ancient history

Understanding the Monkey on Your Back

Why does a monkey on the back represent drug or alcohol addiction?

by Matomah Alesha

ancient monkey statueIn ancient Egypt, apes (long-tailed monkeys and especially caped baboons) were respected; Nubian tribes had to provide them as tribute, and it was said … that they understood human speech and could learn better than many schoolchildren. Thoth (Djhuty), the god of wisdom, though usually portrayed with the head of an ibis, also appears as an old white caped baboon, sitting behind a scribe and overseeing his transcription of important texts.1

In the West, we sometimes hear the phrase “having a monkey on one’s back.” Not surprisingly, the earliest documented use of this phrase comes from ancient Kemet (Egypt). The first light of the monkey myth begins with a powerful man who not only deeply influenced the beliefs of ancient Kemet but went on to have a profound impact on the philosophy, language and mysticism found in ancient Greece and Rome.
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monkey on the backHis name is Tehuti, also known as Djeheuti, Djhowtey and Zehuti. Ancient Greeks and Romans called him Thoth and Hermes. Tehuti is the great scholar, messenger, and deity of writing, wisdom and learning. Tehuti, characterized with the head of a baboon, (sometimes an ibis) is credited with inventing writing, mathematics, engineering, astrology and the 365 day calendar in ancient Kemet. In the form of the baboon, he is known to be the premier scribe and one who thinks well.1 The baboon which is one of Tehuti’s animal symbols connects him to the illustrious and dutiful profession of scribes, divine measurement, magic and higher learning. Tehuti represents pure genius in ancient Kemetic history. His gifts were remarkable and far-reaching. He is known as a counselor and mediator of the gods and an assistant to Ausar in judging the souls in the underworld, also called Duat. As the symbol of the moon, his genius helped to regulate civil society. With his trusty guide and servant baboon mascot, Tehuti helped to create a renaissance of innovations and insights that created ripples in every direction of the known world.

In ancient Kemet, the name of this baboon is called Hedj wer. Monkey belong to the house of Sebek, in Kemetic pantheon. Sebek is the crocodile god of the waters who is also a protector, a healer and a force to invoke for vengeance. He is associated with Heru and is one of the fiercest guardians of the underworld.

The sacred monkey totem in Kemet is depicted as a white-faced baboon, sometimes shown looking over the shoulder of a diligent scribe.1 Some images found in Kemet depict god Tehuti sitting and taking dictation from a baboon seated on an altar. In the shape of the baboon, Tehuti directs and watches over the diligent efforts and practices of the scribe. The baboon is also a protector, inspirer and important guide of the profession. Baboons are also servants of Tehuti, carrying out important tasks, like monitoring the sprout of water clocks and guiding the process of weighing the hearts of the deceased.2

These are important activities of a deity who is thought to be a great measurer of all things. From the references provided it appears that the baboon is one of the important animal guides of the profession of scribe and those who are knowledge holders. Many professions in ancient communities had guiding animal totems. For instance, the society of chiefs could promote a lion or hawk guide, healers could have a dove emblem, and warriors could have a tiger or a leopard as a guide.1

Monkey Hedj Wer is seen as a mighty magician and skilled at reading all sorts of signs and hieroglyphics of the most sublime type. Sometime the baboon and Tehuti were two distinct persons but many illustrations show the two merged together, Tehuti as a man with the head of a baboon and in some cases the baboon proving itself a powerful icon of Tehuti himself. The baboons served the cause of the scribes, and they are symbols of the most powerful scribe himself, Tehuti. Baboons are the perfect reference because as simians they are carriers and decipherer of natural laws and mystical signs that was communicated to scribes. Also knowing how arduous the writing profession can be when we consider the whole time-consuming business of researching and organizing notes and images, a monkey on one’s back points to the passion and discipline one needs to organize and create books of reference and quality, particularly in an era when all these things were done by hand.

early scribeEarly scribes were in a very time-consuming profession where most of their time was divided between themselves, the blank page and their various unseen inspirations. Writing is an all absorbing habit and discipline that may suggest how the phrase, a monkey on one’s back first came about. But the monkey looking over one’s shoulder or being on one’s back was not a negative sign but more of a symbol of inspiration and connection to esoteric forms that where perceived as powerful and sacred. For the profession of the scribe, the monkey guide was one of the many types of unseen inspirations that encouraged this unique profession. Not quite the beautiful woman muse that we are use to but a muse nonetheless.

