by Catherine D’Andrea
Variations on the three monkeys, known to us as “Hear No Evil,” “See No Evil,” and “Speak No Evil,” have been found throughout the world for centuries. They appear on dinnerware and other household items, on fabrics and furnishings, and in architecture, as well as in sculptures of fine art and mere keepsakes. Popular for their simple appeal and relatable message, they are collected by people from all walks of life. There is even an informative, active, online group of enthusiasts devoted to them at www.three-monkeys.info/.
Perhaps the earliest known carvings of the three monkeys appear in Nikko, Japan, on a panel of the Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine. The panel is one of eight, which together represent the life cycle of man and the ideals set forth by Confucious in his Code of Conduct. It is believed they were made in the seventeenth century by sculptor Hidari Jongoro.¹
In Japanese folklore, the monkey frequently acts as a messenger from the gods who reward the good behavior of humans and punish the bad. The monkey is also associated with healing, as all parts of its body have been used in making either medicines or amulets. It acts as a mediator: between the gods and humans, health and sickness, life and death.
Many variations of these monkeys appear across time. Monkeys have been carved from a wide variety of materials. Laura Del Col Brown focuses on those made of soapstone and writes “… it picks up your own warmth and radiates it back.” In the short story, “The Silent Monkeys,” Brown illuminates how people across cultures, time, and space leave their own mark and weave their threads together with others. Within the story, we see conflicts and divisions as massive as the Himalayas and the Holocaust and as small as the “sugary sludge” at the bottom of a teacup. Her characters are bound by carved monkeys and, ultimately, the mysterious silence bearing witness to all.
1. Ohnuki-Tierney. The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton UP, 1987.