Mythology Of The Cat
Most of the lesser complex animals, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles probably have a worldview along the lines of ‘it just is’ and accept whatever comes along – go with the flow. But once you consider the relatively higher and more complex animals, like birds and mammals, then brain complexity becomes such that to a greater or lesser degree, intelligence and the ability to think and figure things out has to be taken into consideration.
For those of you who have companion animals, or even those of you who have just watched animals at a distance, you may have wondered how those animals view and perhaps even think about life, the universe and everything. That is, each animal must have some sort of personal worldview; a perspective or point of view probably forever beyond our understanding – usually but not always.
I’m picking on cats in this particular case because I’ve owned cats nearly all my life. This essay could just as easily have been dogs or horses or some other domesticated mammal.
So what are cats? Can we identify with them? Can they identify with us? Well, domesticated cats are playful; curious; adaptable; selfish; they dream; they like variety though they can also be creatures of habit; they can ‘think’ things through and make decisions; they have a vocal language and a body language; they display emotions; they have memory and therefore somewhat a sense of history; they have the same sensory apparatus as we have; they have their own likes and dislikes whether it be food; a place to sleep, where they want or don’t want to be scratched or rubbed or petted; and, in short each cat has their own very unique personality. Cats are certainly very self-centred, perhaps a bit more so than typical adult humans, but certainly akin to human infants and toddlers whose worldview is very self-centred with a near 24/7 gimmie, gimmie, gimmie; I want, I want, I want. Cats, at least those intersecting with humans have a gimmie/I want aspect to them, and like infants/toddlers the ‘pester’ factor can often reach extremes. In short, cats really seem to be mini albeit furry versions of humans, especially infants/toddlers. But, how close might that version really be?
For starters, and perhaps like all animals, the cat probably has a worldview something akin to it being the centre of things – the be-all-and-end-all – and that the entire environment the cat finds itself in is there to provide for all the cat’s requirements. From the domestic cat’s point of view, the world owes it a living! How else could the cat view things? One’s self perceptions tend to revolve around ‘I am the centre of the universe’ because you are most intimately bound up in your worldview with yourself and not as intimately with anything else. Therefore, anything else, in a self-centred worldview must be subservient. Of course the cat often finds out the hard way that parts of that external reality have differing opinions. That never seems to shift the cat’s worldview however that it is ‘top dog’* and deserves all the best that comes its way – which might not be all the ‘best’ that nature could provide but the cat doesn’t know that.
Cats certainly have no comprehension, perhaps like toddlers, of being in the way, underfoot, in danger of being trodden on or sat upon, while helping themselves to whatever piece of household geography suits their fancy. One could conclude from their selfish (from our point of view) behaviour, their worldview must be one of ‘supreme being’ and ‘rank has its privileges’, and such a worldview will persist at least until such time as their tail gets stepped on or they get tossed out of the easy chair! They still probably see themselves as supreme beings – it’s their worldview of you that’s now somewhat changed.
The average head of the household and cat owner is probably somewhat of the opinion or has the rationale that ‘I pay the bills, therefore I call the shots and what I say goes’! Cats can probably understand ‘head of the household’ in that in cat society, as in all animal societies, all cats are not equal – there is a hierarchy and one cat alone will be ‘top dog’ as it were. But there’s nothing in a cat’s worldview that corresponds to money or bills or economics or finance. Everything is a free lunch, be it sunshine or the electric/gas/wood heater you, the owner, pay for. Even if the cat goes outside and catches and eats a mouse, it’s still as free a lunch as far as the cat is concerned as the food you put in its food bowl. So that bit about ‘I’m the boss because I pay the bills’ has no meaning or significance to the cat since the concept of ‘bills’ is foreign.
Cats have no mythology about shopping. The post Xmas sales and weekly specials at the supermarket are alien concepts. So is that nearly supreme abstraction to humans – time. Birthdays are a non-event with no realization when they occur and with no relevance in any event. Ditto all those other special points in time like holidays we humans are obsessed with. Cats don’t make a habit of staying up late on New Years Eve. It’s of no consequence. Weekends are no different than weekdays.
