Many years ago hyenas were common throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. Today hyenas are found in parts of the Middle East, India and Africa. In order to understand the development of the myths and legends surround the hyena a short biology lesson follows.
Hyenas are considered the most intelligent of all predator species on the planet, and some scientists consider them equal intelligence to apes. Moving their kill closer to other pack members is one example of this intelligence, as is the different hunting methods used for different prey. A hyena’s heart is double the side of a lion’s, enabling it to run long distances to exhaust their prey. Hyenas have a very distinctive call; a shrieking, fearsome “whoop” that manages to sound like a human’s laugh. When their cry sounds in the silent night it can be frightening. There is also no definition between male and female hyena, and the social structure of the pack centres around a matriarch. Hyena jaws are probably the strongest in the animal kingdom, and their digestive system contains bacteria enabling them to eat every single piece of a carcass – teeth, skin, hair, bones, horns and hooves.
End of science lesson. Most stories about hyena cast the animal in a negative light, partly because of their physical attributes and partly because they’ve been known to scavenge graveyards in search of food. The fact that a hyena will completely devour a rotting corpse has led to the association with cowardice, uncleanliness and gluttony. Their “laughing” call led to the belief that they have the ability to imitate human voices, and can call their victims by name.
African folklore is a rich source of hyena fables and belies. Some African tribes believe witches can change into hyenas. The spotted hyena is to Africa what the black cat is to the Western world – a creature synonymous with magic and witches. One legend claims each witch owns a pack of hyenas, called “night cattle. The hyenas are invisibly branded with the witch’s personal mark, and they live and bear their young in the witch’s home. Some tribes claim the witch milks the hyena every day, making hyena butter which is used to refuel the flaming torch used to light the path during night journeys on the hyena’s sloping back. It’s considered dangerous to kill one, for if its owner finds out he will kill the hunter using witchcraft… perhaps this explains why the hyena does not feature on any endangered species lists.
While many African people have neither fear of nor belief in witches and magic, they regard the hyena with nervous disgust. Even the mention of the name will cause a scornful laugh, for the simple reason that hyenas consume human corpses. And this is the same reason other cultures consider the hyena a repulsive symbol. While these animals are almost extinct in the Middle East and Balkan regions, legends are still told in countries like Bulgaria, Greece and Syria of the were-hyena, who moved around in organised packs that sometimes included werewolves. There was also a medieval European belief that a lioness would mate with a hyena, resulting in the birth of a leucrotta. This fearsome creature had a human voice, and the ability to imitate human speech was used to entice travellers into its vile clutches.
While some readers may consider the hyena more suited to horror writing, the actual character (or variations of it) has featured in several stories. Examples:
Narcissus is a were-hyena (variation on the hyena) in the book “Narcissus in Chains”, one of Laurell K Hamilton’s “Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter” series of books.
Jean M Auel’s series of books “Children of the Earth” detail the main character Ayla’s disgust for hyenas, because of bad experiences with them in the past.
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” features a hyena watching over Harry, a writer on safari who develops gangrene from a thorn wound. As Harry slowly succumbs to the infection the hyena sits… and waits.
Not everyone views the hyena as a ruthless, conniving, disgusting creature – the animal has its admirers. The fact that hyenas operate organised hunts, have a complex social family structure and will – on occasion – share their kill could be considered proof of their high intelligence. Perhaps this could be viewed as a threat by mankind, who is supposedly the supreme intelligence on our planet. Like vultures hyenas are a very effective waste disposal system, making them an important part of the ecosystem. Hyena packs are run by a matriarch and female hyena are respected and not subjected to discrimination from their male counterparts.
Perhaps a more accurate way of describing the hyena’s “cowardice” would be to acknowledge it as a calculating animal that understands its enemies, selects it prey after much evaluation and does not put itself or the pack at risk. The hyena unfortunate appearance also works in the animal’s favour; it doesn’t have a sleek fur coat or luxurious mane. It doesn’t have ivory teeth, shiny tusks or ornamental horns, and its ugly face is not something few hunters would want to exhibit on his wall. And few people would admit to eating hyena meat. One hunter describes a translation of the hyena’s laugh with this interpretation: “I may look like a sucker, my friend… but the real sucker is you.”
I’ll close this issue with a positive story from 4th century Russian mythology about a hyena. One night the 90 year old Saint Anthony had a vision from God, who told him to go and visit an ascetic (monk) who lived at the opposite end of the Egyptian desert. The following morning Saint Anthony set out on the journey across the desert. It was hard – the sun burned down on him during the day, and at night he battled with sub-zero degree temperatures. The only water available was what he carried from his home, and the wind blew hot sand along his path. When exhaustion threatened to overwhelm Saint Anthony a hyena suddenly appeared… but she didn’t attack the man. Instead she ran ahead, leading the way to the ascetic’s cave, which was actually very well concealed, with a palm tree hiding the entrance.