By Irwin J. Weill. Weird Tales, vol. 36, no. 01.
Weird Tales, Inc. derivative work: AdamBMorgan
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
In the popular human imagination, cats and witches go together. More specifically, black cats and witches go together. But why, and what (if any) truth lies behind this belief? I asked She of Little Talent to hit the books and find out.
The demonization of cats
Humans have associated cats with witches for centuries. Back in 1233, Pope Gregory IX issued something called the Vox in Rama, a document that condemned the practice of devil worship and specifically mentioned a black cat as part of a heretic’s initiation rites. The devil described in this document even has a lower body that is “hairy like a cat” (Engels, p. 185). Cats, and especially black cats, came to be associated with evil.
With that background, it is no surprise that during the witch hunts of the Middle Ages and later, cats (and other animals) were often thought to be witches’ “familiars.” A familiar was supposedly a gift given to the witch by the devil. The familiar would serve only the particular witch it belonged to and got nourishment from sucking the witch’s blood. It helped the witch with casting spells and did various magical errands. A witch’s familiar could also bring sickness and death to both animals and people (Guiley, p. 121).
According to European folklore, cats were not just witches’ familiars; they themselves could be witches. As the story goes, a 20-year-old cat becomes a witch and a 100-year-old-witch turns back into a cat (Cat Catalog, p. 32).
Cats and modern witches
But what do actual witches have to say about this? Well, old SoLT went back to 1976, to something Marion Weinstein, then a practicing witch (now deceased), wrote about cats. According to Weinstein, cats’ talents can in fact be useful to witches. (She was careful to distinguish between her practice of witchcraft, in which nature is revered, and “black magic,” in which animals are sometimes killed to bring harm to others.) Cats are not afraid of spirits, Weinstein wrote, and can communicate telepathically with their witches about the natural forces the felines are in contact with. She pointed out that familiars are not trained pets. Instead, they are creatures of independent spirit who freely take on the role of companion and helper to the witch.
On cats turning into witches and vice versa, Weinstein maintained that these stories probably arose from experiences people had in dark places with limited visibility. You’d see a witch (or someone you believed to be a witch) briefly, then see a cat briefly, and imagine that one turned into the other.
And in case you’re wondering about black cats being witches’ favorites, Weinstein wrote that this is just another myth. Torties, brindles, and dark gray cats are also popular choices.
Still, we don’t expect cats of other colors to take the black cat’s place among witchy Halloween decorations anytime soon. And then there's always Salem, the black cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I include the following video for your amusement:
And for more Halloween-themed cat content, see "Vampires and Corpses and Cats--Oh My!"
Engels, Donald. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. London: Routledge, 1999.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. 2005. Facts on File, New York.
Weinstein, Marion. “The Witch’s Cat,” in Cat Catalog: The Ultimate Cat Book, edited by Julie Fireman, 39-41. New York: Workman, 1976.