“There’s always the hyena of morality at the garden gate, and the real wolf at the end of the street” – D.H. Lawrence
The hyena, which has been around for roughly 15-20 million years, has generally been viewed with contempt by those cultures living in geographic proximity to them. This is likely due to the fact that we have the sneaking suspicion that hyenas are laughing at us, mostly because hyenas are laughing at us. In a way this is unfair. Monkeys appear to be laughing at us as well, but everyone regards them as endlessly amusing and fun at parties. We make comedies about them, teach them sign language, and imagine them evolving as a foil to human arrogance (see Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Nobody equates monkeys with sorcerous activities and evil intentions. Hyenas (despite numerous morphological and behavioral similarities to our favorite domesticates, cats and dogs) on the other hand, have a long and frightening history of marginality, monstrosity, implication in insidious crimes, and association with generally uncouth behavior. Our negative view of the hyena is a mix of myth and reality. They are nocturnal, which bothers us as we are not. In fact, we are so fond of the sun, that our monsters typically can only find gainful employment at night. They are regarded as scavengers and as eaters of rotting flesh, and as a species particularly enamored of refrigeration and barbecues, we experience a certain revulsion in their culinary choices (this is actually now believed to be false as hyenas appear to kill 95% of what they eat and dine on fruit as well). Hyenas have traditionally been regarded as cowardly, but this is somewhat unfounded, as not many species (including humans) are keen on arguing with a lion over dinner, unless one is carrying a very big gun, or has a whole parcel of hyena buddies at his back. Among the other atrocities attributed to hyenas are grave-robbing, malign influence over human souls, the accumulation of enormous collections of bones which they deposit in caves to later gloat over, hermaphroditism (incorrect), stupidity, mean-spirited trickery, outright treachery (just look at The Lion King), and kidnapping of children. Of course, then there is their blood-curdling laughter, which so closely resembles that of a hysterical human. On the whole, our view of the hyena has been awfully uncharitable (consider the description by none other than U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.)
In fact, the hyena is a singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity. Usually feeding on carrion, and often hesitating to attack even the weakest animal if it is unhurt and on its guard, the ravenous beast will, on occasions, even when single but especially when in troops, assail very formidable creatures. A troop has been known to kill a half-grown rhinoceros which had returned to the body of its mother, slain by hunters. Not only sheep and goats but donkeys, mules, cattle, and dogs are at times destroyed. In killing men, women, and especially children, a man-eating hyena will penetrate big villages; one took a native from a hut in Nairobi itself. When in troops they have been known to seize animals that have been wounded by hunters, and to attempt to stand off the hunters. We have never known them in such a case actually to attack the hunters. But under certain circumstances they do attack lions, which seems quite as extraordinary. Ordinarily the hyenas merely attend the lion at respectful distance, eager to get whatever he leaves, and they occasionally pay with their lives if they grow too impatient (Roosevelt, 1914, p259-260).
This puts the average hyena in quite a bind. He’s a coward if he sizes up the competition and decides it’s not worth the effort, but vicious when he gets all gangster and goes after a formidable opponent despite the odds. He’s depicted as scared of humans, but he’s credited with standing off hunters and dragging folks from their huts. I feel angry at the contradictions on behalf of hyenas, and if I were a self-respecting Hyaenidae, I too would be thinking about getting my nefarious purpose on. Hey, if you’re going to do the time, you may as well commit the crime. The primary question is where did it all go wrong for hyenas? How did the mammal become a monster? The extinct (since about 13,000 years ago) Cave Hyena, a much larger European version of the African Spotted Hyena, was depicted by Neanderthals in Upper Paleolithic cave paintings and rock art in France, but more as an important part of a balanced diet than as a monstrosity, and even among our hominid relatives it appears that the hyena still got short shrift as its scarcity relative to artistic depictions of other animals has been interpreted to imply that the hyena was low caste in the animal worship hierarchy. Now that’s just plain insulting coming from a hairy, hunchbacked biped, with brow ridges and an occipital bun. Not like Neanderthals were winning any beauty contests in the animal world. Of course, basing our interpretation of pre-human theology on the scribblings of a few Stone Age cave artists is a little like trying to understand the Catholic Church through the works of Andy Warhol. If you’re a creative post-modernist, you can probably come up with something. It doesn’t mean you are right, and he’s deader than a mackerel, much like the Neanderthals (although look around you—speaking purely as an unbiased anthropologist, I sometimes think I can see physionogmic evidence of interbreeding between modern man and Neanderthals, not so much between modern man and Andy Warhol), so neither of them can offer much clarification.
For those Egyptologists and modern occultists out there, who are at this point no doubt thinking about Anubis, let me point out that there is a long history of confusing the smaller, more dog-like species referred to as the jackal with hyenas. This is comprehensible in that jackals and hyenas share more or less the same ecological niche i.e. little doggie-like omnivores and scavengers. On average though, hyenas (which are the larger of the two) are far more likely to behave like predators. And then there’s the laugh. Anubis, Egyptian God of the Afterlife, had a jackal head. Consequently, he got some respect. There is no evidence out there of hyena gods. And despite the fact that many scholars suggest that Anubis was depicted with a jackal head because of the association of jackals with graveyards e.g. digging up tasty, newly buried corpses to eat, nobody was going around casting nasty aspersions at jackals. Insult to injury for our hyenas friends. In Africa, from Tanzania, to Ethiopia, to Senegal, to Guinea-Bissau, there are legends describing the strange occult powers of hyenas, involving either the magical properties of various anatomical bits of the hyena, the existence of were-hyenas, or association with witches.
