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The Witchs' Cat

By Karma
(Written for Ecclasia)

The familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the
Shape of Cats, which is an argument that this beast is
dangerous to soul and body.

- Perottus

The dawn of the Middle Ages was the beginning of an era shrouded in superstition, sorcery, and the fanatical fear of both God and the Devil. It was also a time when the cat, once worshipped in earlier times as an animal of divine status, found itself in the new role of the witch’s familiar. It was during this period in cat history that the permanent link between cats and practitioners of the Craft was initially forged. However, the centuries that were dominated by the infamous Inquisition and back dropped to the screams of the tortured and the blood of the innocent were, to put it mildly, not kind to the cat.

The belief in witches (the stereotypical wart covered, pointed black hat wearing, evil powered, flying broomsticks) was strong throughout most of Europe during this time. It was also regarded as a fact that most, if not all witches were assigned by the Devil an imp to serve as a companion and magical assistant. Imps, better known as familiars, could appear in any shape or size. However, in order to avoid drawing unwanted attention in a world where witchcraft paranoia and the mere accusation of bewitchment could, and often did, result in arrest, torture, and execution, the familiar wisely took the form of a small ordinary animal such as a toad, a lizard, a raven, a hare, and so forth. However, the most popular type of familiar was the ordinary-looking housecat -- especially one with fur as black as pitch. According to one European legend, cat familiars preferred to serve female witches, while those that assisted warlocks more commonly took the form of a black dog.

How exactly the association between the cat and the female witch came to be is not known, although some historians suggest that it may be rooted in the ancient Egyptian worship of a major female deity who took the form of a cat. Others believe that the goddess Freya was responsible due to the fact that the cat was her sacred animal. When the early Christians, in their conquest of paganism, condemned Freya as a sorceress and heathen goddess of the Devil’s employ, the cat instantly became associated with the dark and terrifying world of the occult and the once forbidden practice of the Black Arts. Another possible origin of the cat-sorceress connection may be traced back to the ancient Celts who inhabited Gaul and the British Isles over two thousand years ago. Their priestly caste, the Druids, believed that all cats were actually human beings transformed into animals bye the evil powers of sorcery. Just the very sight of a sinister black cat with its yellowish-green eyes glowing eerily in the moonlight was enough to make the blood of even the bravest Druid run as cold as ice.

Each year on October 31 when the Samhain Eve sacrificial bonfires were kindled up upon the hilltops, the white robed priests would round up as many cats and kittens as they could catch, confine them in animal shaped wickerwork cages, and then cast them into the blaze that illuminated the night sky. The Druids believed that the purifying powers of fire were the only effective means of destroying a shape-shifting cat sorceress. To kill such a creature by any other method offered no guarantee that its evil spirit would not return from the dead to forever haunt its executioner or lay a powerful and unbreakable curse upon him and his people. Another influence was the ancient Roman goddess Diana who played a major role in linking the cat to the world of witchcraft. According to mythology, Diana changed places with her brother Lucifer’s cat, became impregnated, then gave birth to a daughter named Aradia, whom she later sent to earth on a mission to teach witches the secret arts of all magic, conjuration, and divination.

Familiars also possessed the shape shifting abilities and could change their physical shape at will, transforming from one animal into another. Some were unable to be seen by the human eye (except of course, by the eyes of witches), and in several old witchcraft books there can be found a mention of invisible cat familiars as well. According to many writings of the past, it was widely believed in the Middle Ages that all witches who possessed the familiar were obligated by their Satanic pact to feed their faithful imp at least once a day by pricking one of their fingers and allowing the creature to drink a bit of their warm blood. The crimson nectar of fresh human blood not only satisfied the diabolical thirst of the familiar, it was said to be its favorite food. Familiars were also known to consume human milk at times, or sometimes a combination of human milk and blood. Many lactating witches whose breasts were full with milk would shamelessly allow their familiars to drink from their nipples, according to a number of witch-trial testimonies from both Europe and New England. An old legend from Scotland and England claims that a witch’s familiar was actually a spirit or a low ranking demon, and fire was the only effective weapon that humans possessed to bring death to one, or to destroy its physical catlike body and deliver the spirit or demonic entity contained within back to the eternal flames of Hell’s fiery pit.

With the help of their cat-familiars, witches were believed to bring all manner of misfortune upon those who had offended them. One witch was said to have owned a ca-familiar that caused mortal illness simply by blowing its breath upon a child. It also prevented God-fearing Christians from reading their Bibles and was even believed to bring death to the livestock of a farmer who had managed to arouse the witch’s anger and hatred. According to The Cult of the Cat, practitioners of sorcery sometimes sacrificed their cat-familiars in order to give power to their curses and spells of black magic. Also, it they found themselves “molested by the Devil”, sorcerers often had to resort to sacrificing a live cat. This was said to be the only way to effectively banish the Devil’s unholy presence. In the summer of 1566, three years after Queen Elizabeth’s Parliament passed the second of England’s three Witchcraft acts, the first notable witch trial to be tested under the new law was held in the town of Chelmsford. The three defendents-- Elizabeth Francis, Agnes Waterhouse, and her eighteen-year-old daughter Joan-- were accused of bewitching a number of people in their village with the aid of a white-spotted cat by the name of Sathan who supposedly drank human blood, spoke in a human voice, and was able to change itself into both a toad and a black dog. According to the trial records:

First (Elizabeth Frances) learned this art of Witchcraft at the age of twelve years of her grandmother, whose name was Mother Eve of Hatfield Peverell, deceased.

Item: when she taught it to her, she counseled her to renounce God and His word, and to give of her blood to Sathan, which she delivered her in the likeness of a white spotted cat, and taught her to feed the said cat with bread and milk. And she did so. Also she (Mother Eve) taught her to call it by the name of Sathan and to keep it in a basket.

