The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Traditional depictions of the Roman goddess of Liberty show her holding a cup in one hand, a broken scepter in the other and with a cat lying at her feet. The cat, that animal which famously does not come when called, has long been an emblem of independence—and of free, independent, autonomous women.
Historically, attitudes toward cats parallel those toward women: when women have been respected and honored, their psychic gifts cherished, cats are beloved, sometimes deified; when women are perceived as dangerous and perverse, cats have been degraded and demonized. When women’s knowledge is particularly respected, cats are venerated; when women’s knowledge is particularly feared, cats are tortured and killed.
As we begin the twenty-first century, no other animal in the Western world is as identified with witchcraft as the domestic cat, particularly black cats. Black cats are sometimes used as short-hand to represent witches: a common Halloween image depicts a black kitten emerging from a cauldron or peaked hat. It’s not even necessary to see the witch; the kitty’s presence is sufficient for witchcraft to be evoked.
Cats are beautiful, intelligent creatures that cannot be ruled. It is not that they are intentionally disobedient (well, not usually; although as most cat owners will acknowledge, there is the occasional knowing spiteful act), but that the entire concept of obedience is foreign to their nature. Cats perform various services for humans, not least gracing us with their beauty, but only on their own terms; they can only be enticed, not commanded.
Cats epitomize the pleasure principle: sensuous creatures, they crave warmth, fine foods, soft fabrics, the choice seat in the house. Nocturnal, independent and mysterious, cats come and go as they please. Don’t be fooled: although domestic creatures, cats are never entirely tame.
They have profound associations with sex. It’s no coincidence that “pussy,” the common nickname for cats, is also a common nickname for the female genitalia. (The word “puss” may actually originally derive from “lepus” or rabbit, another animal profoundly associated with sex and witchcraft.)
Both male and female cats have reputations as lusty, prodigiously sexual creatures. Female cats will take one lover after another, as will the males. (To accuse a man of “tom-catting around” suggests he may not be a prime candidate for “til death do us part.”)
Since at least the time of Aristotle, cats have been used to symbolize lasciviousness and sexual insatiability, in folklore as well as an artistic device. Cats are affiliated with sexually autonomous female deities like Bastet, Diana, Freya, Hathor, Hecate, Kybele, and Lilith.
During the Witchcraze, women were accused of being sexually insatiable. Because mortal men lacked the capacity to satisfy them, these women craved Satan’s charms, taking demonic lovers who often manifested in the form of black tom cats—or at least that’s the witch-hunter’s version. By the eighteenth century, “cat” had become slang for a prostitute, hence the “cat house.”
Cats’ associations with sex have deeper implications: cats possess lush fertility. Felis, the scientific name for cats, derives its origin from the Latin root fe, “to bear young.” Other words deriving from this source are feline, fecund and fetus. Cats, like frogs, are often considered weather harbingers, announcing the start of the fertilizing rain. Jewelry in the form of images of a mother cat surrounded by a large litter of kittens was a popular fertility charm in ancient Egypt.
The earliest indication of intimate relations between people and cats derives from a recently discovered (2004) burial in Cyprus, dating back approximately 9500 years ago. A carefully buried cat was discovered inches from a human burial, which also contained jewelry, polished stones, shells, and tools. The cat’s bones were arranged to parallel that of the human and displayed no signs of butchering. It appears to have been a beloved companion animal. Cats are not native to Cyprus and so it is believed to have been imported (although cats are notorious stowaways on ships).
General wisdom suggests that cats were first domesticated in Egypt (although Libya or Nubia are alternative suggestions), where domestic cats were bred at least four thousand years ago. (However, because of that recently discovered burial, dates are being retabulated backwards.) Ancient Egypt certainly provides the first written records of cats, the clearest evidence of domestic cats and the closest identification with deification of cats.
As Egyptian culture became increasingly agrarian, stored grain attracted mice and other vermin, who, in their turn, attracted cats, who very quickly demonstrated their usefulness to people. Cats became sacred guardians of the grain. (See ERGOT.)
