The Magical, Mythical Cat

Although cats are considered the most magical of animals, traditions vary whether they are viewed as fortunate or unfortunate omens. Cat lore, especially concerning the black cat, is complicated and all superstitions concerning the colour of cats depended on where one lived. In the United States and some European countries, such as Germany, Spain, and Belgium, the black cat was considered very unlucky, whereas the white cat was considered a favourable omen. If, however, a black cat should follow someone on the street, come walking towards a person, or come voluntarily into a home, this was considered a sign of good fortune to come, even in countries where the black cat was generally seen as unlucky.

In Britain, almost the only nation to do so, black cats were considered lucky omens, but white cats were viewed with great distrust. Perhaps the most famous superstition concerning cats is that of a black cat crossing one’s path. This was believed to portend good luck, and for many years, it was fashionable at society weddings in London to have a black cat purposefully walking across the bride’s path. If popular legend is believed, Charles I (1600–1649) owned a black cat, which was closely guarded, as he had a suspicious dread of losing the animal. When the cat eventually died, he is reputed to have said: ‘My luck is gone’. A prediction, which came about the following day when he was arrested and later executed.219 

In the ancient world, cats were invested with an aura of holiness. The ancient Egyptians regarded cats as the guardians of the Underworld and accorded divine status to these animals. Cats were sacred to the Egyptian Goddess Isis and her daughter Bast, a cat-headed goddess worshipped at Bubastis.220 Cats were also popular household pets in ancient Egypt, as the Greek historian Herodotus, renowned as the Father of History relates: ‘What happens when a house catches fire is most extraordinary: nobody takes the least trouble to put it out, for it is only the cats that matter: everyone stands in a row, a little distance from his neighbour trying to protect the cats, who nevertheless slip through the line, or jump over it and hurl themselves into the fire. This causes the Egyptians deep distress. All the inmates of a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows…’.221 If the pet cat died, its corpse was often taken to Bubastis, where it was embalmed and buried with much ceremony. Well-preserved ancient Egyptian cat mummies, as well as the mummies of mice – possibly intended as food for the cats – have been found in great numbers. 

The ancient Greeks identified the cat with Artemis, to whom this animal was sacred, as well as with the goddess Hecate. Through Hecate, queen of the spirits of the dead, the cat became linked with the Underworld in Greek mythology. Cats were Hecate’s favourite creatures, and she extended special treatment to them.

The Romans believed cats were sacred to the goddess Diana – associated with the moon, virginity, and hunting. Diana was known to assume the shape of a cat on various occasions. In ancient Rome, the cat was a symbol of freedom and the goddess of liberty was depicted with a cat at her feet – it is well known that no animal is as opposed to restraint as the cat.

Similar to ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the cat also held sacred status in northern Europe. In Norse mythology, the cat was an attribute of Freyja, goddess of love, marriage, and the dead, whose chariot was pulled by black cats. To feed stray cats was believed to win Freyja’s favour, bringing good fortune and prosperity to all so charitably inclined. 

Although the cat was highly esteemed in the ancient world, Christianity connected the animal specifically to witchcraft and Satan, turning the cat into a witch’s familiar. Derived from the Latin term famulus, meaning servant, ‘familiars’ were believed to be demons in human or animal form, feeding on witches’ blood and doing everything according to their bidding. It was generally accepted that the witch could take on the shape of these familiars. Witches have always been linked to the belief in the power of transformation. The cat, the raven, the wolf, the hare and the sow were the favourite animals, whose shape witches and those possessed of the evil eye were thought to assume. In days gone by many people would show a reluctance to discuss family matters in the presence of a cat, just in case it was a witch’s familiar or a witch in disguise. Therefore, a cat was never to be left alone with an infant, as this could result in the child being bewitched. It was also thought that the cat would creep into the cradle to suck the breath from the infant. 

Specific characteristics, peculiar to cats served to link them to witchcraft. Evil forces were traditionally believed to be active at night, which was corroborated by the nocturnal character of the cat. Additionally it’s oddly independent behaviour, eyes contracting and dilating ominously in the dark and its eerie, almost human-like cries in the stillness of night reinforced the notion of the cat’s connection with evil. As cats prowled through the night, seeing in the dark, they became a symbol of intuition, linked with supernatural, mediumistic powers. Together with the colour black, reminiscent of the forces of darkness, all the above-mentioned factors compounded in Christian Europe, to connect black cats with witches and evil spirits. As a result, large numbers of unfortunate cats suffered abominable treatment and were burnt alive during the Middle Ages, because of their imagined connection with witchcraft.

The modern superstition that a cat has nine lives derives from the belief that it was permitted for a witch to take on the body of a cat nine times only. After seven years a cat was thought to turn into a witch. Often cats were marked with crosses to prevent them from turning into witches, or they were given another name, only known to select family members, in the belief that a witch could not take on the cat’s body if she did not know its name.

A magical skill generally attributed to cats was their ability to forecast the weather. In Europe, it was thought that when cats were seen to wash their ears or eat grass, rain could be expected; when they scampered wildly, high winds were bound to come up; when they sat with their backs to the fire or sneezed, it meant upcoming frost and storms; and to wash a cat most certainly brought on rain. A similar superstition is found in Indonesia, where it was believed that to pour water over a cat’s back produced rain. In the past, European seamen firmly believed that cats brought luck to a ship, holding the conviction that a cat was invaluable when a ship was becalmed, as the animal could raise a good wind by simply being placed under a pot on deck. To throw any cat overboard was considered unthinkable, as this would most certainly raise a storm.

The cat, its blood and hair, was for hundreds of years credited with curative powers for various ailments. During the Middle Ages, right through to the nineteenth century, bizarre concoctions from the feline’s blood and hair were especially used to cure shingles and whooping cough. Folk remedies against whooping cough traditionally consisted of chopping up nine tail hairs of a black cat, soaking them in water, and then drinking the infusion. During the seventeenth century, it was common in Europe to boil a whole cat in olive oil, as this was thought to be an excellent wound dressing. The boiled skin on its own was also used to relieve toothache. The cat’s tail was especially considered effective in many remedies, which accounted for the fact that the tails were often simply cut off! A popular remedy for various eye diseases was to stroke or rub a black cat’s tail over the eyelid three or nine times – whether the animal’s body was still attached while this procedure was carried out remains unclear. If drawn over the eyes, a cat’s tail was believed to remove sties. However, if sickness and disease resisted all the mentioned conventional forms of treatment, a last customary option was simply to transfer all ailments to the family cat by dousing the unsuspecting animal with the patient’s washing water or urine and then noisily chasing it from the house – with or without the tail attached. 

In the past, on board ship, a different kind of cat’s tail, known as cat-o’-nine-tails, was respectfully feared and avoided by all sailors. This constituted a whip, initially with three, then six, and lastly nine lashes with several knots tied into each lash to inflict maximum pain. It was used for punishing offenders and briefly called ‘the cat’.


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