“There is a story in the Sinbad cycle about a tormenting ape-like creature that mounts a man’s shoulders and won’t get off, which may be the root of the term that we use today.” 1 Although it is likely that the metaphor continues before ancient Kemet. It could be even older but Kemet is where we see documentation of it emerging. Unlike the Kemetic metaphor, the monkey on your back in the Arabian Nights stories is not a good sign implicating the sacred art of writing, sign reading, magic and measuring but a curse. It is one place where the idea begins to degenerate from an auspicious sign to one of foreboding. It is not clear if the monkey on the back is a form of cursing in this reading, for monkeys in many mythologies all over the world are servants to shamans and priests with decided more power. They could be lone initiators but most sacred totemic beliefs provide a powerful Mother or Father figure somewhere in the background. Meaning they are usually working for somebody or on some great persons behalf. They are usually sent or maybe a goddess or god in disguise. In the Ramayana, Hanuman is the servant of Rama; in Kemet, Hedj Wer works on behalf of Mara and Heru and in Asia, monkey scholars and scribes work on behalf of Buddha and other like Oriental sages and wise ones. Thus a monkey on one’s back might be an initiatory stage for certain types who may be connected in some way to ancient languages, story telling and understanding sublime knowledge not accessible to others.

In 1860s, the term reappears again. This time it refers to a person who is carrying rage, anger and resentment, which is like an animal agitating their minds everyday. The images of the time support this with men and women shown with a fierce creature causing bewilderment, mental agitation, even madness. In the 1930s, the use became popular in narcotic jargon. A person with a monkey on his back is thought to be obsessive, addicted and even paranoid. It is definitely a sign of a bad habit like taking drugs. It became the perfect symbol for alcoholism and drug abuse. Don’t let that be the monkey on your back, drug rehabilitation centers are always available to give you the help you deserve. From there it became increasingly a means to describe a person who was focused in a negative preoccupation or absorption into some activity or goal. Anything that is nefarious or obsessive can be termed, having a monkey on one’s back. Those who are determined in purpose and convicted are called passionate and focused but not bewildered by a bad presence sitting on one’s back. This is very far removed from the older Kemetic form of a benign ape sharing wisdoms, deciphering sacred code and guiding the construction of papyrus.

The original meaning connected to Tehuti, observes an ape looking over one’s shoulder as an important act that allowed incredible and innovating cures, design and philosophy to emerge. The crafts of scribes is a habit of diligence, dedication and love needed to cultivate meaning, to reveal the hidden and to translate it into hieroglyphics, signs, and colors. More recently, in Western culture, this habit has become to suggest addiction, madness and obsession. It may be just another example of ancient myths and symbols falling into ruin or it could be insight into the hidden cycles and patterns of writers, one raw genius, the other an addict. Both with a clamorous and feisty monkey on their back.

H-Net org
Ancient Egypt
The Arabian Nights Entertainments by Andrew Lang and Richard Francis Burton, Publication: Raleigh, N.C. Alex Catalogue, ebook, (1850)
Word Wizard
Egypt Epiphany

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Matomah Alesha is a writer, artist, poet and an independent researcher with an interest in native culture, ancient mythology and goddess folklore. She has over ten years of experience as a researcher, writer, freelance artist and in healing with goddess ritual and mysticism. Born and raised in San Francisco, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona. For more information on the mythology and folklore of sacred simians, see Sako Ma: A Look at the Sacred Monkey Totem by Matomah Alesha,  Matam Press, 2004.


Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in Ancient Egypt

A university course explores the ancient Egyptian notions of divine experience and the ritual magic that assisted with it

by Amy Cowles

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A university course titled “Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll in Ancient Egypt” is now offered to freshmen at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The course explores the ancient Egyptian notions of divine experience and the ritual magic that assisted with it. The means of experiencing the gods in ancient Egypt often involved rituals that included drunkenness and music. Sounds fun right? But alcohol can take its toll if not consumed accordingly. Find great advice through and learn how you can obtain your health back.

The instructor, Betsy Bryan, is a professor of Egyptian art and archaeology and chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department. Bryan says, “Sexuality helped to guarantee the maintenance of world order and was important to all notions of life and death.”

Bryan specializes in the Egyptian New Kingdom (18th to 20th dynasties), spanning the time from 1567 B.C.E. to 1085 B.C.E. Photos from Bryan’s excavations and her related travels throughout Egypt are important teaching tools in the course. Using her laptop computer and a projector, Bryan lights up one wall of the classroom with slides of tomb art. Parsing the images, she helps her students see that the paintings are rich with sexual symbolism. For example, students learn that lettuce is featured in several scenes depicting feasts because the vegetable was considered an aphrodisiac. Figs appear in the paintings to echo love poems of the day, when the fruit was often shared between lovers. Actions associated with amorous behavior are also all over the tomb walls; women fixing their hair, beds being made and wives handing arrows to their husbands are all considered to be sexual gestures, Bryan says.

