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Cats & Witchcraft





For thousands of years, cats have been regarded as mysterious creatures with supernatural powers. These beliefs certainly did not disappear during the European witchcraze.


The Shapeshifters

A common theme in witch trial witness testimony was that of a strange cat which would enter a household at night to attack babies or smother sleepers. This theme was reinforced by confessions of witches. Some claimed to be able to shapeshift into the form of cats in order to reach their victims.

According to The Fawne, by John Marston (c. 1575-1634), "A hag whose lies shoot poison--that has become an ould witch, and is now turning into a gib-cat" (Wedeck 160). (A gib-cat is a neutered male cat.)

In one trial,

Demenge Thiriat had told a story about how he awakened, felt there was someone else in the bedroom and touched a woman's clothes. He heard voices he thought were those of Marion Arnoulx and Barbeline Mareschal, but when his wife lit a candle the room was empty and the door locked. Both suspects later confessed that they had entered the room in the form of cats, after Persin [their master] had stripped them naked and rubbed them with grease. They squeezed painfully through the shutters to enter the room, then were transformed back into their normal shape in order to put a poisoned grain in Demenge's mouth; when he awoke, Persin hastily converted them back into feline form so that they could make good their escape. This elaborate scenario failed to explain how they came to be fully clothed in the room, but no-one thought to ask about this inconvenient detail (Briggs 109).

In 1427, a woman claimed to have murdered thirty children by sucking their blood. She confessed to Bernardino of Sienna of having anointed herself, and although appearing unchanged to others, of believing herself to have transformed into a cat. With satisfaction, Bernardino reported this woman had been burned as a witch (Kieckhefer 194-195).

In 1608, George Gifford wrote in A Dialogue of witches and Witchcraft,

In good sooth, I may tell it to you as to my friend, when I go but into my closet I am afraid, for I see now and then a hare, which by my conscience giveth me is a witch or some witch's spirit, she stareth so upon me. And--There is a foule great cat sometimes in my barne which I have no liking unto" (Wedeck 160).

In the seventeenth century, Isobel Gowdie revealed the formulae by which she turned herself into a cat and back into a woman again. To change into a cat, she would say the following three times:

I shall goe intill ane catt,
With sorrow, and sych, and a blak shott;
And I sall goe in the Divellis nam,
Ay will I com hom againe.

To change back into her human form, she would say the following three times:

Catt, catt, God send thee a blak shott.
I am in a cattis liknes just now,
Bot I sal be in a womanis liknes ewin now.
Catt, catt, God send thee a blak shott (Wedeck 165).

See also the section on Lycanthropy.

The Devil as a Cat

Much folklore surrounds cats. Presumably because a cat is thought to have nine lives, witches were able to assume the shape of a cat nine times. Broth made from black cats will theoretically cure consumption. However, black cats were thought to be the Devil himself, and on Easter and Shrove Tuesday during the middle ages, black cats were routinely hunted down and burned. Cats accused of being witchs' familars were generally burned alive (Guiley 1989 53).

The testimony in many trials portrayed witches or heretics like the Waldensians and Cathari as gathering together to kiss the posterior of a black cat. The Cathari, or Cathar, were given their punning names for this reason. According to William of Paris'12th-century De Legibus, "So according to the idolatrous practice of this age Satan is believed to appear in the form of a black cat ... and to demand kisses from his adherents: One abominable kiss, under the cat's tail..." (Wedeck 101).

In the 1307-1314 trials of the Templars, members of this military religious order were charged, along with many other offenses, of venerating a cat (Kieckhefer 188).

In 1665, a Suffolk witch by the name of Abre Grinset was put on trial. The charges went back quite a few years. In 1652, Samuel Petto wrote in his A Faithful Narrative, "The Devil did appear in the form of a Pretty hansom Young Man first, and since Appeareth, to her in the form of a blackish Gray Cat or Kitling, that it sucketh of a Tett which Searches since saw in the place She mentioned" (Wedeck 162).

Cats as Familiars

[Detail from painting by Goya]By the mid- to late 1500s, cats had emerged as classic familiars. Since familiars often acted as a cipher for a witch's own anger and desires, the explicit sexual nature of a cat tied in well with the sexual desires of a witch. In 1566, during one of the very first English witch trials, Elizabeth Francis of Hatfield Peverel admitted her grandmother had

counselled her to renounce God and His word, and to give of her blood to Satan (as she termed it) which to delivered [to] her in the likeness of a white spotted cat, and taught her to feed tghe said cat with bread and milk, and she did so. Also she taught her to call it by the name of Satan, and to keep it in a basket.

