The spotted hyena is very close to my heart and my personal mythos – I can’t believe I haven’t written about them before now. Surpassing the wolves that I love and nearly all of the big cats that I adore, Hyena joins Scorpion, Snake, and Barbary Lion in the cluster of those few deeply impactful creatures that inspire, educate, and elucidate. If ever I refer to the “red hyena,” it is the spotted hyena, not any of its smaller extant cousins or extinct ancestors.
For those unfamiliar with spotted hyenas, or familiar only with some of the persistent untruths about them, I will give you a condensed overview. (Click here if you want to skip past the zoology lesson to where I talk about Hyena in a symbolic and personal sense.)
Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are the largest living hyenas, native to Sub-Saharan Africa, weighing 90-150 lbs and standing up to three feet at the shoulder. Females are larger than males and are the dominant sex, and (in)famously have erection-capable pseudo-penises instead of mammal-normative vaginal openings, accompanied by pseudo-scrota. Hyenas are neither felidae or canidae, though they more resemble bearish canids than felines; their shoulders are high, their backs sloped, and their rumps curved instead of squared off. They have medium-length, brushy tails and large, rounded ears, with less of a visible spinal mane than striped and brown hyenas. Spotted hyenas are varying shades of medium grey-brown to golden-tawny with dark or reddish brown spots, a dark tail, and a dark muzzle; they have thick skin that is not easily penetrated by canine bites.
hunting and eating
Hyenas can hunt alone, in small groups, or in large groups, as well as scavenge; they can eat and digest every part of an animal, including bones, hooves, and waste, and have no problem eating a carcass that’s submerged or floating in water. Their usual prey consist of the various ungulate species of the African savanna, such as wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle. Their jaws are stronger than those of the brown bear and generate nearly half again as much force as a leopard’s bite. Their hearts are proportionately large, giving them immense endurance in long hunting chases, and they typically hold large territories in which to wear down fleeing prey. They closely respect territorial boundaries, even to the point of allowing prey to escape if it crosses out of their lands. Hyenas use all of their senses, tracking live prey by sight, hearing, and smell; they find carrion by smell, by watching for descending vultures, or by listening for scavenging opportunities; hyena ears are sensitive enough to hear other predators hunting or feeding up to six miles away. (However, the myth that hyenas scavenge lion kills is not only misleading, but usually happens the other way around. Spotted hyenas and lions directly compete with each other, and while hyenas can occasionally eat side-by-side or drive lions off, they usually just step back and wait for the lions to finish. Hyenas will often steal kills from cheetahs, though, and occasionally from leopards.)
Hyena social structure is the most complex of any carnivore, rivaling some primates, but is competitive instead of strictly cooperative. Despite this, they are highly socially intelligent and can problem-solve cooperatively. Hyenas exhibit very detailed social knowledge, able to recognize great-aunts and the reliability of other individuals; their dominance is based not solely on physical force but on networks of allies. Hyena groups are called clans and can include as many as 80 individuals. Clans are matriarchal, and even the lowest-ranking females dominate the highest-ranking males. Clans live in one or more communal dens, which frequently have several entrances; adults usually can’t use all of the den due to their size, as they usually use dens dug by other animals. They have a wide range of social interactions, including greeting each other by licking the other’s genitals; erection is a sign of submission, more common to males than females. The signature hyena giggle is actually a sound usually made in fear, when attacked or chased.
The mother alone cares for her cubs, with no assistance from the father or other females; hyenas don’t form long-lasting pair-bonds. Females actively prefer younger males as mates, and older females additionally prefer males with whom they have had amicable past relationships; passive males win more females than aggressive ones. Mothers usually give birth to just two cubs, and the rank of those cubs corresponds to the mother’s, as she imparts to them her general androgen levels, which are directly related to her dominance and her rank within the clan. Hyena cubs are the only carnivorous mammals to be born with their eyes open, and they attack each other shortly after birth, frequently killing the weaker sibling, especially in same-sexed litters. Spotted hyena milk is enormously protein- and fat-rich, and cubs will nurse for over a year, though they mature socially and physically with remarkable speed. They are sexually mature at three years and have an average (zoo) lifespan of twelve years. Hyenas have a number of antibodies against deadly diseases, including rabies.
hyenas in myth and art
Hyenas have an generally negative place in the mind of humans, both Western and African… but, nonetheless, they have had a place there since Palaeolithic times. They are depicted in Upper Palaeolithic rock art in France, including the Chauvet Cave, Lascaux, Le Gabillou Cave, and La Madeleine rock shelter. In Africa, the hyena is typically seen as abnormal, dangerous, ugly, greedy, and dirty, as well as often related to witchcraft; Western culture traditionally thought of hyenas as cowardly, unholy, and comically stupid. However, in some East Africa mythology, the hyena is a solar animal that brought the sun to warm the earth. There are multiple myths of were-hyenas, but they do not return to their human selves when killed. Ethiopia has stories of the King of Hyenas, an albino animal with great power. In some African cultures, hyenas are linked to the end of rituals (because they devour corpses) or with liminality (because they’re frequently considered hermaphrodites and thus “in-between” sexes), or with fortune-telling and apotropaic properties. Some hunters treat slain hyenas with the same respect as they would deceased tribal elders to avoid vengeance by hyena spirits.
