A Paradox of Cats

24 Mar

We all know that a male cat is called a ‘tom’. Traditionally a female cat was called a ‘molly’, but the term ‘queen’ seems to have been widely adopted these days. I think this is a shame because the term was originally used by breeders and I think cats need breeders the way a fish needs a bicycle. I’d like to see a revival in the use of the term ‘molly’. I think it’s a nicer word.

What’s less well-known is that the collective noun for cats is a “clowder”, or alternatively a “glaring”, but I think the term “paradox” might be more appropriate.

It’s generally accepted that the term ‘pus’ or ‘pussy’, when applied to cats, derives from the name Bastet or Pashti, the Egyptian cat goddess. Oddly enough this term also applies to hares, but, other than superfecundity (the ability for females to bear young sired by more than one male in a single litter), it’s hard to see what the two animals have in common.

Or at least it’s hard to see what they have in common in terms of natural history. In terms of their position in human folklore, cats and hares have quite a lot in common. Essentially they are both considered to be strange and unaccountable creatures. (It’s  matter of fact that wherever we now find a rabbit in modern, sanitized versions of folklore –  eg the Easter Bunny, we would once have found a hare, this is because rabbits look cute and they’re relatively well understood, while hares seem wayward and enigmatic creatures even now.)

I should point out that there is a degree of exaggeration about the position of cats  in both Ancient Egypt and in Medieval Europe. Cats were certainly revered in Ancient Egypt, but so were a number of other animals and arguably some, notably cows, were held in higher esteem.

It’s also true that cats were reviled in Medieval Europe as being the familiars of witches, but once again, a number of other animals, weasels for example, were also seen in a similar light.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that cats do occupy a curious position in many cultures and it’s not just a simple matter of cats being valued in some societies and disliked on others. Traditions within any one culture also vary as to whether or not cats are benign or malign. The only thing that seems to be constant is that cats are never entirely neutral.

An instructive comparison here would be with the position of dogs.

I would never underestimate the bond between dogs and their owners, and dogs have often been vital collaborators in all manner of human activities, but no one seems to feel that it is either good or bad luck to have a black dog cross their path.

Don’t think I’m ignoring mythical creatures like the gytrash, the legendary canine who will doubtless be familiar to readers of Jayne Eyre and the Harry Potter series, but the gytrash is a specifically supernatural creature – who can also appear as a horse or a mule according to the traditions of Northern England, he is not a normal, everyday kind of dog and my point is that in folklore its common for all cats to have a preternatural aspect attributed to them.)

I think part of the reason for this contrast is that dogs and humans understand each other very well, incredibly well considering that they are completely different kinds of species, but this level of communication does not generally exist between cats and humans.

For example, everyone knows that if a cat walks into a room full of people, and there is one person in the room who dislikes cats, the cat will invariably approach that person.

To some this may seem like the natural perversity of the feline, but in fact it’s due to the difference between feline and human body language.

When a human looks at you it is generally an invitation to approach, but part of feline greeting protocol is to look away. So when a human looks away from a cat because he doesn’t want anything to do with it, the cat takes this as an invitation. (Some humans can be stunningly obtuse when it comes to communicating with their dogs, but this kind of generalised misunderstanding simply doesn’t happen.)

So the behaviour of cats can seem unaccountable because we don’t understand then as easily as we can understand dogs.

But even aside from this, cats also have a variety of odd habits, notably that of staring into empty space. And it’s not as though they’re simply gazing absent-mindedly into the middle distance, it’s more like they’re intently watching something incredibly important and fascinating that we can’t see. It’s not surprising that some people think they’re in touch with some kind of spirit world.

So even when you strip away the folklore and superstition, cats are still puzzling creatures. Elegant and comical, intelligent and ridiculous, aloof and affectionate, playful and lethal. Even the lowliest of moggies is a dialectic clothed in fur and whiskers.

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate this dialectic is to hold a cat’s paw in your hand. (If it will let you).You will find that paw is soft and warm and covered in silky smooth fur. But within that paw there are wicked sharp claws that can slice effortlessly through your skin and what you will also find, if the cat wants its paw back, is that cats are surprisingly strong. (Pound for pound cats are the most powerful of mammals).

Incidently this is the reason why I consider the practice of declawing cats to be tantamount to blasphemy. Aside from cruelty (no vet in the UK will perform the procedure) there is also the fact that cats are climbers and predators and that’s why they have claws. If you want to share your home with a cat, or perhaps more precisely if you want to share a cat’s home, you should accept them as they are, claws and all. If you can’t do that, then get yourself a soft toy and play with that.

So there you have it. Some people can’t understand why anyone would want a cat in their life, others can’t understand how anyone could live without them. No animal loves its creature comforts more, and yet they can tolerate extremes of discomfort. (I have known a cat with a back leg hanging loose and useless due to a compound fracture jump five feet in order to reach a favoured sleeping place, then curl up and purr. After some treatment, he later made a full recovery.)

In conclusion, I would suggest that whether their toms or mollies, mogs or felines, whatever else you might want to call cats, I think the term ‘paradox’ has to apply somewhere and it’s certainly as good a collective noun as any.

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