20 August, 2007

The Witch’s Cat

The witch’s cat is as much a part of her traditional paraphernalia as her pointy hat and broomstick. Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg wouldn’t be quite the same character without her formidable tom-cat Greebo:

Under the table, Greebo sat and washed himself. Occasionally he burped. Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.
--Witches Abroad

The logic of the association is clear enough. Cats can move silently, they often hunt by night, and a well-camouflaged tabby or black cat can give the impression of having materialised out of nowhere, all characteristics that fit easily with the supernatural. Superstitions about cats abound to this day, which would fit with them having once been closely associated with magic and the supernatural. The association with deities is very old; in Ancient Egypt, several goddesses were associated with cats and depicted as cats or with cat heads (see the Pitt Rivers Museum website for examples). But how far back does the association between cats and witches go?

Medieval Europe

In The Secret Middle Ages, Malcolm Jones cites a record from 1324 of an Irish witch, Alice Kyteler, whose demonic familiar could take on the form of a cat. Shape-shifting, in which the witch herself turns into a cat, is mentioned by Gervase of Tilbury in 1211, “women have been seen and wounded in the shape of cats”, and by the late fifteenth century illustrations of witches frequently show them with cats (p. 40). So the association was firmly established by the Middle Ages.

Norse mythology

In Norse mythology, the goddess Freyja rode in a carriage drawn by cats, according to the Icelandic writer and historian Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was writing in the thirteenth century when the Norse pagan religious beliefs were dying out, and is usually credited with wishing to record the old traditions before they were lost for ever (for which modern scholars of the Norse world owe him a considerable debt of gratitude). I say “dying out”, rather than “had died out”, because Snorri wrote that Freyja alone of the gods still lived, which could mean that aspects of her cult were still practised in his own day. Among many other attributes, Freyja was the goddess of magic, witchcraft and divination (seidr) (Ellis Davidson 1964, p. 120). She could also change her shape, though she turned into a bird rather than a cat, and she could temporarily disguise her human lover Ottar as an animal (in his case, a boar) (Crossley-Holland, 1980, Hyndla’s Poem).

Eirik’s Saga, written in Iceland in the early 13th century, describes a volva (a seeress, prophetess, sorceress or witch), a human practitioner of seidr magic, who came to a farm in Greenland and foretold the future of everyone present (Eirik’s Saga, ch.4). The volva wore a hood lined with white cat’s fur, and gloves made of catskin with the white fur inside.

In the story of Thor’s journey to Utgard, the giant and magician Utgard-Loki challenges Thor to lift a great grey cat from the floor of the hall. Thor, mightiest of the gods, tries with all his might to pick up the cat, but can only raise one of its feet a few inches from the floor. It is later revealed that the cat is in fact the World Serpent disguised by a magic spell (Crossley-Holland 1980). It may not be stretching a point too far to treat this story as another association of a cat with a practitioner of magic (though I won’t insist on it).

So Norse tradition associates cats with Freyja, the goddess of seidr magic, with female human practitioners of magic, and possibly with a giant magician. The extant written sources date from the thirteenth century, contemporary with the other records from medieval Europe mentioned above, but there seems no reason not to accept that they may derive from earlier traditions.


Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. Penguin, 1980, ISBN 0-14-006056-1.
Eirik’s Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. Penguin Classics, 1965, ISBN 0-14-044154-9.
Ellis Davidson, HR. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-020670-1.
Jones, M. The Secret Middle Ages. Sutton, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.

Having traced an association between cats and witches back to Norse mythology, I felt it wasn’t stretching a point too far to apply it to seventh-century ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England. Here’s a snippet:

Ashhere shivered. He was frightened of witchcraft, and frightened of the green-eyed, black-haired witch, who looked at him as if she thought someone had already turned him into a toad. She had said, as far as he could understand, that she had to open Eadwine’s wound to remove the evil that was killing him, and Ashhere had believed her. But he had not expected it to be so harrowing an experience. Had she gone? He crept tentatively to Eadwine’s side. No sign of the witch, but in the exact place where he had last seen her, kneeling beside Eadwine’s shoulder, a cat sat upright with its tail curled neatly around its toes. A very trim, very supercilious, very elegant pure black cat. With green eyes.

Ashhere clutched for the amulet that wasn’t there. The cat twitched its tail and glared at him with unblinking contempt. Ashhere glared back. The cat won.

