Queen of the rats

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Rat has at least two god-parents that the dictionary is willing to discuss, both verbs in Latin: radere and rodere. Radere means to scratch, to scrape, to shave – whence erase. Rodere – whence rodent – means to gnaw.

But wait – you say – that’s not a rat in the picture! It’s not even a placental mammal. But the opossum does remind us about convergent evolution (hairless tails, a preference for garbage). Some words I’ll be mentioning later in this essay – errata, Erato, erotic – have no evolutionary relationship with rat, although I will be arguing for a kind of convergence in meaning.

Latin cognates aside, the English rat comes straight from the Anglo-Saxons – or more likely the Norse, whence the Norway rat. One pictures a raiding party of these rí¦ts swarming ashore under cover of darkness, heading straight for the nearest granary. After weeks at sea, men and rats alike must’ve been grateful to leave their fetid ships. And indeed, the Vikings’ powerful stench often gave them away. In frequently raided parts of the British Isles and what are now the Low Countries, if the winds were right, peasants working in the fields would catch a sudden whiff of body odor mixed with stale urine, rotten-meat-and-moldy-bread breath and general funk, and knew they had a couple minutes to flee. Those whose noses failed the test were killed or carried off. Thus, over several centuries, a process of unnatural selection resulted in local populations with noses almost as keen as bloodhounds.

Okay, I just made that up. (For anyone who isn’t adept at smelling a rat, outright fabrication begins with “And indeed.”) In fact, the opposite was more nearly true: the Vikings could probably smell their human prey a mile off. The Church taught that frequent ablutions were a heathenish practice adored by devotees of Freya and followers of Mohammed. And contemporary accounts indicate that the un-Christianized Norsemen and women were generally cleaner than their more southerly neighbors; every large farm had a heated bath-house, and hands and faces were washed on a daily basis.

So much for stereotypes! In fact, rats and pigs are also very clean animals if given half a chance. They have to be. Both animals have extremely sensitive olfactory organs; life with humans would probably be very nearly intolerable for them, were it not for the abundant rewards. And how much of what we discard lands on the midden heap solely because of our inadequate sniffers, preventing us from perceiving a whole universe of subtle variations in odor and hence in taste?

Because of their acute senses of taste and smell, rats have “an extraordinarily well-developed first line of defense against toxins,” say rat biologists. One must also remember, however, that the highly developed noses of other animals evolved less for food than for sex. Anne’s Rat Page, a wonderfully informative and entertaining website on rat behavior and biology (whence also the preceding quote) says that rats have “between 500 and 1,000 types of olfactory receptors, coded for by between 500 and 1,000 genes! That is a staggering number of genes, about 1% of the rat’s DNA.” In addition, says Anne,

Rats have a second way to detect odors, called the vomeronasal organ, or VNO. The VNO in mammals is situated in a pouch off the nasal cavity. In rats, the VNO is located in a cigar-shaped passage in the floor of the nasal cavity, right next to the septum, with a narrow opening just inside the nostril. This dead-end position means that air can’t flow into it, like the olfactory epithelium of the nose. When rats sniff and lick, molecules from the environment stick to the moist nose and dissolve, and are then transported to the VNO suspended in mucus. The VNO dilates and constricts to pump the odor-bearing liquid inside rapidly. [References omitted]

I like the idea of odors essential for communication between individuals of the same species having a separate destination – a pipeline straight to the hypothalamus. In humans, the communicative role of mucous tends to be restricted to French kissing – a far cry from the versatility of rat snot.

With nasal and vomeronasal organs working in tandem, rats can detect chemical signals:

in all sorts of secretions, such as urine, feces, and secretions from the skin glands. They are picked up by sniffing or licking an individual, or through odors that have been deposited on the ground or volatilized into the air.

One of the most familiar methods of chemical communication in rats is urine marking. Sexually mature males are the most prolific urine markers, though sexually mature females may show some urine marking as well, especially on the night before they come into heat. Urine marking is therefore considered an advertisement of one’s presence and a sex attractant — adult males advertise and females choose their mate from among the advertisers. Female urine marking may be an advertisement of sexual receptivity.

Chemical secretions contain an enormous amount of information. Through odors contained in secretions such as urine, rodents can determine all the following about the animal who produced the odor:

reproductive status: if the urine is from a female, rats can determine whether she is receptive to mating, pregnant, or lactating.
sexual maturity (juvenile vs. sexually mature adult)
familiar vs. unfamiliar animals (differentiate strangers from members of one’s own colony)
social status (dominant from subordinate individuals)
individual recognition
– stress level

So, urine contains all sorts of highly personal information! [References omitted]

But doesn’t this invalidate my claims about ratty cleanliness? Isn’t pissing all over the place kind of a filthy habit? Not really. Urine consists mainly of urea, uric acid, and salt; only a few species of bacteria normally inhabit it. If left to stand, however, those bacteria go to work converting urea to ammonia – a potent chemical often used to disinfect toilets! Confused? Me too.

But human urine (and thus presumably also rodent urine) can emit a number of highly variable odors, notes Lilian Mundt. For example, diabetes can be detected by the presence of fruity ketones. A maple syrup-like odor, caused by certain amino acids, is a telltale sign of Maple Syrup Urine Disease. And a condition known as phenylketonuria produces an odor described as “mousy” – not “ratty,” mind you. The smell, taste and color of urine are valuable diagnostic tools sadly neglected by most modern doctors. Would tasting a patient’s urine ever have become such a widespread practice if it carried the dangers of, say, coprophagy? A respectable school of yoga even advocates the regular consumption of urine for therapy and enlightenment.

