Monday, February 07, 2011

The Cat


There is a reason why I talk about the cat now. It's about this time in late February that the cat had a really terrible fate all around the medieval Europe. They were killed in thousands, and the history about these cat-killings is gruesome. In Denmark we put the cat in a barrel, and the village guys beat he barrel, until the cat was dead. In articles about Fastelavn/Shrove Tide in this blog are descriptions about various customs.

Today children beat the cat out of the barrel, and a cat-king and a cat-queen are the winners, but inside the barrel is now candy and the picture or drawing of a cat. The children won' t even put their beloved toy-cat in a barrel. We are friendlier to animals today. They have become members of the family, and there is an immense grief in the family when they lose their beloved cat or dog. 

Cornish Rex
History in Short
The domestic cat, felis domestica, was introduced to Europe probably in Iron Age, but outside Europe it was known long before. The ancient Egyptians had cats already 3.000 years B.C.  They considered the cat a sacred animal,  and balmed cats were found from that period. The Egyptians had a goddess, Bats, with a cat's head and always accompanied by cats. In the ancient Egypt it was a mortal sin to kill a cat. If the favorite cat of the house died, the owner would shave off his eybrows as a sign of grief.

Cats from a flock living in a fishing harbour.
In the classic era of the Mediterranean the moon goddess Artemis (in Rome Diana) was the protector of cats. She was always followed by cats, and people believed she could transform into a cat.. Artemis was closely connected to another demon of the dark, Hekate, who like Artemis was worshipped as a moon goddess. She was also able to transform into a cat, and she also had cats in her entourage, when she was out on her wild hunts in moonlit nights, and the ancient witches and magicians worshipped Hekate as their goddess. Hekate was a magician and a witch herself, and they prayed to her when they were not sure, if their witchcraft was strong enough.
In the ancient Greece and Rome the cat was considered an animal in collusion with all kinds of evil and magic. According to sources from the early Middle Ages the cats of the ancient north were connected to the love goddess Freja. They were pulling her wagon, while she was out driving. So - the cat was in pre-Christian times partly a sacred animal in Scandinavia and Egypt - and partly an animal belonging to the powers of the dark in Greece and Rome.

During the Middle Ages, when the cat became common in Europe, an idea spread that some cats - especially the black cats - were transformed witches, or they were controlled by witches. This belief that the cat was an animal of the witches is seen in European witch-processes and in the stories about witches, which were told from mouth to mouth since the Middle Ages and up to our time.

You're not black. Please cross the road.

Is Superstition still Alive?
We are still a little superstitious today. Or  not? Some of us? If a cat crosses the road in front of you it brings bad luck - especially if it's a black cat. There is actually some evidence that traffic accidents were caused by a superstitious driver, who suddenly put the brakes on when he saw a black cat crossing the road. In a report in the Danish morning-paper B.T. from 28. February 1963 is read:
"a black cat wanted to cross the road in front of N.N, Ølstrup at Holstebro. He put on the brakes violently, and the car hit a lamp standard, which broke. The car then drove into a house, where the outer wall tumbled into the living room. Neither cat nor people were injured." 

A white cat is a rare sight.
The black cat is a bad omen in most of Europe and also in the U.S. Some Americans say however that it brings good luck, if a black cat crosses your road from the right to the left. A white cat brings luck no matter where it comes from. In England it means good luck if a black cat crosses your road, but it means bad luck to meet a white cat. In connection to an English wedding ceremony it is important that a black cat crosses the road in front of the bride and groom. This brings good luck to their marriage. It is said that this is often arranged. (Don't kill the messenger!)

So - when it came to superstition - the black cat was as popular in England as it was unpopular in many other places in Europe - but only if you met it in the road! You can break the bad omen, if you spit three times where the cat came running. Or cross your fingers!
So you think you're hiding?
If you bring a cat into a new home, the good luck is secured for this house. People imagined that the cat would be some kind of magnet and suck up the evil into itself and let it be there. If you steal a cat you steal the happiness of the home. People also had the idea that it was good to have the cat in the bed at night - the cat would suck up diseases, especially rheumatism.
The Dangerous Hunter

No matter if you are superstitious or not, the cat is a lovely family member, a beautiful gracious creature with the same sharp senses as the big wild cats. Out little sweet cat, who sits there so peacefully in the sun at the terasse is no less than a mini-tiger with the brilliant physical and mental skills of a tiger. But the cat is however - in spite of the close relationship to the big predators - the most charming and friendly little animal, who comes up to us trusting, rubbing itself against our leg and spinning in delight.
A very affectionate little cat

Karel Appel: Cat, Herning Museum
The cat was always a favorite and very used model for painters and writers. Kipling and Eliot described the cat's character perfectly. Mark Twain, who loved cats, once said that the cat is the only creature, who will not accept to be chained as a slave.

Source: Iørn Pio, Håndbog om hverdagens magi, Politikens forlag 1973. 
Arne Eklund og Maj-Britt Ericson: Fakta om katten
photo cats: grethe bachmann


Wanda..... said...

Cats do have a mysterious look about them, I've known a few of these interesting facts, but many are new to me, especially the massive cat-killings in medieval Europe.

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda! Yes, medieval people were so concerned about driving the evil out of everything suspicious. The evil was inside the cats, the witches, no matter whom they suspected. It was dangerous to be a wise woman at that time - and a little black cat!

Joan said...

I've never heard about the cat killings. How strange Grethe. I grew up believing black cats are lucky but my children used to tell me I was wrong. TV maybe taught them this.
I loved your message on my blog. It is indeed amazing how we can communicate around the world instantly. I have never been so aware of seasonal change all over the world. Kia ora Grethe.

Thyra said...

Hej Joan! Or maybe your children found it on the net. Children today are being filled with informations, I sometimes wonder how they can hold it in their little heads! When I see relatively small children on TV I'm so amazed to see how much they know and to hear their rich vocabulary. I hope the next generation is so clever that they can help our dear blue planet more than we have done.
Grethe ´)