Categories: Superstitions

Cat Superstition and Legend

This is a further discussion about the link between superstition and cats. There is a bulleted  list of superstitions associated with the cat below, after this introduction. This is not a complete treatise on the subject but there are other pages on the site that have other examples. As there are so many superstitions linked to the domestic cat it must reflect on our relationship with the cat and on us. We really are a frightened species.

We lean on all manner of myths and ideas to get us through the day. A lot of cat superstition has faded away over time which indicates that homo sapiens is still very much a developing species. We look back aghast at the way people behaved towards the cat and in respect of witchcraft about 400 years ago. In 400 years time, 2400, we will look back at 2012 and think how primitive the human was in so called high tech 2012.

Freya in her chariot pulled by two cats. Where they black?

Black cats are the favoured ones when it comes to cats and superstition. This is logical because black is dark and darkness brings fear and as I said we are a fearful species of animal. The association between black cats and superstition appears to have started with the goddess Isis in Greece and Phoenicia in 500 BC. Black cats were rare at the time as the coat was a genetic mutation from the classic tabby coat of the domesticated wildcat. Isis symbolized the night; not the night of demons but of love. This was a positive connection. Black cats were considered the reincarnation of Isis and revered. Isis also had the role of a protector of ships. This is how the long era of ship’s cats started. Ship’s cats are still with us today. It was considered bad luck to set sail without a ship’s cat. They were mandatory in the British Royal Navy until 1975.

A black cat I’ve heard it said,

Can charm all ill away

And keep the house wherein she dwells

From fever’s deadly sway.

The above is a positive spin on the black cat. Mostly it is the opposite. Some more superstition and cats:

  1. Ancient Egypt: Worshiped yet abused at the same time. Making a cat a deity and then breeding cats to kill them ritualistically to appease the cat god that you have created demonstrates how fragile our mental state was at the time and frankly still is.
  2. Pagan times: The Taigheirm, an ancient society, appeased their deities by sacrificing black cats. They were sacrificed at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Once killed the black cat was put on a spit and roasted. The infernal spirits emerged as black cats.
  3. In medieval France it was believed that a sorcerer could make himself invisible by eating a black cat that had been stolen.
  4. Saint Dominique (medieval France again) described the devil as a black cat when preaching. That did the cat’s image no good!
  5. Cornelius Agrippa describes in this book of 1651, ‘Occult Philosophy’ how to raise cat demons. Once again the association between the devil and cats is made.
  6. In the era of a belief in witchcraft (many people still believe in witches) a witch could transform herself with a herb.
  7. Old English folk-rhyme: Whenever the cat o’ the house is black, The lasses ‘o lovers will have no lack. ‘Lack’ is now spelled ‘luck’.
  8. Medical remedy using black cat body parts. This makes me think of the continuing use of cat body parts to improve health – tiger body parts. The brains of black cats were used as love potions. A witch sings, Yet went I back to the house againe, Killed the black cat and here is the brain.
  9. Black cat remedy for poor eyesight medieval times: Burn the cat’s head and blow the ash into the eyes, three times daily (until blind!).
  10. Folklore: the Devil can enter the human domain through the cat (acting as agent for the devil). Examples are:
    1. Cat in a graveyard is looking for a soul to possess.
    2. Cat sitting on a tombstone meant the deceased person belonged to the devil.
    3. When two cats fought in a cemetery it was an angel fighting with the devil over the soul of a dead person.
  11. Medieval Europe: the black cat represented the devil in a pagan black mass, while the white cat represented a healer.
  12. Ancient China: There was a belief that when a person died who kept a cat, the cat should not be given away until after the burial and then if the cat jumped over the grave (or body?) the corpse would rise up and ‘miss its chance of redemption’.
  13. Eastern Europe: A cat jumping over a corpse transformed the corpse into a vampire.
  14. England, Northumbria in medieval times: If a cat walked over a dead body the cat would be killed to stop it stealing the soul of the person.
  15. Ancient Egyptians: Believed that the Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamen, would be led by a black cat to the underworld.
  16. Malayan Jakurs:  (I can’t find anything them unfortunately): Believed a cat would lead the dead through the fires of Hell.
  17. Norse: Legend has it that Freya the Norse goddess of love and fertility was pulled in a chariot by two black cats. Well, in the pictures above the cats are not black and the cats were horses possessed by the devil. Once again cats are representatives of the devil. The cats were thus employed for 7 years and at the end were rewarded by being turned into witches disguised as cats.
  18. Hungary: Hungarians had their witches familiars which were cats. They even specified that a cat become a witch’s familiar at seven years of age. If a crucifix was carved into the cat’s skin before he or she reached seven, he was spared this horrible fate.
  19. Europe: Because of their association with witches, cats were seen as a symbol of evil. This is one reason why people today (2012) hate cats. The world is still superstitious.
  20. Scotland: A transformed witch in the form of a sinister black and white cat called Cait Sith (Highland Fairy Cat).
  21. England 1211: Witches had wounds in the shapes of cats.
  22. Italy: Pope Innocent VIII made it legal to persecute witches leading to the persecution of women who kept cats. The devil was cast out when the woman was tortured.
  23. England: At the time of Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne, protestants mocked the Pope’s superstition by making a model of the Pope in wicker filled with live cats. It was thrown onto a fire. The cats’ howls of agony was seen as “The language of the devil from the body of the Holy Father.” This led to Catholics shaving cats’ heads to make them look like protestant friars. The cats were then hanged. Humankind’s savagery and superstition leading to horrible cat cruelty.
  24. Japan: There is the folklore of Meko Pagoat. This is where a cat that has been killed by a person gains a magical control of the person whereby they develop cat-like gestures and start meowing. They die a ghastly death. Rather horribly, if the guilty person ate part of the cat he or she had caused to die, he would be spared this fate.
  25. Ireland: About 300 years ago the Irish believed that if a person killed a cat 17 years of bad luck ensued. If the cat died by drowning the person who caused this would die in the same manner. If a farmer killed a cat, his cattle would die. Now for the bad bit: if a broth was made from boiled cat it would cure tuberculosis. As killing a cat brought bad luck and worse, the people who believed in this cure hired someone else to do it.
  26. France – Provence: A belief in cat spirits – the Cat-goblins of Provence – who came out at night. They had glowing eyes and people were advised to cover their eyes and pray! Then take cover in the nearest building with lights on.

That is a cross-section of cat superstition and legend. Bottom-line: people believe what they want to believe and then conveniently incorporate the cat into the belief. Unfortunately often the cat suffers. Modern day Halloween celebrations also casts the black cat as a nasty animal which can result in cat abuse today.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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