Tuesday, 30 April 2013

May Cats Won't Catch the Rodent - superstitions behind the cuteness

Tomorrow is the first day of May, and according to superstitions there will be something strange happening throughout the animal kingdom. Researching witchcraft for my novel, The Shadow Fabric, has taken me down yet another dark route.

Animals born in May are thought to be troublesome, particularly horses, pigs and cats. May horses are simply said to be mean, whereas May pigs are suggested to devour their litter!

It is the cat in particular – and not just those born during this month – that holds the most interesting history and superstitions.
  

Cats born in May will not kill mice or rats, instead they bring into the home adders, slow worms and toads, which is a skill no household wishes of their pet. Such belief led to most kittens born throughout this month to be unceremoniously drowned – before they’d even had a chance to prove this superstition wrong.

Of course, this is one among a few superstitions that parallel the lives (all nine?) of the cat.

Cats and Ancient Egypt

Common, as it is known today, these creatures are associated with supernatural powers, and were first domesticated in Ancient Egypt where killing a cat – or even accidentally harming one – was punishable by death. One form of the Egyptian cat-goddess, daughter of Ra, was Bast (Bastet, or Ubasti), the patron of love, fertility and sensuality; taking the appearance of a woman with a cat’s head, surrounded by a litter of kittens – a symbol of her motherly nature.

An entire city, Bubastis, was built in Lower Egypt to honour the goddess, and it is said that some 700,000 pilgrims journeyed there annually in May. Here they were to enjoy a festival in honour of the animals themselves, and having the privilege of feeding its feline population.

Throughout this ancient civilisation cats were regularly mummified for burial, and when the owner died they would put the body next to the animal’s remains. Over 300,000 cats were discovered in such a state when Bast's temple was excavated during the 19th century. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC, when a family cat died, the Egyptians shaved their eyebrows and in ritual took the body to Bubastis in order to be embalmed.


It was not only the Egyptians, however, to view the cat as sacred: in ancient India they saw the feline as a great animal, and in Scandinavia the Norse deity Freya was led by a cat-drawn chariot. The Celtic goddess Ceridwen was attended by white cats, and in Greek mythology there are also links between Bast and Artemis.

Witchcraft and Familiars

Such acknowledgment of the cat and its influences brings forth the notion that witches favour these creatures as a companion; their familiar – a small domestic animal (possessed by a low-ranking demon) given to them as a gift by the Devil. Not just a companion, but as helper and advisor, and also used to perform malicious errands of the black arts. These would include feats such as conjuring treacherous weather (reflecting the mixed feelings of sailors and fishermen towards the creatures) and even murder.

The familiar, or imp (as it was often referred to), is almost exclusive to England and surrounding islands, and is a strong contribution to the theory of witchcraft.

Historical records indicate that cats of all colours have been associated with witchcraft; the stereotypical witch’s cat – these days – is of course entirely black. As such, it is claimed that if there is as little as one white hair on its body then the creature’s magical potency is reduced.

With superstition surrounding the black cat, where one crossing your path brings luck (whereas a white one is unlucky), and if one should stray into your home, you should embrace it for this brings good fortune; sadly today in every rescue centre one will see an abundance of black cats. With common superstitious misconceptions, these cats are abandoned, believed to simply bring anyone bad luck.


As the most commonly associated animal companion of the witch, the cat is known to be a favourite disguise of the Devil. In addition, it is said that witches often took on feline shapes themselves, although throughout the centuries such familiars were equally as likely to be a crow, a toad, or any other common – yet small – animal. It was understood, however, that a witch could take the form of a cat only nine times, reinforcing the popular belief that a cat has nine lives.

Throughout the witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th century there was a common test by which one could determine whether a cat was indeed a witch in disguise, and this was to place the animal in a vessel of holy water. If the cat attempted to escape, undoubtedly it was a witch.

Rarely was it to the creature’s advantage when it came to witchcraft, and during the month of May when the spirits of the dead – equally the witches – were considered to be exceptionally active, any cat born was soon drowned; as it was said that they would be useless in hunting.


Cat-familiars were known to be of considerable age, having served numerous witches; inherited by one from another. In 1566, Elizabeth Francis, one of the Chelmsford Witches, claimed to have been given Sathan – a white spotted cat – by her grandmother. Following her ‘ownership’, and having sealed a succession of deals in the black arts (paying the small animal in blood by pricking her finger for each deed), after 15 years she had then passed it on to another witch.

Ursula Kempe, an accused witch during the trial of the St.Osyth Witches in 1582, confessed to owning two familiars in the shape of cats, named Titty and Jack. Both of which she allegedly sent out on evil errands, and they were rewarded by sucking blood from her left thigh.


Royalty and members of the aristocracies were often targets of black magic. In 1590 in North Berwick, Scotland, Agnes Sampson admitted to throwing a black cat into the ocean – after apparently ‘baptising’ it – with the aim of raising a storm intended to kill future King James I. The King (then King James VI of Scotland) was returning from Denmark with his fiancĂ©e, Anne, and the royal ship nearly sank due to the ferocity of the waves.

