The cat has a long-standing association with magic. Think of a witch and you’ll probably imagine some hook-nosed old crone with her faithful feline friend at her side. In popular media today cats are portrayed as artful and cunning, often with a hidden agenda. The idea that they are ‘up to something’ or that they are not to be fully trusted still lingers. Of all the animals there are, the cat is one that seems to fit the requirements for somehow being involved with the occult. It’s hard to imagine a witch zooming over the rooftops on her broomstick with a Yorkshire terrier at her side.
Before the Inquisition
The images that most of us immediately think of are from the Middle Ages. Cats were widely regarded as servants of the forces of darkness and their association with magic was pretty much synonymous by that time. However, it can’t just be an association that just sprang up out of nowhere; where did the idea that cats are somehow aligned with magic come from?
The idea can be traced back, long before the Inquisition began its witch hunts and the demonization of the Ancient Pagans. In Ancient Egypt, cats were seen as having magical powers; powers that were used to protect the home and family of the people that cats chose to live with. They were not seen as pets. Instead, they were seen as deeply spiritual beings, which were able to choose who they lived with and for how long. Today, we merely see this as the cat’s independent nature borne out of being solitary hunters rather than pack animals.
The notion that they had protective powers can also be attributed to their abilities as hunters. Ancient Egypt was fraught with danger, from rats and scorpions to lizards and snakes. Having a cat in your home meant that these creatures were less likely to survive, as cats were able to kill them where other animals and humans were not. To the Ancient Egyptians, this in itself may well have appeared to be a supernatural ability.
Mafdet, Bastet and Voodoo
Cats were revered in Ancient Egypt and there were even strong links to the gods. The goddess of justice and death Mafdet (also known as Sekhmet), was thought to have the head of a lion and Bastet, the goddess of fertility and motherhood, was believed to be able to take the form of a cat. Therefore, all cats were deemed to be sacred. In Ancient Egypt, to kill a cat, accidentally or otherwise, would result in the death penalty. The Greek historian, Siculus, reported how, in around 60AD, he saw a Roman accidentally kill an Egyptian cat. Despite pleas from the pharaoh, the Roman was overpowered by the resulting mob and killed.
In African-American Voodoo, cats are thought to bring good luck – particularly in matters of gambling, such as card games or lottery wins. Mojo bags adorned with black cat motifs are filled with special herbs and used to bring good fortune. However, not all occult associations have resulted in cats being treated so reverentially. Unfortunately for the cat, the Black Cat Bone Spell, used by Voodoo priests to make someone invisible or to bring back a lost lover, means that it is the main ingredient. The belief was that each cat had a magic bone in its body and using it in magical spells and potions could increase their potency significantly. The prescribed method for retrieving that bone was to boil the cat alive until the meat falls from the skeleton. The magical bone would be the one that, when all the bones are placed in stream that runs north, floats on the surface and heads south.
But, why should it be that these animals were thought to have any powers at all? It’s all very well knowing that they have an association with magic, but the question as to why this should be is the one that’s been troubling scholars for decades.
Possibly the most reasonable answers lie in the cat’s appearance and behaviour. An Ancient Chinese belief states that the glow from a cat’s eyes could scare away evil spirits, while the Egyptians believed that the cat had stored away the sun’s rays in its eyes for safekeeping. The way cats’ eyes reflect light was not understood and the phenomenon was explained the best way that it could be, given the beliefs of the time.
The way a cat’s eyes reflect light only served to 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 would 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.
The Much-maligned Moggie
There’s little doubt that a cat’s appearance and habits would also have had something to do with its association with the occult. 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.
However, despite all of these instances of magical association, the most enduring image is that of the witch and her familiar; the black cat. In addition to the cat’s form and behaviour, their synonymy with witches may be due to the fact that many medieval witches confessed under the effects of torture that they had the abilities to shape-shift into feline form. As a result, 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.