Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Lore of the Cat

Last week I wrote a post about the superstitions surrounding dogs. It was surprising to find out how feared our canine friends can be, especially if they're black. The color black, like being left-handed, seems to come in for a lot of wariness on the part of cultures all over the world. Hmmm...I think I need to do a post on left-handedness too. But not today. Today, the topic is of the feline world.

My husband says that my cats are my "familiars," from the old-time belief that witches and cats connived in magic and evil doings. Larry is joking of course, but it's a fact that the cats prefer me even though he is the one that feeds them. I might be the cats' favorite, but I don't have any magical powers, evil or otherwise!

Now we all know that black cats are bad news. Don't let one cross your path if you can help it, right? Well, not exactly. It all depends on where you live. In the British Isles and in Japan, a black cat is considered the bringer of good fortune in most regions. If you're a single lady, owning a black cat might bring you a plethora of suitors, for example. But in southern Virginia, some people would make an X on their forehead if a black cat crossed their path. It was important for the sign to be made three times before the cat had completed crossed the road.

In Western culture, the black cat is no friend to the superstitious. The Pilgrims associated black cats with witches and witchcraft and woe betide the person who owned one. On the early frontier, the blood from a black cat's ear or tail was thought to cure St. Anthony's Fire and the shingles, and according to John Caruso in The Appalachian Frontier: The Surge Westward, "a black cat with whole ears and tail was as rare as money."

But enough about black cats, except to say that if you are considering adopting a cat from the shelter, please take a black one. Apparently black dogs and cats have a hard time getting adopted, probably because of all the superstitions attached to them. What a shame. Because you know,  lot of people think a black cat brings wealth!

What else do people believe about cats? Apparently cats can predict the weather. If a cat is washing its ears frequently, it's a sign of rain, and wind is on the way if they're clawing at your curtains. And sleeping with all four paws tucked underneath? Rain is on the way. My cat Charlie can predict a thunderstorm for sure. You will find her under a cabinet or chair when a storm is brewing and she will not be budged from her safe spot. Sailors believed that cats could start storms from the magic they stored in their tails, and their shipboard cats (black ones were lucky!) were assured of being well-fed and care for.

In England in the Middle Ages, people believed that putting a cat inside the walls of a house under construction would ward off mice; some even put a cat and rat in the wall together. Pretty horrible, really--but there are examples of these poor creatures in a museum in England.

Cats are protected from harm by a lot of superstitions, however. The Irish believed that to harm a cat brought 17 years bad luck, and in the Appalachians hurting a cat meant you sold your soul to the Devil. Drowning a cat or kicking a cat would be a bad idea too. Drowning one meant you would die of drowning yourself, and kicking one would cause arthritis or other leg problems.

We have a strange creature here in the mountains called the "Wampus Cat." According to legend, this critter is half dog, half cat, and can run either erect or on all fours. It comes out just before dawn, and some believe it can steal children and pets. Dave Tabler has a good article about this creature on his Appalachian History blog.

There is also the Tailypo, a creepy folktale that is one of my favorites at Halloween. In this story, a man cuts the tail off a creature and cooks it and eats it, or tosses it to his dogs--versions vary. Later in the night the creature comes looking for its tail and the man sics his dogs on it. One by one, the dogs do not return as the creature comes back again and again, finally taking the old man too. But, they say, it did get back its taily-po.

This post could go on and on and on, because cats seem to be a favorite of the folklore-makers. So let's end today with this tale from England, which can also be found in American folktale versions, and then, go pet your cat!

The King of the Cats: A Folktale from Britain (from More English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs)

ONE winter's evening the sexton's wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn't come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, 'Who's Tommy Tildrum?' in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.

'Why, what's the matter?' said his wife, 'and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?'

'Oh, I've had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr Fordyce's grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat's Miaou.'

'Miaou!' said Old Tom in answer.

'Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?'

'Now, how can I tell?' said the sexton's wife.

'Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, Miaou -- '

'Miaou!' said Old Tom again.

'Yes, just like that!' said the sexton; 'and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly; because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like -- but look at our Tom, how he's looking at me. You'd think he knew all I was saying.'

'Go on, go on,' said his wife; 'never mind Old Tom.'

'Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, Miaou --'

'Miaou!' said Old Tom again.

'Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr Fordyce's grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he's looking at me just like they did.'

'Go on, go on,' said his wife; 'never mind Old Tom.'

'Where was I? Oh, they stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn't carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me -- yes, I tell 'ee, said to me, with a squeaky voice, "Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum's dead," and that's why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum's dead if I don't know who Tom Tildrum is?'

'Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!' screamed his wife.

And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, 'What -- old Tim dead! then I'm the King o' the Cats!' and rushed up the chimney and was nevermore seen.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Mac n' Janet said...

That's a good one. I'm a firm cat lover and would never believe evil of them, but they're definitely different creatures.

Michelle said...

I agree with you about adopting black cats. They are often looked over, or mistreated.

annie said...

great post, I loved the story at the end, had not heard that one.

Jenny said...

We've had two black dogs & one black cat. I've never been afraid of a dog because of it's color, which makes no sense at all to me.

My son chose our cat when he was about 4 yrs old. He wanted a black cat with yellow eyes. A friend had kittens to give away & luckily there was one black one with yellow eyes! She was very small & dainty her whole life being part Siamese. But she was also very snooty & the best mouser ever.

Something odd about her I wonder if you've ever heard before? Every fall she would disappear for at least two or three weeks up to a few months. I always worried about her around Halloween, that someone would harass her, so I locked her up about a week before & a week after if I could catch her. I mentioned to our vet about her disappearing every year & she said she had lots of customers who told her their cats did the same thing! Is that not strange? I always imagined a cat convention or vacation somewhere in deep in the Ozarks.

Granny Sue said...

Jenny, I have not heard that but it does remind me of a couple folktales. One is Wait Til Emmet Comes, which you can read here http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/2010/07/wait_until_emmet_comes.html and also of a far creepier one, about a woman who takes off her skin and becomes a black cat, who then joins with other cats and goes about stealing people's souls. Her husband finally puts an end to it, although it was terrible for him to do because he loved her deeply.

There is also the Jack tale, Sop Doll, Also pretty spooky, which you can read here: http://www.ibiblio.org/bawdy/folklore/sopdoll2.html

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