Signifying monkey

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For the literary theory text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., see The Signifying Monkey.

The Signifying Monkey is a character of African-American folklore that derives from the trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu Elegbara. This character was transported with Africans to the Americas under the names of Exu, Echu-Elegua, Papa Legba, and Papa Le Bas. Esu and his variants all serve as messengers who mediated between the gods and men by means of tricks.[1] The Signifying Monkey is “distinctly Afro-American” but is thought to derive from Yoruban mythology, which depicts Echu-Elegua with a monkey at his side.[2]

Numerous songs and narratives concern the Signifying Monkey and his interactions with his friends, the Lion and the Elephant.[3] In general the stories depict the Signifying Monkey insulting the Lion, but claiming that he is only repeating the Elephant’s words. The Lion then confronts the Elephant, who soundly beats the Lion. The Lion later comes to realize that the Monkey has been signifyin(g) and has duped him and returns angrily.[4]

"The Signifying Monkey" is a classic routine originally on a comedy album by Rudy Ray Moore.


  1. ^ Gates, Henry Louis, "The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique on the Sign and the Signifying Monkey", in Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan (eds), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998, p. 988.
  2. ^ Gates, "The Blackness of Blackness", in Rivkin & Ryan (1998), p. 989.
  3. ^ For example, Cab Calloway's "The Jungle King (You Ain't Done a Doggone Thing)" (Mort Dixon, 1947), and Oscar Brown Jr.'s "The Signifying Monkey".
  4. ^ Myers, D. G. “Signifying Nothing”. New Criterion 8 (1990): 61.