hyena & the sacred clown

Hyena painting in Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc Cave, France. Photo by Carla Hufstedler.

I hate clowns. Clowns as I grew up with them- oversized feet, overly bright primary colors, thinking they’re funny when I find nothing amusing about them. I’m a stick in the mud, frequently finding accusations of never having had a childhood leveled at me.

As a Hyena person with this opinion, I’ve always found myself scoffing at descriptions of Hyena people as “having great senses of humor,” “having difficulty being serious,” and so on. I always identified strongly with the solar-fiery aggressive bristle mane-feminine and lunar-cool still waters run deep-masculine aspects of Spotted Hyena, Crocuta crocuta, commonly known as the “laughing hyena.” All extant species of hyena produce vocalizations which resemble laughter, but it is the Spotted hyena who is the most vocal. Striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) are quite different from their Crocuta cousins- they’re a great deal more solitary, live in smaller family groups instead of large clans, and do not display the larger/more aggressive/uniquely “equipped” females. When met with aggression they will tend to flee or even feign death, as opposed to the Spotted, who will happily meet a threat head-on.

Since I always look to members of the species themselves for primary keys to understanding the Spirit of that animal, rather than through popular perception, this connection of Spotted hyenas being “clownish” always struck me as very odd. When hyenas “laugh” or “giggle,” it’s a vocalization of stress or agitation. There is nothing joyful or happy or mirthful about the laugh of the hyena- but there is fear, potential aggression, an animal on an adrenaline rush.

Humans seem instinctively uneasy around hyenas. When we look back through history for folklore surrounding the family, what little there is tends to be very negative. For such a prevalent predator, they’re disproportionately absent in Paleolithic cave art, which suggests that the amount of Hyena worship going on was negligible if not entirely absent. The one cave painting I’m aware of is located in Chauvet Cave in France, and appears to have originally been intended to represent a bear but was later reworked, and spots added. In most indigenous societies throughout their natural range, the Hyena- whether the Spotted in Africa or the Striped in western Asia, is associated with death, necromancy, witchcraft, shape-shifting, and, particularly in the case of the Spotted hyena, non-heteronormative gender identity and sexuality.

It was only once I started to look back into the figures across many cultures that I tend to have an affinity for- tricksters and psychopomps all- that I started to notice a pattern. Devotees of these Deities and students of these Teachers share many of the same associations as Hyena does- death and rebirth, witchcraft, shape-shifting, Queer identity.

Sacred clowns are figures who also show up the world over and are shamanic in their own right- often, they are ritually subjected to the abuses of a cruel world, whether the malice of fellow humans, fate, the forces of nature, or something else entirely. In doing so, they heal through willingly absorbing the community’s pain, and fuse laughter and suffering. The sacred clown is not a glib child-oriented character with a red wig and big shoes; they are profoundly tragic, often dark and associated with the realm of the Dead, and yet through their tragedy, we find relief from our own.

Not insignificant is the Hyena’s ability to heal from grievous wounds that would make many other animals succumb to infection, starvation, or predation- I have seen a male Spotted hyena with a quarter of his upper jaw bitten off by a lion survive. No visible nose or upper lip, but he still hunted and ate with the clan. Another instance was a Spotted hyena skull that had had its skull split clear through the braincase, only to heal- the injury as well as the healed bone visible in the specimen. Spotted hyenas’ immune systems can tackle rabies as well as distemper, anthrax, and a whole host of other microorganisms that would kill most large carnivores.

I experience this in my own personality in how I process grief and trauma. The first thing out of my mouth when my father died was a joke that, had I been around company unfamiliar with my mannerisms, would’ve landed me in some very hot water indeed. The only way I avoided crying at his burial was by suppressing grim laughter. I reacted to a sexual assault by laughing- an uncontrollable, rigid, high-pitched laughter- in the face of the person assaulting me. Witnessing tragedy, I’ve always got an off-color joke or three in the back of my mind. Yet all these years later, in private, I cry about losing my father. I experience flashbacks to the assault and other traumatic events I’ve lived through. These things are no laughing matter, yet I laugh at them, laugh hysterically, and turn the entire thing into a joke. Not to belittle, but to take the sting out of the tragedy, open a dialogue about it, hopefully produce healing, and wrest control from the sick jokes that life has a way of lining up for us.

Of course, this has to be used judiciously, and learning to keep my highly vocal Spotted muzzle shut has taken years of practice. Massive teeth and powerful jaws can cause extensive damage very quickly. Hyena, like the archetype of the Sacred Clown, is frequently (if not always) irreverent and tends to lay bare the bone of an issue- even if the rest of the community isn’t ready to address it.

The Sacred Clown is frequently the one pointing out that the Emperor is butt-naked and doing so in whichever way they can extract that most laughs. Spotted hyenas live in a society rich with ritual hierarchy, and, like many communal large predators, exhibit behavior that may look at first to humans like uncontrolled viciousness. In reality, however, this behavior consists of highly ritualized displays of dominance which deal very little actual damage and in fact serve to avoid the need for violence. Its purpose is one of communication rather than actual threat. In this way they also model appropriate “bite inhibition” which, for the sake of a Hyena human living in a generally not-Hyena-friendly human society, can be taken as “asshole inhibition”- learning when to be an outrageous thorn in the side of authority, and when to stand down.

With teeth that can demolish elephant bones, cutting through to the marrow of an issue, Hyena is an enigmatic creature, and ultimately one who teaches purification by way of embracing the deep shadows, laughter through tragedy, and genderfuckery: a prime example of the Sacred Clown tribe.