The most famous sacred Egyptian cat is Bastet, whose titles included Mistress of the Oracle and Great Conjuress of the Casket. She is depicted as a cat, often bejeweled, or as a woman with a cat’s head, sometimes surrounded by kittens. Bastet has dominion over sex, fertility, marriage, magic, music, childbirth, prosperity, joy, dance, and healing—in short the pleasures of life. She provides humans with a range of protections: against infertility, the dangers of childbirth, evil spirits, illness and bodily injuries, especially those caused by venomous creatures. A tomb inscription says Bastet bestows “life, prosperity and health every day and long life and beautiful old age.”
Bastet offers special protection to women and children and serves as matron of magicians and healers. Her cult originated in the swamps of the Nile Delta. The earliest known portrait of Bastet dates to c. 3000 BCE. She was a pervasive figure in Egypt from about 2000 BCE, and by about 950 BCE, her cult was found throughout Egypt; she was the most popular female deity in the kingdom. Worship of Bastet reached its zenith during the reign of Osorkon II (874—853) when a major temple was erected at her cult city Bubastis. Devotion to Bastet officially survived until 30 BCE and the Roman conquest.
Bastet’s annual festival in Bubastis was Egypt’s most popular festival. An ancestor of today’s Mardi Gras, the festival was renowned for its parties, revelry, and drunkenness. Herodotus, the Greek traveler and historian writing in the fifth century BCE, claimed that more wine was consumed in Egypt during this festival than during the entire remainder of the year. Although many details have been lost, Bastet’s festival celebrated female sexuality and generative power. Boats sailed up the Nile headed for Bubastis. As a barge approached towns and settlements on its way to the festival, it would halt and the mainly female celebrants on board would loudly hail the local women congregating on the riverbanks. They would shout sexual obscenities to each other, dance wildly, and perform ana-suromai, the ritual act of lifting up the skirts to expose the vulva, associated with laughter, healing, and defiance of grief.
Bastet, daughter of the sun, is a solar spirit, associated with the life-giving warmth of the sun. (Her sister Sekhmet, a lioness, represents the sun’s scorching, destructive potential.) Bastet possesses lunar associations as well. She is the mother of the moon. Her son Khonsu was reputedly able to impregnate women with his moonbeams. (That belief survives in the superstition against single women sleeping exposed to moonlight.)
The Greek biographer Plutarch, writing in the first century CE, suggested that one of the reasons Egyptians worshipped cats is that cats’ nocturnal habits reveal powerful lunar affiliations. Cats’ eyes also appear to grow in size and luminosity in harmony with the moon’s waxing. The ancient Egyptian cat was not exclusively a sacred temple animal but was also a family pet or domestic animal, a bit of holiness in one’s own home. Although Egypt had many sacred animals, no others lived so intimately with so many people. (Compare and contrast other sacred creatures, like baboons or crocodiles, which by necessity were kept at a distance.) Familiarity didn’t breed contempt, however: even a house cat maintained its mysterious, sacred nature. Herodotus reports that anyone convicted of intentionally killing a sacred animal was sentenced to death, and to varying extents all cats were sacred. Four hundred years later, the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus (born c. 100 BCE) witnessed an incident where a Roman official accidentally killed a cat and was promptly lynched by a mob. Although the fact that he was a Roman official suggests that the cat may have been the last straw in a deadly dynamic, Diodorus suggests that the situation wasn’t uncommon and that most such deaths occurred as spontaneous lynchings by enraged mobs before the person could be legally tried and judged. When a pet cat died, it was customary for the human family with whom it lived to shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning and respect.
Wide distribution of the domestic cat occurred only after the Egyptian kingdom lost its independence to Rome. Even then, for centuries, domestic cats remained rare throughout Europe. (Ferrets were used to eliminate vermin prior to introduction of cats.) Not until the fourth century of the Common Era were domestic cats widely distributed in Italy. As domestic cats gradually dispersed, their identification with the mysteries of ancient Egypt traveled with them, leading to associations with magic, witchcraft, and women’s sexual, lunar and reproductive secrets.
Although domestic cats were rare in Europe, uncommon in the British Isles, for instance, even into the tenth century, wild forest cats were common. Although wild cats can cross-breed with domestic cats, they are larger and typically possess different natures: fierce, wary, and solitary rather than sweet and cuddly. Vestiges of wild, fierce Celtic cat goddesses may survive in the witch-hags who frequently transform into cats, as for instance, Black Annis.
