Cats— The association of cats (especially black cats) with Halloween is something of a mystery. Cats are usually shown with WITCHES (to whom legend assigned them the role of “familiar”), but the origins of this connection are equally uncertain. As with BATS and OWLS, cats may be popular at Halloween simply because they are nocturnal predators.
Unlike Halloween lore involving cats, which typically holds them to be evil, Egyptians believed cats to be sacred; killing a cat was punishable by death. In Norse mythology, cats were one of the sacred animals of the goddess Freya (a pagan association that may have led later on to the supposed relationship between cats and witches). According to romantic Celtic folktales, DRUIDS held cats in high regard and one who killed or injured a cat was sure to be punished by the animal’s spirit. However, in truth there is little evidence that CELTS held cats in high veneration (there are some instances of catheaded men and monster cats, most notably “Palug’s cat,” in later Welsh and Irish literature). In “Voyage of Maildun,” Chapter XII tells of a palace guarded by a single small cat; when one of Maildun’s men foolishly tries to steal a torque, he is slain by the cat, who leaves nothing of him but a pile of ashes. Another misconception holds that Druids feared cats as evil spirits and often burned the animals alive in SAMHAIN bonfires; again, we actually know very little about Druid rituals.
In later Irish mythology the eating of cats’ flesh was one method of prognostication. In a Scottish Gaelic traditional rite called taghairm, a live cat is roasted slowly on a spit over a fire in the belief that its screams will call its feline companions, who will part with supernatural knowledge to save their companion. In addition, the throwing of cats into a BONFIRE was a folk custom of one or two towns in France, although this was performed on St. John’s Eve (or MIDSUMMER’S EVE) in June and on the first Sunday in Lent, not on Halloween (as is sometimes mistakenly believed). The custom was abolished by King Louis XIV in 1648, though it continued in the provinces until as late as 1796.
While cats were usually believed to function as witches’ familiars, one folklore belief was that witches turned tabby-cats into coal-black steeds to ride on Halloween (in Scotland, families often locked their cats away on Halloween in order to prevent them from being thusly used); however, a cat seen on Halloween might also be the witch herself transformed. The bone of a black cat could be prepared as an invisibility charm; the blood of a black cat could be used to heal a wound; or the liver of a black cat could be made into a powerful love potion. In American witch folklore, one can become a witch by boiling a live black cat, taking the bones to a spring and washing them there until the DEVIL appears; the bone being washed when the devil is first seen will be the witch’s “lucky bone,” to be carried with her always.
Cats could control WEATHER; ships often had cats onboard believing that no storm could wreck the ship as long as they had a cat. Conversely, a cat could be used to create a storm at sea, by fastening one to a human body part, then throwing the combination into the sea. The most famous case of this occurred during the reign of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England (and target of the Gunpowder Plot, which gave birth to the celebration of GUY FAWKES DAY). James had chosen Dano-Norwegian princess Anne to be his bride, and witches of both Norway and Scotland disapproved of the match. When the bride and fleet set sail from Norway for Scotland, witches caused a charmed cat with a human leg attached to it to be thrown into the sea. The resulting tempests were so severe that the fleet had to turn back, and in his impatience King James decided to set sail for Norway. This time witches tossed into the sea a cat with a dead man’s knucklebone tied to all four paws. To make certain that the King did not reach his destination, the devil arranged a meeting with witches from both countries on the sea on Halloween night, when the King’s fleet would be halfway across the North Sea.
Sorceresses set out from both coasts in SIEVES and met the devil at the midpoint, where they also encountered a ship named Grace of God. They boarded her, feasted on her stores, then whipped up a storm that foundered the ship and drowned all aboard, so there would be no survivors to confirm the story. After sinking the Grace of God, more than a hundred witches sailed back to Scotland and held a great revel at the church in North Berwick where, after opening the lock with a witch candle, they danced around the pulpit, and rifled graves and vaults. However, James’s piety overcame the devil’s charms and he reached Norway safely; upon his return, the witches were caught and forced into confessions before being executed.
One traditional Scottish tale clearly sets up an association between cats and Halloween: “Twelve Great Black Cats and the Red One” tells the story of Murdo MacTaggart, who ignores warnings and tries to go fishing on All Hallowmass Eve. A great storm arises, and he takes shelter in a small hut on the shore. Twelve great black cats enter, led by a red one, and sing a dirge to Murdo, then demand payment. He spots a sheep belonging to the local laird nearby, and offers that. They take it, but return before Murdo can escape, and sing another dirge. This time he offers a cow, and once again they eat it and return. After the third dirge, Murdo spots the laird’s dog, and sends the cats after it. They chase the dog, and Murdo escapes into a nearby forest, but when he hears the cats returning after failing to catch the dog he panics and climbs the highest tree he can find. The red cat spots him, and sends three of his black fellows up, but Murdo takes his knife and slays them. The red leader calls the remaining cats together, and they begin to chew at the roots of the tree in an effort to knock it over. Murdo panics and calls for help; fortunately there’s a nearby church where the priest is gathered with the townspeople. They hear Murdo and run into the forest to help, arriving just as the tree is knocked over. The priest confronts the cats, sprinkling them with holy water; the black cats disappear, and the red cat reveals himself to be “Auld Clootie” (the devil). When Murdo, the priest and the others investigate the black cats, they find nothing but empty cat skins, and Murdo resolves to never again go fishing on All Hallowmass Eve.
Cats are also the objects of SUPERSTITIONS— many of which are Halloweenspecific—apart from witches: For example, if a cat sits quietly beside you on Halloween night, you will enjoy a peaceful life. If a cat rubs against you, it’s good luck; it’s even better if the cat jumps into your lap. If a cat yawns near you on Halloween, be alert and do not let opportunity slip away. If a cat runs from you, you have a secret that will be revealed in seven days.
Cats also starred in one Halloween GAME called “Meow, Meow”: Players sat in a ring, and were asked to raise their hands when the ringleader called out something a cat could do. If they raised their hands at something a cat could not do, they left the ring.
A cat is the eponymous character in one of the most popular Halloween stories of all time: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” which tells the gruesome tale of a murderer whose plan to hide his wife’s body behind a false wall in the cellar is foiled by his feline.
In recent years there has been some concern over the safety of black cats on Halloween, when they’re thought to be in danger of becoming sacrificial victims in some pagan or Satanic cult ritual. Many animal shelters and adoption agencies suspend black cat adoptions around Halloween.
Halloween COLLECTIBLES expert PAMELA APKARIAN-RUSSELL believes that black cats are the most sought-after items, even more so than JACK-O’-LANTERNS; for example, a 2006 auction of a candy container depicting a witch riding a large black cat fetched $8,250.
The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved