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Folklore and Superstition About Hyenas

Anthropologists are not zoologists. When they record the folklore and superstitions of the cultures they describe, they often don't distinguish between spotted and striped hyenas. Curiously, even local cultures often call the two species by the same name, although spotted hyenas are very different from striped and brown hyenas. (Local people can be surprisingly ignorant about the animals in their own area.)

As far back as ancient Greece, people thought that hyenas could change sex, but Aristotle refuted it (though his sources may have been talking about the badger instead of the striped hyena). The idea probably comes from the fact that the genitals of the two sexes in spotted hyenas look nearly identical.

European

Medieval Europeans often associated hyenas with sexual "perversion," especially homosexuality. In his book Paedogogus, Clement of Alexandria complained that the hyena and the hare are "quite obsessed with sexual intercourse." Like many Europeans, he thought that male hyenas had sex with each other.

Medieval Europeans also believed that sometimes a lioness would mate with a hyena to produce a strange hybrid called the leucrotta. The leucrotta had a human voice and could imitate human speech to lure travelers into its clutches.

African

Some African cultures have even stranger lore about hyenas. All over the continent, there are cultures that believe some witches can turn themselves into hyenas. In fact, the spotted hyena is to Africa what the black cat is in the U.S. -- the premier witch animal, uncanny and terrifying.

The Wambugwe of Tanzania believe "every witch possesses one or more hyenas which are branded (invisibly to normal eyes) with his mark, and to which he refers as his 'night cattle.' Some people say that all hyenas are owned by witches -- that there are no free or wild hyenas....At regular intervals, all witches of the land ride their hyenas to a prearranged place in the forest for a saturnalian gathering, where they boast of their evil deeds and perform obscene rites." (Robert F. Gray, in Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa.)

Supposedly the hyenas live and bear their young in the houses of witches, and the owner milks them once a day. It is dangerous to kill a hyena, for if its owner finds out he will kill the hunter with witchcraft.

The accounts of the Wambugwe people paint a Goya-like picture of "a witch riding naked at full gallop through the night, mounted on a hyena and carrying a flaming torch which he refuels from time to time from a gourd of hyena butter slung over his shoulder."

Even when they are not afraid of witches, Africans regard hyenas with such nervous disgust that just speaking their name aloud can cause people to snicker as if at a dirty joke, according to Kruuk. "'The hyena' is depicted in African folklore as an abnormal and ambivalent animal: considered to be sly, brutish, necrophagous, dangerous, and the vilest of beasts, it further embodies physical power, excessivity, ugliness, stupidity, as well as sacredness," (J├╝rgen Wasim Frembgen, in The magicality of the hyena: Beliefs and practices in West and South Asia.

Asian

The striped hyena is the only hyaenid in Asia, so all these beliefs almost certainly refer to it, not the spotted hyena.
Some sources I used for this page:
  • Frembgen JW. The magicality of the hyena: Beliefs and practices in West and South Asia. Asian Folklore Studies. 1998 Jan 1:331-44. Lots more interesting hyena folklore is in this paper. (What are these strange numbers and letters?)
  • Joshua D. Katz, "Aristotle's Badger." In Holmes B, Fischer KD. The Frontiers of Ancient Science: Essays in Honor of Heinrich von Staden. De Gruyter; 2015.

    Katz suggests that Aristotles' sources may actually have been speaking of the European badger, not the striped hyena; its huge anal pouches can look like a vulva. Aristotle knew of the striped hyena, though.

  • Boswell J. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1980.
  • Middleton J, Winter EH. Witchcraft and sorcery in East Africa. Routledge; 2013 Nov 5.

(Last link check May 5, 2022.)

Image courtesy of Clipart.com.