Equally the cat has apparently no worldview of tomorrow or of the future (though it has a memory of the past). It doesn’t save for a rainy day. I’ve never observed a cat hide away a few of its dry cat food pellets for a future emergency or a midnight snack. A cat is very ‘now’ oriented. A cat probably has no concept of death, far less an afterlife. I’ve always tended to have two cats at a time on the theoretical grounds they have companionship when I’m not around. As such, one cat will finally get to go to that great ‘litter box in the sky’ and as such the surviving cat (for a while at least) will be without its companion feline ‘friend’. I’ve never noticed however any real change in the behaviour of the surviving cat. The demise and removal of the other animal has apparently all the relevance of my tossing an empty can into the recycling bin. Now if I tossed out the cat’s favourite easy chair that would probably cause more of a reaction!
It’s difficult to teach a cat anything that isn’t already hardwired into its little grey cells. I mean you don’t tend to have guard cats, seeing-eye cats, or cats that sit up, stop on command at the corner, beg, and play fetch, etc. when their human owners say so. The cat’s worldview is quite foreign to such concepts, though there’s little difference between a cat’s IQ and a dog’s IQ. Maybe that’s why the saying ‘dogs have masters; cats have slaves’!
So those are several significant differences between the worldview mythologies of the cat relative to humans (or even dogs, who, are well known to ‘grieve’ upon the death of a fellow companion dog or of their owner. If I died, my cat’s loyalty would shift quick-smart to the next human who fed it).
I noted above that cats dream and why not. I judge this because often when they are sound asleep I frequently notice their paws and mouths twitching as if in response to something going on inside their head. I assume it’s not some abstraction that occupies this assumed dream state. It’s probably related to visions of chasing and eating fat mice and plump flightless birds! There’s no way of telling for sure, but that’s what I suspect. If they dream, they dream practical cat-related things.
I’ve never gotten the impression that a cat ponders anything at anytime but practical matters that have a direct bearing on it in the here and right now. An obvious example is that any cat always finds itself on the wrong side of a door, and you are expected to correct that state of affairs as often as is necessary – which is very often indeed. No wonder people install cat flaps! Anyway, things like philosophy and religion and the arts and mathematics and anything abstract not only isn’t considered and immediately dismissed, the cat probably can’t even conceive of such things in order for them to be dismissed as of no relevance to the cat’s worldview. There’s no creativity in their little grey cells whatever. I very much doubt whether any cat has pondered whether or not it has free will. My cats don’t respond to cat art, like the pictures of cats on calendars. Music soothes the savage beast but with one minor exception all my cats have been oblivious to whatever type of music CD I’m playing, be it classical or jazz, country & western or film scores; vocal or instrumental. That one exception is that I once had a cat that would react to whistling within a song that emanated from the speakers. Still, cats probably therefore never have to endure that annoying experience of having an irritating song play endlessly, over and over and over again inside their head!
If the cats were of a human frame of mind, they might conceive of something like: In the beginning the great cat deity, lets name it Bastet (also spelled Bast, Baast, Ubasti and Baset) after the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, created not only the domestic feline, but all that’s part and parcel of their world. In the beginning Bastet created the ever pristine litter box; the ever full food and water bowls, and lots of birds and mice for felines to chase, catch and snack on. That’s of course according to the mythology of the cat, if the cat had a human’s imagination. Well actually, not. No cat has imagined any self-contained mythology about the origin and evolution of cats. If cats have a worldview mythology outside of the concepts of self and now, then it probably centres on what strange companions humans are. And I’m 99% sure that while such human activities might be fascinating, they are equally incomprehensible.
Translated, whatever mythology our domestic feline companions come up with that explains to their satisfaction their worldview, it will bear little resemblance to actual human activities on behalf of the animal, like the concept of money to pay for the goods and services it receives. The cats have no conception of livestock (slaughtered as pet food), of biological evolution (that provided the birds and mice and the abilities of the cat to chase, catch and snack on them), of the infrastructure that gets them their fresh water (and other goodies) that ends up as the end product in their water bowls, etc.
So while I have no idea what worldview mythology my cats have (and they probably aren’t the exact same – each cat’s worldview will be in part unique) it’s wrong.
