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Superstition And Witchcraft

A very remarkable peculiarity of the domestic cat, and possibly one that
has had much to do with the ill favour with which it has been regarded,
especially in the Middle Ages, is the extraordinary property which its
fur possesses of yielding electric sparks when hand-rubbed or by other
friction, the black in a larger degree than any other colour, even the
rapid motion of a fast retreating cat through rough, tangled underwood
having been known to produce a luminous effect. In frosty weather it is
the more noticeable, the coldness of the weather apparently giving
intensity and brilliancy, which to the ignorant would certainly be
attributed to the interference of the spiritual or superhuman. To
sensitive natures and nervous temperaments the very contact with the fur
of the black cat will often produce a startling thrill or absolutely an
electric shock. That carefully observant naturalist, Gilbert White,
speaking of the frost of 1785, notes: "During those two Siberian days my
parlour cat was so electric, that had a person stroked her, and been
properly insulated, the shock might have been given to a whole circle of

Possibly from this lively fiery sparkling tendency, combined with its
noiseless motion and stealthy habits, our ancestors were led in the
happily bygone superstitious days to regard the unconscious animal as a
"familiar" of Satan or some other evil spirit, which generally appeared
in the form of a black cat; hence witches were said to have a black cat
as their "familiar," or could at will change themselves into the form of
a black cat with eyes of fire. Shakespeare says, "the cat with eyne of
burning coal," and in Middleton's Witch, Act III., Hecate says:

I will but 'noint, and then I'll mount.
(A Spirit like a cat descends. Voice above.)
There's one come down to fetch his dues.
(Later on the Voice calls.) Hark! hark! the cat sings a brave treble in
her own language.
(Then HECATE.) Now I go, now I fly,
Malkin, my sweet spirit, and I, etc.

NOTE.--Almost the same words are sung in the music to Macbeth.

"One of the frauds of witchcraft," says Timbs, "is the witch pretending
to transform herself into a certain animal, the favourite and most usual
transformation being a cat; hence cats were tormented by the ignorant

"Rutterkin was a famous cat, a cat who was 'cater'-cousin to the
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of
Grimalkin, and first cat in the caterie of an old woman who was tried
for bewitching a daughter of the Countess of Rutland in the beginning of
the sixteenth century. The monodis connects him with cats of great
renown in the annals of witchcraft, a science whereto they have been
allied as poor old women, one of whom, it appears, on the authority of
an old pamphlet entitled 'Newes from Scotland,' etc., printed in the
year 1591, 'confessed that she took a cat and christened it, etc., and
that in the night following, the said cat was conveyed into the middest
of the sea by all these witches sayling in their Riddles, or Cives, and
so left the said cat right before the towne of Leith in Scotland. This
done, there did arise such a tempest at sea as a greater hath not been
seen, etc. Againe it is confessed that the said christened cat was the
cause of the kinges majestie's shippe, at his coming forthe of Denmarke,
had a contrarie winde to the rest of the shippes then being in his
companie, which thing was most straunge and true, as the kinges majestie
acknowledgeth, for when the rest of the shippes had a fair and good
winde, then was the winde contrairie, and altogether against his
majestie,' etc."[C]

[C] Hone's "Every-day Book," vol. i.

"In some parts black cats are said to bring good luck, and in
Scarborough (Henderson's 'Folk-lore of the Northern Counties'). A few
years ago, sailors' wives were in the habit of keeping one, thinking
thereby to ensure the safety of their husbands at sea. This,
consequently, gave black cats such a value that no one else could keep
them, as they were nearly always stolen. There are various proverbs
which attach equal importance to this lucky animal, as, for example:

Whenever the cat o' the house is black,
The lasses o' lovers will have no lack.

"And again:

Kiss the black cat,
An' 'twill make ye fat;
Kiss the white ane,
'Twill make ye lean.

"In Scotland there is a children's rhyme upon the purring of the cat:

Dirdum drum,
Three threads and a thrum;
Thrum gray, thrum gray!

