Losing a Witch named Wisdom
If necrophilia is the erotic attraction to corpses, pedophilia the psychosexual disorder of having sex or fantasies of having sex with children who have not yet reached puberty and Ailurophilia is the love of cats … what sort of “philia” then describes the perverse need to harm animals? What do we call these evolved naked primates who entertain the Descartian delusion that animals are inanimate (i.e. devoid of soul) and put on planet Earth for man’s exploitation and dominion?
And is my reaction simply to be dismissed as anthropomorphic sentimentality? Is my reasoning flawed? Why is it, I ask myself, that every year hundreds of black cats disappear right across the world (for example the tens of dozens of cases of missing household and street cats reported missing in Italian cities), either because they are believed to be evil, or simply because some believe that their bones possess certain magical powers and should be used in Satanic rituals and sacrifices.
In March 1995, cat owners in England were advised to keep their pets indoors following a spate of disappearances. Over 100 presumed cat thefts were reported during the previous twelve months. Some suggest that the cats were being used in witchcraft rituals but, according to various animal charities, it is far more likely that they had been stolen for their pelts, which could be sold abroad.
A cat fur trade apparently still exists in Britain and supplies foreign markets, especially Germany where cat fur is used for garments. The cat fur trade in Europe is on the increase following a ban on pet fur trading in the USA. While many of the pelts come from factory farms in the Far East, it is possible that stolen pets and rounded up strays are used to meet a growing demand for pet fur Solid colours (black, grey, white) of cat fur are indistinguishable from rabbit fur. Tabby and tortoise shell are considered especially attractive. In 1984 it was reported that a lady in Chelmsford, England was seen wearing a ¾ coat of tabby fur. The pattern of a classical domestic cat is unmistakable.
And who is guilty of Ailurophilia? Well I can’t make a statement for every cat lover, but I dare say that a lot of cat-lovers are Witches. As a matter of fact, cats are still the favourite pets of Witches the world over, and perhaps, for this very reason are still regarded with fear and superstition.
Rudyard Kipling described the cat’s legendary independence thus, “I am not a friend, and I am not a servant. I am the Cat who walks by himself, and I wish to come into your cave.”
The cat did not simply submit himself to prehistoric man’s protection and care, as did other now domesticated animals. No, he came to a compromise with cave woman; he would catch all rodents (rats and mice) in return for being allowed to live in the granary, all the while remaining a lithe and wild hunter, an aloof spirit and a mysterious creature whose eyes turned into eerie slits and commanded respect with his other-worldly yet regal expression.
Are Pagans and Witches so enamoured with their cats because after every analysis, we realise that the cat is the most Pagan member of our household with its clairvoyance, its ritualistic bathing, the sacrificial offerings and the posing, its mysterious comings and goings in the dead of night, it’s all knowing gaze, its loud and eerie mating cry?
In ancient Egypt the male cat symbolized the Sun-God Ra and the female cat represented Mother Mut or Bast. As a matter of fact the ancient Egyptians believed that eclipses were the result of a great battle between Ra and Apep the Python; the titanic struggle between the powers of light and the powers of darkness.
Bast was venerated for Her mystery and sensuality. The sistrum, according to Plutarch, represents the head of a female cat and symbolised the Moon. Shaking it kept away evil during eclipses.
Herodotus said Festivals to Bast at Bubastis were the most lavish he had seen. Sacred cats at the sanctuary were carefully tended by priests, day and night. Their behaviour was interpreted for predictions. Upon dying cats were mummified and buried near the sanctuary of the Goddess.
Interesting to note too, that unfaithful women were sewn into a sack with a cat and flung into the Nile. Diodorus Siculus wrote that a war nearly started during the rule of Ptolemy when a Roman citizen accidentally killed a cat and an angry crowd rushed his house.
How did the cat find its way to Europe? Via Greece it is said. The Egyptians considered them sacred and would therefore not sell them, but strays climed onto pirate ships raiding the Egyptian coast and hitched a ride to the European Continent from whence they spread. Etruscan vase paintings show that they reached Northern Italy by 500 BC eventually to be regarded as a symbol of liberty by the Romans. Tiberius Gracchus built a temple to the Goddess Liberty and some Roman standards bore a cat on them.
The English Nunn’s rule of 1205 decreed: “Ye shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat.” At one point in history, cat and otter furs became exceedingly popular, later to be protected by legislation. Cats fetched a pretty penny and from this fact came the saying “all your labour is not worth a cat”. In the legal codes of the Welsh King Hywal Dda (Howel the Great), anyone caught killing a cat was required to pay compensation. In Saxony anyone who killed an adult cat would be fined 50 bushels of corn.
Some Greeks were attracted to the Egyptian religion. Timocles in 380 BC spoke about the violation of cat shrines, which means that some folk in Greece also worshipped cats. At Samos a bronze cat of Egyptian origin was dedicated to Hera. But the cat became attached to Venus, Aphrodite, Artemis and Diana, Isis, Demeter and Hecate. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis the Gods fled from the Titans by taking animal disguises. Diana transformed herself into a cat.
Long after the Pagan Goddesses were forgotten in Europe, cats still retained the influence of their Goddesses: love, death, disease, fertility and phases of the Moon. Though no longer considering themselves as pagan, peasants continued believing in the supernatural powers of cats and continued some of the barbaric customs to ensure successful future harvest. After harvests a sacrifice was made to ensure that seeds would give rise to plants again the following season. This was the Corn Spirit. The body of a cat would be dismembered and buried in the field to ensure successful harvest or cast in a river as a rain charm.
