Hyenas have been denigrated throughout history. In literature and lore they are said to be scavengers, cowards – and they are brutish – among other negative attributes. However, many other animals are associated with these same attributes – but are not considered pariahs as is the hyena in the animal kingdom.
Why? That is the question that I’m exploring both across areas (Africa, the Middle East and Europe) and through history (from ancient Egypt until today). Hyenas seem to be unique in being considered ‘betwixt and between’ orthodox categories of the animal kingdom; of therefore occupying a position of liminality – of permanent ambiguity Why and how is this?
The topics I want to consider in exploring these questions include:
- Status throughout history:
- European Explorers,
- Medieval Middle East,
- Medieval Europe,
- Late Antiquity,
- Ancient Egypt
- Current research and conservation strategies
- Current status in local populations
Posts will begin with experiences of the 18th century Scottish British explorer James Bruce, who spent several years searching for the source of the Nile, but who also travelled in the Levant and North Africa. His is one of earliest (modern) treatments of hyenas that is based primarily on empirical observation, not on hearsay.
Although James Bruce did not, as he thought, reach the source of the Nile, his five volumes of text and prints provide exceptionally fine information and observations on flora and fauna of the regions through which he travelled. Unfortunately, his observations were considered by many natural historians of the time as far-fetched stories – possibly because he did step on a few ‘learned’ European toes in the process of getting across his points – as seen here in several of his observations on hyenas:
[Note in the text that 'f' is used for 's' in 18th century english]
THERE are few animals, whofe hiftory has palled under the confideration of naturalifls, that have given occulion to fo much confufion and equivocation as the Hysena has done. It began very early among the ancients, and the moderns have fully contributed their sare. It is not my intention to take up the reader’s time with difculling the errors of others, whether ancient or modern.
Without displaying a great deal of learning to tell him what it is not, I fliall content myfelf with informing him what it is, by a good figure and diftinct relation of what in his hiftory hath been unknown, or omitted, and put it in the reader’s power to reject any of the pretended Hyenas that authors or travellers fhould endeavour to impofe upon him.
At the fame time, I fliall fubmit to his decifion, whether the animal I mention is a new one, or only a variety of the old as it mull on all hands be allowed that he is as yet undefcribed.
Thereafter, Bruce proceeds to give a detailed description of hyena habits, characteristics, and lore, generally based on his own observations, and not on the stories of others. In this, his approach follows that of thinkers and scholars of the Enlightenment
As for their diet, Bruce claims that across North Africa and in the Levant hyena eat primarily vegetable products. As well, their scavenging in villages and at camp sites was ubiquitous, as Bruce explains:
THE hyaena about Mount Libanus, Syria, the north of Africa, and alfo about Algiers, is known to live for the mofl part upon large fucculent, bulbous roots, efpecially thofe of the fritillaria, and fuch large, flefhy, vegetable fubflances. I have known large fpaces of fields turned up to get at onions or roots of thofe plants, and the few ere chofen with fuch care, that, after having been peeled, they have been refufed and left on the ground for a fmall rotten fpot being difcovered in them.
It will be obferved the hyaena has no claws either for feizing or feparating animal food, that he might feed upon it, and I therefore imagine his primitive manner of living was rather upon vegetables than upon flefh, as it is certain he ftill continues his liking to the former; and I apprehend it is from an opportunity offering in a hungry time that he has ventured either upon man or beaft, for few carnivorous animals, fuch as lions, tigers, and wolves, ever feed upon both…
One night in Maitflia, being very intent on obfervation, I heard fomething pafs behind me towards the bed, but upon looking round could perceive nothing. Having finished what I was then about, I went out of my tent, refolving directly to return, which I immediately did, when I perceived large blue eyes glaring at me in the dark.
I called upon my fervant with a light, and there was the hyaena ftanding nigh the head of the bed, with two or three large bunches of candles in his mouth. To have fired at him I was in danger of breaking my quadrant or other furniture, and he feemed, by keeping the candles aleadily in his mouth, to wiili for no other prey at that time…
In Ethiopia he found that the hyena were, by nature, fond of meat and this he seems to attribute (at least in part) to the habit of inhabitants to leave cadavers out in the open, to be consumed by the hyena. As discussed in future blogs, this practice is mentioned in other parts of (pre-modern) Africa, Europe and the Middle East. As for their habits in Ethiopia, Bruce states:
I Do not think there is any one that hath hitherto written of this animal who ever faw the thoufandth part of them that I have. They were a plague in Abyffinia in every fituation, both in the city and in the field, and I think furpaffed the flieep in number. Gondar was full of them from the time it turned dark till the dawn of day, feeking the different pieces of flaughtered carcafes which this cruel and unclean people expofc in the ftreets wi’hcut burial, and who firmly believe that thefe animals are Falaflia [spirits] from the neighbouring mountains, transformed by magic, and come down to cat human flefh in the dark in fafcty.
Many a time in the night when the king [in Etheopia] had kept me late in the palace, and it was not my duty to lie there, in going acrofs the fquare from the kings houfe, not many hundred yards diftant, 1 have been apprehenfive they would bite me in the leg. They grunted in great numbers about me, though I was furrounded with feveral armed men, who feldom passed a night without wounding or flaughtering fome of them…
All quotes from this blog come from:
James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768-1773. Vol. 5, Appendix: ‘Select specimens of natural history collected in Travels…’