Cat superstitions still exist big time. They are considered to be a part of history but this is simply untrue. Nowadays superstitions surrounding the cat are tied up with a lack of knowledge of the cat and, frankly, sometimes distrust and dislike of the cat, just as was the case in medieval Europe. Education erases ignorance and ignorance breeds superstition.
Of course, things have moved on and so they should because the greatest era of cat superstitions was hundreds of years ago – the Middle Ages. One slight problem is this. Superstitions are by nature rather vague and unsubstantiated. They get lost in translation and transference. It is easy to modify a superstition slightly when writing about it and who checks? For that reason, I have been cautious in my research and I also quote the source of all these superstitions (see notes at base of page – there are links to them).
- Why Are There Cat Superstitions?
- Fertility Associations
- Nocturnal Powers
- Good and Bad Luck
- Magical Powers
- Burial Rituals
There are a lot of them. Dog superstitions? No, not really. The cat’s character, appearance and skills tap into the rather feeble human mind. A definition first of the word ‘superstition’: An irrational belief about the relationship between a certain action or behavior and its consequence. 1
So, superstition is irrational. It is not founded in fact, although there just might, on rare occasions, be an element of underlying good sense or truth from which the superstition grows and matures. Superstitions are, I argue, born out of our anxiety. We seek certainty and less chaos.
Why the cat? Well, a sizable number of people fear the cat. This is a good start to a superstition about the cat. Felids are more prone to being feared than the dog, a pack animal who looks up to us. The cat is independent and can be disobedient. The cat has fantastic senses that enable it to sense, for example, when a person is dying as was the case in a hospice (Oscar (born 2005) — a therapy cat in a Rhode Island nursing home).
The cat can see in the dark and its mirror like eyes reflect light back giving a ghostly appearance. The domestic cat is crepuscular (hunting at dawn and dusk) – more darkness and mystery. And the domestic cat has nine lives; it survives when it might not. How can it do that? These factors make us admire, worship, fear and build superstitions around it.
Egyptians (in 332 – 30 BC) worshiped the deified cat with the intention of being granted the gift of life and fertility2. Under early Christianity the cat was not worshiped but persecuted through ritual sacrifice by fire to symbolise fertility and purity. Perhaps the cat was selected for these sacrifices because it is a very effective pro-creator. In fact, the ancient Egyptians also brutalised the domestic cat. It is a myth that the era of the ancient Egyptians was a utopian time for domestic cats. It certainly was not. Other forms of cat superstition associated with fertility were:
- burying cats beneath newly sown crops to encourage better crops
- beating cats to death to symbolise the threshing of grain
The concept of crop fertility is linked to control of the weather and the unfortunate cat has been roped in to play a role there too – see below (magical powers).
Bricking up a cat inside the cavity walls of a house is meant to protect against rodents (vermin frighteners on a spiritual level). This is a cruel superstition. People also put them under floors and in roof spaces3. Sometimes the cat is positioned in a hunting pose4. Another explanation for this practice is to scare off witches’ familiars. This practice is not uncommon, apparently. It may still occur but is thought to have died out in the late 18th century5.
The cat (or dog) that bites the leg of the Fool in a pack of early tarot cards warns of the powers of darkness6.
There are a multitude of cat superstitions concerning the bringing of good luck, bad luck and the black cat, all of which continue to this day. Different countries, different communities have different superstitions. I built a page on it some time ago: Black Cats. There are many more than mentioned on this linked page. There is an interesting story which emanated from Kenya’s parliamentary debating chamber in which the speaker refers to a cat in the chamber and superstitions. It may interest you.
These cat superstitions are patently very irrational. Black cats were singled out for the same reason they were singled out in medieval times as witches familiars – they are black and creatures of darkness in league with the devil, their eyes glowing against this background. But cat superstitions also concern other coat types, e.g. thetortoiseshell could imbue “second sight” to a person if they lived with the cat early childhood.
A classic black cat superstition is the provision of good luck when it crosses your path signifying that evil has passed without harm. The converse if also sometimes believed (in the USA for example) that its presence can bring harm. This is very prejudiced against the cat! Here are just a few more:
- A person who kicks a cat will get rheumatism in that leg.
- A black cat that lies on a sick person’s bed brings death.
- Conversely by stroking a black cat health and wealth is ensured.
- Cats can suck the breath from babies.
The Japanese beckoning cat is a well-known symbol of good luck (see Japanese Bobtail cat for more on this). The Japanese Bobtail has also been adopted by sailors to protect from storms as its pom-pom tail resembles a chrysanthemum, the emblem of the royal family7.
Cats are associated with the weather! Tradition dictates that cats can affect the weather. Perhaps this is a mirror image of the idea that cats (and other animals) can sense the arrival of bad weather (or even earthquakes). As mentioned, this is linked to crop utility. In Cambodia a cat is taken around villages and sprinkled with water to seek the favour of the god Indira to send rain8. This is at 2010.
If a cat puts its paw behind its ear rain is on the way9. This sounds crazy but as mentioned cat superstitions are sometimes generally based on something that makes sense. In this case the change in air pressure created by an oncoming storm may affect the sensitive ears of cats. Another cat-weather-predictor is when the cat purrs and rubs its nose for good weather. Yawning is a sign of rain. I think this is creating a sage out of a cat.
The Egyptians buried mummified cats by the hundreds of thousands. Unscrupulous priests bred kittens for them to be killed perhaps by breaking their neck and then mummified to be sold as offerings to the gods. This was ancient Egypt. And 80,000 wildcats, the precursor to the domestic cat, were killed as offerings. Their remains were found on the banks of the Nile.
In Thailand it was believed that when a person (men only?) of spiritual maturity died his soul would inhabit a cat. When the cat died the person’s soul would go to heaven. This accounted for the practice of leaving a live cat in the tomb of the Thai royal family. The cat could leave the tomb through a hole in the roof. When it did so, the belief was that the soul of the deceased had inhabited the cat10.
It is fair to say that education suppresses superstitions. The more you understand cats and the world generally including science the less likely you are to be superstitious. Superstition is born out of ignorance. Without wishing to sound racist, the African continent is a place where you will find lots of superstition about cats. And indeed, other animals and situations. I can remember a story of a young cat who had sadly got his head stuck in a can. This was somewhere in Africa. People stood around frightened to do something about it because they believed that the cat was an evil spirit and if they got involved, they would be affected. An example of how irrational superstitions regarding the cat have a negative impact upon cat welfare as was the case in the Middle Ages.
RELATED: Africa, Black Cats and Superstition
Margaret M Howard, ‘Dried Cats’, Man, no 252, November 1951, pp149-151.Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, 1987, Batsford, London