Brottman, Mikita. 2012. Hyena. London, UK: Reaktion Books.
(Summarized by Marie Carmen Abney, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)
The Reaktion book Hyena was written by Mikita Brottman, published in 2012. Brottman is a professor in the Department of Humanistic Studies at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. On her website, she describes herself as a psychoanalyst, author, and cultural critic. Her aim in Hyena is to address this particular animal's reputation and to dispel the myths that have stained the hyena's name for nearly all of human existence. Several quotes succinctly summarize Brottman's goals and conclusions in this book:
"In case of the hyena, so ingrained is the animal's reputation that, upon learning its name, the creature itself is transformed before our very eyes." (p. 7)
"Get to know a hyena up close, and you will encounter a fabulous, enchanted beast, neither cat nor dog but an odd combination of the two, related more closely to cat than dog, with a touch of the ferret thrown in for bad luck." (p. 9)
"More often than not, this unloved animal becomes a projection of the observer, representing whatever kind of Otherness is felt to be most frightening. In other words, our hyenas are ourselves." (p. 9)
"In truth, however, it is not a case of either/or. Hyenas are both smart and scary, both magical and misunderstood." (p. 136)
Chapter 1: Evolution and Distribution
In the first chapter, Brottman presents the biological history of the hyena. The hyena is believed to be 26 million years old with the first hyena-type species described as a small, nimble, tree-dwelling, badger-like creature. It is estimated that about 15 million years ago there were 30 different species of hyena ancestors. They lived in Asia and Africa, unchallenged by other large predators. This changed about 5-7 million years ago, when lowered sea levels revealed the Baring Land Bridge, providing a crossing point for other canids. These canids directly challenged the hyena species and depleting food resources. After these canid groups moved in, the hyena population was decreased so significantly that only two species remained: an insect eating species and a carnivorous "bone-crusher" species. While the hyena would stage a comeback, featuring 9 species about 2-4 million years ago, the modern hyena is divided into four species: the spotted hyena, brown hyena, striped hyena, and the aardwolf, which Brottman describes in careful detail in this first chapter.
Chapter 2: Hyena and Human History
In the second chapter Brottman attempts to dissect the scientific identifications and other depictions of the hyena throughout history. What she finds is that the hyena has been identified as part of the cat category, as a wolf-dog hybrid, somewhere between wolves and foxes, and even as a cameleopard. Pliny the Elder's description of the hyena is a perfect example of the confusion: "about the size of an ass, with a stag's haunches, a lion's neck, tail and breast, badger's head, cloven hoof, mouth opening right back to the ears, and ridges of bone in place of rows of teeth" (p. 38). Depictions and descriptions of the hyena from before the Middle Ages to the contemporary era share many characteristics. Back in Aristotle's day hyenas were seen as hermaphrodites or sex-changers, and while Aristotle wrote about hyenas in an attempt to refute this assumption, his work only ended up fueling the rumor. While this belief of hyenas as hermaphrodites or sex-changers remains to this day, the Middle Ages saw the belief of hyenas as grave robbers overtake the hermaphrodite motif. Even into the contemporary era books and television series fail to present an accurate depiction of hyenas' personalities, though at least they are improving in terms of physical characteristics. As Brottman points out, even into the twentieth century, authors who presented relatively sedate and objective accounts of other topics were "unable to refrain from a sneering tone when called upon to describe the hyena" (p. 57).
Chapter 3: Hyena Magic
In chapter 3, Brottman turns to the topic of magic. Hyenas have long been considered the untouchables of the animal world, connect both to sex magic as well as black magic. The hyena's body has been the source of fetish objects since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Even today, the striped hyena is highly feared while simultaneously being associated with fertility in Afghanistan, India, and many parts of Asia. Hyena hair is associated with female beauty and is therefore often used in love charms. Hyena blood can be found in many types of folk medicine, and the hyena's tongue is believed to fight tumors. Because of the hyena's scavenging tendencies, nocturnal habits, and ability to chew and digest bones, the hyena has also long been associated with necromancy and evil spirits. The hyena can be considered the African version of the Western black cat: the witch's familiar.
Chapter 4: Wargs and Scrunts
Brottman uses an entire chapter to delve into the description of hyenas in popular media, as opposed to the scientific sources she focused on in the earlier chapters. Here she mentions the continued hermaphrodite theme, as was depicted in Renaissance English Literature. Charlotte Brontë described Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre, as a "clothed hyena." Even children's books depict hyenas as frightening and cowardly. The children's books that feature hyenas include: The Mean Hyena, The Tale of Harry the Heartless Hyena, Hungry Hyena, The Greedy Hyena, The Foolish Hyena, and Tasmin and the Wicked Hyena. The only known children's book without such a negative approach to hyenas is Pinduli (2004), which is a story of prejudice and public perception, as Brottman describes it: refreshingly different.
Of course a discussion of hyenas in popular media would not be complete without a look at The Lion King. As Brottman describes it: "Under Scar's reign, bones lie scattered everywhere; yes, the filthy hyenas have trashed the place" (p. 109). Hyenas are also depicted as stupid (or possibly mentally handicapped in the case of Ed), violent, and disgusting.
Chapter 5: Bad Rap
In the final chapter, Brottman explains why the hyena's bad reputation has been sustained over time. She gives five reasons for this: (1) the hyena's evolutionary role, (2) status as a scavenger, (3) aesthetic qualities, (4) temperament, and (5) the hyena's association with death. Evolutionarily, the hyena and human were direct competitors in Africa, competing for scavenged food. Hyena's continued role as scavengers makes it difficult for humans to categorize them; this argument goes something like this: that which we cannot put into a box worries us. The role of scavenger also plays into the hyena's aesthetic depictions. Their nocturnal habits also prevent an accurate judgment of their temperaments, which range from brave and intelligent for spotted hyenas to more peaceful and gentle for the striped and brown varieties.