"In Devonshire and Wiltshire it is believed that a May cat--or, in other
words, a cat born in the month of May--will never catch any rats or
mice, but, contrary to the wont of cats, will bring into the house
snakes, and slow-worms, and other disagreeable reptiles. In
Huntingdonshire it is a common saying that 'a May kitten makes a dirty
cat.' If a cat should leap over a corpse, it is said to portend
misfortune. Gough, in his 'Sepulchral Monuments,' says that in Orkney,
during the time the corpse remains in the house, all the cats are locked
up, and the looking-glasses covered over. In Devonshire a superstition
prevails that a cat will not remain in a house with an unburied corpse;
and stories are often told how, on the death of one of the inmates of a
house, the cat has suddenly made its disappearance, and not returned
again until after the funeral. The sneezing of the cat, says Brand
('Popular Antiquities,' 1849, vol. iii., p. 187), appears to have been
considered as a lucky omen to a bride who was to be married on the
succeeding day.

"'In Cornwall,' says Hunt, 'those little gatherings which come on
children's eyelids, locally called "whilks," and also "warts," are cured
by passing the tail of a black cat nine times over the place. If a ram
cat, the cure is more certain. In Ireland it is considered highly

[D] Mr. T. F. Thiselton Dyer's "English Folk-lore."

Sailors are very superstitious as regards cats. If a black cat comes on
board, it is a presage of disaster; if the ship's cat is more lively
than ordinary, it is a sign of wind; but if the cat is accidentally
drowned, then there is consternation, which does not wear off until the
vessel is safe in harbour.

Lady Wilde, in her "Irish Legends," gives a cat story quite of the fairy
type, and well in keeping with many of witchcraft and sorcery. "One
dark, cold night, as an old woman was spinning, there came three taps at
her door, and not until after the last did she open it, when a pleading
voice said: 'Let me in, let me in,' and a handsome black cat, with a
white breast, and two white kittens, entered. The old woman spun on, and
the cats purred loudly, till the mother puss warned her that it was very
late, that they wanted some milk, and that the fairies wanted her room
that night to dance and sup in. The milk was given, the cats thanked
her, and said they would not forget her kindness; but, ere they vanished
up the chimney, they left her a great silver coin, and the fairies had
their ball untroubled by the old woman's presence, for the pussy's
warning was a gentle hint."

If a kitten comes to a house in the morning, it is lucky; if in the
evening, it portends evil of some kind, unless it stays to prevent it.

A cat's hair is said to be indigestible, and if one is swallowed death
will ensue (Northern).

Milton, in his "Astrologaster," p. 48, tells us: "That when the cat
washes her face over her eares we shall have great store of raine."

Lord Westmoreland, in a poem "To a cat bore me company in confinement,"

----Scratch but thine ear,
Then boldly tell what weather's drawing near.

The cat sneezing appears to be a lucky omen to a bride.

It was a vulgar notion that cats, when hungry, would eat coals; and even
to this day, in some parts there is a doubt about it. In "The Tamer
Tamed, or, Woman's Pride," Izamo says to Moroso, "I'd learn to eat coals
with a hungry cat"; and in "Boduca," the first daughter says, "They are
cowards; eat coals like compelled cats."

"The crying of cats, ospreys, ravens, or other birds upon the tops of
houses in the night time are observed by the vulgar to presignify death
to the sick."--Brand.

There is also a superstition that cats will suck the breath of infants.
Nothing could be more ridiculous. The formation of the cat's mouth is
not well adapted for such action, the under jaw being shorter than the
upper, which is one reason why it laps fluids instead of drinking.
Cats will creep into cradles, but for no other purpose than that of
sleep, the bed and clothes being warm and soft, and of course
comfortable; yet instead of doing harm, they help to keep the child's
temperature more even in cold weather. Of course, if they lie on the
infant, it is a different matter.

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