Tuesday 30 September 2014

'I'll believe in evolution when I see a cat turn into a dog'

Well, here you are then.

This post is dedicated to the spotted hyena, the most liminal mammal alive, just because I'm into liminality at the moment. Hyenas have often been compared to wild dogs, wolves, jackals and other members of the canine family. Everyone agrees they kind of look and behave like dogs, but they're actually more closely related to cats. They belong in a taxonomic sub-order with the pretty name of feliformia which includes hyenas, cats, civets and mongooses.

Hyena Standoff.jpg
"Hyena Standoff" by Maureen Lunn - Hyena StandoffUploaded by Mariomassone. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But spotted hyenas don't stop there. They blow our minds still further by being full-on gender-benders at least if they're female. Not only is their clitoris enlarged into what looks like a penis, they even have a fake scrotum. Copulation is a bit fiddly for them, birth even more so, since they have to do all that stuff via the long pseudo-penis. They do pay a price for it, with a rather high maternal mortality and first pups who are more likely to die than not. Even if two pups survive birth, one sibling will often kill the other. On the other hand, surviving female pups of the most masculinized (and agressive) females rise to the top of the group hierarchy, get the most mating rights, generally boss everyone around and have lots of masculinized female pups in their turn. Males tend to do better in the mating market by behaving submissively.

Humans have often responded to this boundary-breaking by despising hyenas. Many African societies have not thought highly of them, European big game hunters found them too ugly to bother with (good survival trait there!). Not many people like their habit of eating anything they can kill or find, starting with human corpses. Being obvious 'hermaphrodites' makes matters worse, but at least no one paid much attention to the cat/dog thing until recently. With all that negativity, it's nice to find one positive appraisal:
Among the Korè cult of the Bambara people in Mali, the belief that spotted hyenas are hermaphrodites appears as an ideal in-between in the ritual domain. The role of the spotted hyena mask in their rituals is often to turn the neophyte into a complete moral being by integrating his male principles with femininity.
'His' male principles, huh? Could it be that being a 'complete moral being' is a guy thing with the Bambara people? Since I have no clue, I'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt for now. And that would be about enough of hyenas, except the Tanzanian ones are irresistible.
In the culture of the Mbugwe in Tanzania, the spotted hyena is linked to witchcraft. According to Mbugwe folklore, every witch possesses one or more hyenas, which are referred to as "night cattle" and are branded with an invisible mark. It is said that all hyenas are owned by witches, and that truly wild hyenas are non-existent. Lactating female spotted hyenas are said to be milked by their owners every night to make hyena butter, and are further used as mounts. When a witch acquires a hyena mount, he rides it to distant lands in order to bewitch victims and return safely home before morning.

You might be interested in:
How witchcraft belief in contemporary Africa is not nearly as fun as that sounds
The Norse god Loki and liminality of various kinds

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