Andrea Tellez ’21: Book VI, Chapter LII (Which Tells of a Howler Monkey)

Book VI, Chapter LII

Which tells of a howler monkey, the newest thing, whose match has never been seen until our times: a monkey that was part bird or fowl and sang excellently, like a nightingale or Calandra lark, and with many variations in its melody and song.

Translated by Andrea Tellez ‘21

What I will write here can very well be called a varied lesson, as Pedro Mejía had titled his book, which was just as well organized and elegant as it was pleasant to readers: in which, as in no other, I have read things that have amazed me so about what nature has accomplished among animals; and here we can stop to consider what is said about griffins, if it is true that the front half of the griffin is an eagle, and the back half is a lion. About this Isidore says in his Etymologies that griffins are half lion and half eagle, etc.[1]

Beyond what has been said, it should be noted that it is true that there are such animals, because in Leviticus, Chapter XI, the Holy Scriptures mention the griffin: and briefly glossing over the text, it says that the griffin is 4 feet tall, with head and wings similar to the eagle’s, and the rest of its body being or resembling the lion’s: and it dwells in the hyperborean mountains, and causes many evils to men and horses. And the treatise, called De proprietatibus rerum,[2] says more, that this griffin lays emeralds in its nest to protect it against the beasts that dwell nearby.

It has been my habit in the telling of these stories to offer witnesses in the case of things I have not seen and about what I have been informed by others; and regarding what I noted before about the griffin, another thing has come to my attention that is no less marvelous: they say that in the southern lands of Perú they have seen a howler monkey, of the sort with the long tail, with half the body and arms and head all covered by brownish gray and other combinations of colored feathers; and the back half and legs and tail were covered by soft and even hair of a reddish color, like a clear tawny. This monkey was very tame and domesticated and barely bigger than a palm and belonged to an Indian cacica, a woman of high rank, sister to the Inca Amaro, brother to the great prince Atabaliba (Atahualpa). This sister, after the kingdom fell to the Christians, married a young Spanish, a man very skilled as a horseman and at arms, a son of Bautista Armero, a man well known in the court of the Emperor, our Lord. I mention all this because this young man is well known, and he begged his wife to give him this monkey so that Captain Per Ansurez could give it to the Empress, our lady, of glorious memory, and she so did: and this captain that I have mentioned was bringing it when some of his servants, in a moment of carelessness when they were fooling around, stepped on the cat and killed it without meaning to. I tell of this disaster, which brought unhappiness to the human eyes that did not get to see this animal, to give thanks to God who created it so different from all others in the world; and there are in this city of Santo Domingo trustworthy men who claim they saw and held this monkey in their hands, and it was as I have said, and that it had teeth: and what is no less marvelous is that the monkey, placed on the captain’s shoulder or where he was tied up, sang when it wanted to, like a nightingale or Calandra lark, starting by chirping and little by little raising its voice, much higher than those birds usually do, with many or more variations in its song: it was a very enjoyable and sweet pleasure to listen to its melody; and this lasted a while as is sometimes the case with singing birds. A gentleman named Diego de Mercado, a native of the town of Madrigal, and another nobleman named Tomás de Ortega, travelling in the company of the aforementioned captain (who, having reached this city as rich men married here and remain our neighbors and are people who in this and more can and should be believed) tell of what they have seen as witnesses, because they saw this monkey many times and heard it sing.

Some would have it that this animal is born from adultery or intercourse between some bird and some monkey that could conceive this other species that is of both kinds. But I am of a different opinion; it is my belief (considering some things that should be pondered about the incompatibility of the sexual and reproductive parts of birds and monkeys), that such an animal was not born of adultery, but that it is its own natural species, like griffins are; since the master of nature has achieved greater creations and wonders, may he be praised and blessed forever more.

It has really weighed on me that the infant did not arrive alive nor dead to this city: the truth is that if I had seen it dead where I could have done it, I would have given my cape for a bit of salt to salt it and thus preserve it, so that many more could have seen it, to praise God for his wonders; and I think in Spain, or wherever there are men of good understanding, they would have valued a sight of it. There are currently in our city four men who saw this monkey alive; and I would prefer a sight of it than of all those rich emeralds that have come from those parts; and I will see many more before I see a similar animal, expect if, as I have said is my opinion, more of its sort can be found in time: which I don’t doubt, since the secrets of this grand world of our Indies will always show new things to those now here and to those who will come after us to this contemplation and interpretation of God’s works, to whom nothing is impossible among everything it pleases him to make and show us. And therefore, the Catholic reader should remember what Hilary of Poitiers says: “God can do more than what the mind of man can understand.”[3]

[1] Griphes vocatur, quod sit animal pennalum et quadrupes. Hoc genus ferarum in Hyperboreis montibus nascitur. Omni parte corporis leones sunt: alis et facie quilis símiles, equis vehementer infesti. Nam et homines vivos discerpunt. Book Xii, Chapter Dee Bestiis. [GFO]

[2] Book XII, Chapter 20. [GFO]

[3] Plura potest Deus facere, quam intellectus intelligere Lib. De Trinitate. [GFO]