roman hyena

Crocotta

The Crocotta is a canine beast of India or Ethiopia, linked to the hyena, and said to be a deadly enemy of men and dogs.

History

Strabo (64/63 BC – c. AD 24) a Greek philosopher, geographer, and historian, described the beast as a mixed progeny of a wolf and a dog (wolfdog) in Geographica, XVI.4.16.

Pliny in his Natural History (VIII.72 and 107) described the Crocotta as a combination of either a wolf and a dog, or a hyena and a lion. Of the hyena,  Pliny writes that it “is popularly believed to be bisexual and to become male and female in alternate years, the female bearing offspring without any male,” and that:

among the shepherds’s homesteads it simulates human speech, and picks up the name of one of them so as to call him to come out of doors and tear him to pieces, and also that it imitates a person being sick, to attract the dogs so that it may attack them; that this animal alone digs up corpses; that a female is seldom caught; that its eyes have a thousand variations of colour; moreover that when its shadow falls on dogs they are struck dumb; and that it has certain magic arts by which it causes every animal at which it gazes three times to stand rooted to the spot. When crossed with this race of animals the Ethiopian lioness gives birth to the corocotta, that mimics the voices of men and cattle in a similar way. It has an unbroken ridge of bone in each jaw, forming a continuous tooth without any gum.

Photios I of Constantinople, a Byzantine scholar, writes:

In Ethiopia there is an animal called crocottas, vulgarly kynolykos [dog-wolf], of amazing strength. It is said to imitate the human voice, to call men by name at night, and to devour those who approach it. It is as brave as a lion, as swift as a horse, and as strong as a bull. It cannot be overcome by any weapon of steel.

Cassius Dio, a Roman consul and historian, credits the emperor Septimius Severus with bringing the crocotta to Rome, saying this “Indian species…was then introduced into Rome for the first time, so far as I am aware. It has the colour of a lioness and tiger combined, and the general appearance of those animals, as also of a dog and fox, curiously blended.

Later bestiaries in the Middle Ages state that the Crocotta has striped gems as eyes, that could give the possessor oracular powers when placed under the tongue.