Hyenas - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


The stereotypical African witch doesn’t have a pointy hat or broomstick but she’s still a night rider journeying to secret assignations with other witches. These female witches ride naked atop galloping hyenas, with one foot dragging on the ground, the other on the hyena. (Allegedly this enables the hyena to attain extraordinary speed.) The witch carries a flaming torch, fueled with hyena butter, keeping an extra supply in a gourd slung over her shoulder so there’s no danger of running out.

It’s the hyenas that reveal her identity. Hyenas are believed to be the telltale sign that causes someone, usually but not exclusively women, to be branded a witch in Africa. Any evidence, regardless how flimsy or tangential, linking someone with hyenas may be considered proof of sorcery in African witchcraft trials.

Witches ride hyenas. Witches keep hyena familiars. Witches are hyenas. Witches shape-shift into hyenas. Zambian sorcerers enter trances and send their souls into the bodies of real hyenas. In other areas, there’s no such thing as “real” hyenas: all are magical creatures, witches in disguise or witches’ familiars. There’s no such thing as a hyena that is not somehow affiliated with witchcraft.

Hyenas who are witches take spiritual possession of people, creating a kind of soul-hyena: the victimized person doesn’t physically transform, but inside, where a human soul should be, lurks this hyena. If your best friend doesn’t act like herself, maybe it’s because she isn’t herself: a hyena has supplanted her soul and taken over her body.

People who are witches transform hyenas into human likenesses. They can selectively choose the likeness, too. If your best friend begins to act strangely, maybe it really wasn’t him at all but a hyena in disguise. In other words, there are two of them walking around: the real one and the disguised hyena—something like a Swan Lake scenario but with hyenas instead of swans. Witches are also believed able to create hyenas: their bodies are molded from porridge and brought to life via rituals and herbs.

Witches are believed able to cast sleeping spells on hyenas, transforming them into their own likeness, putting them to bed beside their own husbands so that the witches can secretly slip out with no fear that the husband will ever wake up and discover their disappearance. (During European witch trials, witches allegedly used brooms, branches, and sticks in identical manner for the same purpose. Because this was generally believed, husbands testifying that their wives couldn’t possibly have attended sabbats as they had been home in bed together were thus unable to provide alibis for their wives.)

According to Bantu tradition, real hyenas are perfectly capable of transforming into human form without any help from a witch. The transformation may, however, only be accomplished during the day. Some hyenas shape-shift in order to visit, harass or terrorize humans, but some do it just for the joy of shape-shifting. Whole communities of shape-shifting hyenas are said to exist; although to an outsider they may look exactly like ordinary people. Don’t try to stay in their village, though, no matter how friendly the locals seem; they may look like people but they still eat like hyenas. In order to shape-shift like this, hyenas must obtain a human soul. How this is done varies but hyenas that eat human corpses, as hyenas are known to do, may have the inside track.

Throughout Africa, hyenas allegedly live and bear their young in the houses of witches who milk them daily.

In some areas, although not many, hyenas gain some level of protection from their associations with witchcraft: it’s believed dangerous to kill a hyena because her witch will magically retaliate.

In parts of East Africa, every witch is believed to own at least one hyena, which is branded with her special witch-mark, something like a bewitched cattle brand, invisible to regular eyes although clearly visible to other witches. Witches allegedly refer to their hyenas as “night cattle.” People swear they’ve seen hyenas sporting earrings, either indicating that they’re transformed people or that a person pierced that ear, as even the most magical hyena still lacks the skills for employment in a piercing parlor. (None of these tales actually derive from witches themselves; all are second-hand at best.)

The art of hyena riding is apparently very challenging. Novice witches must be trained at regular bush meetings where mounted witches gather. These rendezvous are reminiscent of European sabbats with one crucial exception. Yes, witches gather for orgies, cannibalism and all sorts of evil works, but there’s no devil in attendance. Like female hyenas, which are the dominant gender of their species, no need for a male director of ceremonies exists.

