Saturday, August 25, 2018


There is nothing ostensibly remarkable about my grandfather’s village, Mytilinioi, in eastern Samos. Founded on the side of a hill, the sleepy settlement moves stubbornly but surely, to an archetypal rhythm of rural life, that has deserted many of the more commercial Greek islands.

The very name Mytilinioi is suggestive of a foreign provenance for its inhabitants. Legend holds variously that the village was either settled by earthquake-striken refugees from Mytilene, in Lesbos, in the 1700s, or, settled somewhat earlier, by Mytilenians at the behest of Kılıç Ali Pasha, an Italian convert to Islam in 1549, which is how the village received its current name. My own people, like most of the modern day inhabitants, settled in the region from Asia Minor, separated from the island by nothing more than a narrow channel. Although the village has a distinct late nineteenth century, Aegean fin de siècle feel about it, it is pervaded by a strange conflicting sentiment that it is both of the island, and yet, not of it. It is a feeling reinforced by the inobtrusive presence of remains of cyclopean walls in its vicinity, a crumbling witness to the works of long forgotten ancestors who now underscore their descendants’ lives with mute protest at their consignment to oblivion, even as they are trampled underfoot.

There is a charnel house to the memory of those whose existence pre-dates even that of the Cyclopeans, in the village. For the land around Mytilinioi encloses a remarkable array of fossils from the Miocene epoch, some twenty five million years ago. As farmers till their fields, they uncover prodigious fossil bones, gleaming within the red earth, the remains of extinct precursors of modern species of horses, giraffes, elephants and rhinoceroses. These are lovingly conserved in the Paleontological Museum, along with a display proudly exhibiting the skull of a Samotherium, a type of extinct giraffid of the Miocene, serving, according to some archaeologists, as the inspiration for the depiction of the monsters fought by Hercules on ancient Greek vases.

 Also on display is the ‘kaplani,’ a type of Anatolian leopard immortalised in Marxist author Alki Zei’s famous children’s book about the Metaxas Dictatorship: “Wildcat Under Glass.”  This kaplani would swim across the straits of Mycale to Samos in order to feast upon Samian sheep and goats, before it was finally cornered in a cave, killed and stuffed for posterity. The Museum also unnervingly houses a collection of stuffed native Australian animal souvenirs, all of which appear to have their origins in the Victoria Market; mementoes, from those who have gone abroad and who are destined to leave their bones there, instead of their own bone bespattered birthplace. This is a people who, being of primordial provenance, have no conception of antiquity or what to do with it. Instead, past, present and future conflate into a singular existence that bestrides eternity.

In this, they are no different from the ancients who, unbeknownst to their antecedents, trod the rich incarnadine earth before them. Unearthing impossibly gigantic femurs and otherworldly scapulae in the course of their daily endeavours, the ancient Samians, reverently deposited them in their own archetype of the Paleontological Museum, the great temple of Hera on Samos. Archaeologists excavating the altar of that temple have discovered a large fossilised thigh bone from Mytilinioi, dedicated in the seventh century BC. Unlike their descendants, totally disconnected from their environs, the Samians of old, looked upon their ossified discoveries with awe. For them, they bore witness to the supernatural made manifest upon the earth, a battle between wild forces, untamed and a good deal of slaughter.

In the mythology of the ancients, the god of ritual madness and revelry,  Dionysus, was making his way from India to Greece, when he encountered a band of antagonistic Amazons near the sanctuary of the goddess Artemis, at Ephesus. That temple, one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World was constructed upon a sanctuary said to have been founded by the Amazons themselves. A battle ensued and the historian Plutarch takes up the story: Amazons, flying before Dionysus from the coasts of Ephesus, fell upon Samos, and thereupon Dionysus, rigging up his ships wafted over.”When he caught up with the hapless Amazons on Samos, according to Plutarch, “joining battle,  [Dionysus] slew an abundance of them about that place.” In his satirical masterpiece ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel,’ Rabelais describes the manner of the Amazon’  as a “phlebotomy.” The site where so much Amazon blood was shed, seeping into the ground and dyeing it forever a crimson hue, was thereafter named Πάναιμα (Panaema) meaning ‘All-Blood.’  That place is the village Mytilinioi, and the fossils the ancients found there were considered by them to be the remains of Dionysus’ slain Amazons. Even the large tusks unearthed from the red earth were considered to be the remains of the god’s war elephants, transported by him from India and were thus reverently offered to the temple of Hera. In that temple, we find one the most ancient depictions of an Amazon: a fragment of a helmeted, spear-carrying warrior woman, clad in a spotted leopard skin.

Though the name Panaema slowly faded away in the aftermath of successive population movements occasioned by constant war and instability in the region, the introduction of Christianity, and the coming of Islam, the modern re-naming of the blood-soaked location of the Amazons’ demise as Mytilinioi, is inordinately symbolic. For according to Stephanus of Byzantium, quoting the ancient historian Ephorus of Cyme, Mytilene, in Greek mythology was an Amazon, the sister of Amazon Queen Myrina, who ruled most of Asia Minor, including Anaea, a city just across the water from Samos, named in honour of a homonymous fallen Amazon, all of whom fought in the battle against Dionysus, at Panaema.

Despite the passage of time, Amazons can still be found in Mytilinioi these days. They are the hardy women that have experienced a life-time of tribulation, wars, privation and hardship and yet still endure, their sweat and tears seeping into the ground and mingling with that of their illustrious sisters. Some of them still linger, across the seas, in the other lands they have settled in, fleeing the wrath of Dionysus. Though diminutive, their shadows loom large over their less competent angst ridden and ennui laden descendants, even as they diminish.  My grandmother, though slightly less than five feet tall, was one of them, and a corner of Moonee Ponds will be forever soaked with the fluids of her life’s essence.

The Palaeontological Museum of Mytilinioi sits adjacent to my family’s fields. The first time I visited Samos, soon after the death of my Amazonian grandmother, I stood on that blood-red land, a place which we have long abandoned and in which we are barely remembered, and ran its Amazon-infused soil again and again through my fingers. In the motion of the soil particles flowing from my palm down back into the ground, the identity of the uncanny, otherworldly creature crossing the liminal zone between Asia Minor and Greece, the known and the unknown worlds, became blurred. The notion that the kaplani and the Amazons mediate between worlds became compelling: East and West, human and animal, aquatic and terrestrial, native and foreign, and, in a place steeped in ancient slaughter, life and death. These dichotomies are strangely drawn together in the manifest victory of the (barely) civilised over the barbarous mediated by the preserved trophy skin of the kaplani: it claims kinship with the picture of the leopard-skin clad Amazon provided as an offering to the temple of Hera only a few kilometres away. In final irony over the slain Amazon who wore its pelt, the kaplani, the most-likely extinct Panthera pardus tulliana, was an animal associated as much with the cult of Dionysus, as it was with the Orient.

As the sun languidly set over the Paleontological Museum of Mytilinioi, bathing my ancestral fields in streams of vermillion, I no longer knew where I was. An inherited vision of my grandfather standing in the exact same spot, just after a succession of bloody wars, resolving  that this land had become saturated with blood to the point where it could absorb no more, assailed my eyes. My grandfather turned his back on Panaema. And as dusk turned to darkness, I embraced the identity of the kaplani, swimming across the dichotomies of my own existence, becoming in the process, like the Amazons, extinct. As I oriented myself sanguinely towards my home across the seas, the voices of those other, demented victims of Dionysus irrepressible impetus rose up from the earth to taunt me:  “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…” At Panaema, Mytilinioi, the terminal point, all running stops and all departures begin.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 August 2018