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?”