The Kaplani in the Window. A Taxidermy Mount at the Natural History Museum of the Aegean

Kaplani, Natural History Museum of the Aegean

On the Greek Island of Samos, a place famous since antiquity for its fossils,1 at the town of Mytilliní, is situated the Natural History Museum of the Aegean (NHMA), built by wealthy local enthusiasts of natural history, Constantine and Maria Zimalis.2 In 2008 I found myself there with my family: my wife Gina Aylward, son Jack Aylward-Williams, and my sister Sue Williams, preparing to enter the museum. What we found there has been with me ever since. The amateur (by which I mean the lover of, from the French amour) figures largely in the displays and exhibits at the Natural History Museum of the Aegean, and makes the place all the more wonderful and engaging. The institution houses a range of exhibits, from the famous Pleistocene fossils of Samos to geological and botanical specimens, Samiot folk history and costume. There is also a zoology hall filled with taxidermy mounts that are, in many senses, profound. We encountered a listing polar bear, a collection of Australian animals sent by Greek ex-pats, truly terrifying local fauna and a partly consumed entomological collection.

In the taxidermy hall one also finds a famous exhibit called the Kaplani (Καπλάνι, which translates to ‘Tiger’) – an astonishing mount – that indicates just how difficult it is to reconstruct a specimen without specific reference to the animal in life. This object is at one and the same time a tragic fly-blown and abject thing, and something funny and ridiculous in the form that it now takes. As a model of nature, it is an object more of aesthetic rather than of scientific merit. It is the story of how it came to be here, its acquisition and inclusion within a museum of natural history that seeks also to celebrate social and folk history, that elevates this object from a failed experiment in taxidermy to something that is profound in its social and political references and hidden cultural resonance. The Kaplani is a celebrated cultural object beyond Samos and throughout Greece. It is a fame mostly brought about by it being the subject of a children’s story from 1963 by Marxist writer Alki Zei that also informed the name of the exhibit: Wildcat Under Glass (or The Kaplani in the Window, as it is translated on the interpretation board at the museum).3 This semi-autobiographical novel has been published around the world, and is a source of great pride for Samiots.

Looking into the history behind the Kaplani, by repute, the animal swam a narrow channel between the Mykale Peninsula of Turkey and Samos – probably making landfall at the nearest point to Psilli Amos (Ψιλη Αμμος) at some point in the late nineteenth century (somewhere between 1856-1888; accounts vary). Once ashore, it began to prey upon the sheep and goats in the area. Finally the creature took up residence within a cave, from which it continued to attack local domesticated animals. The animal’s lair was discovered by two brothers who together with local inhabitants (shades of James Whale’s 1933 film Frankenstein come to mind) sealed off the entrance to the cave, waiting for three months until they reckoned that the beast had died of hunger or thirst. However, the Kaplani had evidently survived by drinking water that had seeped into the cave, and by eating the remains of old kills. One brother entered the cave – and was not only attacked by the desperate animal but also mortally wounded in the struggle. The second brother, a well built man, known locally as Cyclops because he had lost an eye, in his grief and vengeance finally killed the beast by strangulation. The creature, the Tiger as they called it, was subsequently mounted and installed in the elaborate vitrine that we find at the museum today.

There is something undoubtedly romantic about this curious episode – the mysterious phenomenon of displaced big cats (ABCs) of our own time is a myth that feeds off similar stories of other, of foreign or alien. The nature of this narrative is dramatic, with the uncanny, otherworldly creature crossing the liminal zone between Turkey and Greece. The notion that the Kaplani mediates between worlds is compelling: East and West, human and animal, aquatic and terrestrial, and at the point that we encounter it, living and dead. Further, these dichotomies are also made manifest in the victory of the supposedly civilised over the savage mediated by this displayed trophy skin: it seems that the creature is a specimen of the Anatolian or Asia Minor Leopard Panthera pardus tulliana,4 an animal associated as much with the cult of Dionysus, as it is with the Orient.

During my visit to the museum, two narratives conflated; they overlapped and took on a significance that is largely the result of association and context, a sort of psychogeography that overlays the story of the Kaplani and myths concerning the god Dionysus. I found myself drawn to this abject thing, I am fascinated by the sheer mess of the thing – the misshapen, abraded face, worn ears, and wrinkled, cylindrical body. Somewhere, sometime this was as beautiful an animal as Dionysus was a beautiful god.

