Café Discovery: predators and prey

I was busy cropping and resizing pictures for the next photo extravaganza.  I inserted a little levity into the piece by labeling a cheetah as “Predator” and some antelope-like creatures as “Assorted Food” (see inside).  In the way of these things that thinking started gnawing at me a bit at a time throughout the day.  Was this fair to the cheetah?  Was it fair to the various springbok and gerenuk, blackbuck and wildebeest, and their kin?

Maybe this was a time to learn something.  And maybe it was time to search for some sort of mythical center.

Needing something to talk about for this edition of Café Discovery, I turned to the Online Etymological Dictionary, from which I quote liberally, while adding my own comments.  The etymologies given are a mixture of that, so don’t hold them responsible for my thoughts. 🙂

What I discovered is that we had it backwards…


Assorted Food

Predation is a human failing.  It was a human decision to describe the interaction of animals in terms of the interactions of human beings with each other and with the world of animals.

The word predator is rather new.  Predation is much older.  Here be pirates.  Arrgh!

predation (n.)

The word dates from around 1460, meaning the “act of plundering or pillaging,” from the Latin prædationem (nominative: prædatio) “a plundering, act of taking booty,” from prædari “to rob, to plunder,” from præda “plunder, booty, prey” (see prey).  The zoological sense of the word (i.e. applying it to vertebrate animals) is recorded from 1932.  Predatory is first recorded about humans in 1589 and of animals in 1668, I suspect in a case of anthropomorphizing some animal or other.  Predator, used about vertebrate animals, is from 1922, but was originally (1840) used of insects that ate other insects.  The verb predate, “to seek prey” (1974), is a modern back-formation…and please don’t us predate to mean anything more than “to date before” in my presence.

I dutifully followed the link to prey.  Animals have been prey much longer than they have been predators.

prey (n.)

The word dates from 1240, “animal hunted for food,” from the Old French preie “booty, animal taken in the chase” (which goes back to at least 1140), from the Latin præda “booty, plunder, game hunted,” earlier præheda, related to prehendere “to grasp, seize” (see prehensile).  The verb meaning “to plunder, pillage, ravage” is attested from 1297, from Old French preer, earlier preder (circa 1040), from the liturgical Latin prædare. Its sense of “to kill and devour” is attested from around 1340.

I encounter difficulty thinking of animals as plundering or pillaging.  I also suspect they do not have liturgies, being smarter than us in that regard.  So I choose to believe, given the two together, that prey was a designation given to animals in their relationship to humans.  Prey was what we hunted, not what other animals hunted.

Notwithstanding the fact that I could be wrong in that, I searched for a tone to bring my heart closer to the center…whatever and wherever that may be.

A chord erupted, sparked by my recent readings of Tony Hillerman.  The following translation of the Hunting Song (apparently from a book by Natalie Curtis, The Indians’ Book: An Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical And Narrative, which you can click through to.  I do not have any opinion on the text, having never read it).

In Navajo lore, the blackbird is the best friend of the deer.  Why else would the deer let the blackbirds ride on their backs and nest between their horns?

Flower pollen in a sacred ingredient in Navajo rituals.  Changing Woman was raised on a diet of pollen and ground white shells.  Both of these substances are used in the making of Navajo sand paintings.  Pollen is offered to the dawn before the morning song (here is a link to the Breath of Dawn, from the Navajo Night Way sing, which can be saved for some other day 🙂 ).

Hunting Song

Hear  my singing;

Comes the noble deer to my song,

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

He, the blackbird, he am I,

Bird belov’d of wild deer.

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

From the Mountain Black, from the summit,

Down the trail, coming now,

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

Through the blossoms, through the flowers, coming now,

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

Through the flower pollen, coming now,

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

Through the flower dew-drops clear, coming now,

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

Starting with his left fore-foot,

Stamping, frightened he turns.

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

Quarry mine, bless’d am I

In the fortune of chase.

Comes the noble deer now, to my singing.

Comes the noble deer to my song,

Comes the noble deer now, to my bow.


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    • Robyn on August 17, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Pentangle:  Hunting Song

  1. Thanks for a wonderful essay.

    • kj on August 18, 2008 at 4:04 am

    🙂  thanks in advance.

  2. the paddock I have learned to watch and see what kind of mood he is in.  Are his ears pinned, is he frisky, goofy and will he crowd me or tag me for a treat as I enter.  I am the minority today, one of the few searching the ways of a prey animal, a horse.  Most people turn a key to get someplace yet I have had the thrill of letting him go on a crisp spring day.  He likes to roll in the grass after a ride and really likes beach sand as his favorite rolling medium.

    I think nature is nature.  One thing eats another but the most dangerous species, the only one that “thinks” is the one that will end it all.

    Man does not ask the spirit of the forest before he cuts down the tree.  Man does not give thanks for the bounty of the deer.  Man stick key in ignition, reach for remote on sticking DVD movie, man point to Austrailia and say “We” should bomb Iran next.

    Nice horsie, nice Apocalyptic horsie.

    Yes facing my own personal Armageddon and a couple of beers does put me in a vile mood.  Sorry.

    • Diane G on August 18, 2008 at 5:56 am

    Corporate humans forget the idea that some give way to others. Some sacrifice so others can go on…

    The deer chooses to give way to the bow, when the intent is correct.

    Just as many of us will give way for the next world to be borne.

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