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Companion of the Dead
Many years ago hyenas were common throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. Today hyenas are found in areas of the Middle East, India and Africa. To understand the evolution of the myths and legends surrounding the hyena, a short biology lesson follows.
Hyenas are considered the most intelligent of all predatory species on the planet, and some scientists consider them to be on par with apes. Moving their kill closer to other members of the pack is an example of this intelligence, as are the different hunting methods used for different prey. A hyena’s heart is twice the size of a lion’s, allowing it to run long distances to exhaust its prey. Hyenas have a very distinctive call. a screeching, horrifying “whoop” that manages to sound like human laughter. When their cry is heard in the silent night it can be terrifying. Also, there is no definition between male and female hyena, and the social structure of the pack is centered around a matriarch. Hyena jaws are possibly the strongest in the animal kingdom and their digestive system contains bacteria that allow them to eat every bit of the carcass – teeth, skin, hair, bones, horns and hooves.
End of Natural Science lesson. Most stories about the hyena cast the animal in a negative light, partly because of their physical attributes and partly because they are known to scavenge cemeteries in search of food. The fact that a hyena will devour a rotting corpse whole has led to the association with cowardice, impurity and gluttony. The “laughter” has led them to believe that they have the ability to mimic human voices and can call their victims by name.
African folklore is a rich source of myths and legends about hyenas. Some African tribes believe that witches can turn 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 that each witch has a herd of hyenas, called “night cattle. The hyenas are invisibly marked with the witch’s personal mark and live and give birth to their young in the witch’s house. Some tribes claim that the witch milks the hyena every day making hyena butter used to fuel the flaming torch used to light the trail during night journeys on the sloping back of the hyena It is considered dangerous to kill one because if its owner finds out it will kill the hunter using magic … perhaps this explains why the hyena does not appear on any endangered species list.
While many Africans do not fear or believe in witches and sorcery, they regard the hyena with nervous disgust. Even the mention of the name will elicit scornful laughter, for the simple reason that hyenas consume human corpses. And this is the same reason that other cultures consider the hyena a repulsive symbol. While these animals are nearly extinct in the Middle East and Balkan regions, legends are still told in countries such as Bulgaria, Greece and Syria about the hyena, which roamed in organized 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 cub. This terrifying creature had a human voice and the ability to mimic human speech was used to lure travelers into its wretched clutches.
While some readers may find the hyena more suitable for horror writing, the actual character (or variations thereof) has appeared in several stories. Examples:
Narcissus is a hyena (hyena variation) in the book ‘Narcissus in Chains’, one of the ‘Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter’ book series by Laurell K Hamilton.
“Children of the Earth” book series by Jean M Auel Ayla’s distaste for hyenas in detail, due to 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 sees the hyena as a ruthless, fascinating, disgusting creature – the animal has its fans. The fact that hyenas operate organized hunts, have a complex social family structure and will – at times – share their kill could be considered evidence of their high intelligence. Perhaps this could be seen as a threat by humanity, which is supposed to be the supreme intelligence on our planet. Like vultures, hyenas are a very efficient waste disposal system, making them an important part of the ecosystem. Hyena herds are led by a matriarch, and female hyenas are respected and not discriminated against by their male counterparts.
Perhaps a more accurate way to describe the hyena’s “cowardice” would be to identify it as a calculating animal that understands its enemies, selects its prey after much evaluation, and does not endanger itself or the pack. The unfortunate appearance of the hyena also works to the animal’s advantage. he doesn’t have a sleek fur coat or luxurious mane. He has no ivory tusks, shiny tusks or decorative horns, and his ugly face is not something few hunters would want displayed on their wall. And few people would admit to eating hyena meat. A hunter describes a translation of the hyena’s laugh with this interpretation: “I may look like a jester, my friend… but the real jester is you.”
I will 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 visit an ascetic (monk) who lived on the opposite side of the Egyptian desert. The next morning Saint Anthony began his journey into the desert. It was difficult – the sun burned him during the day and he battled sub-zero temperatures at night. The only water available was what he carried from his home, and the wind blew hot sand along his path. When exhaustion threatened to overtake St. Anthony, a hyena suddenly appeared… but did not attack the man. Instead, he ran forward, leading the way to the ascetic’s cave, which was actually very well hidden, with a palm tree hiding the entrance.
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