Customs varied from place to place, but a cat was often sacrificed or dressed up to be sacrificed. In Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough we read about the omens that would utter “they’re going to kill the cat” when last corn was cut. In France a cat was placed under the last bush and killed by blows. The Sunday it would be roasted and eaten at the Harvest
At Briancon in Dauphiné when reaping commenced a cat would be decorated with ribbons and ears of corn. If a reaper cut himself, the cat would be made to lick the wound. The cat would also serve for divination: It the cat was fat, the harvest would be good. If the cat was lean, the harvest would be poor.
In Russia, Poland and Bohemia it was believed that to bury a cat alive in the fields would make the fields fertile and ensure a good crop. In Transylvania and Bohemia black cats were killed and buried in the fields on Christmas Eve and at the sowing of the first seed, to prevent evil spirits from harming the crops. It was also customary to bury black cats under fruit trees to stimulate their growth and to prevent weeds from growing.
In Scotland it was believe that cats had to be kept indoors until after a funeral. Should they enter the wake room where the corpse was laid out, or leap over it, then the first person to meet it would be blinded. In Eastern Europe it was believed that a cat that had crossed a corpse before burial could turn the next person he met into a vampire. In Scotland a cat was passed over the body of a patient suffering from delirious fever, to exorcise the illness. The cat was therefore considered to be an effective sin-eater. In Medieval times Scots burned cats to obtain second sight and Francis Barrett’s “The Magnus or Celestial Intelligence” claims that there are some collyriums “which make us see images of spirits in the air, made from the gall of a man and the eyes of black cat”.
Jews were aware that their Egyptian neighbours revered the cat and regarded this as idolatrous. As a matter of fact cats are not mentioned once in the Bible. Babylonians cried “Hilka Bescha” or “be off, accursed one” when they saw a cat, so Jews in exile there adopted the same superstitions and bias towards felines. In Isaiah Lillith is described as a screeching owl (a lamia, a vampire) which like the cat, hunts at night. It was generally believed that Lillith seized newborn babies and then sucked their blood. Cats were believed to “suck one’s breath” during sleep and were a danger for sleeping babies.
Pomponious Mela in his book about the nine priestesses of the Isle of Sark (in the British Sea) tells us that the virgin priestesses could raise seas and winds, shape-shift into animals, heal sickness and foretell the future. They had been chased from Rhodes by Apollo, foretelling a great flood, and then found sanctuary at Sark. It was believed that cats, like Witches, could affect the weather.
The followers of Freya were principally soothsayer women and seers. Cats were among the animal spirits which would transport them on supernatural journeys whilst in trance. They wore gloves of white cat skin with the fur on the inside. Freya appeared every night in a chariot drawn by twenty cats; Holda led her virgins astride tom-cats on their nocturnal excursions. Freya and the cat were symbols of blessed love and marriage.
“Whenever the cat of the house is black,
The lasses loves will have no lack”.
The gift of a black cat as a wedding present brought luck, as mice were associated with the souls of the dead and depleted one’s pantry. It was said: “Don’t ever cross a road what a black cat cross’t ain’t nothing but sorrow, ‘tain’t nothing but loss.”
Christians saw the cat as a symbol of laziness and lust. In Italy and Germany, all casts seen wondering on roof-tops during the month of February were believed to be witches and were shot or drowned. When an old woman kept a cat and she was accused of being a witch, her cat was accused of being her familiar. He was either the devil’s emissary or old Harry Nick in person, the devil in disguise.
It was believed that the cat would scratch the witch and lick her blood, thereby making a pact between her and Satan. Witches had extra teats from which a familiar could suckle, especially kittens that were weaned too early. This belief gained credence giving rise to folklore and rhyme.
“Old Judy the Witch of Burwell
A wicked old crone
Who lived all alone
In a hut beside the reeds
With a high crowned hat
And a black tom-cat,
Whose looks were as black as her deeds”.
According to stories the cat played a role at the Sabbats. The cat was either the Horned One, the Lord of the Dance, or his cat. A fifteenth century writer, La Frank, wrote that woman would attend assemblies where a crowd of women would gaze upon the Devil who would be in the form of a he-cat or a he-goat. She said, “they kissed his arse as a sign of obedience”. The first record of the Devil disguised as a cat was from a Witch trial in Guernsey in 1563.
It is interesting to note that when cats gathered they were believed to be witches. In Hungary it was believed that cats from the age of 7 to 12 were Witches and in Lancashire, a dead cat is till called a “Mally Dixon”, a corruption of the Latin word, Maledictum.
Cats first reached Scotland when the Egyptian army was defeated and General Galsthelos fled with his wife Scota (daughter of the Pharaoh) to settle at Compostella in a Kingdom called Brigantum. Scota took her cats with her. Their descendant Fergus I took cats with him when he became ruler of a New Northern Kingdom. In memory of his ancestors, he called its inhabitants Scotti, who later defected North into Pictish territory. That land was called Scotland.
With that wealth of information and some bizarre facts that make one’s blood run cold, I return to Wisdom who was my familiar for over 7 years. Killed by a paint-ball-gun, old enough to be a Witch, he lived to become the embodiment of his very name.
May your crossing be fair and may you curl up safely at the Goddess’ feet. And should you ever decide to return to Earth, my dearest, dearest pet … the door is always open!
We love you and miss you Wisdom!
The Everlasting Cat by Mildred Kirk – 1977
Rudyard Kipling – Just So Stories – 1955
The Golden Bough – Sir James Frazer – 1912
The Gods of the Egyptians – Sir Ernest Budge – 1904