Cats in Folklore

This appeared in the North Clare Local last month. 

Cats like sleeping a lot (via Wikimedia Commons)

Cats like sleeping a lot (via Wikimedia Commons)

“In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this”- Terry Pratchett.

Cats are creatures that inspire strong emotions in people. Some love their independence and charm. Others find them unnerving and sinister. They’ve long been associated with the occult and witchcraft, and unsurprisingly, there’s a huge variety of folklore beliefs associated with the humble kitty.

Religion has been both kind and harsh to cats. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Bastet took the form of cat, and they were worshipped because of this. As she liked to hop into cats’ bodies from time to time, killing a cat could mean killing her, and it was punishable by death. Likewise, in ancient Thailand cats were seen a sacred guardians of the temple.

No-one knows what's supposed to happen in this situation (via Wikimedia Commons)

No-one knows what’s supposed to happen in this situation (via Wikimedia Commons)

A curious Chinese legend holds that cats were once rulers of the world, but they were so lazy they got humans to do all the work for them. Eventually they became so lazy they stopped speaking. So that’s why, nowadays, cats can only miaow and tend to wear somewhat superior expressions whenever a human serves them.

While Eastern culture has always been- and still continues to be- very fond of moggies, things are different in the west. Originally valued for their ruthless efficiency as hunters, the Norse goddess Freya’s chariot was pulled by two grey cats. Scandinavian farmers left milk out for them.

Aww! (via Wikimedia Commons)

Aww! (via Wikimedia Commons)

A medieval Welsh king, Hweyl Dda, passed a law stating it was illegal to kill a cat, and famously, the Islamic prophet Muhammad cut off a part of his robe rather than disturb his sleeping pet.

However, as Christianity spread throughout the world, anything with pagan roots was either assimilated or frowned upon. A 13th century Pope, Gregory, declared that cats were in league with Satan, and they became known as evil animals. During the Middle Ages, many cats were killed, even burnt alive. Ironically, during one of the most fertile cat-killing sprees in Europe, the Black Death was rampant. Although people did not realise it at the time, the disease was spread by rodents, and the cull in the population of cats led to a boom in the rat population.

How can anyone accuse cats of witchcraft? All they do is sleep! (via Wikimedia Commons)

How can anyone accuse cats of witchcraft? All they do is sleep! (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although cats are still associated with witches, the image softened through the centuries. Folktales like Puss In Boots and Dick Whittington described cats as resourceful, clever and loyal. In France, Louis XIII finally banned the persecution of the animals. However some odd beliefs do stick to cats.

Number one of these is probably the old wives’ tale about cats suffocating babies. Clearly it’s not wise to let an animal of any kind sleep with an infant, but there has only been one reported case of this, in 1791, in Plymouth, England. However, this was around the time the people of Hartlepool hanged a monkey for being a French spy, so forgive me for a little scepticism. In fact, cats are generally placid with children, even seeming to recognise the odd pull of the tail is nothing more than young curiosity.

There’s a very ancient belief that a cat could use magical powers to seep the vitality from a child into itself, which undoubtedly comes from their association with witches.

See? Barely awake (via Wikimedia Commons)

See? Barely awake (via Wikimedia Commons)

Cats have long been thought to foretell the weather, and are a particular friend of sailors. A cat aboard ship is good luck (probably due to the rats again) as long as you never speak the word “cat” at sea. A cat washing its ears means rain is on the way; many Asian cultures dip cats into water to encourage rain. What the cat thinks of this is not recorded sadly. And if a cat sits with its back on the fire, you’d be advised to wrap up, cold weather is on the way.

What of the colour clash? In Europe, black cats are seen as lucky, and white unlucky. However in America, the reverse is true, and due to the US’s cultural influence that belief is seeping in across the Atlantic.

Many British sailors believed that keeping a black cat at home meant they would return safely from sea, and once they became so in demand many couldn’t afford them. In Scotland, a black cat on your doorstop meant prosperity, and in the South of France black cats were called ‘matagots’ and were thought to be especially lucky.

Lovely little kittens (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lovely little kittens (via Wikimedia Commons)

Possibly my favourite cat superstition comes from the Netherlands. When conducting important financial or personal conversations, it was vital to send the curious cats out of the room. Cats, being gossips, would think nothing of repeating what they’d heard around the neighbourhood.

While many Irish beliefs focus on the selfish nature of the cat (“It’s for its own good the cat purrs”), to kill one was to bring seventeen years of bad luck.

More next month about cats and their association with witches.

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