Observing the powerful identification of hyenas with witches in Africa that exists even today makes one think that this is how it must have been with black cats and witches during the European Burning Times. Any association between a cat and a woman was believed to betray witchcraft: witches rode cats, kept cats, transformed into cats. Even lone cats, sans women, were believed to be witches in disguise. There is one crucial difference though: even at the height of the Witchcraze, cats were understood to be beautiful, sensuous, sometimes useful creatures. They might be evil but seductively so. An element of longing exists: a desire to destroy what one can’t possess or control.

In Africa, hyenas are associated with garbage, feces, corpses, death, cemeteries, decay, and rotten odors. (And there are places where hyenas do live on human garbage and refuse or lurk in cemeteries, although this tends to be in urbanized areas where few other alternatives remain for them.) They are the largest creatures to exist mainly from scavenging. They are ungainly, awkward creatures, shaggy, smelly, and ragged-looking. They get into garbage; they unearth graves. They are not afraid of people, stealthily entering settlements at night in search of food, their identities exposed by glowing eyes and their characteristic, eerie laughter.

Hyenas are actually extremely interesting creatures, with unusual social structures and unusual genital structures, too. Females are the dominant gender within hyena society; unlike many species, females are 10 percent larger than males. Hyena females eat first; males wait to eat whatever’s left over. Of course, this was difficult to determine for a long time. Male and female hyena genitals are virtually indistinguishable from each other, at least for human observers. Female spotted hyenas have highly developed, extremely large clitorises with erectile potential. (Subservient female hyenas—not the alphas—are the only creatures who display genital erections as a sign of submission; hyenas greet each other via genital inspection.) They urinate, copulate, and give birth through these clitorises. Scientists who study sex hormones adore hyenas: females have extremely high levels of androgens, traditionally considered the male sex hormone. These androgens are converted to testosterone, of which female hyenas possess a high level, especially when pregnant. A pregnant hyena’s testosterone level may exceed that of the males. (Hyenas are used in animal research to study hormones.)

Hyenas have their own family group, the Hyaenid. Based on fossil evidence there may have once been more than 69 species. Hyenas were once found in Europe as well as African and Asia, where they exist today. However, only four species survive.

Witch hyenas tend to be striped and spotted hyenas, and most especially spotted ones, which are the species commonly known as “laughing hyenas.”

Animals strongly identified with witchcraft tend to be formerly sacred animals who’ve since lost their reputations and are now feared and despised, like witches and the magical arts. Most of these animals have former spiritual affiliations with profound life-and-death topics: sex, birth, and the after-life. Do hyenas have a similar history? It’s hard to tell; very little information is available. All these tales of night-riding come from outsiders, anthropologists, witch-hunters, missionaries, and story-tellers. There are some clues however:

Image This association of malevolent witchcraft with an animal species characterized by dominant females with visibly large penis-sized clitorises occurs in areas where female genital mutilation (excision of the clitoris) is a traditional practice. The very lack of discussion of hyenas when discussing mythic explanations for female genital excision is revealing. (The most commonly told myth involves removal of termite hills.)

Image Some African tribes traditionally dispose of their dead by putting the bodies out in the bush for hyenas to eat, something that smacks of sacrifice.

Image In Harar, Ethiopia, people feed hyenas and encourage scavenging. It’s become an oddity, something for tourists to see, so there’s little serious spiritual discussion of the bonds between Ethiopia’s “hyena men” and the animals they feed, at personal financial sacrifice and in the face of social ostracism.

Image Hyenas are traditionally believed allied to vultures, scavengers who are also now feared and disliked but who were sacred birds in Egypt and elsewhere. The word for “vulture” in ancient Egyptian was synonymous with “mother.”

Image Medieval Europeans believed that there was a stone within the hyena’s eye (there isn’t), which, when placed under a person’s tongue, enabled one to foretell the future.

Image Hyenas are associated with smiths and other artisans, respected, required members of society who are also feared and associated with sorcery, the original professional magicians. These artisans transform raw materials (ore, clay) into practical, beautiful, sometimes spiritual goods. Hyenas are believed able to transform themselves.

