Cats have been associated with the supernatural since ancient times. Cats are associated with either good or bad luck, healing or harm. In folklore, the cat is one of the favoured animal companions of witches, sorcerers (see sorcery) and fortune-tellers. Superstitions about cats abound.
The cat was sacred to the ancient Egyptians, who associated it with the Moon and Bast, the goddess of marriage. It also was associated with the Mother Goddess, Isis. In Egyptian art, the sun god, Ra, was personified as a cat slaying the Serpent of Darkness. Black cats were associated with darkness and death.
According to lore, virtually every sorcerer, witch and Gypsy fortune-teller was supposed to have a cat — and sometimes an owl and a toad as well. During the witch hunts, cats were familiars; they embodied Demons who performed the witches’ tasks of maleficia against their neighbors. Elizabeth Francis of Chelmsford, England, convicted as a witch in 1556, said she kept a white spotted cat named Sathan, which, whenever it performed a job for her, demanded a reward of a drop of her blood (see Chelmsford witches).
Witches were said to be able to assume the shape of a cat nine times, presumably because a cat has nine lives. Black cats were said to be the Devil himself. Throughout medieval Europe, black cats were routinely hunted down and burned, especially on Shrove Tuesday and Easter. A cat accused of being a witch’s familiar usually was killed by being burned alive. Cats were also used in witches’ Spells. In the trial of John Fian, Scotland’s most famous witch, in 1590-91, Fian and his coven were accused of trying to drown James VI (James I) and Queen Anne on their voyage to Denmark. The witches allegedly christened a cat, tied it to a dismembered human corpse and threw the bundle into the sea while they recited incantations. A great storm arose and forced the royal ship to return to Scotland, but the king and queen were unharmed.
In the lore of the Scottish Highlands, a large breed of wild cats, called Elfin Cats, are said to be witches in dis- guise. The Elfin Cats are about the size of dogs and are black with a white spot on the breast. They have arched backs and erect bristles — the stereotypical Halloween cat.
Though the black cat is associated with witchcraft, it is nevertheless considered good luck to own one in parts of Europe, England and the United States. But having one’s path crossed by a black cat is always bad luck. In other folklore, if a cat jumps over a corpse, the corpse will become a vampire. To prevent this, the cat must be killed. Cats are fertility charms — a cat buried in a field will ensure a bountiful crop.
The cat plays a role in Vodun in the southern United States. Cat charms, particularly those made with cats’ whiskers, can bring bad luck, disease and death to the victim. Conversely, in folklore cats have many healing properties. A broth made from a black cat is said to cure consumption. In the 17th century, a whole cat boiled in oil was held to be good for dressing wounds. Illnesses could be transferred to cats, who were then driven from homes.
Cats’ eyes are supposed to be able to see ghosts. In western Asia, a stone called the Cat’s Eye — dull red with a white mark — is associated with trouble and evil. In Wicca, the cat is a favoured companion or familiar, valued for its psychic sensitivity and assistance in Magic and ritual.
- Howey, M. Oldfield. The Cat in Magic, Mythology, and Religion. New York: Crescent Books, 1989.
- Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
- Leach, Maria, ed., and Jerome Fried, assoc. ed. Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972.