Sunday, June 5, 2022

Feline Folklore

By Day She Made Herself Into a Cat,
by Arthur Rackham.
I'm always slightly amazed when I meet people who say they don't like
cats. I suppose being a cat owner does make me a little biased though. Despite the widespread belief that they're uncaring and aloof, cats are, given a chance, some of the sweetest creatures out there. Even a snarling stray can mellow into a purring lap cat given time.
As a species, they have a mythology and folklore all of their own. They've been deified and demonised in equal measures. There are also many ghostly cats out there, a topic I've written about before and feline cryptids. I will introduce you to the folklore side of things in this post, choosing five areas to focus on. I'm leaving mythology and cryptids for a post sometime in the future, so keep your eyes peeled for those posts. 

  • People often assume that only humans were affected by the witchhunts, but animals suffered alongside them. Cats were one of the animals considered to be a witches' familiar. They were thought to be inhuman spirits or demons in mortal form. In some places it was believed they had the same powers as a witch, enabling them to carry out their owners' evil deeds in their stead. It was pretty standard for them to be killed alongside those accused of witchcraft. The tragic thing is that both the human and animal victims were innocent. The real monsters were those instigating the witchhunts. It was a brutal and unfair period. When they weren't working with witches, it was thought they were working with the Devil himself, ferrying around souls and spreading pestilence. This led to the belief that they caused the bubonic plague, and even more cats were slaughtered in an attempt to stop it. The rat population grew out of control with fewer cats around, allowing the epidemic to spread more easily throughout Europe.
  • Even when considered lucky, it still sucked to be a cat in medieval Europe. For some, cats were the guardians of the farmland, keeping evil spirits and pests away from the crops. But only if buried in the orchards or fields. They were also considered to guard the home against the same problems. It's common for mummified cats to be found in the walls of older houses, though it's not really known if they were walled in dead or alive. This unpleasant tradition was common during the 15th to 18th centuries. Some of these cats have been known to cause bad luck if messed with. I covered the story of one such cat and the chaos caused by upsetting it in one of my previous posts. If the cat was black it would bring even more luck, a complete turnaround from when they were considered servants of the Devil. Cats were luckier at sea than on land. Sailors liked to have a cat on board, not just because having something cute around boosted morale or that they kept pests away, but because it was considered lucky to have a cat on the ship. These days people prefer their lucky cats to be among the living. In some countries, black cats are considered bad luck, but they're considered the opposite in England. If a black cat crosses your path it's a good omen, and one old superstition suggests giving a black cat to the Bride on their wedding day for good luck. While I wouldn't recommend giving any animal as a gift, this tradition lives on with black cats often featured on wedding cards or as ornaments intended to be a keepsake. Not married? Not a problem. A black cat wandering into your home is said to bring in suitors looking for a partner. 
  • It's well known that cats were worshipped in Ancient Egypt, but most people don't realise how loved they truly were. If a household's cat died, the whole family would go into mourning. It was traditional for family members to shave off their eyebrows as a sign of their grief and loss. The cats were often mummified and given proper burials with their own little grave goods. The killing of a cat was considered a terrible crime, whether accidental or not, and the sentence for such a crime was death. Hypocritically, there is historical evidence of cats being bred for the sole purpose of being sacrificed to the very Goddess that made them sacred. They would be killed, mummified and then given as offerings at temples or buried in tombs. Mummified cats are so prolific that in 1890 around 180,000 of them were actioned off in Liverpool for use as fertiliser. Awful as that is, I suppose we should be glad they didn't get eaten, like so many of their human counterparts.
  • In the UK it's believed that a cat's behaviour can predict the weather. Who needs the weather report when you can just watch a cat? A cat clawing your furniture or getting the zoomies means that windy weather is coming. In Wales it was believed you could tell that it would rain if your cat was washing its ears a lot, and in other areas a cat sneezing predicted the same thing. Sailors believed that if the ship's cat fell overboard, a storm would soon follow that would sink the boat. Having a ship's cat that was black was said to guarantee fair weather. In Europe, you could keep your sea-going family members safe at sea and ensure that they'll have good weather by taking care of a black cat.
  • Most cats won't ruin your Christmas unless they get at the turkey or knock over the tree, but one cat joyfully makes the festive season stressful: The Yule Cat. The oldest written records of this beast come from the 19th century, but it's believed that the Yule Cat has been around for much longer, possibly even tracing its history back to the Dark Ages. Hailing from Iceland, it's also known as Jólakötturinn and is one of the country's many terrifying Christmas spirits. Oddly, this festive feline is a little more interested in fashion than your average moggy, specifically whether or not you got new clothes before Christmas Eve. This massive moggy towers over houses and stalks the countryside, looking for people to bother. It'll leave you be if you've got a new set of clothes. If you haven't then it will pounce, and devour you. Maybe think twice about complaining next time your Granny buys you socks for Christmas?

Well, dear readers, I think we can all agree that cats have got a bit of a raw deal over the years. Sadly, many people still think ill of cats thanks to the darker parts of folklore and superstition prevailing in some way or another. Some people will even go out of their way to cause them harm. I shouldn't have to say this, but it's worth noting that HARMING A CAT OF ANY COLOUR WON'T BRING YOU GOOD LUCK, GOOD HEALTH OR WEALTH. Many superstitions or elements of folklore have their roots in a much darker time when people didn't have the knowledge we have now.

Do you have any favourite pieces of folklore relating to cats that I haven't included? Any stories you want to share about cats and the paranormal? Leave them in the comments below, or tag me in a tweet!


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  3. This was a really interesting read! I'm a massive cat person but I learnt so much reading this; I never knew quite how loved cats were in Egypt (I can't believe they shaved their eyebrows off!). Thank you so much for sharing!