In the dark of the night, as a full moon hovers high in the sky, wide eyes dart to and fro and the legend of the witch's familiar is told once more. It is said that this most mysterious and secretive creature can see in the dark and, when stroked, its fur gives off sparks of blue, orange and silver fire! Be especially careful of the black cat, for it is bound to be a demon or evil spirit in a clever disguise. And no doubt, where there is a black cat, there is most probably a witch around, for the black cat is there as the companion, the advisor, to the sorceress. Old people, invalids and babies, beware! For while you are sleeping, the cat will soundlessly enter the room, crawl up onto your chest, and suck the breath from your body until you are lifeless!
These tales, among many others, have been told and re-told throughout the centuries. With its expressive jewel-like eyes, the cat seems to speak volumes without making a sound. It loves to roam in the darkest hours of night, the time that is known as the "witching hour," and no matter how much affection it shows it's human, it remains its own master. It also has an uncanny knack of landing on its feet when falling from a great height, giving rise to the most famous superstition of a cat having nine lives. This behavior has spawned thousands of years of superstitions and myths that surround these quiet, curious creatures.
Many of the myths and legends surrounding the cat have a kernel of truth at their foundation. From the Egyptians came the legend that a cat has nine lives. The Egyptians worshipped the cat and gifted it with nine lives, most likely for it's nimbleness and ability to land on its feet without being harmed. This ability comes from the very flexible spine of the cat and the natural ability it has to right itself when falling.
The belief that the animal can see in the dark comes from the fact that it's eyes enlarged upon the waxing of the moon and contracted as the moon waned. The cat's eyes also pick up faint rays of light and give the impression that the cat's eyes are glowing in the darkness. The sparks noted upon the stroking of the cat's fur, in fact, has solar attributes but, no doubt, was puzzling and mystifying to the ancient people.
The belief of the cat as a symbol of darkness and danger, demonical in nature, came into legend with the story of Frigga, or Freyja, the wife of Odin and her cat-drawn chariot in Norse mythology. Odin, the great god, gave Frigga power over the abode of the dead in the Ninth World, otherwise known as Hel. When the Norse and Teuton converted to Christianity, Frigga was designated a witch. Friday is taken from the name of the goddess Frigga, or Freyja, and this day became known as the day that the witch and her consorts conducted their mysterious weekly gatherings. In the dead of night, Frigga's beloved cats transformed into demonic steeds and pulled the witch's chariot across the sky. After seven years in service, it was believed that a cat altered its form to become a witch or Satan in disguise. From this legend rose the belief that it is bad luck for a black cat to cross a person's path.
The breath-sucking story is one of the most detrimental superstitions to plague the feline. Although the cat may climb upon a sleeping human, investigate it's features, perhaps sniff the human's breath, the only way it can harm the person is by curling up on the person, its fur covering the face, inadvertently suffocating the human.
Along with sucking the breath from the sick, old and very young, the cat was feared to house the spirit of the devil. This belief made it easy to look with suspicion upon the cats owned by those deemed to be practicing witchcraft in the middle ages. Witchcraft investigators claimed that each witch had a companion, a familiar, that was in reality a demon. This demon could take the form of any small animal, even a fly, but it was the cat that was usually to blame. During the time of the plague, the cat's association with witchcraft proved to be disastrous to the feline, as it was believed, being a representative of Beelzebub, the cats were to blame for the epidemics. The fact was, that rats carried the germs that caused the plagues, but it was the cat, the rats' most effective natural enemy that was slaughtered in large numbers during the epidemic. The ignorant actions of these superstitious people actually helped to spread the disease and only added another dark chapter to the mysterious history of the cat.
Cats and weather are another curious combination for the superstitious. Seafarers and cats have a long past and many stories, half-truth and half-fiction, have been passed down through the ages. A cat aboard ship is believed to ward off evil and is considered good luck. Seafarers also base their predictions of weather on the behavior of the cat. During atmospheric changes, cats are said to act strangely and may seem uneasy, even tearing at cushions or carpets, it is said during these episodes that a cat is "raising the wind." The truth of the matter is that a cat has a superior nervous system and by the condition of its fur, it can sense approaching changes in the weather before humans can. The electricity in the air causes a cat to rub their ears and lick their fur. When a cat washes herself in her usual manner, there will be fair weather, but if she sits with her tail toward the fire or licks herself above the ears, bad weather is on the way. If a cat licks it's tail, there is rain in the forecast. If you throw a cat overboard while at sea, a storm will strike.
