Cat Mythology Cats as Familiars

Cat Mythology
Cats as Familiars

Cats as familiars have a long and dark history in western mythology. These cats 
often found their way into literature. One of the most famous was Grimalkin, the witches' 
cat from Shakespeare's MacBeth. Cats as witch's companions are still a part of the 
popular symbology associated with the modern holiday of Halloween.

What is a familiar? In western mythology a familiar was an animal companion 
given by the devil to a witch in order to help her with her evil magic. These familiars 
would have names just like any other pet. In the middle ages, if you were caught talking 
to your pet (like a lot of people do) you were considered to be consorting with the devil in 
speaking to w obviously your familiar. The Middle Ages were a very dark and violent 
period in Europe. Their alternative name "Dark Ages" should come as no surprise. 
Learning was confined to clergy and nobility. The general population was therefore quite 
ignorant and prone to superstition. 

      A familiar could be any type of animal such as a toad, dog or cat. Black cats 
became the traditionally cited companion and hence cats became particularly reviled. In 
1233 Pope Gregory IX wrote in his Papal Bull "Vox in Rama" actually denounced black 
cats as satanic. The Popes' proclamation began the persecution of cats all over Europe. 
Thousands and thousands of cats were burned alive in the attempt to drive out the evil 
Satan. Wild tales of these cats shape shifting into other creatures were common among 
the populace and justified these terrible acts in their minds. When the power of the 
Knights Templar was broken, some of the knights were said to have confessed to 
worshipping cats. As these so-called confessions were given under extreme torture, they 
would seem to speak more to the attitudes of their inquisitors than to anything the 
Templars themselves had actually done.

Why were black cats in particular singled out? There are a couple of legends that 
might explain this singular revulsion. In the first legend, so the story goes, is that cats 
who were born at the end of blackberry season were called blackberry cats. According to 
this legend, the end of blackberry season coincides with the expulsion of Satan from 
heaven. When he fell he landed on a blackberry bush which he defiled with his urine and 
spit. Thus, blackberry cats, especially black ones are associated with the devil in this tale.  
The second tale comes from Italy. The Italian witches, called streghe, tell a legend about 
Diana who is goddess of the moon and also called "Queen of the Witches". Her brother 
who was known in ancient times as Apollo, is renamed Lucifer (Light Bearer) in this tale. 
Supposedly, Diana wanted to have a son by Lucifer, so she attempted to trick him by 
taking the shape of a black cat.

As you can see, these stories were pretty wild, and yet the people of those dark 
times took them as the gospel truth. The irony of this superstitious hysteria against cats 
was that by destroying the cats the Europeans nearly destroyed themselves. Cats had been 
used for centuries to keep down the population of vermin, especially mice and rats. When 
their predators were destroyed, the vermin population exploded. They ate large amounts 
of grain that had been meant for human consumption resulting in widespread hunger 
among the people.  Even worse than the hunger was that the enormous numbers of rats 
became disease carriers. The worst of these diseases was the bubonic plague, otherwise 
known as the Black Death. The Plagues of the Middle Ages are terrible instance of the 
repercussions that can befall humans due to misplaced zeal.

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