What might be the history and significance of my monkey figurine?
October 26, 2011 2:04 PM   Subscribe

What's a "monkey of silence," and have I got one?

About ten years ago, I bought this little monkey figurine in a charity shop. (Here's a front and rear view.) It's about 3.5 cm high, is carved from some kind of stone and has a hole in its base. I figured it was a tourist souvenir from somewhere. I put it in my living room and didn't think much about it.

Yesterday, I went to this exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. A large part of it consists of amulets collected by the folklorist Edward Lovett in London during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the amulets was a little monkey very like my own, about the same size and style of carving, and in a similar "praying" pose. It was in a category by itself, and labelled "Jade Monkey of Silence." The other categories had captions explaining them in more detail, and describing particular objects, but this one had only that phrase: "Jade Monkey of Silence."

I'm pretty sure my monkey isn't jade (it's the wrong colour, and I doubt the charity shop would have sold it for a pound if it were jade), but otherwise it's so similar that I think it may have been made around the same time and for the same purpose. I asked the staff member on duty at the Wellcome Collection if she could provide any more information; she was quite willing to help but couldn't find anything. I also looked at some books on magic and folklore, but again, no luck. An obvious place to look would be Lovett's own book Magic in Modern London, but it's out of print and offline, and used copies are expensive as hell.

I don't expect my monkey to be worth a huge amount of money or anything, but I am curious about the story behind it. Does anyone have any idea of when, where and why it might have been made, or suggestions of where I could look for more information? Thank you!

(P.S. I did think of the "speak no evil" monkey, of course -- but is it normal to have one of the Three Wise Monkeys on its own? And why would someone have used it as a good luck charm?)

(P.P.S. I'm probably going to write a blog post about this too, so if you google "jade monkey of silence" in a couple of days, that might come up. I hope that's OK -- I wanted to explore as many avenues as possible, and figured AskMeFi has slightly more readers than my blog.)
posted by Perodicticus potto to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that it's 'normal' to only have the speak no evil monkey on its own, but it is normal to find incomplete sets of things in a charity shop.
posted by IanMorr at 2:10 PM on October 26, 2011

I, too, suspect that it was originally part of a set of Speak/See/Hear No Evil monkeys that simply got separated from his partners over the years... and that once upon a time, Lovett's monkey was also part of a fancier set carved out of jade, and he's the one who ascribed lucky/magical meaning to it.
posted by argonauta at 2:15 PM on October 26, 2011

Best answer: Here's another "speak no evil" monkey, carved of soapstone. And yet another, this one reputedly Chinese.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:21 PM on October 26, 2011

Response by poster: Fantastic, MonkeyToes! And now I've found another. Hmm ... everyone who's found one seems to agree these things are old, but how old?
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:30 PM on October 26, 2011

Response by poster: (D'oh -- I meant this link.)
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:31 PM on October 26, 2011

You know, this is a perfect question for these folks, who collect Three Monkeys.

I may be eponymously biased, but I think your monkey is rather charming.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:45 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would say that it's most definitely an Iwazaru -- a name which is a pun not that far from the phrase "monkey of silence".

he's the one who ascribed lucky/magical meaning to it.

Well, the three monkeys already have a quasi-mystical amulet-ish-ness about them; Lovett didn't need to invent that. The only question would be whether, as a 19th century collector of such things, he was as familiar with the concept of the three monkeys, and their origins, as we are today. But in either the curio sense, or the self-ascribed "amulet" sense, I don't think there has necessarily been a lapse here, either by Lovett or the modern curators.
posted by dhartung at 3:04 PM on October 26, 2011

You do know that jade comes in many colors, right?
posted by kiripin at 11:30 PM on October 26, 2011

Response by poster: Yes, but mine is definitely soapstone - after following MonkeyToes's link, I wrote to an expert collector who confirmed it. Apparently it was made in China or Northern India. The expert commented that whenever he finds one of the Three Wise Monkeys on its own, it is far more likely to be the "speak no evil" monkey than either of the other two. So he thinks that particular figurine probably had some special significance to people once, rather than simply being part of a set that had lost its companions, but he doesn't know what that significance might have been. I'm starting to think I will need to get hold of Lovett's book somehow!

This is the website I consulted, if anyone's interested (worth seeing for its cute logo, at least!).
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:57 AM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey, just a quick update: I've been doing research and have found out a few more things about these monkeys, including the fact that they were carried as good luck tokens by some soldiers in World War I, and also that a number of them were found in excavations at the former Nazi concentration camp in Chelmno. In fact, I'm currently writing a short story for my writing class based on what I learned. Thanks once again for your suggestions!
posted by Perodicticus potto at 1:30 AM on December 14, 2011

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
My research into the monkeys resulted in my writing a short story that has now been published. Many thanks to the MeFites who pointed me in the right direction.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:07 PM on July 19, 2015

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