On Cats and Superstition

On Cats and Superstition

by Jessica Parr

Friday, October 17, 2014

Halloween brings to mind, witches, ghosts, vampires, and cats; black cats, to be specific. Many are aware of the old superstition about black cats bringing bad luck. Anyone who has driven past a shelter or SPCA this time of year has probably seen entreaties involving black cats, or even announcements of moratoriums on their adoption during the Halloween season. In western culture particularly, cats have been seen as one form of familiar for witches. During the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, odd marks on the bodies of the accused were seen as evidence that animal familiars suckled blood from the witches. The trial records reveal several instances where it was claimed that the accused suckled by a cat. [1] To be fair, cats were not the only vilified. During the witch hysteria in Massachusetts, two dogs were among the beings accused of bewitchment. Both were put to death. Animals could be deemed familiars, and used as legal evidence to convict a suspected witch. [2] Cats were not always considered evil or bad luck. Sailors often welcomed cats aboard a ship as a token of good luck. However, in the western European culture from which the English settlers in New England came, black cats were seen as symbols of evil since medieval times. Bonfires were held to burn cats seen as “satanic.” Prior to the 1800s in France, celebrations of Midsummer’s Day (known as Feast of St. John) involved the gathering of cats into a net, and hoisting them into a bonfire that was built for the occasion. It was seen as a form of entertainment. Eighteenth-century French Catholic priest Jean Meslier described these horrific rituals: “Among other things, these mischievous, brutal madmen make [the cats] cruelly suffer harsh and violent tortures in their entertainments…they burn them alive to have the pleasure of seeing the violent movements and hearing the frightening cries that these poor unfortunate beasts are forced to make because of the harshness and violence of the tortures.”[3] Although the Feast of Saint-Jean was a Catholic festival, this practice of feline bonfires was neither strictly Catholic, nor French. A 1661 celebration of the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne included the construction of a wicker man, which was filled with cats and lowered into a bonfire. [4] A similar ritual was depicted in the 1973 blockbuster, The Wickerman, about a police sergeant who is sent to rural Scotland in search of a missing girl. The stigma of cats as demonic, coupled with the popular belief that animals lacked a soul allowed these “festivities” to occur without regard by most for the horrific treatment of the animals involved. Today, the burning of live animals has been thankfully outlawed as barbaric. For some, the superstition and negative connotations of black cats remains. [1] Davon McMahon, “Suckling Familiars and Unnatural Protrusions: the Witches Mark in the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692,” 1-7. URL: http://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/33198/2/McMahon-Suckling%20Fa... [2] Bernard Rosenthal, Records of the Salem Witch Hunt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 293. [3] Jean Meslier, Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009): pp. 562–563 [4] Weird History. URL: http://historyweird.com/ Click here to request more information about the History and Humanities Programs at UNH Manchester.

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