"The Striped Hyena" from Cassell's Popular Natural History, Vol. I, 1863
"The Striped Hyena" from Volume I of Cassell's Popular Natural History, 1863
Wolves have haunted the popular imagination of Europe and the Americas for centuries. In the same vein, hyenas have both terrified and thrilled people across Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It is from the numerous myths surrounding the creatures - who themselves define traditional categorization and are neither canine nor feline - that this fine lithograph from Volume I of Cassell's Popular Natural History springs. A stealthy and silent creature (save its occasional echoing laughter), 19th-century scientists would have rarely had the chance to properly examine the nocturnal Striped Hyena. Instead, the artist here relies on his own imagination to paint a picture of the hyenas in what the audience would presume to be their 'natural' habitat: a graveyard.
It is not merely an allegorical reference to the hyena's role in the food chain as scavenger. Instead, it reflects the Westerner's unfamiliarity with the wildlife of the African continent that then forces him to turn to the only resource available - local myths. For years, hyenas were not simply troublesome creatures that would sneak into villages and carry off foodstuffs. Instead, they were thought to be ferocious supernatural beings that could devour grown men. While stories vary between regions, many African nations, including Ethiopia and Sudan, believed in the bouda: a human sub-species of wizards that could transform either by the curse of darkness or even at will into hyenas. The bouda (also known in some regions as kaftar) were often thought to be blacksmiths, which some have suggested links the 'werehyena' myth to anti-Semitism in Ethiopia where Jewish people often filled such roles.
While some of these half-human, half-animal monsters were said to destroy humans (and indeed, reports of hyenas attacking human victims did appear in the late 1800s), others were thought to search the graves for their next meals - human corpses they would dig out of their resting places. In this lithograph from Cassell's Popular Natural History, a full moon - a reference to the mythical transformation - is shown hovering above a pack of hyenas who roam a suspiciously English graveyard marked by slightly sloping ground and well-kept trees. The hyena's true natural habitat was often tall grass in which the shaggy animal would be well hidden from danger and the notice of any live prey. Highly exposed graveyards, such as this one, would have been a far greater risk than simply seeking out an animal carcass in the wild.
Even so, the book - which was one of the primary sources of education on natural history at the time - focuses on the accounts of human-hyena interaction that describes not how the animals live, but how they directly impact human life. Also interesting is the lack of local primary sources despite the visual references to African folklore:
"Major Denham says:-'The hyenas are everywhere in legions, and grow now so extremely ravenous, that a good large village, where I sometimes procured a draught of sour milk on my duck-shooting excursions, had been attacked the night before my last visit...We constantly heard them close to the walls of our town at night, and, on a gate being partly left open, they would enter and carry off any unfortunate animal they could find in the streets...'
"Bruce says:-'The hyenas were the scourge of Abyssinia, in every situation, both of the city and the field; and they seemed to surpass even the sheep in number. From evening till the dawn of day the town of Gondar was full of them: here they sought the different pieces of slaughtered carcasses which were exposed in the streets without burial.
"...One night, I went out of my tent, and, returning immediately, I saw two large blue eyes glaring at me in the dark. I called my servant to bring a light, and we found a hyena standing near the head of the bed...In a word, the hyenas were the plague of our lives, the terror of our night-walls..."
- Onastasia Youssef
Plate size: 7" x 5"
Sheet size: 10" x 7.5"
Condition: Some spots, but otherwise in excellent condition