I saw a black cat earlier today. It was sitting on a wall just down the road from me. ‘Don’t let it cross your path,’ chuckled my neighbour, a woman in her early seventies. ‘It’s bad luck when a black cat crosses your path.’
‘I thought black cats brought good luck,’ I said.
‘Not in Yorkshire,’ replied my neighbour. ‘Here they bring bad luck. You want to watch out with that one.’
She was having me on, of course. The cat on the wall has crossed my path dozens of time and it’s never brought me any grief. Still, my little chat with the neighbour made me think about moggies in folklore and why, more than any other animal, we associate them with witchcraft and magic.
The ancient Egyptians considered cats sacred. They were believed to keep the sun’s fire in their eyes at night, so keeping a part of the sun-god Ra alive through the dark hours. The goddess of the cats was Bastet, who had a magnificent temple in Bubastis. Killing a cat was a crime punishable by death. Dead cats were mummified, their paws often adorned with extravagant jewellery. The rich placed cat mummies in beautifully carved sarcophagi and buried them in vast cat cemeteries.
The Egyptians exported cat mysticism to Babylon and Ancient Rome, where cats were seen as the guardians of the warmth and safety offered by the home. Cats were the only animals allowed to wander around Roman temples. Roman armies on the march often took cats along as mascots. People even sacrificed to cats at funerals and weddings, believing they could bless the dead and the newly married.
The early Christian church took a dim view of this adoration of cats, linking the animal with Satan. By the middle ages, cats were seen as familiars, infernal helpers given to witches by the devil. Talking to a cat was seen as a sign that a person indulged in forbidden magic. Many a lonely woman was condemned to burn as a witch simply because she owned a cat and protected it. Some people believed that witches could turn into cats to disguise themselves. The belief probably originated with the myth of the goddess Diana, who escaped the clutches of the dragon Typhon by turning herself into a cat. Even the Knight Templars were denounced as cat worshippers. In France black cats were burnt at the stake by the thousand, until King Louis XVIII outlawed the practice some time in the 1630s.
Many superstitions about cats, especially black ones, survive to this very day. Luckily, they see the moggie as a benevolent creature. Myneighbour might consider crossing paths with a black cat unlucky, but fishermen’s wives in Yorkshire encourage black cats to enter the house while their husband is out at sea. It means their spouse will return home safely. Actors believe that a black cat wandering around the theatre on opening night signifies a succesful run. And finding a white hair on in a black cat’s tail is believed to bring you seven years of good luck. Now where is that cat I saw on the wall…..?
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