How Monkeys Came to Be

adapted from a Palestinian folktale

Monkeys and people once were one.
For monkeys had from Adam come.
As Adam’s sons in every way,
Those monkeys looked like us today.
Yet by mere happenstance was fated
That monkeys from us deviated.

A woman once in her clay oven
Was baking bread, when on a sudden,
As she arranged her dough around,
Her young son, squatting on the ground,
Let loose his bowels to defecate.
At first, she cursed in tones irate.
But then, with nothing near to wipe
The boy, she in her stress did pipe,
“Oh, Lord, help me!” God heard her cry
And dropped silk kerchiefs from the sky,
Seven in all to clean her son,
Yet she refused to use just one.
To use such precious silks to clean
Up dung, she thought, would be obscene.

Instead, she grabbed a hot flat cake
Of bread she had but freshly baked,
And as she swiped his buttocks with it,
The boy was changed that very minute.
And like the transformed leaves of autumn,
To scarlet turned his scalded bottom.

And thus today it is the same—
The monkey’s backside all aflame.
Still, hands and face our look retain
Though now deformed by that red pain.
May God in his grace guard, protect us,
That life to no such curse subject us.



The Monkey’s Judgment

adapted from a Korean folktale

Once, along a mountainside,
Near a frothy cataract,
Strolled a wolf and fox who spied
Meat beside the tangled tract.

Both lunged for the tender meat,
With both biting at one time,
Both fired to a frenzied heat,
As both cried, “It’s mine! It’s mine!”

Tug-‘o-war! Each holding tight!
Yet no one could win the booty,
Both sides matched with equal might.
Thus, the court must do its duty.

On the bench Judge Monkey sat,
Deemed the wisest in the land.
He’d resolve the beastly spat.
He’d decide with even hand.

He reviewed the evidence,
Scratched his left ear, then his right,
Thought through all the precedents
How he best might end the fight.

He at last his silence quit.
“Both at once beheld the prize.
Both have equal rights in it.
Thus, I half to each devise.”

Next, he ordered to be brought
Knife and scale into the court
That his judgment then be wrought
To conclude the wrangling tort.

He divided up the meat,
Watched the spring sink on its scale,
But the weights would not agree.
Justice came to no avail.

So, to make the verdict fair,
He cut off a little slice
From the heaviest then and there
That the weights be more precise.

But the sliver he’d just snipped—
Slick as grease he swallowed it—
Made the portion he’d just clipped
Lighter now by just a bit.

With his knife, he more incised,
Trimming down the stouter other.
Yet this made the meat he sliced
Slightly weigh less than its brother.

Now the former leaner piece
Weighed more than its lighter brother.
So, he sliced the more obese.
Ate the slice just like the other.

Things thus went throughout the trial—
Monkey eating every paring,
Seeking justice all the while,
Till was gone the meat for sharing.

When the judge their case adjourned,
Fox and Wolf with grumblings churned.
Both, though, had a lesson learned
And the courtroom ever spurned.



The Dancing Monkeys

adapted from an anecdote of Lucian of Samosata, second century A.D.

A prince once had some monkeys trained
To dance that he be entertained,
And being apt at imitation,
At court the beasts gained approbation.
For, when arrayed in robes and masks,
They danced just like aristocrats.
Their gay gambados on their paws
Were always capped by long applause.

A courtier, though, on one occasion,
Bent on a bit of perturbation,
A clutch of nuts threw on the floor
To end the troop’s esprit de corps.
The monkeys stopped their minuet
And instantly the nuts beset,
Pulled off their masks, and tore their clothes
As each fought each like savage foes.
And so the dance came to its close—
The monkeys to their nature heeding,
Forgetting all their courtly breeding.



Terry L. Norton is professor emeritus of literacy acquisition at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of Cherokee Myths and Legends, Thirty Tales Retold, and is the 2020 second place winner of the 2020 Poetry Translation Competition sponsored by The Society. In addition to The Society, his poems have appeared in Ekphrastic Review and Kakalak Review.

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4 Responses

  1. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Thank you for my morning monkey chuckle. These three highly amusing, well crafted poems adapted from historic folktales capture the naughty fun of these grin-inducing creatures. I’m sure every child will roar with laughter at the red bottom and learn a lesson from that fox and wolf trusting the monkey to mete out justice. I’m in my second childhood and I enjoyed every line.

    • Terry Norton

      Thank you for your kind words, Susan. I have enjoyed writing about our simian friends.

  2. Monty

    Good stuff, Terry. For a start, it was very thoughtful of you to pay homage to our ancestors; they’re fully deserving of our reverence. On top of which, all three pieces are very well written in a style that appears to be your own. I was slightly dismayed to note how many of your rhymes didn’t rhyme fully, but of the ones which did, there were some real captures: brought/wrought.. piece/obese.. paws/applause.. floor/corps.. foes/close.

    In the first piece, I feel that the last line of the first stanza warrants contention: “..monkeys from us deviated”. Some may say that us from monkeys deviated! But who knows?

    • Terry L. Norton

      Thanks, Monty for your comments. On the monkey deviation business, I went with the sense of the original prose tale.


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