Much like I did for Harpy Eagle, I’m going to distill some symbolism from all of the awesomeness that is the spotted hyena. As before, all of this is my individual interpretation and is not (to my knowledge) drawn from any other source, let alone any traditional/tribal one. I’m also leaving out some of the most general and obvious bits (like their environment and symbolism related to being a mammal and a carnivore).
- Hyenas have immensely powerful jaws and can crush, devour, and digest just about anything, including things that other carnivores cannot. [Drawing nourishment and sustenance from anything, without metaphorical indigestion. Sustaining oneself on what others couldn’t access or couldn’t bear.]
- Hyenas are female-dominant, and the females’ genitals resemble the males’ with a startling degree of accuracy, including function. Typically dominant male displays, such as erections, are actually signs of submission in hyenas (and are no longer only the domain of males). [Balancing a strong feminine with a soft masculine. Gender-bending, both as an individual and as a society.]
- The most choice male mate is the most passive. [Choosing gentleness and longevity of (prior) relationship over aggression and force.]
- Hyenas use all of their remarkably keen senses with no particular bias. [Not only the ability to actively intake all sorts of things, but to passively observe with every sense and to use the best sense for the job. Overall: flexibility, diversity.]
- Hyena cubs are born with their eyes open and mature physically and socially very quickly. [Being precocious, either as a literal child or, more metaphorically, as a “child” in a given situation, field, activity, or group.]
- Hyenas have large territories and respect their boundaries. [Holding one’s own space, even when it’s not small, and letting others have their own.]
- Hyenas are unaffected by rabies and certain other deadly diseases. [Being immune to what is normally crippling and fatal.]
- Hyenas are plentiful in a wide variety of climates and terrains and can live alongside or compete against a staggering number of other species. [In a word or two: survivable, adaptable.]
- Hyenas both cooperate with and compete against members of their own clan. [Being precariously balanced and actively variable between self-interest/self-gain and group-interest/group-gain.]
- Hyenas eat the dead, both animal and human. [Being the link between death and life; doing the necessary job to maintain a larger balance, despite the unfortunate reputation that comes with it.]
- Hyenas are neither felidae nor canidae and have frequently been mistaken for wolves or various hybrids of other carnivores. Even today, many African languages do not distinguish between spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, and brown hyenas. [Being unique; being falsely categorized when the truth of uniqueness is not comprehended or acknowledged.]
hyenas and Set
As an additional note: While some modern Kemetics associate Set (Seth, Sutekh) with hyenas, at least in theory, I must disagree with this concept. Set Himself is the strongest of the Netjeru and is very much masculine, for all that He is effectively bisexual in His mythology; there is nothing to draw ties between Him, a dominant/dominating male god, and the female-dominant spotted hyena whose males are most successful when they are at their most submissive and friendly. There is no solid correlation between a strong man’s bisexuality and the hermaphroditic/gender-bending characteristics of the hyena. While a link may be drawn between Set and hyenas based on shared liminal natures, it is a weak one at best, and I don’t feel that correlation can stand firm beneath the contradiction of more prominent attributes.
the red hyena
For a Water-child, I have a strange predisposition towards red or Fire-related entities, perhaps as a way to balance out my own internal biases; and the red hyena is no exception. I began working with Hyena as an older adolescent and adopted her social behaviors in order to achieve a higher functionality in certain inescapable social situations. (I am innately a solitary hermit, so trying to wrangle a raucous group of teenagers as an otherwise-quiet peer-leader was a challenge. Hyena helped.) Since then, I have balanced my inner tendencies with Hyena’s patterns, and I can measure my success in real-world terms: I am currently managing a department of some fourteen people, all creatives and thus fiercely individualistic and opinionated, and I am doing so with extreme success. Additionally, Hyena’s gender-bending fits well with both my habit of flipping a dichotomy upside-down (which shines most brightly in my fiction) and my own genderfluidity. I am, in fact, so enamored of spotted hyenas that I am retelling a couple of my favorite ancient Egyptian myths through a fictional society of hyena-people, based heavily on real spotted hyena behaviors and facts; that novella is about 60% done and has not ceased to delight me yet.
I end this long and information-heavy entry with this, a gorgeous photo of the red hyena:
Last year’s second H post was on Hethert-Nut (which became a permanent page on the site).