The Bultungin (Were-hyena)

Precious Emmanuel
December 3, 2023

Shapeshifters in African mythology: the Bultungin

The next time an unknown voice tries to call you out of the safety of your home at night, you might want to ignore the owner of the voice. Why is that?, you might be thinking. Well, the Kanuris believe it’s not always a human with good intentions. Sometimes - just sometimes, it could be a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic, shapeshifting hyena, or were-hyena who has placed you on the menu for dinner.

The word, “were-hyena” probably reminds you of their popular lycanthrope cousins, the were-wolves. Humans who transform into half human, half wolf on the night of the full moon, moving in packs and hunting for flesh. The were-hyenas are not entirely different from them. However, they do not wait for the full moon to carry out their cannibalistic hunts. So, if you’ve heard of the were-wolves myths before, it’s time to take you on another exciting ride in the world of shapeshifting.

Most of the world’s hyenas can be found in Africa. It is no wonder that the myth of were-hyenas hold strong in the region.  In the kanuri language of the Bornu Empire, Were-hyenas were commonly referred to as bultungin, a word meaning, “I change myself into a hyena”. They were described as human creatures who transformed into bloodthirsty cannibalistic monsters that snuck up on people and tricked them out of the safety of their homes before devouring them. It is reported that the bultungin had the odour of rotting flesh. They were either humans who took the privilege of the darkness of the night to embrace their other form (a full hyena or a hybrid), or hyenas that were able to disguise as humans when they felt like it. The creatures were said to entirely inhabit quite a number of villages in the Bornu Empire. Little wonder the house rents in such areas were meager.

Bultungins often disguised as magically powerful healers, woodcutters or more predominantly, blacksmiths in human form, giving barely any hint of their nightly sinister activities. Some say though, that they could be recognized by their hairy body, red gleaming eyes, and a nasal voice.

A were-hyena (Bultungin)

There are other variations of the myth, the Ethiopian variation being one of the most popular ones. The Ethiopian folklore is also based on therianthropes traditionally referred to as “Bouda”. The bouda is known as the power of the evil eye. The bearer of the evil eye power is able to change into a hyena or a were-hyena, managing to attack its prey with its identity remaining unknown.

The evil eye power is said to be on the same level as witches, the difference between them being the therianthropy of the bouda(ability to shape-shift). Blacksmiths were known to bear the bouda, granting them the ability to alter their appearance and proceed to hunt down their prey at the dead of the night. When bearers of the bouda were not secretly hunting preys, they were to be found exhuming dead bodies for consumption. This action earned them the title, “grave robbers”.

The were-hyenas were known to alternate between three forms: hyenas who assumed human forms, humans who assumed the full hyena form and humans who chose to change into the human-hyena form (also known as hybrids). The hybrids were known to have the facial features of a hyena, half human parts, and they stood and walked on their hind legs. Belief in the bouda is also common in countries like Sudan, Tanzania, and among the Berber people of Morocco. It is believed that the were-hyenas are a reflection of the hate and fear of hyenas by many indigenous Africans.

The three forms of the were-hyena (a human, a human-hyena hybrid and a hyena)

Modern day depictions of the Were-hyenas

Like the werewolves, the character of the Were-hyenas has also been depicted in a few modern day movies and books, some of which include:

  • Idrissa ouedraogo’s directed film, le cri du couer (the heart’s cry) features the story of a werehyena. (1994).
The cover of the book ‘Le cri du coeur’
  • The hyena, by Robert E. Howard where he

explored the idea of a singular were-hyena.(1928).

  • Hyenas, written and directed by Eric Weston (2011), tells the story of a pack of hyenas being hunted down by a man seeking revenge for his dead family.

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