Folklore and symbolism
There are several myths and stories from the past revolving hyenas. Most from Africa of course, but there are also some from Europe.
Choose a section:
Because hyenas are African animals, there is a lot of folklore and stories that go along with them from African peoples. I have included some of the more interesting tidbits here.
Hyenas and Witches
In Africa the hyena is associated with witches (much like the cat is in Europe). Many different cultures believe that witches can turn themselves into hyenas.
The Wambugwe (Tanzania) believe that "every witch possesses one or more hyenas which are branded (invisibly to normal eyes) with his mark, and to which he refers as his 'night cattle.' Some people say that all hyenas are owned by witches -- that there are no free or wild hyenas....At regular intervals, all witches of the land ride their hyenas to a prearranged place in the forest for a saturnalian gathering, where they boast of their evil deeds and perform obscene rites." (Robert F. Gray, in Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa.)
Hyenas are supposed to bear their young in a witch's house, and the witch milks the hyena. If you kill a hyena, the witch will kill you through magic. Witches are believed to ride hyenas naked through the night carrying torches they refuel with hyena butter.
The Hyena's Revenge
"The Hyena went to Lion's house to eat, but he felt the Lion had acted grudgingly toward him about the quagga's flesh. Therefore, he invited the Lion to come dine at his house. The Hyena boiled ostrich flesh in a pot to serve for dinner.
The Hyena gave the soup to the Lion, and the pot was very hot when the Lion went to take it in his hands. The Hyena said: "O Lion! Allow me to pour soup into the inside of thy mouth." The Lion consented, and the Hyena poured the hot soup into the Lion's mouth. Then he dropped the pot over the Lion's head, and the soup burned the Lion's eyes and the inside of his mouth. The Hyena took up a stick and beat the Lion, and he died, swallowing the hot soup and being beaten, while his head was inside the pot."
In African and Persian folklore, there are stories of a hyena-man hybrid, much like werewolves in Europe. The Bouda is a mythical tribe that is supposed to have the ability to transform into hyenas. The ancient Kingdom of Kaffa had a similar were-hyena known as the qora.
Belief in were-hyenas is so entrenched in the Bornu people of Nigeria that their language contains a specific word, bultungin, which translates as 'I change myself into a hyena.'
Many African tribes, such as the Himba, also perceive the hyena as a hermaphrodite, just as Europeans saw it as able to change sex.
When Europeans first encountered hyenas they formed all sorts of misunderstandings about them. As far back as the ancient Greeks, it was believed that hyenas could change their sex. This is probably because the two sexes look virtually identical, and the genitalia of the female spotted hyena looks very masculine.
Europeans associated hyenas with perversions, especially homosexuality. It was believed male hyenas had sex with one another.
During medieval times, Europeans believed that a lion would mate with a hyena and produce a leucrotta. The leucrotta had a beguiling human voice and would lure travelers to their deaths.
Pliny claimed that the leucrotta was the offspring of a lion and crocotta, a mythical dog-wolf. The crocotta was a combination of dog and wolf with impossibly strong teeth and instant digestion. It was said the crocotta could lure dogs and men to their death by imitating the voice of a man. A crocotta could change its color or gender at will. (Sounds like a hyena, doesn't it?)
It was also believed hyenas would dig up human corpses during medieval times.
One story goes that hyenas were born after the Flood (as in Noah) from the unnatural union of a dog and a cat.
St. Macarius and the Hyena
The story about St. Macarius comes from an early Coptic text. Internet sources indicate both St. Macarius of Egypt and St. Macarius of Aledxandria as the St. Macarius in this story, as they were contemporary with each other which Macarius is the one in question I think is unsure.
Here I'm just going to mention some of the symbolic meanings a hyena might have - for instance in dreams or meditation - and why the hyena is associated with that if I know. Much of this has to do with the popular perception of hyenas, rather than the hyena's actual true nature.
Hyenas are commonly associated with death, because they are scavengers who eat carrion. The hyena can be a messenger or bringer of death.
Because of the ambiguous genitalia of the spotted hyena, hyenas have been associated with homosexuality since ancient times.
Humans have long believed the hyena is a cowardly animal, again because they eat carrion.
To see one in a dream may tell you that you feel overwhelmed by responsibilities and want to run from them, or that you are already running from your responsibilities.
Because the spotted hyena makes a noise that sounds to humans like laughter, they have been associated with a sense of humor, or laughter.
To see one in a dream may represent someone in your life who has a sense of humor. The hyena may also represent a lack of seriousness, or a humorous nature.
Hyenas are seen as creatures that wait for the leftovers rather than being aggressive (again because they eat carrion), or who take what is left from others' kills.
To see one in a dream may represent a feeling of leeching off others, of not pulling your own weight, or that you have waited too long for the scraps from others' tables. You may feel that you are taking advantage of others weakness, or that they are taking advantage of yours.
In ancient times, the appearance of a hyena in a dream portended the birth of a sexually malformed child (again, because of the ambiguous genitalia of the spotted hyena).
ProverbsThese are African proverbs relating or referring to hyenas. The proverb and its people of origin is given. Many more can be found on this site.
"Every fault is laid at the door of the hyena, but it does not steal a bale of cloth." - Hausa
"The hyena of your own country does not break your bones." - Giryama people.
"It is the stinking bit of meat that catches the hyena." - Hausa
"The cry of the hyena and the loss of the goat are one." - Hausa
"When the hyena drinks, the dog can only look on." - Hausa
"If the owner of the goat is not afraid to travel by night, the owner of a hyena certainly will not be." - Hausa
"The dog and his collar are both booty of the hyena." - Hausa
"It is the prudent hyena that lives long." - Ila
"Two smells of cooking meat break the hyena's legs." - Kikuyu
"It is the hyenas of the same den that hate one another." - Kikuyu
"Don't show a hyena how well you can bite." - Mandi
"Nothing that enters the mouth of a hyena comes out again." - Ndau
"The leavings of the lion is welcome to the hyena." - Swahili
"If the hyena eats the sick man he will eat the whole one." - Swahili
"The hyena does not forget where it has hidden its kill." - Thonga
"A cowardly hyena lives for many years" - Luo