Got caught monkeying around, eh? Did she make a monkey out of you? Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Our lexicon abounds with expressions that use monkeys to represent what we mean, in sometimes obscure ways. But the most famous of all, are that trio of non-speaking primates who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
The origins of the phrase and the representation, is more hotly contested than whether the toilet paper roll should be hung with the loose end over, or under. Can the birth of this moral platitude be laid at anyone’s doorstep? Well, follow us down that convoluted road and we’ll see if we can locate the proud parent(s).
BR>There is a general perception that the expression is Japanese in origin, primarily because of the very famous 17th century Nikko Toshogo shrine where a carving of three monkeys can still be seen, accompanied by the admonishment “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru”. Literal translation gives you “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. Another piece of supporting evidence is that the oldest figures of monkeys found in the three classic poses, are a specific species – the Japanese Snow Monkey. Oddly enough, there is a second Japanese expression “mimai, kukumai, hansumai”, which means “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I say nothing”, but this has never been paired with the statues. The first expression however, may explain the association with monkeys. In Japanese, the “zaru” suffix is the auditory sound for “saru” which translates as “monkey”.
But wait! There are theorists who believe the expression traveled to Japan courtesy of a Bhuddist monk in the 8th century, having brought with him stories of the Indian god Vadrja, with his multiple arms, covering the eyes, ears and mouth, and thus spawning the poses and related directives. This has some foundation rooted in the Japanese celebration of “koshin”, a night on which the people stayed up to pray to the god Shuomen Kongo, asking him to forgive their sins. Scrolls and other images of this ritual, show a multi-armed god like Vadrja, as well as the three monkeys with hands over their ears, eyes and mouths.
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