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.