Hyena tales

Not much hyena news to report while I’m stuck in Addis Ababa for a week so I decided to post a folktale from east Africa:

Hyena’s Horns
Adapted from: Werner 1968 Myths and Legends of the Bantu

Hyena was wandering around the forest, looking for bits of food to eat when he noticed Kudu walking along. Hyena ran up alongside Kudu and asked where she was going.
Kudu replied, ‘Haven’t you heard? There’s a big party, today, at the other side of the forest. Drumming, dancing, and all the food you can eat.’
‘Oh boy! Oh boy!’ said Hyena, ‘Can I come? Can I? Can I?’
‘Sorry’, replied Kudu, ‘This party is only for horned animals like me. Maybe next time.’
And Kudu went on her way leaving Hyena feeling dejected.
Hyena resumed his search for food, finding nothing but a few grubs, when he noticed Eland walking along.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Hyena.
‘There’s a big party today at the other side of the forest,’ replied Eland, ‘Dancing, beer and all you can eat.’ and after seeing the plea in Hyena’s eyes, continued, ‘Sorry chum. Horned animals only.’ And went on his way.
Hyena was feeling more dejected than ever when he tripped and stumbled on a lump in the grass. He turned to curse the lump but realised it was a pair of old gazelle horns half buried in the ground and, seeing these, Hyena had a moment of inspiration. He found some beeswax and softened it and then used it to stick the horns to the top of his head. Then feeling quite confident and handsome, he set off for the party at the other side of the forest.
When Hyena arrived at the party, he found Buffalo was at the entrance and approached very nervously. But Buffalo never even gave him a second glance and, before he knew it, Hyena was in amongst the horned animals having the time of his life. He scoffed as much food as he could and swilled beer to his stomach’s content. He danced and played drums and entertained everyone there with his antics.
But as the day wore on and the sun rose higher in the sky, the wax that was holding the horns on Hyena’s head began to melt. Hyena felt the horns slipping and grabbed at them calling out to all the other animals, ‘Hey guys, guys! Hold on to your horns or they’ll fall off in the heat of the sun!’
The music stopped and the horned animals all turned to look at Hyena desperately trying to keep the horns from falling off his head. Then as one they charged the hapless hyena and chased him out of the party and into the forest where he spent the rest of the day alone, licking termites from the top of a termite mound. Poor Hyena.

This, my favourite Hyena story, is so very typical of Hyena in African folktales: the trickster, who by his own stupidity ends up in the soup. Hyena is the tricked trickster, sometimes acting alone and getting himself in trouble or at other times, in the company of a clever trickster such as Rabbit or Tortoise or Spider, either of which profits at Hyena’s expense. But the above story appeals to me because it reminds me of the real life hyena (specifically Tukwondilli if truth be told) and you can see where the story tellers get their inspiration. Hyenas are goofballs. So many times in Harar I’ve watched hyenas stumble and trip and bump into things and in the rainy season when the flagstones of the streets are wet, it’s like watching slapstick. And even when hyenas aren’t tripping, the way their heads bob from side to side when they walk is comical. So when you see one of these goofballs, ambling along with his nose to the ground, whooping and looking for food its easy to come up with a story like the above.

If I had to come up with an equivalent to Hyena from my own culture, I’d say in an instant that Hyena in African folktales is just like Daffy Duck; and you know the latter might even be derived from the former. You see Bugs Bunny is taken from Brer Rabbit of Uncle Remus fame. And those Uncle Remus folktales from the American south are directly derived from folktales of west Africa, which feature Rabbit as the trickster and Hyena as Rabbit’s dull-witted friend who is greedy and stupid and ends up being outwitted by Rabbit. In the new world, Hyena became Brer Fox; hyenas didn’t have the same relevance as foxes so became excluded from the tales, although the equivalent of Brer Fox in Louisiana folktales is a vague character called ‘Bouki’ which means ‘Hyena’ in Wolof language of west Africa. Rabbit in these cases is known as lapin.
Now compare Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and you’ll see it’s pretty easy to argue for some kind of continuity. Especially with Bugs Bunny but I’d also argue the same for Daffy Duck. In so many African folktales you could easily replace Hyena with Daffy and the plot-line would be just as plausible. I know it’s kind of a pointless exercise but when you’re sitting on a hill waiting for hyenas to get up and go into town a lot goes through your head. Now don’t get me started on Aesops fables. Suffice to say that the name ‘Aesop’ comes from ‘Ethiopian’ which was the term used for any African slaves of the time, one of which was Aesop himself.
It’s pretty hard to find folktales in Harar. Not because they never existed but because Hararis have long held an economic advantage in the area and were the first to have TVs and such forms of entertainment. Unlike with rural Somalis whose story telling tradition is going strong, Hararis are watching TV or listening to hip hop or tapping away on their laptops and story-telling has gone by the wayside. But I have tracked down a few Harari folktales that include Hyena. Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, they often have a different take on the character of Hyena. This one is taken from Cerulli:

Three boys were walking together in the forest when they met with Hyena. They were very frightened and Hyena asked them, “Whose protection are you under?”
The first boy answered, “I am under the protection of God”

The second boy answered, “I am under the protection of the Earth”
And the third boy answered, “I am under your protection”
Hyena looked at the boys and said, “If I eat you who is protected by God, wherever I go I may not escape Him. So you I shall not kill. If I eat you who is protected by the Earth, then where on Earth will I find a place to hide? So I shall not eat you. And you who has put yourself under my protection. If I eat you, you will be protected inside my belly. Come!” And Hyena killed and ate the third boy.

This is one kind of portrayal of Hyena in Harar. Simply a dangerous animal who eats little boys. But what’s really interesting (for an anthropologist) is that Hyena outwits the boy and ends up getting a meal. This Hyena is nothing like Daffy Duck; she thinks things through and using her wits. Another portrayal is in a story of Donkey and Hyena where Donkey happens upon a funeral, where Hyena is grieving for her dead son. Donkey is full of fatuous condolences and Hyena ends up using them against Donkey and eating him. I only have six Harari folktales that include Hyena but its interesting here that Hyena is rarely portrayed as stupid. More often Hyena is a thief or is dangerous or, most interesting of all, is simply a member of Harari society. Like I always say, Harar is different.

(Just heard from Harar that the market district called ‘Taiwan’ was burned down along with much of the business district there. Most of these shops are tiny little stores crammed with goods such as mobile phones and clothes and I bet most of those vendors couldn’t afford insurance. This is pretty disastrous for Harar)


2 thoughts on “Hyena tales

  1. There’s also Jackal and Spider as trickster, often accompanied by Hyena who they manage to dupe. Also there’s a recurring theme of the above animals, or Hare, tricking Hyena into letting them ride him (her). Don’t know what’s going on with that. A guy called Tremearne wrote a collection of Hausa folktales in the early 20th century. They’re worth a read.

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