Were-hyenas are a type of therianthrope, which is an incredibly nerdy way of saying someone who can shapeshift into an animal or human-animal hybrid. Unsurprisingly the animal of choice in this instance is a hyena and, still less surprising, the myth originates from North Africa, where hyenas are as common as disgruntled Englishmen on the London Underground. Yet don’t immediately dismiss the were-hyena as simply the African equivalent of our beloved werewolf; they’re far more complex than that.
While werewolves are solely human at heart, were-hyenas begin life either as humans who can transform into hyenas or, rather bizarrely, as hyenas that can disguise themselves as humans. Unlike werewolves, were-hyenas can go both ways, making them the proverbial bisexuals of the therianthrope community. Essentially being a were-hyena is a two way street, with horror at both ends. They can be solitary but are also known to hunt in packs, because apparently being imbued with bestial strength and an insatiable appetite for human flesh isn’t terrifying enough. They have been known to call out people’s names at night to taunt them and lure them away from safety, singling them out before eventually devouring them. So next time you hear your mom calling you from down the stairs, you might want to consider taking a baseball bat with you, just in case.
It was believed that magicians and witches were able to transform into these creatures at will but another, rather odd, African superstition placed the blame of were-hyena attacks almost solely at the blacksmiths door, as it was thought that blacksmiths were particularly prone to becoming were-hyenas. This was taken to the extreme in Ethiopia, where people genuinely believed that all blacksmiths were witches or wizards known as bouda who could transform into hyenas at will. Ethiopian Christians typically accused Ethiopian Jews of being bouda, spreading rumours that they unearthed Christian corpses and consumed them. Since Jewish men in Ethiopia were also, rather conveniently, often blacksmiths, it is commonly thought that one belief arose from the other.
Since, in all cases, were-hyenas could control their own transformation, they could theoretically appear at any time, but preferred to change under the shadow of night. When not stalking prey, they are known to engage in all sorts of distasteful activities, including grave-robbing, cannibalism, pillaging, and making horse shoes (they are blacksmiths after all).
In the Kunari language of the former Bornu Empire, which once occupied much of the territory around Lake Chad, they were referred to as bultungin or literally “I change myself into a hyena”. This inevitably led to a lot of pronoun confusion, as people were never quite sure whether they were being accused of being a were-hyena or whether their friend was in fact just confiding in them about being a were-hyena themselves. It was traditionally believed that a handful of villages in the region, such as Kabultiloa, were occupied entirely by these creatures, which would probably explain the low house prices.
Yet the were-hyenas grip extends even further, deep into Sudan, Tanzania, and Morocco, where some of the Berber people regard them as men or women who change into hyenas at night and resume their human form at dawn. As far as Persia there were rumours of a creature known as a kaftar, a monstrous “half-man half-hyena” that loved to slaughter children. And in Greece, right up until the 19th century, people believed that the ghosts of werewolves that weren’t destroyed properly would haunt battlefields as vampiric hyenas and drink the blood of dying soldiers. In short, ancient people thought hyenas were kind of…well…jerks.
Another potential version of the were-hyena was a creature called a hyena man, who had two mouths so that it could talk and eat at the same time. Any person who had tasted human flesh could be transformed into a hyena man by a magician, so keep an eye on all of your cannibal friends. They were said to have a preference for living near graveyards and eating the flesh of the dead, although they’re also quite partial to the flesh of the living. Some appear handsome (in spite of the rather obvious two mouths), while some appear strange and have the smell of a hyena about them. So if you see any handsome two-mouthed men on Tinder, be prepared to swipe left.
The were-hyena is said to metamorphose between three main forms: that of a human, a human-hyena hybrid, and a hyena. As a human, they appear largely the same as you and I, although perhaps with a fancy Mohican to sweeten the deal. As hybrids, they walk or stand on their back legs, have some of the facial features of a hyena, and have large golden eyes that glow red right before they attack. When they metamorphose fully into hyenas, they are much larger than their natural counterparts and are sometimes completely hairless. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they are said to have the odour of rotting flesh about them and are known to bury their victims alive, coming back later to feast on their remains.
The were-hyena was thought to be the ultimate manifestation of people’s real-life fear and hatred of hyenas. This is supported by the were-hyenas nature itself, as they were not only humans who could transform into hyenas but also hyenas who could dupe people by taking on human form. The vitriol towards our furry friends is the result of both myth and reality, as several of the animal’s features appear to offend us in a very basic way. They are nocturnal, which is naturally perturbing as it means oftentimes they can see us while we cannot see them. Their characteristic yipping noise, which sounds eerily like hysterical human laughter, is particularly unnerving and perhaps gave rise to the belief that they could imitate human speech and call out people’s names.
And, even though it has now largely been proven that they kill much of what they eat, they were historically regarded as scavengers that fed on rotting flesh, giving them the reputation of being both cowardly and repulsive. In African folklore, they were even accused of robbing corpses from their graves, having a negative influence on people’s souls, collecting human bones and piling them up as trophies, kidnapping children, and tricking people for their own amusement.
One myth in particular, which originates from the Beng people of the Ivory Coast, is known as “The Dispersal of All Animals” and describes how Hyena, the villain of the story, attempts to convince the other animals to kill the first man and woman to have ever lived. Fortunately Dog, foil to the hyena in many respects, warns our progenitors before they get straight up murdered and essentially wiped from all existence.
In the border zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan, hyenas are still regularly killed by hunters as they are thought to kill donkeys, dig up human graves, and bite off the limbs of children who sleep in the open. Not to state the obvious here but perhaps children should just stop sleeping in the open desert alone when there are bloodthirsty hyenas about. In Arab folklore, it was even suggested that hyenas were vampiric creatures that could mesmerise victims using their eyes or entice them with their pheromones. Move over Sex Panther, we want a spritz of that Sex Hyena.
This hatred for the animal was, in some cases, then attached to and magnified by prejudice towards a certain group, such as blacksmiths or Jews, and may well have been an early form of anti-Semitism. Various details of the mythology were likely inspired by the rich heritage of Africa’s many indigenous folk religions. It may have even derived from fear of the the Korè cult, a branch of the Bambara people in Mali who attempted to “become” hyenas by imitating their behaviour using masks and roleplaying games. In other words, the terrifying mythology behind the were-hyena may just have been inspired by, for lack of a better word, furries.
Though were-hyenas are undoubtedly not as popular as their lycanthropic cousins, there are a few modern-day references to this giggling ghoul:
- The 2011 horror film Hyenas, written and directed by Eric Weston, is about a roving pack of were-hyenas that are being hunted down by a man seeking revenge for his dead family.
- The 1994 film Le Cri du Coeur or The Heart’s Cry, directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo, features the story of a were-hyena.
- In the first season of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an episode entitled “The Pack” involves a group of Buffy’s friends and classmates becoming possessed by the spirits of hyenas and devolving into creatures resembling the were-hyena.
- In the autobiographical novel The Life and Adventures of Nathanial Pearce by Nathaniel Pearce, the author recounts a story he once heard from a man called Coffin about a servant who asked for leave of absence. Supposedly, not long after the leave of absence was granted, the other servants observed the aforementioned servant transform into a large hyena and rush off across the open plain. On his return the next morning, the servant was confronted by Coffin about the incidence and readily admitted that he was capable of such a transformation. The novel also described several native stories in which dead hyenas had been found with earrings on their ears, leading to the belief that they were women who had transformed.
- The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons features a fictional creature known as a gnoll, which looks like a human with a hyena’s head.