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Monkey Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)

monkey on a tree

Monkeys are some of our closest relatives on this planet. As fellow members of the primate family, we often recognize ourselves in these creatures. Monkeys remind us of our connection with nature. They demonstrate that humanity is not so far removed from the animal kingdom as we may sometimes believe.

Monkeys are also great sources of amusement and joy. Monkeys are playful, carefree, silly, sociable, and energetic. They often remind us not to take life so seriously. Monkeys teach us to enjoy the simple things in life and let go of unnecessary stressors. Read on to learn about the mythology of monkeys and the meaning of the monkey in your life!

Table of contents

Monkey Symbolism and Meaning

Before diving into the rich symbolism of the monkey, there is a key distinction which must be drawn. Whilst monkeys, like humans and chimpanzees and gorillas, are indeed primates, they are not apes. Unlike apes, including human beings, monkeys have tails, are generally built for running on four legs, and have somewhat lesser brain power. This article will be primarily focused on discussing monkeys and not higher primates like the great apes. (1)

As previously mentioned, some of the key associations with monkeys include energy, playfulness, fun, and humor. Monkeys are also connected with mischief, trickery, intelligence, and courage.

monkey silouette

Monkeys are very resourceful and highly sociable. Most monkey species live in tightknit social groups with complex hierarchies and group dynamics. For this reason, monkeys are connected with socialization, cooperation, generosity, and communication.

Monkey Native American Symbolism

Monkeys are common characters in the mythology of Central and South America. In these stories, the mischievous personality of the monkey plays a prominent role. In many cases, the monkey is a playful or cunning trickster.

However, some of the South American indigenous tribes use the monkeys as clan animals which represent the heritage of a particular tribe. For example, the Guajiro and Yagua tribes from Columbia, Peru, and Venezuela, sometimes use howler monkeys as clan animals. (2)

For the Aztecs, too, the monkey was a prominent and recognizable figure. Ozomatli, the faithful companion of Xochipilli (the God of music, dance, and love), was depicted as a monkey. Unsurprisingly, Ozomatli is associated with games, fun, and music. (3)

two monkeys on a tree

Ozomatli is also the name of the eleventh day in the Aztec and Mayan calendar. This day was associated with this monkey character and was similarly connected with music and games. (4)

One South American trickster monkey character is Iwarrika. This character has the typical trickster traits of other monkey characters, however it is also associated with greed and laziness. In one myth, Iwarrika is responsible for a catastrophic flood. (5)

Monkey Eastern Symbolism

The monkey is an important symbol in most Asian cultures. From Japan to China to India, the monkey is a prominent figure which features in many stories.

The Chinese zodiac features a monkey character. Children born during the year of the monkey are expected to be clever, resourceful, and fun-loving. (6)

“Journey to the West” is an important novel from sixteenth century China which describes the journey of the “Monkey King” to the home of Buddhism in India. The story has been hugely influential and the mighty Monkey King is an enduring Buddhist symbol whose personality is often depicted as headstrong and rebellious. (7)

monkey portrait

In India, monkeys are connected with Hanuman. Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god who features prominently in the mythical saga of the Ramayana. (8)

Hanuman is beloved due to his courage, intelligence, selflessness, and service to the god Rama.

Monkeys are common symbols in Japanese religions. The Shinto tradition worships monkeys as guardians against evil and bringers of good fortune and peace. (9)

Monkey Christianity symbolism

Monkeys do not feature prominently in the Bible. In most Christian iconography, however, the monkey is associated with sin. Monkeys are considered to be base creatures which act on instinct and pursue pleasure. In many instances, Christian art treats monkeys as the dark side of human nature.

monkey portrait

Monkey Celtic Symbolism

There are no monkeys in the regions in which Celtic cultures developed, so monkeys do not feature in Celtic traditions very much.

However, there is a slight possibility that ancient Celts may have interacted with one particular species of monkey. The Barbary Macaque is a large primate that once ranged across Europe, although it is native to the Atlas Mountains in Northern Africa. Nowadays, the Barbary macaque is an endangered species. (10)

two monkeys on the ground

Skeletons of these monkeys were found in Ireland, indicating that ancient Celts may have interacted with them. It is not believed that these monkeys could have ended up in Ireland on their own. Most likely, the Barbary macaque was brought to Ireland by the Roman traders, and the Celtic chieftains kept it as a pet animal. 

Although this monkey did not make it to the Celtic pantheon, it is likely that it was at least a valued novelty or a possible symbol of status, wealth, or exoticism.

Monkey African Symbolism

The Egyptians associated monkeys with the god Thoth. Thoth was associated with wisdom, intelligence, reading, writing, and the moon. Thoth is usually depicted as having the head of an ibis. Some depictions of Thoth have the head of a baboon instead of an ibis. For this reason, ancient Egyptians would have associated monkeys with knowledge and the moon. (11)

monkey portrait

Another baboon character in Egyptian mythology was associated with death and the underworld. (12)

The Baule people from the Ivory Coast worship the monkey god Gbekre. This monkey statue is an important object used during the rituals, because Gbekre is the God who judges the dead. Gbekre can also be a helpful guardian spirit which assists those in need as well. (13)

The Hemba people from Congo associate the chimpanzees with death and use the misi gwa so’o masks to symbolize life’s departure.