When this mother Eve had given her the cat Satan, then this Elizabeth desired first of the said cat (calling it Satan) that she might be rich, and have goods, and he promised her she should, asking her what she would have, and she said 'Sheep' (for this cat spoke to her, as she confessed, in a strange hollow voice, but such as she understood by use) and this cat forthwith brought sheep into her pasture to the number of 18, black and white, which continued with her a time, but in the end did all wear away, she knew not how.

Item: when she had gotten these sheep, she desired to have one Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some wealth, and the cat did promise thae she should, but he said she must first consent that this Andrew should abuse her, and so she did.

And after, when this Andrew had thus abused her, he would not marry her, wherefore she willed Satan to waste his goods, which he forthwith did, and yet not being contented with this, she willed him to touch his body, which he forthwith did, whereof he died.

Item: that every time he did anything for her, she said that he required a drop of blood, which she gave him by pricking herself, sometime in one place and then in another, and where she pricked hereself there remained a red spot which was still to be seen (Briggs 29-30).

Cats were cherished by the witches who owned them, and anyone who harmed these familiars potentially endangered themselves. In the Lake District in England,

there lived a witch whose cat was killed by the innkeeper's dog. The old woman stood by, sad but dry-eyed (witches could not weep) while the innkeeper's servant dug a grave for the animal. The old woman asked the servant, whose name was Willan, to read some verses over the cat from a book she had, a request that sent the man into howls of laughter. He threw the small, furry body into the hole he had dug, reciting in a loud voice a silly, mocking rhyme: 'Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Here's a hole and go thou must.'

'Very well,' said the old woman bitterly. 'You will be punished, as you will see.'

And Willan was indeed punished. A day later, as he was plowing the innkeeper's field, the plowshare caught in a rock on the ground; the handles flew up into the air and pierced the young man's eyes. He was blinded for life (Lehane 114-115).

Cats in Spell-Casting

Occasionally, cats were thought to have been used as sacrificial victims in the casting of spells. In 1590-1591, John Fian and his coven were accused of trying to drown Queen Anne and her husband King James on their ocean voyage to Denmark. Apparently, the witches christened a cat, tied it to a chopped-up human body, and threw the bundle into the ocean while reciting incantations. A huge storm arose and the royal ship was forced to return to Scotland (Guiley 1989 53). In another explanation for the same storm, according to the 1591 Newes From Scotland,

John Fian, alias Cunninghame, master of the school at Saltpans, Lothian, ever nearest to the devil, at his left elbow ... chases a cat in Tranent. In which chase he was carried high above the ground, with great swiftness, and as lightly as the cat herself, over a higher dyke. Asked to what effect he chased the creature, he answered that in a conversation held at Brumhoillis, Satan commanded all that were present to take cats: like as he, for obedience to Satan, chased the said cat, to raise winds for destruction of ships and boats (Wedeck 158).

In other folklore, if a cat jumps over a dead body, the corpse will become a vampire. To stop this, the cat has to be killed. In addition, during the 17th century, a cat boiled in oil was believed to be excellent for dressing wounds. Illnesses could be tranferred to felines, which were then driven from homes. Diseases could also be created with cats. In order to cause the plague, a powder made from the body of a cat stuffed with fruit, herbs, and grain is hurled down from mountaintops (Russell 1972 240).

As a fertility charm, "a cat buried in a field will ensure a bountiful crop" (Guiley 1989 53). Conversely, to destroy crops, some accused witches were said to have filled the skin of a cat with assorted vegetable matter, put it in a spring for a period of three days, and then to dry and grind the mixture. "On a windy day they go up a mountain and scatter the powder across the land as a sacrifice to the Devil, who in return for their offering will destroy the crops" (Kieckhefer 195-196).





Cats in Witchcraft

Cats have always been associated with Witches and black magic, epecially since the middle ages . It is at this period in history from around 1400 onwards, that the Christian church in Europe began a hunting campaign against cats and witches, they were slaughtered in masses up to the point of extinction.

Many innocent men and women were accused by the church of witchcraft just for owning a cat, you could even be tortured for helping a sick or injured cat.Elderley women living alone owning cats were often reported by their neighbours of being witches, simply because they had a cat!

The aloofness and independent nature of cats and the fact that they travelled at night simply added fuel to the fire. The persecution of cats lasted for 400 years. Cats have always been regarded as mysterious creatures with supernatural powers

People believed that cats were witches familiars, a familiar is a spirit who would become a companion or servant to the witch, who would guard them and look out for them, according to superstition cats have nine lives, so witches could take the shape of their cat nine times. This became a common theme in witch trials, witnesses testified that a strange cat would enter the household at night and attack babies. It was confessed by witches (usually a forced confession) that they were able to shapeshift into the form of a cat to reach their victims.

