How cats are associated with vampires
If the folklore is correct, this cat is creating a vampire.
Photo by Jeanne Menj.
(Père Lachaise Uploaded by Paris 17)
[CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.orglicenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Quick: What animal do you think of when you think of vampires? If you are anything like She of Little Talent (i.e., an American who’s gotten most of her vampire knowledge from Bram Stoker and various black-and-white films), you probably said “bat.” But if you happen to be Slavic, or possibly Greek, or if you have a more thorough education in old European folklore, you might have said “cat.” That’s because cats are the animal most closely associated with vampires in the Slavic traditions that gave us vampire stories. Those traditions don’t mention vampire bats at all (Guiley, p. 287).
Merriam-Webster tells us that a vampire is “a bloodsucking ghost or reanimated body of a dead person believed to come from the grave and wander about by night sucking the blood of persons asleep and causing their death.” Cats are associated with them in two main ways:
- A cat can turn a corpse into a vampire.
- A vampire can shape-shift into a cat.
Cats creating vampires
Basically, to prevent the creation of vampires, you should keep cats away from corpses and graves, because cats are the animal most likely to turn a fresh corpse into an undead monster. This belief is seen in several regions, each with slight differences in the specifics:
- In general, an animal jumping over an unburied corpse can cause the corpse to become a vampire. Dogs, donkeys, birds, and horses can all cause vampirism, but in Greece cats get most of the blame.
- Also in Greece, a cat jumping over a person’s grave can create a vampire.
- In Serbian folklore, a vampire is created when an animal jumps or a bird flies over a corpse or empty grave.
- In Romanian folklore, a person would become a vampire if their mother had a black cat cross her path (presumably while pregnant with the unfortunate future vampire).
Besides creating vampires, cats themselves can actually become vampires, at least according to Romani folklore. (The same tradition holds that dogs can become vampires, as can plants and agricultural tools. We eagerly await the forthcoming movie Night of the Vampire Hoe.)
Vampires becoming cats
Vampires are shifty, so much so that they can shift themselves into a totally different form.
- In Slavic folklore, vampires most often shape-shift into cats. They can also become dogs, sheep, wolves, snakes, birds, and horses. They do not become bats.
- Medieval European Jews had a version of Lilith with vampiric tendencies. She could shape-shift into a cat (or sometimes another animal) and deceive her victims with her irresistible charm before she strangled them.
- In the folklore of Tlaxcala, Mexico, there is a shape-shifting vampire witch called tlahuelpuchi. Tlahuelpuchis can take the form of a cat, though they prefer to appear as turkeys. They can also be donkeys, dogs, ducks, buzzards, ants, crows, or fleas. The tlahuelpuchi is active in the deepest night, draining the blood from infants.
Why did cats come to be associated with vampires? We think it was all wrapped up with the bad reputation cats got in the medieval period, when they were largely seen as bringers of evil and associates of the devil. An unfortunate episode for cats and cat lovers, with repercussions that carry into the modern world. But all that is a story for another day.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Facts on File, 2005.
Wikipedia on vampires: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampire_folklore_by_region