Cats have potent associations with yet another powerful female deity—Freya—Norse Lady of love, romance, sex, fertility, childbirth, shamanism, enchantments, witchcraft, and death. An oracular, sexually autonomous spirit, Freya typically manifests as a breath-takingly beautiful, golden woman: her chariot is drawn by her familiars, two huge gray cats named Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber), who embody Freya’s twin qualities of ferociousness and fecundity. Cats are Freya’s sacred animals; a traditional method of petitioning or pleasing the goddess was to offer pans of milk to cats, an old Norse country custom that survived. To be kind to a cat is to entreat Freya’s blessings and to remain in her good graces.
Eventually cats would be tortured and killed specifically because of their associations with Freya. After the introduction of Christianity, Freya’s devotees did not abandon her easily or willingly, and she became among the most demonized of spirits, coming to embody the stereotype of the seductive witch. Cats shared Freya’s demonization. (See DIVINE WITCH: Freya.)
By the Middle Ages, cats had become so identified with witchcraft that in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a decree, understood by many scholars as the official start of the Witchcraze, denouncing cats and their owners. Any cat in the company of a woman could be assumed to be a familiar. If one can assume the cat is a familiar, what might one assume about the woman?
Pope Innocent commanded that when a witch was burned, her cats were to be burned with her. He decreed that all European cat-worshippers be burned as witches. (This was in response to a strong revival of devotion to Freya in fifteenth-century Germany.) He authorized the killing of cats even without an accompanying witch. A vicious cycle emerged: the destruction of European cats is believed to have encouraged the proliferation of rodents, which in turn encouraged the spread of deadly disease, blamed on witchcraft and heresy, which in turn led to fear, panic, and more killing of cats.
Folklorist Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, suggests in his book Teutonic Mythology that the sinister aspect of the cat derives from Freya’s dual role, not only as a spirit of love and fertility but also as a death-spirit. As leader of the Valkyries, female warrior spirits who helped select the dead, Freya had dibs on half the fallen on a battlefield, the other half belonging to Odin.
The degradation and destruction of cats parallels that of women and their increasing loss of autonomy. Women, however, might engage in subterfuge or adjust their personalities and lifestyles in attempts to be beyond suspicion; the inherent nature and habits of cats betrayed them. Their nocturnal lives, their desire to prowl free at night, “singing” at the moon, their passionate sexuality, all now doomed them to associations with the devil and/or witchcraft. Instead of worship and respect, cats were feared and avoided at best.
According to the witch-hunter’s perceptions of witchcraft, cats played various roles:
Cats were believed to be common familiars. Should a woman display a close relationship with a cat, this was considered a telltale sign of witchcraft and perhaps sufficient evidence to warrant death for woman and cat.
Cats provided witches with a mode of magical transportation. Reminiscent of Freya’s air-borne cat-drawn chariot, witches rode to sabbats on cats’ backs or traveled about in feline form. Shape-shifting witches were believed able to assume the form of cats.
Sometimes the cats are the witches. Does the woman transform into a cat or vice versa? Cats are traditionally Hungarian witches’ alter egos, their doubles. Is the witch a cat or is the cat a witch? In this hall of mirrors, who can tell? In one Hungarian witch-trial transcript, the prosecution’s witness recounts how upon encountering two cats at night, whom he perceived as nocturnal apparitions, he began to talk with them, informing them that he wasn’t afraid of them because “Lord Jesus Christ is with us.” The cats, he claimed, responded with peals of human laughter.
In Slavic areas, cats may be vampires; hence the still-existing superstition that cats will suck a sleeping baby’s life out. In North African communities, cats may be djinn in disguise and so one is cautioned against ever harming a cat for fear of spiritual retribution.
Witch-hunter Jean Bodin insisted that all cats are witches in disguise. Nicholas Remy, another famed witch-hunter, argued that they were demons instead. Hungarian witch-lore suggests that cats do indeed become witches, but only between the ages of 7 and 12, and even this may be prevented. The Hungarians, a grain-producing people, who perhaps didn’t relish leaving their barns without feline protection, determined that shaving a cross into the cat’s fur was sufficient to rescue it from this fate. According to Somerset folklore, cats born in May were especially inclined to be witches in disguise and hence were frequently killed.