When this Mother Eve had given her the cat Sathan, then this Elizabeth desired first of the said cat that she might be rich and to 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 for with brought sheep into her pasture to the number of eighteen, black and white, which continued with her for 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 she should, but that he said she must first consent that this Andrew should abuse her, and so she did. And after, when this Andrew should abuse her, he would not marry her. Wherefore she willed Sathan 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 Sathan 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 herself remained a red spot, which was still to be seen.

Item: when this Andrew was dead, she believing herself with child, willed Sathan to destroy it. And he bade her take a certain herb and drink it, which she did, and destroyed the child forthwith.

Item: when she desired another husband, he promised her another, naming this Francis whom she now hath, but said he is not so rich as the other, willing her to consent unto that Francis in fornication, which she did. And thereof conceived a daughter that was born within a quarter of a year after they were married. And after they were married, they lived not so quietly as she desired, being stirred to much unquietness and moved to swearing and cursing. Wherefore she willed Sathan her cat to kill the child, being about the age of half a year old, and he did so. And when she yet found not the quietness she desired, she willed it to lay a lameness in the leg of this Francis, her husband. And it did in this manner: it came in the morning to this Francis’ shoe, lying in it like a toad: and when he perceived it, putting on his shoe, and had touched it with his food, he being suddenly amazed asked of her what it was. And she bade him kill it, and he was forthwith taken with a lameness whereof he cannot be healed. After all this, when she had kept this cat by the space of fifteen or sixteen years, and as some say being wary of it, she came to one Mother Waterhouse, her neighbor, when she was going to the oven, and desired her to give her a cake, and she would give her a thing that she should be the better for so long as she lived. And this Mother Waterhouse gave her cake, whereupon she brought her this cat in her apron, and taught her as she was instructed before by her grandmother Eve, telling her that she must call him Sathan, and give him of her blood and bread and milk as before.

Agnes Waterhouse was found guilty of practicing witchcraft and using her sorcery and newly acquired cat-familiar to bring about the deaths of several people as well as neighbors’ cattle and geese. She was hanged on July 29, 1566. (According to The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, she might have been the first woman to be executed for practicing witchcraft in “modern” England.) Her daughter Joan was found not guilty. Elizabeth Francis, who was found guilty, was sentenced to one year in the jailhouse and four appearances in the pillory. However, three years later she was once again brought before the court in the second mass trial at Chelmsford--this time on charges of using black magic to bring ill health, and ultimately death, to a woman named Alice Poole. She pleaded innocent but was convicted and hanged.

Throughout much of Europe in the Dark Ages, untold numbers of innocent cats were believed to be witches familiars or even witches in disguise, and they were routinely hunted down by the men who made their living as witch-finders. These poor cats often met their death by being burned alive in bonfires, especially on Shrove Tuesday and Easter--two days of the year when cat-burning rituals took place in great numbers. The feast of Saint John and the first Sunday in Lent were also times when the burning of live cats was common. This barbaric practice not only served to help Christians celebrate their religious feast days, but to drive away all evil forces from the town or village as well. Under the auspices of the Church, cats would often be suspended over a blazing fire and roasted alive, flayed, or nailed to a cross to simulate the crucification of Jesus Christ. They might also be tossed from the belfry of a church, and even placed inside casks and then mercilessly stabbed to death by the sharp swords of bloodthirsty horsemen. The cries of agonizing pain that issued forth from the tortured and dying cats were said to be the “language of the devils within the body of the Holy Father.” The bits and pieces of bones and the ashes that remained after a cat-burning bonfire had concluded would usually be salvaged by the most superstitious of villagers to be used as charms for bringing good luck as well as for keeping the Devil and his unholy demons at bay.

The cat killing madness continued its sadistic reign for many centuries; and as the feline population reached the point of near extinction, the fate of the cat was beginning to look quite grim,. However, a strange twist of fate avenged the cat and eventually put an end to its widespread massacre in the name of Christianity: As the number of cats in Europe became greatly reduced, the rat population was growing to epidemic proportions. This, of course, resulted in the spread of the bubonic plague, known at the time as the Black Death. After it was discovered that rats were to blame for the hellish plague that ravaged Europe and Asia, the senseless killing of the cat finally ceased (despite much protest from the Church), and the cat became highly valued as the human race’s only ally against the dreaded disease which, at the time, was without a cure.

The relationship between the witch and the familiar continues on into the present day and has definitely come a long way since the Middle Ages. The cat-familiars of contemporary witches, Wiccans, and pagans are far from being the demonic imps that they were portrayed to be in olden times. Their purpose is not to perform evil deeds. They do not drink the blood and milk of their human counterparts in exchange for their supernatural services, and they are neither born in the fires of Hell nor given to a witch by the Prince of Darkness in exchange for her soul. Rather, they are a witch’s animal friend, faithful companion, coven mascot, and magical inspiration. To some witches they are even regarded as a member of the family or believed to be the reincarnation of a past-life relative, friend or lover. The term familiar is sometimes used to describe any pet owned by a witch. But the truth of the matter is that witches and their familiars have a special connection that extends beyond what is regarded as the average owner and pet relationship. They share between them what can be described as a loving, spiritual, magical, and psychic bond. It is said that such a bond remains strong in the afterlife and may even transcend different incarnations. Cats may not possess the supernatural power to literally shape-shift or master invisibility, but without a doubt they are graceful creatures, loyal and loving, with a mystique that is uniquely their own. The cat shall always be regarded as the most popular familiar of those who follow the path of the Old Religion.


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This page last updated October 9, 2009