The United Kingdom is home to the eerie, body-morphing creature known as the Phantom Black Dog. On rare occasions people have describe the mysterious, red-eyed dogs taking on multiple forms, including large cats and even bear-like animals. And walking upright, no less. The United States has its very own supernatural equivalent of the PBD. It’s the morphing and mysterious coyote. Far less well known is a somewhat similar creature that lurks and roams within the the continent of Africa. It is known as the were-hyena. It’s a beast that some believe is actually a human who becomes a hyena. Others, meanwhile, teach that it is a hyena which has the ability to take on human form. Before we get to the matter of the supernatural hyena, though, let us first take a look at its regular, normal equivalent.
Widespread across East Africa and South Africa, the hyena is a formidable and highly dangerous animal, one which will not think twice about attacking, killing, and even eating, people if it comes down to it. Muscular and athletic, the hyena can reach a height of around three feet and can live for up to twenty-five years. Now, we’ll examine the far stranger side of the hyena; the one which is dominated by the undeniably strange matter of morphing from one form to another.
As far as the morphing beast of Africa is concerned, it is East Africa and North Africa where the creature is predominantly said to dwell. One of the most visible of the various bodies of African were-hyenas is that which is known as the Bultungin. It voraciously and savagely hunts in the vicinity of Lake Chad, which borders upon northern Nigeria. In 1883, Gerald Massey wrote of this particular controversy in The Natural Genesis: “In the Kanuri language of Bornu (Africa), the name of the hyena is Bultu, and from this is formed the verb bultungin, which signifies ‘I transform myself into a hyena.’ There is a town named Kabultinoa, the inhabitants of which are said to possess this faculty of transformation.”
Massey was of the opinion that this belief could be explained away in wholly down to earth fashion, and as a result of “the donning of the hyena skin in their religious masquerade.” But, is that all there is to it: rites and rituals and nothing else at all? Not according to the locals, it’s not. Far from it. Throughout Morocco, the Lake Chad area, and Tanzania, there is an intriguing belief that each and every blacksmith has the ability to take on the form of a hyena – chiefly as a result of the same blacksmiths also being experts in the fields of magic and sorcery.
Whereas the werewolf traditionally surfaces when the moon is full, the blacksmith-turned-were-hyena is limited to activity during daylight hours. Interestingly, in Tanzania there is a longstanding belief that witches travel on the backs of supernatural spotted hyenas, late at night, and in much the same fashion that the traditional European witch takes to the skies on the traditional broomstick.
Moving on, we have the were-hyena of the Republic of Mali, in West Africa. The republic is home to a secret society known as the Kore. Jurgen W. Frembgen says – in “The Magicality of the Hyena: Beliefs and Practices in West and South Asia” – that members of the society, “‘become’ hyenas by using zoomorphic helmet masks and playing dramatic roles, both of which refer to the dirty habits, trickiness, and nastiness of the animal mentioned above; they may also be used to invoke fear among the participants.”
Real shape-shifting hyenas, or tales born out of graphic, violent rites and rituals? The question remains wide open and is very much dependent on belief-systems.