Dionysus, is often represented by the Leopard, along with other creatures naturae ferae. This ancient god, like the Kaplani, is also an alien, a creature that mediates between extremes; he is the stranger from the East who arrives, bringing the joy, chaos, debauchery and the terror of the wild to the civilised.5 The parallels between the story of the trials, death and flaying of the Kaplani and that of Euripides’ Dionysus in The Bacchae are profound.6 They serve to reveal why the Kaplani taxidermy mount is such a significant, resonant object within the culture that now possesses it. It will be remembered that the beautiful, androgynous and lithe Dionysus arrives from the Orient at Thebes:

From far off lands of Asia,

From Tmolus the holy mountain,

We run with the god of laughter…

 

As he shakes his delicate locks to the wild wind,

And amidst the frenzy of song he shouts like thunder:

‘On, on! Run, dance, delirious, possessed!

You, the beauty and grace of golden Tmolus…’7

The underlying narrative of our Anatolian Leopard, the opportunistic predator, also gives rise to this vision of beauty and of the joy of the wild – the creature from the uncivilised East invading the West – beautiful, like nature, but dangerous, unpredictable and feared.

In The Bacchae, Dionysus, his wild and chaotic ways disapproved of by the civilised and conservative King Pentheus, is denied his dues as a deity. Pentheus attempts to curb The Bacchanale, and to imprison Dionysus. The King plots to contain and to control the wild god, ultimately seeking to kill and to scalp him. In response to this heresy, Dionysus has his revenge and becomes savage in his retribution, which is acted out through the women of Thebes in the most violent and literally ‘uncivilised’ ways as possible:

Howling in triumph. One carried off an arm,

Another a foot, the boot still laced on it. The ribs

Were stripped, clawed clean; and women’s hands, thick

Red with blood

Were tossing, catching, like a plaything, Pentheus’ flesh.

His body lies – no easy task to find – scattered…

 

A mother’s hand, defiled

With blood and dripping red

Caresses the torn head

Of her own murdered child!8

And so, I stare at the Kaplani, and think about its story and my thoughts converge – they link myths with place, and with objects – the taxidermy mount before me exists in a place that houses fossilised bones that evidence other myths for other peoples at other times. I reflect upon the shock of wet, gory violence, predatory, vengeful, brutal, the tearing of skin, rending of limbs, of blood, of Pentheus’ immolation and the process of taxidermy preparation.

As I stare at the Kaplani, I think of Dionysus.

Later that day, in the heat of the afternoon, Gina, Jack, Sue and I are the sole customers of a welcoming and exceptional taverna in the town square of Mytilliní. The proprietress, with the greatest care, Maenad-like, doting on the young Jack, ensured that we were sustained and nurtured as we waited for the taxi that she had hunted down for us.

The taverna was called the Dionyssos.


 

1 Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, vol. 1. (London: Penguin, 1957) pp. 104-5; A. Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myths in Greek and Roman Times (New Jersey: Princeton, 2011).

2 G. Jouni, ed., Samos: Ecotouristic Guide of the Aegian (sic), trans. C. Sideris (Samos: Natural History Museum of the Aegean, 1995).

3 A. Zei, Wildcat Under Glass (London: Henry Holt & Co., 1968).

4 M. Massetti, ‘Homeless Mammals from the Ionian and Aegean Islands’, in Bonn Zoological Bulletin, vol. 57, no. 2 (November 2010), pp. 367- 373. http://zfmk.de/BZB/Band_57_2/367-373_23_masseti.pdf

5 C. De Hoghton, ‘Dionysus’, in Man, Myth & Magic, no. 23 (1970), p. 634.

6 P. Vellacott, trans. Euripides. The Bacchae and Other Plays (London: Penguin, 1972) pp. 103-196.

7 Ibid., p. 193.

8 Ibid., p. 232.

 

Also see M. Dubin, The Rough Guide to Rhodes and the Dodecanese Plus the East Aegean (London, 1996).

Websites

http://www.nhma.gr

http://www.wn.com/Anatolian_leopard

www.bigcats.com

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As I stare at the Kaplani, I think of Dionysus.