When witches go riding,
and black cats are seen,
the moon laughs and whispers,
etis near Halloween.
Religious bigotry has often utilized the trick of changing other peoples heroes and gods, into devils and villains.
And so it was that the cat once protected and worshiped by the ancient Egyptians, became despised and persecuted from before the 10th until the 18th century.
A very early record of the linking together of witches and cats concerns the ceremony of Cat Wednesday which took place in the city of Metz in Northern France. This involved hundreds of cats being burnt alive in the belief that they were witches in disguise.
Papal might was brought down upon witches and cats in the 13th century when horrible acts of atrocity were carried out on humans and felines. Black cats in particular were believed to be agents of the devil, especially if owned by an elderly woman.
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.
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.
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. In another explanation for the same storm, according to the 1591 Newes From Scotland,
The Celts believed that cats had once been human and had been changed into felines as punishment for their wicked ways. Cats were sometimes tied up with silver ropes because it was believed that these creatures had the ability to protect hallowed treasures. Later, Catholic culture mixed with Celtic beliefs and the cat became thought to be the witch's familiar.
In the 16th and 17th centuries tens of thousands of witches and cats were put to death in Germany, 75,000 in France and 30,000 in Great Britain. Cats were often tortured, along with their unfortunate humans, before being burnt, or buried alive.
A 17th century English serving wench Joan Flower, along with her two daughters, was hung for practicing witchcraft. Joan and her daughters were employed by the Earl of Rutland and were accused of cursing his family. His sons had died, and his wife had become barren, and someone had to take the blame for it. It was said that the daughters had stolen some of the Earl's possessions and given them to their mother who rubbed them on the fur of her cat uttering curses.
Nothing is recorded about the fate of the cat, but it is unlikely that it escaped with its life.
Witches and cats have had a long association with Halloween. Because cats are nocturnal creatures and do their roaming at night, they were seen as the servants of witches and out to harm those that the witches had cursed. It was also believed by some that witches had the supernatural power to change into cats and so more easily carry out their wicked deeds and escape detection.
Mythical stories recount great gatherings of witches when the seasons changed, on the eve of May Day and on the eve of October 31.
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