Africa is especially rich in myths of man-lions, man-leopards, man-hyenas. In the Kanuri language of Bornu, there is grammatically formed from the word “bultu,” a hyena, the verb “bultungin,” meaning “I transform myself into a hyena;” and the natives maintain that there is a town called Kabutiloa, where every man possesses this faculty. The tribe of Budas in Abyssinia, iron-workers and potters, are believed to combine with these civilized avocations the gift of the evil eye and the power of turning into hyenas, wherefore they are excluded from society and the Christian sacrament (Tylor, 1889, p310).
The Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire are very much concerned not with the malicious antics of the hyena, but rather his past, present, and future efforts at rallying the rest of the animals against us.
In another myth, Hyena is depicted as utterly opposed not only to the interests of humans, but to their very existence. In this myth (“The Dispersal of All the Animals”), Hyena endeavors to persuade all the other animals to destroy a human couple, who may be the primal representatives of their species. However, thanks to Dog, who informs the man and woman, the plan fails and the couple survives. Here the attitude to Hyena takes on a more serious tone. Acting selfishly in the other myths, Hyena readily provoke slaughter in his audience, but in this myth his selfishness has become more dangerous. We are approaching the more wary attitude that Beng have toward the actual hyenas with which they may have come in contact. For if Beng are for the most part amused by the mythical Hyena with his antisocial character flaws, they hold a different attitude toward living hyenas, which represent a profoundly disturbing potential for causing mayhem to human society and are thus seen not as amusing but as terrifying (Gottlieb, 1989, p490-491).
In the Middle East, Arabic traditions hold that the evil djinn (demonic little nasties) manifest themselves as hyena. Throughout West and South Asia, we also hear stories and folktales regarding the horror that is the hyena.
In the areas where striped hyenas are still found today, in the border zones between Afghanistan and Pakistan, inhabited by Pakhtun and Baluch, as well as in the southern Punjab and the desert of Cholistan, hunters either catch the animal or kill it. Villagers tend to shoot it because it is said to kill donkeys, to eat human carcasses, and to bite off the limbs of small children who sleep in the open. The supposed killing or kidnapping of children by striped hyenas is also reported from the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, and India (Frembgen, 1998, p336).
This inevitably brings us to the question of lycanthropy. And on a side note, it’s surprising how many things ultimately lead to lycanthropy, at least theoretically if not practically. While West African legends as a rule regard the hyena with great suspicion, it is among Abyssinian mythology (roughly modern-day Ethiopia) that we see the full flower of hyena lycanthropy. In Europe, by the time they got around to writing about such things, they had pretty much not seen a hyena in several thousand years outside of Africa and the Near East. A North American version of the Hyena was thought to have existed about 15 million years ago, but vanished. So, the vicious scary, nocturnal, and intelligent critter lurking in the northern forests waiting for unwary prey to wander outside the margins of civilized society was the wolf. While what we regard as a wolf can be found in North Africa, they aren’t as common to the south. It is thus not surprising that the lycanthrope of choice might be the hyena. And again, let’s not forget the way too creepy, and all too human laugh. For god sakes, the darn thing sounds like its part human. And its laughing. At you. And awaiting your eventual demise, so it can pick your bones clean.
The wizards of Abyssinia are said to be able to become hyenas at will, and in “The Life of Nathaniel Pearce” the story is told of a man called Coffin who was asked by a servant for leave of absence. No sooner had he granted the request than one of the other servants called out, “Look, look, he has turned himself into a hyena!” Coffin gazed in the direction in which the first servant had disappeared, and there he saw a large hyena bounding across the open plain. The next morning the servant returned, and when asked about the matter asserted that such a transformation had actually taken place. Coffin brought himself to believe in these native stories, and quoted in evidence of their truth that he had often seen a certain kind of earring in the ears of hyenas shot, trapped and speared by himself or his friends, identical with those which were commonly worn by the native servants. A natural explanation has been sought in the suggestion that the sorcerers themselves adorned the hyenas with the gems in order to encourage a superstition which they found profitable for their own purposes, but no proof of any such thing has been discovered. Abyssinia is a hotbed of strange happenings of this character, some of which are quite beyond understanding (Hamel, 1915, p79).
We like to anthropomorphize stuff. It give us a sense of control and understanding to ascribe human motivations and values to wild creatures, weather phenomena, geologic processes, and all manner of animate and inanimate flotsam and jetsam of our metaphor-laden universe. Heck, sometimes we even like to ascribe human motivations to humans. It is not altogether surprising that when a nasty little carnivore (human or non-human) displays something vaguely resembling a human trait, we start to wonder what it’s thinking about. And if the particular critter is laughing at us, we would prefer to be in on the joke. And when we’re not, we assume its intents are monstrous. H.P. Lovecraft, in one of his moments of lucidity understood this, remarking, “The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind”.
Frembgen, Jurgen W. “The Magicality of the Hyena”. Asian Folklore Studies 57: 331-344, 1998.
Gottlieb, Alma. Hyenas and Heteroglossia: Myth and ritual among the Beng of Cote d’Ivoire. American Ethnologist 16: 487—501, 1989.
Hamel, Frank. Human Animals. London: William Rider & son, 1915.
Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919. Life-histories of African Game Animals. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
Tylor, Edward B. 1832-1917. Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, And Custom. 3d American ed. from 2d Eng. ed. New York: Holt, 1889.