Amaroli is the ancient tantric and yogic technique which incorporates the use of urine for fulfilling vajroli kriya. Amaroli comes from the root word amara which means “immortal, undying, imperishable”. Amaroli was therefore a technique designed to bring about immortality. It was used in conjunction with tantric kundalini kriyas in an attempt to purify the body so that consciousness could expand to its original and cosmic state.

One suspects that some of the health claims advanced for piss-drinking might in fact be due to the strict dietary regimen necessary to make the stuff potable.

Diet for the most intense forms of the internal technique (that is three or more glasses per day), should be low in protein and salt. Refined, processed and synthetic foods should be avoided, for example, white sugar, refined flour, tinned food, and so on. Spicy food may make the urine pungent and difficult to drink. Some proponents recommend that milk consumption be stopped too. Intake of alcohol and tobacco should be reduced to the barest minimum, or preferably avoided totally if possible.

The Amaroli novice may experience a few side-effects, such as “loose stools, skin eruptions such as pimples and boils, vomiting, fever of unexplained origin, cough, general weakness and debility.” But not to worry – this too shall pass.

[T]here is no need to panic and take drugs for any of the above mentioned processes. They usually occur because the body systems are now [sic] strong enough for the elimination processes to handle the deeply ingrained toxins and poisons. These other methods (eg. healing crises) are then employed by the body to dispose of the excess, and as a result, strange and perhaps as yet un-experienced manifestation [sic] may occur. If this happens the best way to handle the situation is to reduce the intake of urine or to stop completely and rest the body. Complete rest and fasting may also help, or a fruit diet can be instigated, depending on the manifestations that occur. Please do not run to your doctor and start taking medications to suppress the healing crisis’s [sic]. Let them unfold naturally and according to their own sequences….

Vomiting may occur when the urine is especially bad tasting and smelling as in fevers, jaundice and other illnesses. The urine of such dis-“eases” may seem totally unpalatable, yet if the patient has steeled his mind to drink it, then copious supplies of water will help to dilute the urine and make it easier to drink. If you can hold down the first flow, then the second should be more dilute and better tasting, and so on, until clear pleasant tasting urine finally comes.

Vomiting is good in that it cleans the stomach just as kunjal kriya does, [sic] Therefore, it should not cause any undue worry. After vomiting, the nausea is usually relieved and you feel better. If vomiting persists and dry retching occurs, you should seek professional help.


I realize it’s not unusual to find web pages – and especially blogs – with copious discharges of errata. And errata in and of themselves are of great interest to me; they suggest not only rat but Erato, the muse of lyric poetry. Indeed, much of what the lyric poet does may be characterized as the deliberate misconstruing of signs and symbols. How better to add pungency than by throwing up a smoke screen?

Textual errata were also among the phenomena cited by the contemporary philosopher Alphonso Lingis as constituting what he calls “the murmur of the world.” The very lack of purity of sensory phenomena is what gives them texture, density, sex appeal. That was in a book called The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, which I don’t have at hand and thus may be misrepresenting slightly. But in his book The Imperative (Indiana University Press, 1998), which I do own, Lingis advances a phenomenology of perception that seems as applicable to the experience of a rat as of a human. Although rats, as highly social mammals, possess a very human-like form of intelligence, I’m sure they would tend to agree with Lingis that it is “not only our thought [that] is governed by an imperative, as Kant had maintained; our sensual, sensory, and emotional life is continually regulated by imperatives that come from the world around us.”

The erotic is especially prone to errata, it seems. For a variety of organisms, visual as well as olfactory cues relating to courtship involve “seductive display and ritual, artifice, masquerade, and finery” – not to mention subterfuge and fabrication. “Erotic beauty adds to the body the excesses of feline, avian, and coral-reef ornamentation.”

The vivid olfactory (and tactile/auditory) universe of the rat might account for its relative lack of such visual excesses. In humans, the abundant modifications of culture make up for our otherwise hairless-rat appearance. All this is natural as well as cultural. The real error lies, I think, with those yogis and other fanatics who yearn for excessive purity. To be pure is to aspire to completely homogenous, closed systems: no waste products, no ingestion of foreign substances. If sex must be practiced, it should be endogamous and strictly for procreation. The excessive fear of contamination and pollution that drives the quest for religious and racial purity also thoroughly infects modern medicine. The cult of the antiseptic leads ultimately to more disease, not less, via the rapid evolution of more virulent germs. Simple sanitation should suffice; we should obey the imperatives of our olfactory nerves and hypothalamus when they tell us that chlorine bleach and ammonia smell terrible.

Erato, queen of the hairless rats, derives much of her power from sublimation. In eros, Lingis observes, bodies exceed themselves. Lovers’ language is sheer babble.

Glands stiffen and harden, becoming bones and rods. The eyes cloud and become wet and spongy, hair is turning into webs and gleam. Then everything collapses, melts, gelatinizes, runs. Every voluptuous embrace is necrophilic, sinking into a body decomposing and cadaverous, already soaking the sheets and oneself with released inner fluids teeming with nameless and chaotic tinglings, spasms, fluids, microorganisms. The flames of voluptuous pleasure ignite them as they careen and flare apart, in clothing and the wood of the furniture collecting swampy stains, in the air whose minute spheres of water vapor teem with microorganisms, in the soil decomposing into unnameable organisms.

For this zone of decomposition of the world of work and reason, this zone of blood and semen and vaginal secretions, of elemental discharges and corpses, this zone too of proliferating, uncontrollable, nameless fetal life, which disgusts and horrifies us but also summons us, is the zone of the sacred.

There’s something to gnaw on for a while.

Anne’s essays on the rat’s sensory world or ümvelt are worth reading for the way they challenge anthropocentric prejudices. Not only does the rat have two separate senses of smell; its ultrasensitive whiskers apparently blend touch and hearing. Additional essays of particular interest include The rat’s tail, Why rats can’t vomit, and Why are a rat’s testicles so big?

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