating eyes. The monkey wears spiral earspools, similar to those shown on pet monkeys of nobility illustrated in both Aztec and Maya art. Concentric circles outline the eyes while smaller circles indicate teeth, which were drilled into the stone with hollow tubes of bone or metal. The two holes drilled at the upper back of the carving suggest it might have originally been worn as a pendant or tied onto a necklace or other type of ornamentation.

Though their specific meaning is unknown, monkey effigies occur frequently throughout Mesoamerica, often appearing in creation mythology. The 260-day ritual calendars of the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Aztecs identify the eleventh of the twenty day names with the monkey: Nuy in Mixtec, Loo or Goloo in Zapotec, and Ozomatli in Aztec. In Aztec mythology, the Second Sun (4 Ehecatl) ruled by the feathered serpent deity (Quetzalcoatl) was destroyed by hurricanes, after which the human population was transformed into monkeys. Monkeys were usually associated with creativity and the arts, as well as pleasure and lascivious behavior.

Drawn from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.20], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • Kathy Windrow, DMA unpublished material, 1992.

  • DMA unpublished material, 2009.

  • 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.