Halloween History: How Cats Got Their Spooky Rep
- by Laura Macfehin
Halloween is just around the corner and with it comes the usual assortment of creepy characters - jack o’ lanterns, skeletons, witches, werewolves and spooky black cats! But just what are cats doing among the ghosts and goblins? The obvious answer is that they flew in on the back of a witch’s broom, but just what caused them to jump up there in the first place?
From Gods to Godless
We all know how the ancient Egyptians felt about cats - they recognised in their aloof dignity their godly nature. Cats were considered the earthly manifestation of Bast and her sister Sekhmet, two feline goddesses known, like cats are, for their dual nature of protection and destruction.
Egyptians weren’t the only ones to associate cats with the feminine divine. Norse goddess Freya with her chariot pulled by cats, and the shapeshifting Athena and Lillith also put the two together in the same supernatural box. (Cats of course are well aware of their exalted past - something cat owners forget at their peril). But by mediaeval times, this association with femaleness and pagan beliefs was dangerous. Cats being seen as both supernatural and independent made them more than a little suspect in the church’s eyes. You know who else dodged submission for their own mystical doings? Heretics, that’s who!
When Pope Gregory IX issued a public declaration in the 13th century condemning the rumoured satanism of heretical groups in Germany, he made specific mention of cats and their connection to witchcraft. He mentioned other animals as well but the cat thing really stuck - so much so that anytime a group was whacked with the heretic stick, consorting with cats was bound to be part of the evidence. In the early 14th century when the Knights Templar were being arrested, amongst the charges was worshipping the devil in the form of a big black cat named Baphomet.
Why was it so easy for people to think the worst of cats? Part of it comes from the nature of cats themselves. Anyone who has lived with a cat knows you don’t train them - they train you. As well as being non-submissive, cats are also mysterious; the night is their most active time and if you believe that the dark also holds demons, it makes sense that the two become linked. They have also long been loving companions for lonely people that other humans might look askance at. Cats don’t care if you’re ugly or old, but in times when being a gnarly old loner is in itself suspicious, being the pet of such a person throws doubt on the animal’s wholesomeness too.
The feedback loop of having a familiar/being a familiar was so established that by the 15th century witchcraft and cats were inextricably linked. Witches were believed to not only have cats as their familiars, but also to with ride cats to their sabbats and to be able to shapeshift into cats as well. In Europe at this time cats (and especially black cats) were murdered in great numbers - often burned or hurled from church towers (this practise is remembered in a yearly festival in Ypres, Belgium, where plush toy cats now replace real felines in a weird symbolic hurling).
Somehow, despite all these bad times, cats stayed in our homes and people continued to love and care for them (at least when their neighbours weren’t watching). And not all the superstitions that accrued around them were negative. You may have heard that having a black cat cross your path is bad luck, but having a ship’s cat has long been considered excellent luck by sailors (although deckside zoomies may mean wild weather is ahead and having a cat go overboard may result in a disastrous storm). Sailor’s wives in the north of England commonly believed that keeping a cat happy in their home would ensure their husband’s safety at sea.
As well as on ships, it has been thought very lucky to have cats in theatres, and that cats bring prosperity to their owners (although kittens born on the 1st of May may also bring snakes into the home). Around the world cats are thought to bring luck - the Italians feel lucky if they hear a cat sneeze, while the Irish warn that killing a cat can bring seventeen years bad luck, and the Maneki Neko, or waving cat of Japan, is recognised as auspicious just about everywhere these days. All this explains why, until the middle of the twentieth century at least, the black cat was as at home on good luck cards as halloween decorations.
If you are lucky enough to have a feline friend living in your house, you’ll probably agree they are equal parts spooky and divine (with a little bit of cuddly nutcase thrown in for good measure) and, while those Halloween black cats may hint at a nasty past, they also remind us just how long we’ve been fascinated by the furry beasts and their strange ways.
If you want to read more on these topics, a couple of sources I found helpful are Magic and Witchcraft in the West; Sabbats, Satan and Superstitions by Frances Timbers and Encyclopedia of Superstitions by Edwin and Mona A. Radford.