There's currently a fascinating pair of exhibitions on at the Wellcome Collection. Infinitas Gracias is a selection of ex-voto paintings and offerings from Mexico, and I spent a very interesting couple of hours there. But it's the other exhibition, Charmed Life, that inspired this post.
I admit the contemporary art in the show didn't hold much interest for me, but I did like the amulets on display. They were collected by the folklorist Edward Lovett in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They consist of a large assortment of objects, from the everyday to the positively bizarre, that were used by Londoners for various magical purposes: to ward off bronchitis, nightmares or poverty, to ensure luck in marriage or gambling, and so forth.
Among them, I found a little statue of a monkey, 2 or 3 centimetres high, sitting in a praying position. The label under it said, "Jade Monkey of Silence." Most of the other objects had further information about where they'd been collected or what they'd been used for, but this one said simply that: "Jade Monkey of Silence."
As soon as I saw this, I knew I had to find out more. Why? Because in my living room at home, I had this:
My monkey isn't jade -- it's probably soapstone -- but otherwise it is very similar in size and style to the one in the exhibition. I bought it in a charity shop about ten years ago for a pound, figuring it was a tourist souvenir. Now it seems it may once have meant more to someone than that.
I asked a staff member at the Wellcome Collection if she could give me any more information about the "monkey of silence" and what powers it was meant to have. She was very friendly and helpful, but couldn't find anything. Looking through reference books didn't help either. Lovett's own book about his collection, Magic in Modern London, has been out of print for years and hasn't been put online; the price for a used copy ranges from £50 to £150.
Eventually I asked MetaFilter, where the consensus has been that the figurine is a "speak-no-evil" monkey that at some point got separated from the other two Wise Monkeys. MeFi users pointed me toward almost identical monkeys being sold on Etsy and eBay, and I found one that had been posted by a visitor to the BBC's History of the World in 100 Objects site. In each case, the owner/seller of the monkey had either found it or inherited it from somewhere; everyone agreed that the monkey was old, but no one seemed sure how old. At least one (the one on Etsy) has a hole in the base like mine; the finder mentions that it was found "strung on a very old silk cord along with an antique Catholic medal," which suggests it was indeed used as a sort of good luck charm.
If anyone has any further information or suggestions (or a cheaper source for Lovett's book), please leave a comment. I'd be delighted to hear from you.