The Silk Road of Monkey Tales


Marco Polo is one of my heroes. That’s him and his fellow travelers on my favorite map the Catalan Atlas of 1375 by Abraham Cresques.

I enjoy tales of adventure whether it is the real life wanderings of Marco Polo or Ibn Buttata, the mythical adventures in the Odyssey, the Argonautica or Samurai Champloo. The last week has found me on the Silk Road following fables about monkeys and carpenters. It all started while trying to track down the illustrations of a caravan from a 13th century manuscript that had nothing to do with monkeys. Instead, I came across this image from 1222 CE and wondered why was a monkey apparently not helping a sawyer.


In short order, through the digital libraries of a dozen countries, I was tracing a set of fables and lessons from India, across the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula and into the rest of Europe. I was following a monkey interfering with the work of a carpenter.

The genealogy of the curious monkey starts in India with the Panchatantra, a collection of parables composed in Sanskrit around 100-500 CE, with animals as the main characters. The stories are filled with jackals, lions, birds, turtles, cats, mice, monkeys and a few more species. At some point illustrations were added. As the written collection of stories moved along the trade routes they caught the attention of scholars leading to translations in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Syriac and Arabic. After arrival on the Iberian Peninsula an Arabic version was translated to Hebrew and this led, in Italy, to the translation into Latin.

The  path of the translations (and the monkey) was by no means linear, more like a spider’s web, and as the stories were translated some were altered or left out, while other collections of stories, such as the Fables of Bidpai (or Pilpay), were added. You might even find some of the stories from the Panchatantra in later versions of Aesop’s Fables. The names of a particular collection varied with the translation and includes, Kalila wa-Dimna, The Fables of Bidpai, The Lights of Canopus and the Latin translation, Directoriun Humanae Vitae (Guide for Human Life). During my digital travels I read the monkey’s fable in French, Italian and 16th century English, bumbled through the Latin and hacked my way through the Catalan and Spanish translations.

The actions of the animals in the fables cover the full range of human interactions and the consequences of those actions. The illustrations, from simple line drawings to paintings using the finest pigments, are not just decoration but an important part of of each story. As the writings were translated so were the illustrations. In my wanderings through more than a thousand years of storytelling there is a remarkable consistency in the illustrations, whether the monkey is alone or with the carpenter. With the availability of many digital manuscripts that consistency made my search for the monkey’s misadventures that much easier.

So, what was the story of the monkey and the carpenter? It is a short tale with dire consequences for the curious monkey (and his tail or other body parts). A monkey watches as a carpenter is splitting a log or plank; to aid his work the carpenter uses wedges. After the carpenter stops and leaves for lunch/tea/other necessary things the monkey jumps onto the log and intrigued by the wedges tries to remove them. In doing so he: gets his “tender parts” or his tail, or leg, or paw stuck in the cleft. The monkey’s suffering ranges from great pain to death. On his return the carpenter does not show pity, instead he adds to the pain and demise of the monkey. A grim story and you can draw your own lessons about curiosity, consequences, compassion and the disposition of your body parts while splitting logs.

Besides finding some new (old) images for the LAPAWS (Lost Art Press Archive of Woodworking Stuff) this trip along the Silk Road reminded me of how important the trade routes were in moving and introducing new commodities and ideas. In our time the trade routes we travel are the digital scans of written documents, websites and blogs. We discover and preserve our histories and perhaps learn a new thing or two.

The images in the gallery below range from before the 10th century to 1915. The earliest is a terracotta plaque showing the monkey on a log from the story in the Panchatantra (apologies-no clearer photo was available). Some illustrations are in better shape than others and you will see a range of artistic ability.

My favorite proverb for the tale of the monkey and carpenter is from a copy of the Panchatantra, “What business of monkeys is carpentry?”

This entry was posted in Historical Images. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Silk Road of Monkey Tales

  1. maross1248 says:

    The print labeled as Latin from Munich is actually written in German.

  2. David Traugot says:

    Hi Saucy,

    By now you must have gotten a lot of comments on this post, regarding the picture and text that you attribute as written in Latin, 1545 (BSB, Munich)… it is actually in German – not even Yiddish (which is how the Jews in Medieval Germany adopted the German language but wrote it in Hebrew). I know that it was just a moment of inattention that let it slip past you… It certainly does not detract from the power of this cautionary tail – uhhh, tale.

    Regards, David

  3. another motto: He who interferes in other’s work, surely comes to grief…

  4. wrightes says:

    Nice! A Samurai Champloo reference on my favorite woodworking blog. My life might now be complete.

  5. rondennis303 says:

    Without any due respect, this was . . . of questionable value . . . and only somewhat entertaining.

    • Ron, did you get something soft pinched in a log this evening? Usually you are so nice.

      • rondennis303 says:

        My tender parts are just fine, Thank You. This simply didn’t strike my fancy. Perhaps I should keep my less than complimentary thoughts to myself. The First Amendment be Damned!

  6. Amazing gallery of images that I am going to be studying for a long time. In particular, check out how the device that supports the work changes. You see a brake, like what Peter Follansbee uses for riving, to more modern trestles – and everything between.

    Excellent story, too. Anything that involves monkeys and woodworking has my complete attention.

  7. Pinsntails says:

    Interesting to see the progression of the woodworking context for this story from these pictures, from rough sawing and hewing of logs to a joiner’s shop in England where clearly more refined work is taking place.

  8. Eric R says:

    Never let it be said that this blog doesn’t cover ALL aspects of woodworking.
    And I thought I saw that oldest translation as “Never monkey with another monkey’s monkey”…..

  9. dany says:

    Aquí en Argentina tenemos la costumbre de decir “por curioso murió el mono”.

  10. Mike Siemsen says:

    I see these a cautionary tales to children to stay out of work sites. Made me think of Curious George.

  11. nealm44 says:

    Many years (and I mean over 60) years ago, my father gave me to read a version of Pilpay’s Fables as a cautionary tale of what happens when someone like me mucked about with his projects. It was much later that I became fascinated with the tools and workbench appliances in the drawings! Thanks for the reminder and the fascinating piece. If you’re intrigued by travel adventure writing, try out Colin Thurbron’s “Shadow of the Silk Road”, “Travels with a Tangerine” (Battuta), or “From the Sacred Mountain”. Illustrations n each of those are interesting for construction details of different buildings.

  12. durbien says:

    Could’ve used a nutsaver..?

  13. So that was how the monkey’s got stuck in the Barrel?
    Loved this…both for continued use and linking of digital archives (especially non Western ones) as well as the mix of goofyness (are monkeys anything else) and Grimm brothers, well, grimness. Years ago (enough that the author escapes me) read a book (clearly written by a Freudian, when that was still in academic fashion) that talked about the role of evil and horror in fairy tales, both as an educational tool and one tied to childrens’ self awareness…and that by Bowdlerizing them a la Disney, we do our kids a disservice. Good example here.

  14. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    A very interesting article about monkeys and carpenter’s fables from Chris Schwartz at Lost Arts Press.

  15. Still current in India: and image of the monkey and the wedge fable.

Comments are closed.