Monkeys in Aegean Image and Imagination – Karen Polinger Foster, Yale University

Ein Beitrag von Imke Fleuren.

On the 7th of January, the Research Training Group 1876 welcomed Professor Karen Polinger Foster from Yale University to give a lecture on the representation and perception of vervet monkeys in the ancient Aegean. The main region of interest is Thera (modern Akrotiri), and more specifically localities Beta 6 and Xeste 3, where Bronze Age wall scenes have been found in situ.

Blue-coloured vervet monkeys are depicted at the Beta 6 complex. Especially noteworthy are the colours of their faces: they are black and white. Real adult vervet monkeys have black faces, and the faces of their young are pink. However, the colour of the young monkeys starts to change when they are a few weeks old, and their faces become completely black when they are about 3 months old. Exactly this transitional phase from infancy to adulthood is represented in this scene. The Aegeans are known for their particular interest in times of transition and change. Furthermore, the accurate depiction of these characteristics indicates that the artists were familiar with the animals.
An intrinsic knowledge about these monkeys also becomes clear when looking at the blue colour in which they are depicted. Even though the fur of real vervet monkeys is greyish-silvery, the use of blue paint seems to be based on actual characteristics of these animals. In art, the colour blue is often used to represent silver. Furthermore, the fur of real vervet monkeys can have a blue hue in a certain light and their skin is blue. Lastly, the male reproductive organs of this species stand out because of their blue colour.

The monkeys depicted in Beta 6 become especially interesting when looking at the wall scenes of Xeste 3. The "wounded girl" on the ground floor fertilises the ground with her blood, whereas the picking of saffron is seen on the top floor. The depicted women have red fingernails, which is a result of plucking the crocus stigmas. These scenes therefore show the different stages of saffron production: fertilisation, picking and separation of the stigmas. 

It should be mentioned that saffron is extremely expensive and the production process is very time-consuming. The flowers have to be picked in the morning before they open, because otherwise they will dry out. Furthermore, the stigmas have to be pulled out of the flower one by one. Nowadays, the picking and plucking of the flowers is often done by women, and the perfume of the large piles of blossom "waste" can become quite overwhelming and intoxicating for the workers.

Apart from these aphrodisiac and hallucinatory properties, the saffron crocus has some additional qualities that make it special. The flower comes up before the leaves and it is not seen in spring, but blooms in fall. Seemingly out of nothing and at an odd time of the year, a flower appears. This corresponds with one of the most important aspects of Minoan experience: the epiphany.  

In this respect, it is interesting to look at the seated woman found at the upper scene. She is accompanied by two "exotic" animals, namely an Aegean griffin and a vervet monkey. Purple saffron flowers are painted on her cheek and on her dress. Furthermore, an "exchange" of saffron flowers takes place between the woman and the monkey. According to Professor Foster, the latter could be interpreted as an intermediate between the realm of the gods and reality.  

This link between monkeys, saffron and women also becomes clear when looking at one of the saffron pickers. She is wearing a blue "monkey-cap" which represents the fur of the vervet monkey. Also, it has a light band at its base, which corresponds with the white band of fur seen on the faces of vervet monkeys. Interestingly, depictions of vervet monkeys picking saffron flowers are found at Knossos.

Apart from the mentioned examples, crocus decoration is omnipresent in Minoan art. The flowers are often seen as decorative elements on, for example, ceramics or as a pattern on dresses. Also, many seals show a theme that combines monkeys, women and flowers.

The connection between monkeys and women, or monkeys engaging in human activities is not typically Aegean. In ancient Egypt and Classical antiquity monkeys are, for example, depicted picking fruit or making music. In the medieval world, however, the monkey rather represents a pagan element. Lastly, at the singeries of Château de Chantilly we come across a familiar theme: a woman is seen sitting on cushions, while the perfume of incense offered by a monkey is wafting up to her.