Monkey in Dreams

Monkey dreams can have a wide range of meanings because monkeys are such complex animals. In many cases, a monkey in a dream represents the self. Monkeys often reveal our instincts or our more basic impulses. Dreaming of a monkey may indicate a selfish urge or unsatisfied need.

Dreaming of a monkey that is happy or at ease indicates creativity and curiosity as well as social satisfaction.

Dreaming of multiple monkeys can indicate the need to be cooperative and generous.

monkey on a tree

In many cases, a monkey dream is a reminder to stimulate your mind and seek out opportunities to have fun. A bored monkey is a mischievous monkey, so to satisfy the monkey in you it is important to try new things and solve problems often.

Monkey Encounters and Omens

Encountering a monkey may be a sign of trouble on the horizon, however it can also indicate protection and guardianship. Because monkeys are so intelligent, a monkey encounter may be a reminder to use one’s head in order to overcome the approaching trouble.

monkey portrait

A monkey encounter may also be a reminder to curb your more selfish impulses. Exercising restraint and using careful judgment is one of the things that separates human behavior from that of monkeys and other primates.

Monkey Mythology and Folklore

The stories involving monkeys usually depict these funny creatures as clever tricksters but also capable of great deeds. Local folklore in Singapore speaks of a mysterious creature called the Bukit Timah Monkey Man. Similar in character to Bigfoot, people living in the Bukit Timah region have reported seeing a mysterious monkey man wandering through the jungle. (14)

Greek mythology describes two brothers, called Cercopes, who were changed into monkeys by the almighty Zeus. (15)

two monkeys on a tree

The folklore of Cambridgeshire in England describes a bizarre monkey-like creature which also resembles a dog. This mysterious cryptid is referred to as the “Shug Monkey.” (15)

Monkey Spirit Animal

The monkey spirit animal is related to playfulness, humor, light-heartedness, and joy. People with the monkey spirit are clever, mischievous, and creative.

The monkey spirit animal often comes into play when a person needs some extra fun in their life. The monkey spirit reminds us that play is just as important as work.

The monkey spirit can also feature in situations where complex or tricky problem-solving is required.

The monkey spirit animal often appears in those who have an insatiable curiosity. The monkey spirit animal longs to grow wiser, but is easily distracted and prone to taking shortcuts. It is important for people with this spirit animal to find ways to balance fun and discipline.

Monkey Totem Animal

The monkey animal totem embodies the virtues of adventurousness, enthusiasm, sociability, and vigor. The monkey totem is a fantastic reminder to go about each day with energy and optimism in order to attract more of the same.

The monkey totem is a symbol of practical jokes and good-hearted trickery. This is especially true for people with the monkey as their totem animal. People with this totem will do almost anything to make themselves or others laugh. It is important, though, that they learn to restrict their fun to the appropriate times and places so as not to disrupt or offend others.

The baboon totem is associated with judging and defending against danger. It is a powerful guardian for families.

monkey on a tree

The monkey totem may also be a source of courage. Monkeys are bold and brash and rarely back down from a challenge. The monkey totem teaches us not to be intimidated by bullies and to trust in our strength and instincts.

Monkey Power Animal

The monkey power animal is all about creativity. This power animal is especially useful during challenging situations where innovative thinking is needed.

Additionally, the monkey power animal helps us to recharge. The monkey is a great animal to call on during periods of exhaustion or burnout. The monkey teaches us that rest and fun are both important pieces of fuel needed in order to be productive.

monkey on a tree

The monkey power animal can also be helpful in social situations. The monkey’s power allows people to forge connections quickly through shared laughter and generosity. The monkey power animal is especially helpful for socially uncomfortable or introverted people when tackling group settings.

Monkey Tattoo Meaning

Since monkeys have different symbolic meanings in different cultures worldwide, it is hard to pinpoint an exact meaning that encompasses all monkey tattoos. Associated with wisdom, protection, fertility, or justice, a monkey tattoo might have multiple interpretations. It depends on what the design represents for yourself.

If you decide on a tattoo depicting the Monkey King, then you should pay special attention to the Chinese meaning of the monkey. Many people born under the monkey zodiac sign choose Chinese inspired monkey designs for their monkey tattoos

These zodiac sign monkey tattoos are pretty common, and they symbolize the traits received from this zodiac sign. Sometimes, the Chinese character for the monkey is inked instead of an image.

monkey tattoo on a hand

Tattooing the Monkey King is a bold act, as this character is associated so strongly with rebellion and might as well as spiritual growth and enlightenment. Sun Wukong is also a powerful symbol of discipline and redemption. 

However, some monkey tattoos have little to do with spirituality and instead represent a person’s love for a particular character. Examples of beloved monkey characters include Curious George, Abu, and Raffiki. 

A monkey skull tattoo is symbolic of death and destruction.

Conclusion

The mischievous monkey may not seem like the wisest of creatures, but nature always has something to teach us. As fellow members of the primate family and as inhabitants of this beautiful planet, monkeys remind us to appreciate the small blessings which we might otherwise take for granted. The monkey’s playful nature reminds humanity to find the fun in each day. Even ordinary things can be fun with the right mindset.

Most of all, though, monkeys remind us of the joy of being human. They are our cousins and our delight in them only reflects the gift of human life and all life on this planet!

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