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12 november 2012

Hyenas, Mikita Brottman argues, get a bad rap. They are nice, really – well, no worse than any other carnivore, and more tractable than most. But their image, cultivated since the Middle Ages and reinforced mightily by omnipresent images from The Lion King ("this fatuous story" 107), is that of cowardly, sinister scavengers, treacherous in disposition, and worse, inclined to laugh hysterically about their misbehavior.

Some species and populations of hyena are endangered, but as opportunists and sometime omnivores, hyenas as a whole are going nowhere. Therefore ill thoughts about hyenas are less troubling than those about sharks, for instance. As Brottman shows, our images of hyenas are almost always images of us. Europeans and Americans, particularly, never run across hyenas anyway, and have been free for centuries to project their opinions of one another onto these defenseless predators.

In particular, I was fascinated by images that Brottman reproduces, showing hyenas in medieval bestiaries busily digging up and munching on human corpses. These corpses look very European and medieval, often buried in elegant sarcophagi such as one might find in an old cathedral. Clearly no natural history is represented here, not that medieval bestiaries are the first place one goes for natural history. The hyena of the bestiaries is downright mythological. It represents psychological tendencies so pathological and depraved that they result in a kind of natural blasphemy. If the dog proverbially returneth to his vomit, the hyena emblematically killeth and then diggeth back up again to kill some more (and then presumably vomit and return to). Hyenas symbolize ineradicable recidivism.

Brottman, Mikita. Hyena. London: Reaktion, 2012.