The crocotta (or corocotta, crocuta, or yena), is a mythical dog-wolf of India or Ethiopia, said to be a deadly enemy of men and dogs.
This beast was first written about by Pliny in his work Natural History (book VIII, chapter 30). He simply described the crocotta as a combination between dog and wolf with impossibly strong teeth and instant digestion. Other mythologies have described the crocotta as a gluttonous beast that digs up the buried dead and prowls around farms at night.
The dog-wolf crocotta and the antelope-like leucrota were clearly meant to be two different types of animals, but because of their alleged blood relation, the similarity of their names, and their supposed ability to speak with a human voice, the authors of bestiaries often mistook one for another. This is likely the source of many of the later conflations of their reputed characteristics.
- It was said that the crocotta would lure dogs to their death by imitating the sound of a man in distress. When the dogs heard the cry they would follow the sound, only to be attacked and devoured. The beast was also said to occasionally hide in bushes at the edge of the forest listening to the farmers talking and calling each other by name. The crocotta would then repeat one of the names to lure the person into the woods. When the man approached, it would draw back into the brush and speak his name again. As the man followed, the creature would continue to draw deeper into the woods. When the victim was beyond help, the animal would leap upon him and devour him.
- Other legends ascribed the crocotta with the ability to change its color or gender at will. Some legends said that animals that attempted to stalk it would freeze in their own tracks. The eyes of a slain crocotta were said to be striped gems that would give the possessor oracular powers when placed under the tongue.
Pliny said that the offspring of a crocotta and a lion was the leucrota (or leucrocuta, leucrocotta, or leocrocotta), which could imitate the sound of a human voice. This was no doubt the source of the later, similar claims for the abilities of the crocotta itself.
Many classicists believe that the source of Pliny's description was Ctesias' description of the cynolycus. Others believe that he may have been repeating a mangled description of the hyena.
The scientific name of the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) was taken from the mythological Crocotta, and there are some similarities in the description. Hyena do have very powerful teeth and jaws and can digest a wide range of foods. They are known to dig up human bodies for food, and can make unnervingly human like vocalizations (such as their famous laugh). Local folklore about hyena often gives them powers such as gender switching (males and females are difficult to distinguish), shape shifting, and human speech - all of which encourages the belief that hyena may have contributed to the original myth of the crocotta.