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Source: British Library Images Online Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 11v



Latin name: Hyaena

Other names: Hiena, Hienne, Hyene, Iena, Luvecerviere, Yena, Yenne

A beast that eats human corpses and changes sex


General Attributes

According to the law, hyenas must not be eaten because they are dirty. Hyenas can change their sex; sometimes they are male, other times female. They live near tombs and eat the dead bodies they find there. There is a stone in the hyena's eye (some say in the stomach of its young) that will give a person the ability to predict the future if the stone is placed under the person's tongue. Hyenas will circle a house at night, calling out words with the voice of a man; anyone who is deceived and goes out to investigate is eaten. A dog that crosses a hyena's shadow will lose its voice. The hyena's spine is rigid, so to turn it must move its entire body. The result of a mating between a hyena and a lioness is the beast called leucrota.


The hyena represents untrustworthy, two-faced people. Or it represents humanity, who first worshipped God and then worshipped idols. It can also signify a greedy and lustful man.

Sources (chronological order)

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] (Aesop: The Complete Fables (London, 1998) Temple 340): It is told that hyenas change their sex, one year being male and the next year female. One day a male hyena tried to perform an unnatural sex act with a female, who told him to remember that what he did to her this year would be done to him next year. (Temple 341): A female hyena wanted to have sex with a male fox, but the fox rejected her, saying that he could not be sure whether she would become his girlfriend or boyfriend.

Ovid [1st century CE] (The Metamorphoses, Book 15: 391-417): "We might marvel at how the hyena changes function, and a moment ago a female, taken from behind by a male, is now a male."

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 30): Hyenas are like a cross between a dog and a wolf; they break everything with their teeth, swallow it at a gulp, and masticate it in the belly. (Book 8, 44): Hyenas are believed to become male and female in alternate years. It cannot bend its neck, which extends all along its backbone, so it must turn its whole body. It can imitate the human voice; it does this outside a shepherd's outside, calling him by name so he comes outside, where the hyena can tear him to pieces. It can also imitate the sound of a person becoming sick, which it does to attract dogs so it can attack them. Only the hyena digs up graves to eat the corpses. Its eyes have many colors, and dogs are struck dumb if its shadow falls on them. Any animal that a hyena looks at three times will be unable to move.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 16, 15:25): Hyaenia is a stone found in the eye of the hyena and they say that if it is placed under the tongue of a man he foretells the future.

St Antony of Padua [12th-13th century CE] (Sermons): Hypocrites are compared to hyenas. Note that a hypocrite concealing himself under a sheep's skin is like the hyena, of which many wonderful things are related. It is a small animal; it dwells in the country; it digs up graves by night, and devours the corpses. It is fond of going where it can hear the voices of men; it haunts the folds of shepherds, and by listening attentively, learns to imitate the human voice, so that it can call a man at night, and devour him. It also imitates human groanings; and alluring them by its false sighs, devours the dogs, who, when they are hunting it, if they come within its shadow, lose their voice, and cannot bark. There is an extraordinary variety and change of colour in the eyes of the hyaena. ... It has no gums, and only one tooth, and that small; which, to the end it may not grow blunt, is naturally closed, after the manner of a chest. Whatever animal the hyaena goes thrice round, cannot move itself. Of this the Lord speaks in the 12th chapter of Jeremiah, in another translation: Mine heritage is unto Me like the den of a hyena. Thus the hypocrite is a being who lives in a brutal fashion; little, on account of his deceit; rustic, through the deformity of his deeds; and digging into sepulchers in the night of dissimulation. For he creeps, as the Apostle saith, into houses, and by seducing words allures the innocent. And thus he may be said to devour the corpses of sinners. He is fond of the voicesthat is, the praisesof men; he follows the folds of shepherds,that is, the places where God's Word is preached; to the end that, by assiduous listening, he may be able to preach somewhat, and so may deceive those whom he has gathered to himself by his preaching. He also imitates human groanings,that is, the confession of sin; he accuses himself as a sinner, when he believes not that he is so; and, by feigned sighs, induces men to think him holy, when they thus perceive him to be sorrowful Also, in the eyes of the hypocrite there is a wonderful change; sometimes he raises them to the heaven, and sighs; sometimes he casts them down to the earth, and groans. Nor is there only a change in the eye, but in the colour. Sometimes he is pale, sometimes dark; sometimes negligent in his dress, sometimes particular; sometimes is fond of abstinence, sometimes displeased by it. This change of divers colours signifies the mutation of his inward instability. (MediŠval preachers and mediŠval preaching: A series of extracts, translated from the sermons of the middle ages, chronologically arranged; with notes and an introduction (London, 1856) Neale translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): The hyena is a cruel beast like to the wolf in devouring and gluttony, and reseth on dead men, and taketh their carcase out of the earth, and devoureth them. It is his kind to change sex, for he is now found male, and now female, and is therefore an unclean beast, and cometh to hoveys by night, and feigneth man's voice as he may, for men should trow that it is a man. Pliny saith: It is said he is one year male and another female. And she bringeth forth her brood without male, as the common people trow. But Aristotle denieth that. And hath the neck of the adder, and the ridge of an elephant, and may not bend but if he bear all the body about. And herds tell that among stables, he feigneth speech of mankind, and calleth some man by his own name, and rendeth him when he hath him without. And he feigneth oft the name of some man, for to make hounds run out, that he may take and eat them.... And his shadow maketh hounds leave barking and be still, if he come near them. And if this beast hyena goeth thrice about any beast, that beast shall stint within his steps. Pliny saith that the hyena hateth the panther. And it is said that if both their skins be hanged together, the hair of the panther's skin shall fall away. This beast hyena fleeth the hunter, and draweth toward the right side, to occupy the trace of the man that goeth before: and if he cometh not after, he telleth that he goeth out of his wit, or else the man falleth down off his horse. And if he turn against the hyena, the beast is soon taken, as magicians tell. And also witches use the heart of this beast and the liver, in many witchcrafts. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


The hyena is usually depicted pulling a body from a tomb, or eating a human body.

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