The first trial in England for witchcrafttook place in 1566 in the reign of Elizabeth 1. Agnes Waterhouse and her daughter Joan were executed for being linked to witchcraft along with their cat, which was said to be called Satan. The last official execution took place in 1684, many people were executed during this 118 year period.

In 1427 a woman claimed to have murdered 30 children, she was said to have confessed that she transformed herself into the shape of a cat to commit these murders, of course she was reported and burned at the stake. I wonder how many of these confessions were made voluntary?

In the 17th Century Isobel Gowdies confessed to turning herself into a cat, turning round three times whilst chanting the following rhyme,

I shall goe intil ane catt,

With sorrow, and sych, and a black shott,

And I sall goe in the divellis nam,

Ay will I com hom againe. (to change back into her human form, she would say the following three times.

Catt, catt, God send thee a black shott,

I am in cattis liknes just now,

Bot I sall be in womanis liknes ewin now,

Catt,catt, God send thee a black shott.

During this period of persecution there were many tests which would prove whether you were a witch or not. One popular one was you would be thrown into a river, if you drowned and sunk to the bottom you were said to have been innocent, but if you could swim or floated on top of the water you were said to be a witch and then executed, pretty thourgh testing I'd say!


The image of witches is nearly always of and old hag or crone sat by her cauldron brewing up evil spells, or riding into the night on a broomstick with her black cat of course! nothing could be much further from the truth an old woman who practised herbal remedy's and lived in harmony with nature would now be considered a witch who's herbs and remedy's would be conceived to be evilsorcery.

During the middle ages witches were blamed for everything which went wrong, they were even blamed for the plauges which ravaged europe during the period of 1346 - 1349, witch trials were at their highest during this period.

The pope issued a decree in 1484 denouncing all cats and anyone who owned one. He said any witch which was burnt at the stake, her cat must be burnt as well. Many cats were burned in their thousands. Witch trials became an excuse to rid society of many old woman who were getting to old to work and were bginning to become a burden on society.

Witches were said to bring all kinds of misfortune on people, from ruining crop to killing cattle, it was said they could kill people by casting spells on them or placing their evil eye on them, many witches were hanged on being convicted of sending cats to attack people who offended them. If a witch had so many powers and spells available at their disposal, you would have thought they would have cast one enormous spell on all their tormentors and be rid of them once and for all!

Hungarians believed cats became witches between the ages of 7-12. It was possible to deliver the cat from the witch by making an incision in it's skin in the form of a cross.

Throughout the sixteenth ansd seventeeth century cats were subjected to appalling torments in the cause of searching out the devil, especially during lent when it became customary to throw them on the bonfires. Cats luck didn't change much either in the eighteenth century when they were cruelly used in baiting sports.

One superstition of which there is material evidence was that if a cats body was burried alongside the body of a rat within the building of the house they would keep away rats, many bodies were found in old houses of cats in a mummified state, some of these cats can still be seen in the Natural history museum london.

As is perhaps to be expected of an animal associated with the betrayer of Christ, the cats only enduring place in christianity is a negative one, because Cats had long been connected with Pagan cults, they began to fall under the suspicion as the church grew more powerful. In 962 in the French town of Metz as part of Lent hundreds of cats were burned to death. The cats were thought to be witches, a belief that may have come about due to a kind hearted official substituted a cat for a woman who was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. As the flames swept up, the cat jumped out of the bag in which it had been hidden and the citizens who were stood nearby assumed that the convicted witch had merely changed her form in order to escape, therfore all cats were suspect.


The cat playing a role in the rites of black magic.

God fearing christians believed cats were the messenger of the devil, all cats were looked on in suspicion, cat owners as well, church prosecutors looked for birthmarks shaped like cats paws, which were considered proof of being in leauge with the devil.

At the coronation of queen Elizabeth in 1558 live cats were stuffed into a wicker effigy of the pope then burned. In Picardy, Burgundy, Vosges, Alsace, and many other places cats were ritually burned on special occasions or for no occasion at all.Because cats were considered to be the devils representative, killing them was a holy duty.

On St. Johns eve all over France, well into the 19th Century, cats were burned on bonfires, bagsor baskets of live cats were suspended over the flames, whilst town people drowned out their pitiful cries by singing hymns, the ashes from the fire were thought to bring good luck, and people greedily gathered them when the coals had cooled.