Stories of women transforming into cats are common witchcraft tales. A husband from Scotland’s Isle of Skye claimed to be perplexed by his wife’s secretive nightly excursions. One night he followed her and witnessed her transformation into a black cat. The wife invoked Satan’s name and sailed out to sea in a sieve with seven other cats. The husband invoked the Trinity and the sieve promptly overturned, drowning all the witches—or at least so said the husband, the only witness to his wife’s disappearance. One wonders how many other women’s disappearances were accounted for by those who swore that when last seen the women had transformed into cats or bats.
In a French variation on this theme, a woman was cooking an omelet when a black cat sauntered into her home and settled itself by her hearth. Apparently unfazed by her visitor, the woman did nothing but continue to cook. The cat stared at her for a few minutes then announced, “It’s done. Flip it over.”
In a traditional fairy tale, when a talking animal tells you something, it’s worth paying attention. However, in this story, the woman, seemingly unsurprised, only claimed to be outraged at being bossed around by a cat. She flung the hot pan at the cat, hitting it. The cat fled. The next morning, a malicious, “catty” neighbor was observed with a great red burn on her cheek.
There are millions of these stories, which are not limited to European origin. In Japanese folklore, cats transform into women who are frequently identified as witches. (Japan has a witchtradition but no history of European-style witch-hunts.) Sometimes these cats are saintly, if sexual. In the famous legend of Okesa the dancer, a devoted cat saves a human family from poverty by transforming into a prostitute and earning enough to support them.
Not all these legends are stories, at least not in the fictional sense; few of the documented tales have happy endings.
In 1586, Anna Winkelz Ipfel was burned as a witch in Bergtheim, Germany for allegedly disguising herself as a black cat.
In 1607, Bartie Paterson was hanged as a witch in England. According to witnesses, Bartie transformed into a cat and, together with other witches disguised as cats, “sang” in the backyard of one of the witnesses.
In March 1607, Isobel Grierson was brought to court in Scotland, charged with witchcraft. She allegedly invaded the Clarke household in the middle of the night in the form of a cat, accompanied by other cats, who together raised “a great and fearful noise.” The sleeping Mr and Mrs Adam Clarke were woken by this racket, as was their servant woman who had been lying in another bed near theirs. Apparently the cats were only the welcoming crew; shortly after this feline invasion, the devil himself also allegedly arrived, in the form of a black man. Isobel was burned to death for this, as well as for various murders by magic. (See Transformation.)
Cats were also identified with Satan, believed to favor the shape of a cat, inevitably a large black tom. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX declared that heretics worshipped the devil in the form of a black tom cat.
Of course one person’s devil is another person’s guardian spirit. In Slavic areas, especially Russia and Poland, the ovinnik, guardian spirit of the threshing barn takes the form of a huge disheveled black cat with glowing eyes. Offerings of blini or the last sheaves of grain are offered to him in exchanges for protection and divination services. The ovinnik is no cute, cuddly kitty; should he ever be seriously displeased, he’ll burn the barn down (frequently with the owner or his children within).
Elements of degraded, corrupt, perverted sacrifice are apparent in the treatment meted out to European cats, as if rather than venerating and preserving what is powerful and holy, it’s cruelly, wantonly, destroyed instead.
The torture and killing of cats occurred in various contexts: in conjunction with human witch trials, as random acts of violence, but also as organized, documented ritual killings:
In Paris, it was customary to burn a sack or basket filled with cats in the Place de Greve on St John’s Eve, a tradition also popular in other parts of France. (Although Louis XIV abolished the Parisian custom in 1648, it continued in the provinces until at least as late as 1796.)
Various French towns built bonfires to burn masses of cats on the first Sunday in Lent.
Cats were burned in Alsace at Easter.
(See CALENDAR: Midsummer’s; Ostara.)
Although all cats are associated with witchcraft, the black cat is most powerfully identified. Black cats’ special identification with witchcraft is not limited to Western European or post-Christian perspectives. Chinese, Hindu, Japanese, Jewish, North African, and Romany witch-lore make the same connection, although whether it is understood to be a sacred or malevolent connection depends upon cultural and individual perceptions.
People tend to fear or love black cats, frequently revealing their attitudes toward witchcraft. The major superstition regarding black cats is that they bring bad luck should they cross your path and people will cross the street to avoid them. This isn’t so ridiculous if one recalls that black cats were once commonly believed to be witches in disguise, out looking for fun and trouble. In Britain, however, black cats are lucky; white cats are identified with bad luck, as are many white animals, perhaps because of associations with ghosts and death.