However, we can speculate; take scenarios that are part and parcel of their world, natural or otherwise, and try to figure out how they see and interpret things through their eyes.
So what goes through a cat’s mind when it’s not immediately concerned with me; now – when it’s not in immediate need of catering to various biological requirements and functions? The cat is just sitting, wide awake, alert, observing, but what is it thinking? Does it have to be deep in thought at all? Probably not I suspect. In fact, it’s more likely as not they are observing just for the sake of observing – always on the lookout for something to chase and eat (that’s probably just hardwired into their brain), or for something that might chase and eat them.
I mean my cats are interested in birds; I’m interested in birds too – but for totally different reasons. On the other hand, my cats are interested in a clean litter box, but what goes through their minds when every time they go to the litter box it’s pristine, even though it wasn’t in that condition a little while back for obvious reasons? Do they associate that ‘it wasn’t then but now it is pristine’ phenomenon with a cat deity or with me or neither? Cat food appears on demand in bowls they eat out of, yet they have no comprehension of the chain of events between manufacture, distribution, the need for money to purchase, transport, open and pour into those bowls that food. So how do they account for the food that somehow magically appears before them? Do they have a food bowl mythology? Or, perhaps it is a phenomena that just is, and they think no more about it than a fish ponders the nature of the water it swims in. For some reason I find it very hard to picture my cats deep in thought wondering about all those whys and wherefores associated with the food they consume.
Well we have some idea what a cat’s worldview mythology is (me; now), and isn’t (nothing that’s abstract) but you, the owner, aren’t an abstraction. How do you fit in to your animal’s mythology?
Cats must have a field day with respect to inventing a mythology that accounts for the strange habits of those creatures they share their environment with – humans. For example, my cats see me getting dressed every morning – I’m putting on the fur. Since cats don’t need to dress, this behaviour must be really weird to them. Ditto making the bed or washing the dishes. The cats must be totally freaked out by my habit of deliberately getting wet via a daily shower or bath. What activity could repulse a cat more than that? Yuck! How do cats explain the dwelling they reside in along with all the stuff it contains? I know where it all comes from, but how do they account for it all? Do they even bother to try to account for it? Part of that all is my personal computer (PC). They see me typing away on this PC but I’m sure they have no comprehension of what this PC device is or why I’m pecking away on it instead of paying attention to them. When I go out of the house, shopping say or off to the club for a few cold beers, do they wonder where and why? Do they worry that I might not come back, because if I don’t they will find themselves in a pretty pickle. Or, is the fact I’m away of no interest and no consequence and causes no speculation? Since they don’t seem agitated when I leave, I suspect they have no comprehension of the possibility that I might not return, being hit by the proverbial bus instead.
So, do my cats develop a point of view, a worldview mythology to account for birds (a natural part of their environment), litter boxes (not so natural), and PC’s (totally unnatural)? I suspect they don’t. These things just are and don’t require any mythological interpretation to otherwise explain them.
Cats like to lie and stretch out in and soak up the warmth of the Sun. How do they account for sunshine and this warmth since presumably they know nothing of stellar astrophysics, nuclear fusion, photons, etc.? Might it be, if it be at all, that our cats conclude that in the beginning that great cat deity Bastet created the Sun to give pleasure and warmth to them, but, Bastet hides the Sun at regular intervals (at night) so as not to totally spoil us cats? Probably not I suspect. The warmth of the Sun probably just is (like the water is to the fish) – in fact they might not even make the connection between the Sun, sunshine, and the warmth that gives them.
Conclusions & Summary: So what is a domestic cat’s worldview mythology? Well, if the cat could speak, it might say something like this: “It’s all about me; it’s all about now; everything else just is and if it doesn’t affect me now, it’s not relevant.” The more I think about it, the more I draw a parallel between a cat being an eternal toddler (me; now; everything else just is, albeit interesting and worthy of exploring), but at least without the temper tantrums!
*The standing observation or joke is that a dog thinks to itself that ‘my human feeds me and plays with me and looks after me, therefore he must be a god’. The cat thinks to itself that ‘my human feeds me and plays with me and looks after me, therefore I must be a god!’ There’s an awful lot of relevance in that observation IMHO.
Science librarian; retired.
By John Prytz