Legendary associations of hyenas and witches make for good stories but like the identification of cats with witches during the Burning Times, this is really no laughing matter.

Associations of hyenas with smithcraft and witchcraft are not only folkloric fantasy tales but have had a massive impact on people’s lives, contributing to tragic prejudice. Hyenas are associated with individuals but also with ethnic groups who are thus tarred by associations with malevolent witchcraft. The word “buda” (also spelled “bouda”) indicates “hyena-person.” During the day budas appear to be ordinary people but at night budas either transform into hyenas or they ride on the backs of hyenas in great packs.

Budas and hyenas are believed to possess the Evil Eye, which leaves their victims drained and debilitated. Specific ailments are also associated with the Evil Eye. There’s no obvious physical attack; there may be no contact, however fleeting, with a hyena. This is a spiritual, magical attack.

Traditionally budas are ironworkers and potters. Wherever people fear the buda, there are professional buda experts, similar to European witch-finders. They are engaged to determine the identity of the buda who cast the Evil Eye.

There are various methods of lifting the Evil Eye:a simple case may be cured via incantation, but in persistent cases an expert may be consulted to determine the identity of the buda, which is believed necessary to break the spell. Sometimes the victim is made to identify the buda, even if they claim complete ignorance. The victim, who by definition is already not feeling too well whatever the cause, is interrogated (sometimes harshly, sometimes for hours) until identification of the perpetrator is made.

Image The victim may be brought before the alleged buda who is forced to spit upon the victim, his saliva believed to vanquish the Evil Eye.

Image If the expert buda-finder is unable to determine the identity of the buda, the victim’s forehead may be stamped with a hot iron brand. This signature mark will allegedly show up on the face of the guilty buda, too, providing identification. As you can imagine, buda-finders who resort to this tactic frequently are not in high demand.

Image Goma smoke is another method of stopping and reversing the effects of the Evil Eye. The ability to use fire characterizes the buda (whether smith or potter). So fighting fire with fire, smoke is generated to counteract and eliminate the effects. This is not just any old smoke: goma smoke is produced by burning tires or chicken feces alongside an assortment of woods. It is not fragrant, quite the opposite. On market days when artisans pass through villages, goma is lit as protective fires before residences.

Image Goma is also used to identify the buda. Perceived victims of the Evil Eye are tortured by being smoked with goma, which has an oppressively foul smell, until they name the perpetrator. Once the perpetrator is named, the guilty party is summoned to face the victim, apologize and remove the Eye. There’s no such thing as inability; if they can’t, it’s perceived that they won’t. An article of the buda’s clothing may be taken (sometimes right off their body) and thrown into the goma fire. The victim inhales smoke rising from the cloth.

The victim has no choice but to identify someone; he or she is not left alone until this is accomplished (and the victim is typically a child). The accused must also participate in the ritual, no matter how absurd or insulting, or risk being killed by a mob.

Although any individuals may be buda, the term buda is most frequently used in Ethiopia to refer to its Jewish community, the Beta Israel, who are simultaneously ethnic, religious, and professional minorities.

Beta Israel men are traditionally smiths, the women potters—transformative professions viewed by the majority Christian society with ambivalence. Tools and handicrafts are vital, needed, and highly valued yet the practice is despised (working the land being perceived as the only respectable, sanctified occupation) and associated with witchcraft—as are the practitioners, to whom supernatural powers are attributed. To be an artisan is demeaning, yet magically powerful. Forbidden to own land, historically the Beta Israel have worked as tenant farmers for Christians, often in share-cropper-like circumstances.

Available information regarding traditional African witchcraft is virtually always filtered through the eyes of anthropologists or missionaries but there are a few important exceptions: Hagar Salamon’s The Hyena People (University of California Press, 1999) contains interviews with people who survived accusations of being budas. And Nega Mezlekia’s Notes from the Hyena’s Belly (St Martin’s Press, 2000), a memoir of the author’s Ethiopian youth, gives a brief but significant explanation from the victim’s perspective.