In 1619 during a trial of witchcraft in Lincoln, Margaret Flower confessed to an attempt at killing the children of the Earl of Rutland where she rubbed personal possessions against the fur of her cat-familiar, Rutterkin. Similarly, as precaution against further offspring, she brushed feathers from the Countess’s bed over the animal’s genitals to make both the Earl and his wife infertile.


Matthew Hopkins, as Witchfinder-General, reported manifestations of cat-familiars during his investigations, and swore an oath that he had witnessed such in the cell of Elizabeth Clark. This one-legged Essex witch, in 1645, became the first to be accused of the black arts by the Witchfinder-General. After keeping her awake for four nights, he saw the familiar spirits approach her and as evidence she was convicted thereafter.

“Each of us has a spirit to wait upon us, when we please to call upon him,” declared Scottish witch, Isobel Gowdie in 1662. She claimed, too, that she took the form of the cat by muttering the following spell:

I shall go into cat with sorrow and sign;
a little black shot.
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
aye while I come home again.”

In some rural areas, particularly in Scotland and in Continental Europe, nobody dared to converse in family affairs – and certainly not matters concerning money – in front of a cat, for fear that it was a witch in disguise… or indeed the Devil himself!

The superstition surrounding the cat

In Hungary, superstition led to the belief that every cat would transform into a witch between the ages of 7 and 12 years. With this in mind, the only preventative measure was to cut a cross in the animal’s skin. Soon, other injuries were purposely inflicted on cats suspected of being witches, and such tales spread throughout many cultures, leading to witches apparently waking to new found scars, scabs, or actual wounds.

One reported case of 1718, in Caithness in Scotland, a man named William Montgomery, claimed the cats that gathered outside his house spoke in human voices. Killing two with a hatchet and wounding several others, the following day two local women were found dead, whilst another failed to explain a deep cut in her leg.

The French were known to have trapped cats in baskets and throw them into bonfires, while in England they were suspended in cages and shot at with arrows. Given this, some cultures began to show reluctance to kill the animals, in belief that anyone who did forfeited their soul to the Devil.

During the 19th century in Hastings, East Sussex, two mummified cats were discovered in the chimney of the Stag Inn whilst under restoration. It is alleged that the cats were the familiars of the local witch from two centuries before. Hannah Clarke, proving to be ‘friendlier’ than most witches of that time, was seen to help in keeping the Spanish Armada away from Hastings; often using her powers for the town’s protection. Apparently, after she moved on, her familiars remained in the town until the Great Plague hit. Cats – rather than rats – were commonly assumed to be plague carriers and having been owned by a witch, this particular pair of animals were the first to succumb to local accusations. For fear of any bad omen to befall the people by removing – or indeed killing – the cats, a decision was made to mummify them and of walling them in at the pub.

When witchcraft mania swept Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, many black cats disappeared. Soon it was discovered that superstitious locals were boiling them in water, and extracting an apparently lucky bone with which to protect them against supernatural harm. But the influence of the cat – indeed, its sacred foundations – goes back many years.


The cat is, and no doubt always will be, associated with many superstitions. These already intelligent animals are supposed to have an amount of extrasensory perception. With this in mind, evident strange behaviour in them – be it in stature or habit – may possibly be a reaction to something sensed that is beyond our own perception. One must ask questions if the cat appears nervous or frightened in a new home, as there may be paranormal activity! Tread on its tail and there will be bad luck for the individual; and if the cat should leave home never to be seen again, then bad luck will befall the entire family.

Portents can be seen in a cat’s general behaviour, such as weather forecasting: sitting with its back to the fire foretells a storm is imminent; or, winds are on their way if the animal should prove to be somewhat larkish; and prepare for rain if it spends an unusual amount of time cleaning itself.

The Black Cat of Carrefour a Cendre

As for big-cat sightings across the globe there have been plenty reported, but Jersey – one of the Channel Islands – is alleged to be home to a shape-shifting cat. Sighted, not precisely as a cat of the flesh (or fur), more as an apparition. Legend suggests that to take the Black Cat of Carrefour a Cendre away from its town it grows in size. Return it, and it shrinks. Moreover, if you get too close it would disappear altogether; presumably if you go too far it crushes you, and may even swallow you whole.  Whether a phantom, a manifestation, or indeed an urban myth, no doubt it keeps the local mice on their toes.

Unless, that is, this shape-shifting menace was born in May.


Associated Cat Facts

The mummified remains of the cats discovered in Bast’s temple were sent to England and sold as fertilizer at around $20 per ton.

Ursula Kempe had another two familiars alongside her pair of cats: she had a toad called Pigin and a lamb called Tyffin.

In 1597, King James (VI of Scotland, and I of England) wrote and published a book on witchcraft called ‘Daemonologie’, which also detailed necromancy, spirit possession, demons, werewolves, ghosts and fairies.

Isobel Gowdie’s descriptions of her meetings led to the first indication that groups of 13 members were standard in witchcraft, and also introduced the term ‘coven’ into trial records.

The cats once owned by Hastings witch, Hannah Clarke, can still be seen in a glass case on the wall of The Stag Inn.



Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.


Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook: www.facebook.com/AuthorMarkCassell

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