Think of a witch and you are likely to conjure up a picture of a wizened old hag in a pointed hat, with a broomstick - and a black cat. The cat has been synonymous with witches and witchcraft for hundreds of years, but is the association only linked to the medieval image of a sorceress, or does it run much deeper?
In actual fact, cats have been thought of as having supernatural powers for thousands of years. The Ancient Chinese believed that the glow or eye-shine from a cat’s eyes could scare away evil spirits, while the Ancient Egyptians thought that the life-giving rays from the sun were stored overnight in the eyes of a cat for safekeeping. The ancient Buddhists believed that the souls of the dead would pass into sacred cats, before moving onto the afterlife and Transylvanian folklore says that if a cat jumps over a corpse, then that corpse will become a vampire.
There’s little doubt that a cat’s appearance and habits have had something to do with its association with the supernatural. Cats are agile and silent and, especially with black cats, can appear to melt into or out of the shadows. While they are not strictly nocturnal creatures, it’s at night that you tend to see cats roaming around, and the night was perceived as the time when spirits and magical creatures would go about their malign business. Any creature that chose to go out in the cover of darkness must surely have some supernatural powers to allow it to mingle with the forces of darkness.
The way a cat’s eyes reflect light only further enhanced their reputation. What we now know to be a simple reflection was once perceived as evidence of unearthly powers. The Norwegians believed that by staring into the eyes of a cat, you will see visions of the fairy world, which is spying on us through the self-same eyes. Other myths suggest that the glow of a cat’s eyes can predict the movement of the tides and even be used to tell the time.
Cats And Witchcraft
During the European witch hunts the public were obsessed with the idea of witches and witchcraft, blaming innocent women for everything from soured milk to infant mortality. In many cases, an unpopular member of the community would be turned over to the witch hunters, who would torture them into some sort of confession. Alleged witches, knowing of the fear and superstition surrounding felines, would often tell of a mysterious cat that had visited them in the night and caused them to commit unnatural acts and sorceries. What may have been an attempt to apportion the blame elsewhere quickly backfired; association with cats soon became almost all the proof need to send someone to the gallows.
Other accused women, no doubt reeling from the effects of torture, often confessed that they were able to transform themselves into cats, giving them easier access to their victims. During one trial in the 17th Century, an alleged witch, Isobel Gowdie, revealed the spell that would turn her from a human into feline form and back again:
“I shall goe intill ane catt
With sorrow, and sych and a blak shott
And I shall goe in the Divellis nam
Ay will I com hom againe.”
A real problem was that, statistically, during the Middle Ages, cats were the pet of choice – primarily for their abilities to catch mice and rats. This gave accusers free reign to accuse pretty much anyone they liked, as most households had a cat under their roof. However, the strongest association with the supernatural was directed at black cats. In the 17th Century, black cats were routinely hunted down and killed, being seen as servants of the Devil or, on occasion, manifestations of the Devil himself. The hairs at the end of a cat’s tail were thought to be the Devil’s whiskers and it was these that drove the cat out into the night, when all other God-fearing creatures were either asleep or behind closed doors.
The ashes of a black cat thrown on a field were thought to ensure a bountiful crop, but witches had their own version: skinning a cat and filling the pelt with vegetables, before burying it in the field would ensure that it remained barren.
With the strong association ingrained in the public consciousness, the link between cats and witches has not wavered. Many psychics believe that cats have the ability to see auras or have a sixth sense or can even see the spirits of the dead, cementing their supernatural reputations. There are many superstitions that linger, such as the belief that having a black cat cross your path is a portent of good luck. One of the most unusual beliefs is that at midnight on Christmas Eve, cats have the ability to talk. However, the sound of a cat’s speech is enough to drive a man mad – so, if your cat truly loves you, it will remain silent at that time.
However, despite their association with Satan and the forces of darkness, there are other stories that set cats firmly in the ‘good’ camp. The Prophet Mohammed was believed to have a tabby cat, which once warned him of danger. To this day, cats bear an M mark on their foreheads, where the Prophet blessed their venerated ancestor. The Egyptians believed this mark to be the symbol of the sacred Scarab beetle, while the Christian faith has another story. Christian folklore tells a story that, at the time of Christ’s birth, Satan sent a snake to bite the child. However, a cat in the stable spotted the creature and killed it, saving Christ’s life. Mary stroked the cat’s forehead and subsequent generations bear the M mark as a symbol of her blessing.
Despite these less-sinister tales, the cat will always be associated as the servant of a witch or the agent of Beelzebub himself. Today, however, that association is not taken seriously and the majority of pet owners simply see their cats as furry companions.