--Paths of Exile


Gabriele Campbell said...

Very nice snippet.

Ok, and next lesson we'll have a look at the connection between cats and writers. *grin* I think I'm the only one besides Scott Oden who has none.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great snippet!

BTW, I have four cats, all of whom will soon be congregating near my computer to remind me it's dinner time.

Bernita said...

Don't think you are stretching it at all, at all.
Delightful snippit. Made me smile.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Enjoyed your snippet very much Carla.

Weren't tabby cats the 'must have' of the early Medieval period? Dustbin memory again recalls reading about the high prices paid for striped ones. I also seem to recall that 'mackerel' tabbies with the herring bone stripes were particularly sought after and are the 'original'. There's one in the Luttrell psalter juggling a mouse. I love the illustration in The Secret Middle Ages that shows a disgruntled cat in a frying pan being poked about by a very modern looking fish slice! Have to add I do not condone this behaviour and neither do my 2 cats, Jasper and Dottie!
As to Greebo - I adore him, both in feline and human form! Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors.

Carla said...

Thanks, everyone.

Gabriele - No, I don't have a cat either, so that makes at least three exceptions to the rule :-)

Susan - Four cats? Well, that makes up for me and Gabriele not having any. How do they all get on with Boswell?

Bernita - thank you

Elizabeth - that's a great picture, isn't it? No wonder the cat looks fed up. (Did it stick to the pan, one wonders? No, best not to contemplate that). Apparently it illustrates a phrase 'to turn the cat in the pan', but I hadn't heard the phrase before. Had you? I didn't know striped tabby cats were posh in medieval times - they've had a bit of a comedown since, haven't they?
Greebo in human form is, ahem, not quite my type ("....a greasy diabolic sexuality in the megawatt region....") - I think that's out of my league! Mind you, he'd be pretty intimidating in feline form too. I admire him from a safe distance on the page :-)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Our third youngest cat came to us when she was a kitten and instantly formed a maternal bond with Boswell, even though he's a male. She tried valiantly to suck on him and still will knead him until he gets irritated and growls at her. The fourth cat's quite fond of him too--he likes to wind his tail around Boswell's neck and cuddle up to him.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Catskins were worn by the general population in the main part of the middle ages - it was generally a lower status fur along with lamb. Dustbin memory again but I think cat and lamb were cited in the late 11th or early 12thC as the only pelts nuns were allowed to wear. So re the volva, perhaps the important thing was it being a WHITE catskin?
I hadn't heard the phrase 'to turn the cat in the pan' until I read Malcolm Jones...but then I hadn't heard of a lot of things until I read Malcolm Jones!!!

Carla said...

Susan - that's sweet! I hope Boswell doesn't mind.

Elizabeth - Good point. White cats don't seem to be very common, as far as I've noticed, so perhaps white catskin had a rarity value. Malcolm Jones mentions catskin as being a very low-status fur sold only by the lowest sort of pedlar. His examples are all from England, Holland or Germany, so it's possible that the status may have been different in Scandinavia. He doesn't mention lambskin - was lambskin considered different from sheepskin? I suppose sheepskin coats can be construed as low-status still, though nowadays the image they pop up is of a dodgy car salesman rather than a nun...

Carla said...

Elizabeth - oh, forgot to mention that Malcolm Jones mentions a Dutch illustration of a humble pedlar carrying a tabby catskin, so perhaps tabby cats were only high-status when alive!
He also refers to a monastic order in the 11th C specifying that even the senior members weren't allowed to wear fur of any higher grade than cat (page 42-43).

Unknown said...

Cats have long been associated with witchcraft and early paganism. Aspects of the feminine core of the pagan belief have evolved in name and nature and hence the Egyptian sun goddess, Bast, left a lasting legacy of association with the craft.

Domestic cats themselves were respected as incarnations of the goddess Bast (or Bastet). In addition to being the patron goddess of cats, she was associated with all things sensual and pleasurable including music and dance (any graceful movement), childbirth and mothering, and all things feminine, especially perfume.
Cats are sensual, sexual, sensitive creatures who display many feminine virtues, which is why the church chose to corrupt the image in favour of their masculine based beliefs.

I am a witch (a hedgewitch) and I have a black cat called Owen.

Carla said...

Hello Minx and welcome. Yes, the Egyptian cat goddesses are fascinating, aren't they?