The hippopotamus is Othello

In an attempt to bone up on my Alfred Gell I’ve just finished his superb essay “Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artwork and Artwork as Traps.” (from Journal of Material Culture 1, but also reprinted in the anthology The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams). It is truly a wonderful piece and I reccomend it, like much of his work, to all and sundry.

The trap is both a model of its creator, the hunter, and a model of its victim, the prey animal. But more than this, the trap embodies a scenario, which is the dramatic nexus that binds these two protagonists together, and which aligns them in time and space. Our illustrations cannot show this because they either show traps awaiting their victims, or victims who have been already entrapped; they cannot show the ‘time structure’ of the trap. This time structure opposes suspended time, the empty time of ‘waiting,’ to the sudden catastophe that ensues as the trap closes. This temporal structure varies with the kind of trap employed, but it is not hard to see in the drama of entrapment a mechanical analogue to the tragic sequence of hubris-nemesis-catastrophe.

Consider the doomed hippopotamus (fig. 6.8) lulled into a sense of false security by sheer bulk and majesty. How many tragic heroes have suffered from the same hubristic illusions and have invited the same fate? If the chimpanzee who falls for Boyer’s trap [described earlier] is Faust, perhaps this hippopotamus is Othello. The fact that animals who fall victim to traps have always brought about their own downfall by their own actions, their own complacent self-confidence, ensures that trapping is a far more poetic and tragic form of hunting than the simple chase. The latter kind of hunting equalizes hunters and victims, united in spontaneous action and reaction, whereas trapping decisively hierarchizes hunter and victim. The trapper is God, or the fates, the trapped animal is man in his tragic incarnation.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at