This week I decided to get cracking with the Wild Unknown Animal Spirit deck (which can be purchased here, direct, or here in the UK). I’ve enjoyed doing a couple of one-card draws for myself but have yet to tackle larger spreads, wanting to first spend some time researching each featured animal. I’m a big geek for animals so I decided to forgo the guidebook and look into them myself (both from a zoologists and metaphysical perspective) and write my own guide.
Anyway, today I pulled Hyena. I feel like they have a bit of a bad rep and heaven knows they can be pretty mangy looking, so aren’t exactly the most endearing creatures at first glance.
One of my first thoughts when looking at this card was the call of the spotted hyena, which sounds like a goofy to downright maniacal laughter. It isn’t really a ‘safe’ sounding noise, but it isn’t terrifying either, it can be both funny and unsettling. In this context, I see hyenas predominantly representing one’s willingness to laugh and find the humour in all situations.
There’s an ambivalence there too though, humour can be light or dark, sarcastic to sardonic, healing or wounding. In upsetting or challenging situations there can be nothing like a well timed joke to lift the clouds of sadness, making the absurdities and tragedies of life funny rather than destroying. But humour can also be sharp, and when wielded like a weapon – out of spite or insensitivity – can cut deeply. Many of us fear being laughed at, being made a joke of, or being seen like a fool. It hurts when a joke is made at our expense, and it can recall uncomfortable memories from childhood if we experienced bullying or humiliation.
One of the things this card brought up for me is my own use of humour for armour and approval seeking. On more than one occasion as a teen I remember being told by some of the boys my age that I was funny…for a girl. As yet unschooled in the totality of patriarchy’s bullshit and not able to see that compliment for the backhanded slap that it was, I decided to run with it: If I couldn’t be the prettiest girl in the room, I could at least be the funniest. This offered the added protection that I could also seemingly laugh off whatever nasty things my female peers were saying about me. Underneath it all though it became something I felt that I had to perform whenever and wherever I was, even if I didn’t feel like it, even when I was in the grips of depression and felt like I was dying inside… because how could people like me or see me as worthwhile otherwise? Not being able to make people laugh would confirm all of my worst fears about myself, that I was void of any value at all.
I feel a big message from hyena is about communication, wit and conflict and, because of my tarot background, I would associate it with air, so I was surprised to see Kim Krans designate it as fire. On further research though I can see how this would fit, considering that in East Africa the Tabwa tribe view the hyena as a solar animal, present in their origins mythology as the creature that first brought the warmth of the sun to earth. Conversely, in West African tribes, hyenas are generally seen negatively, representing theft, undesirable characteristics and dirty behaviour. In Tanzania there is also a mystical tradition that holds hyenas as the familiars and steeds of witches.
On a biological level there are some really interesting things about spotted hyenas, for one thing, they are matriarchal. The females are the most aggressive and dominant in the pack, they carry more muscle and as such are the only ones who can hold Alpha status. Much has been written about the females’ unusual genitalia because unlike most mammals, it exhibits externally and apparently is almost indistinguishable from the males’ penis at first glance. Also unlike many mammals, because of the nature of the females’ genitalia, it is almost impossible for a male to copulate with a female without her consent and cooperation; one dissatisfied nudge on her part and it’s game over. As such, this dynamic offers us a strong message about female bodily sovereignty and power, and also the idea of balancing our masculine and feminine aspects.
I haven’t yet found any written material on this to corroborate, but I remember watching a documentary about hyenas years ago (I retain a ridiculous amount of random information) where they discussed how the males often do not mate within the clan they are born to, but instead travel to new packs in search of partners. This natural instinct keeps the genetic line diverse and free from inbreeding. On a divinatory level I can see this instinct as representing the idea that to fulfil our potential and prevent stagnation we must travel a distance to seek out our own path and chosen tribe.
While hyenas for the most part are presented as scavengers, they are also hunters that ultimately do whatever they need to in order to survive. As such they are an incredibly successful species, who have much to teach us about resourcefulness, opportunism and getting the most out of what we have.
Although it would be easy to assume from their appearance that they are a wild offshoot species of dog, they are in fact far closer related to cats, so I also see the idea here of a person or situation being different from how it first appears, and the message that we are being called to dig a little deeper and examine how our perceptions can cloud the truth.
After exploring my own first impressions and a bit of research, the overall picture I’m seeing of this spirit is much like the half moon depicted in this card, there is an ambivalence of equal parts light and dark. They are incredibly aggressive creatures who continually fight for dominance, they do not share resources even amongst their own pack and happily steal food from the mouths of other animals, and yet they are adaptable, intelligent, pragmatic.
Because of this dual nature and the fact that hyenas are nocturnal, I see a representation of the shadow self and the internal battle between desirable and undesirable qualities that humans struggle with. Hyenas in many ways represent the things we wish to deny about our own animal natures. Their medicine is the acceptance of all we are, good and bad, light and dark.
I also see the message that it is time to make sure that our needs are being met and that we aren’t being trampled on by others. ‘Take control’ hyena says, ‘don’t wait for someone else to decide or do or fix something for you, and don’t be afraid to be called a bitch for asserting yourself. There is no shame in success, bare your teeth every now and then, and remember to always keep your wits and humour about you.’
As a rather random addition to this, but considering the obsession we are socialized into about the colossal importance of appearance, I also hear scraggy, patchy haired and kinda-funny-lookin’ hyena telling us that we don’t have to be pretty to survive and thrive, to value our skills above our looks and not invest so much energy into worrying about others’ perceptions of us.
As a negative or dominating energy, I see hyena representing persistent self-centeredness and insensitivity towards others. Maybe a time when the dark side has come out to play and is calling the shots a little too much. We are being warned to measure our words, to consider other people’s needs not just our own self interest, and ensure that we are giving to, as much as we are receiving from, the people around us.