A web site that chronicles Bryan’s excavation each January at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, garners thousands of hits each winter. To see a day-to-day account of the 2005 excavation and to find links to digs dating back to 2001, go to

About the author

Amy Cowles is a news and information officer at Johns Hopkins University. For more information visit



The Real Holy Grail Has Nothing To Do With The Da Vinci Code or Jesus, Researchers Show

The origins of the Holy Grail, Philosopher’s Stone and Elixir of Life have been traced back 5,500 years to a cult in Mesopotamia that worshipped snakes and drank their venom and blood

[ad name=”Rectangle Text AdSense”] The quest for the meaning of the Holy Grail has been one of those great open questions of history. By using the most current historical and scientific information, researchers Philip Gardiner and Gary Osborn say they have untangled the truth behind the origins of the Holy Grail, and it is far from traditional Christian beliefs and the alternative interpretation made popular by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

Could it be that the much maligned serpent ought to be venerated instead of feared? Is it possible that the combination of snake venom and blood creates a potent medicine? What if this concoction, the evidence for which researchers Gardiner and Osborn discovered throughout the world, is really what the ancients meant as the Holy Grail, the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone?

Gardiner and Osborn believe they have found irrefutable evidence that not only does snake venom have healing properties but is also a doorway to spiritual enlightenment. Their findings, based on a wealth of detailed research on three continents, are revealed in the book The Serpent Grail: The Truth Behind the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.

According to Gardiner and Osborn, the origin of the grail legend has its roots centuries before Parsifal, King Arthur, Christ’s crucifixion and even the story of Genesis. Their account begins in ancient Sumer, located at the southern tip of what is now Iraq, in the era 3500 – 2000 BCE, with a seemingly bizarre cult. This cult both worshipped the serpent as a deity with awesome powers and drank a mixture of its venom and blood from a ‘sacred’ ceremonial chalice. By drinking this mixture the cult’s initiates were cured of disease and, it is claimed, their lives were prolonged.

The authors of The Serpent Grail believe this ancient cult spread from Sumer to the West and beyond, and that this is the root source not only of the Holy Grail, but also of the Elixir of Life and the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Serpent Grail uncovers evidence — often hidden in plain sight — to show the presence of a prehistoric serpent cult which spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece, and China to the West and demonstrates how legends borne out of serpent worship became absorbed into Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The book draws on archaeological sources from around the world as evidence to demonstrate that the knowledge regarding the benefits of drinking a mix of snake venom and blood was inculcated into the religious symbolism on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the surprising yet important sites featured in the book is the ancient city of Yaxchilan in Mexico where Gardiner discovered ceremonial images with remarkable similarities to the Christian Eucharist (The Serpent Grail pp 188-9.)

The Serpent Grail also offers a unifying theory regarding snake imagery and symbolism that is present throughout the history and religions of the world. It demonstrates an alternative reading of myths and fables such as St. Patrick’s driving the serpents from Ireland and shows how the shadow of the serpent cult can still be seen in both Christian architecture and the celebration of the Eucharist. As Philip Gardiner said after a research trip to Italy, “Rome, and especially the Vatican, is littered with serpent imagery. Inside the Vatican statues and sculptures link the serpent to both the grail and the Ark of the Covenant. Even the name Vatican bears the etymological imprint of the serpent: Vati = place; can = serpent.”

Finally, The Serpent Grail looks at modern scientific research to provide the proof for its historical theories. Research scientists in labs all over the world are discovering healing and life-extending properties in the complex proteins that make up snake venom — from treatment for tumors and cancers to relief from high blood pressure.

Dr. Zoltan Takacs, a herpetologist at Yale University, discovered in a research project of the Egyptian Cobra exactly why snakes are not susceptible to their own venom when they eat their prey. Takacs has discovered an amino acid present in the cobra’s blood molecules that prevents the venom from latching on to its target. Indeed this amino acid is evident in the blood of most venomous snakes which prevents them from poisoning themselves.

“It may be that the dilution of the venom with blood — especially the blood of the same snake, which itself acts as an antidote by protecting the snake from its own venom — produced a virtual cure-all for the ancients. This would explain why the blood element in all the mythical stories we looked at was so important, especially in those myths involving the snake or serpent.” (The Serpent Grail p 280.)

Philip Gardiner has spent sixteen years reading, researching and re-evaluating the historical evidence of the history of mankind, science, religion and philosophy. He believes much of orthodoxy is based on propaganda in one form or another. He is also the author of The Shining Ones.

Gary Osborn has been a writer on mysticism and esoteric traditions for over ten years. His articles cover subjects related to ancient mysteries, alchemy, mysticism, ancient shamanism, and the nature of human consciousness.

The Serpent Grail: The Truth Behind the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life
by Philip Gardiner and Gary Osborn, ISBN: 1842931296 Distributed 2006 by Publishers Group West, Berkeley, CA.