Cats and Witchcraft

The association with cats and witchcraft began with the church’s persecution of religious groups, some of whom worshipped the cat. In the 12th C persecution spread to splinter groups of the church itself, such as the Cathars who the church accused of worshipping the Devil in the form of a cat. This led to stories of Satan appearing at Black Masses as a cat.

Witch trials started in the 13th C. People believed that witches had the ability to turn themselves into an animal, usually a hare or a cat, to transport themselves to a sabbat or midnight meeting presided over by the Devil. The idea of familiar spirits soon developed. These were imps or minor demons who took the form of small animals from a hedgehog to a toad. A familiar acted as an intermediary for a witch carrying out orders so that she would not have to be at the scene of an alleged crime.

Most of these familiars would have a name but the very natural act of giving a loved pet a name and occasionally talking to such a pet was already an implication that one was involved in 'witchcraft'.

A witch feeding her familiars - 2 toads and a cat.

Some may recall that one of the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth calls her cat Grimalkin, (Gri meaning 'grey'; and malkin meaning 'cat' but also meaning promiscuous or eccentric woman). An actual case from a 17th C witch trial concerns a cat called Pyewackett. According to Matthew Hopkins, the Witch Finder General, this was a name 'no mortal could invent'.

Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins interrogates 2 witches.

Out of all the possible familiars (cats, dogs, toads, bats, and even horses) cats got the worst publicity. Pope Gregory IX denounced black cats as Satanic in his 1233 Papal Bull 'Vox in Rama' and this launched the extermination of many cats, and subsequently thousands of cats were burned alive in the cause of searching out the devil. Tales of these witches' cats turning into mice, dogs, bats and all sorts of creatures flourished during the Middle Ages.

Another instance of the oppression of cats was in the downfall of the Knights Templar. Under torture, the Knights Templar were compelled to confess to heresy, renouncing Christ and, in some instances, the worship of cats. It is debatable whether these confessions tell us more about the practices of the Knights Templar, or rather, whether they speak more loudly of the popular conceptions held by Church officials of the time.

A possible explanation of why black cats are often associated with witches and the Devil is that "blackberry" cats are often born at the end of the blackberry season. According to legend this is the time of the year in which Satan was thrown out of heaven, landing on a blackberry bush which he then defiled with his urine and spittle.

Much irony has come from these historical instances.

First of all we find conflicting versions of black cat superstitions. Some groups (especially Southern European countries) tend to associate black cats with bad luck. Others, especially here in Great Britain, attribute good luck to the same animal.

Secondly we find that the mass-burnings of cats led to a very unhappy consequence - the proliferation of rats, which not only decimated food resources, but acted as the carriers of disease, the culmination of which were the Great Plagues of the Medieval and Early Modern periods.

Finally, it is interesting how some people have re-interpreted the concept of the familiar and feel that their pets are indeed helpers of a sort. This is coupled with a growing interest in the occult and black magic and what was once the Order of the Knights Templar.


WebMaster David Fell

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