Other cat grooming myths include the idea that when a cat washes its foot and then passes the foot over the left ear, a stranger is coming. If a cat sneezes on a wedding day, the bride will live happily ever after. If you are single and a cat washes itself and you are the first person it looks at, you may expect a marriage soon. If you put butter on a cats paws, it will not get lost.
Some myths coincide and one interesting one includes the cat and the number 13. The Devil's Dozen, the number 13 is frequently considered bad luck but some regard it as a lucky number. At London's Savoy Hotel, Kaspar, a black wooden cat is eternally assigned the 13th place at the table. Whenever a party over 12 dines at the hotel, Kaspar takes his place at the 13th place. This is done partially out of humor. But with a serious side for there are some people that are seriously afraid of sitting at the 13th place or with anything to do with the number 13. Although Kaspar is said to have been catnapped a few times, he has always returned unharmed, and none the worse for wear.
Myths concerning the cat include the fact that the cat is bad luck as well as the cat bringing good luck. If a cat runs across the stage during a play, bad fortune is sure to strike. If you kick a cat, you will have bad luck. A cat a wedding will bring good luck.
Other myths include:
- Cats can have cows milk. In fact, many cats are lactose intolerant and cows milk may lead to an upset tummy.
- A female should have one litter before she is spayed. The fact is that it's much more dangerous to allow your cat, male or female to mate or even come into season before getting them altered. The male runs a risk of developing testicular cancer, or succumbing to any of the environmental hazards he may encounter by prowling such as injuries from fighting and being struck by an automobile or contracting deadly viruses such as FIV & FeLV. Besides being at risk for one of these viruses, the female is also at risk for developing pyometra (an infection of the uterus) or breast cancer, chances for this are reduced if she never has a litter.
- Declawing does not hurt the cat. Not true. Cats naturally walk on their toes and when a cat is declawed, the last bone on her claw is removed, amputated. From this time on, walking can be very painful to them. Because of the excruciating pain of the procedure and the detrimental after-effects, not all cats can recover from the experience and often develop behavioral problems, sometimes these problems cause the animal to be turned over to a shelter where it is unlikely it will ever be adopted out because of it's behavioral problems.
- Pregnant women should not own cats. It isn't the cat that's the danger, it's the disease Toxoplasmosis. Cats are a natural host for toxoplasmosis, but it can also be contracted from eating raw or undercooked meat, poorly washed vegetable or from simply working in a garden. A pregnant woman can definitely still keep her cats, for the toxoplasmosis is found in the cat's feces, that's the reason it is found when gardening. The dirt makes a natural choice for any cat to use as a litter box. The pregnant woman should make a few modifications such as relegating the litter box to her partner or wearing gloves when handling and forego the garden activities for awhile, or, again, wear gloves. Always cook meat thoroughly and wash vegetables thoroughly as well.
Perhaps the time when all of our fears and superstitions about cats come to life is on that night of All Hallow's Eve. All around us, there are depictions of shrieking black cats, backs curled and teeth bared as they glare at us, their human nemeses, with yellow baleful eyes. And on those dark nights, those full moon nights, when the witching hour is upon us, we wonder- we remember and we may be a little afraid.
Then the sun rises and all seems right with the world. You walk down the street and there, before you, directly in your path, stands a feline cast in the darkest shade of black imaginable. You are afraid, but you look into her eyes. She takes your measure and reads your soul. You remind yourself that they are all just myths, legends, folklore, superstitions. You smile hesitantly, thinking you know the secrets hidden behind her jewel-like eyes. She swishes her tail, gives you a long knowing look, twitches her tail again and darts off in the blink of an eye. Good Luck, my friend!
About the Author
Learn more about this author, Darlene Houseman at Helium.com.