Witches and Cats
The Witch Craze
In Western culture, the cat has had a long association with black magic and witchcraft. Why? Well, it all seems to have begun in the late Middle Ages, when the persecution of 'witches' took hold in Europe with a firm grip until the 18th Century.
Thou shall not suffer a witch to live~ Exodus 22:18
The witch hunts of course, were born of supersition and ignorance, fueled by the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Inquisition and continuing to increase in various parts of Europe under the Reformation and beyond. For hundreds of years witch burnings came and went in great waves of fanaticism and hysteria. Many thousands of women who were deemed to be engaging in supernatural, satanic activies, were rounded up, tried in unjust courts and executed.
Some sources posit that in pagan mythology, a human could be turned into a cat as a punishment for wicked transgressions.As the fear of witches grew and expanded throughout Europe, so too did the superstitions, absurdities and folklores surrounding the women who were targeted, many of whom would have owned cats. (Elderly spinsters and their feline companions were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft.)
It seems plausible that this, together with the cat's already prominent place in ancient and pagan mythology and its natural aura of slinky, stealthy mystery, created a new kind of cat meme.
However it arose, at some point. a belief emerged that cats were the familiars (familiar spirit) of witches - facilitators of evil who, among other satanic powers, could change shape and form. Black cats in particular suffered a bad rap, representing the forces of darkness.There was even a belief that cats and witches were interchangeable or that the source of the evil came directly from the cat. Although the witch craze eventually died out, the cat/witch association remained, by now embedded in our popular cultural motifs.
- The Cat Organ
Legend has it the heinous musical device, the Cat Organ or Katzenklavier, was made up of a row of captive cats with their outstretched tails pressed underneath a keyboard. As a key was pressed, the connected cat cried in pain. Each cat would be place
One of the earliest recorded events linking witches and cats occured in Northern France, in the City of Metz, where the locals whipped themselves into an anti-witch frenzy and mercilessly burned dozens of cats in a single day known as Cat Wednesday, having decided they were probably witches incognito. Cat burnings were not uncommon in some parts of Europe, as a kind of public amusement but the people of Metz excelled at it.
Better cats than women but such episodes were indicative of the kind of fear, ignorance and mass panic and brutality that marked the whole of the witch craze. It's hard to understand how such a seeming a seemingly wilfullly backward mindset could have been carried over through several centuries. And yet....
Although it is true, as mentioned earlier, that the original witch craze did eventually fizzle out, largely due to the efforts of the secular intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who shamed the Church into change, in more recent times a new form of hysterical witch hunt has resurfaced in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, driven by a peculiarly dangerous blend of imported fundamentalist Christianity and locally grown superstition. Tragically, it illustrates that, just as conditions were in the Dark Ages, ignorance and religious fanaticism are still a lethal mix.