It is midnight. Clouds scud across the full moon, blown by a chill breeze. Leaves dance in whirlpools on the forest floor. Deep among the trees is a clearing where witches are weaving their magic. A cauldron boils and bubbles on a roaring fire. At the edge of the clearing, observing the scene, sits a small black cat, its eyes as wide, it’s pupils as round as the moon. It purrs as it watches the witches prance and leap, pleased at the power they draw from their craft. It is a witch’s cat, an Imp, a Familiar.
The brief description above evokes a scene which has been embedded in our folklore and mythology for centuries. That connection remains deep and abiding, still popping up in popular culture today, where witches are often still linked to cats, particularly black ones. Take Salem in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Binx in Hocus Pocus or even Cobweb in 2022’s Hocus Pocus 2. Many twenty first century witches are also self-styled ‘crazy cat ladies’ (or, in my case, a ‘crazy cat dude’, I suppose). For both observers and practitioners, witchcraft and cats are inextricably linked.
But where does this association come from, and what effect has it had on the cat’s reputation? This question was the starting point for my upcoming book, The Magic of Cats, and led me on an interesting journey through history, mystery and magic.
One of the earliest connections between cats and witches comes from Greek mythology, where the cunning servant, Galinthias, was turned into a cat after foiling one of Hera’s plans. In her feline form, Galinthias was sent to live in the underworld with Hekate, the goddess of the moon, magic and witchcraft. Hekate herself had taken the form of a cat previously, when she had battled the terrifying Typhon. As a consequence of that encounter, Hekate bestowed special blessings on felines and they became sacred to her. Hekate’s association with cats be seen far beyond Greece and it even appears in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, where the character of Hekate (thought to be a later addition to the play by the playwright Thomas Middleton) is seen to cavort with a number of spirits, notably one in cat form.
The association of cats with Hekate didn’t only connect them with magic but with that other great symbol of feminine power, the Moon. This association appears to be particularly potent and can be found in myths and folklore which go back millennia. An example from the ancient world comes from the Roman author, Pliny, who stated that a female cat would bear a total of twenty-eight kittens during her lifetime, the same number as the days in a lunar cycle. This connection finds its most potent and symbolic exemplification in W.B. Yeats’ wonderful poem, written in 1919, The Cat and the Moon:
The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon
The creeping cat looked up …
In the poem, the cat and the moon are seen to have a symbiotic relationship, where it is not only the moon which influences the cat, but the cat which can influence the moon:
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
This shows the cat as a creature of power and influence. For sceptics, this association raised questions about whether the cat would use its power appropriately.
Perhaps the most obvious way that cats have been associated with the moon is through their eyes which seem to wax and wane, dilate and contract, like the phases of the moon. Yeats includes this in his poem, connecting this phenomenon to the concept of change:
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils,
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range.
As with the cats’ sense of power, their connection to concept of change has not always been portrayed as a positive quality and has often associated them with ideas of inconstancy and subversion. With that came allegations that they were cunning with a streak of malevolence running through their character.
The fact that cats’ eyes react so obviously to the light, means that they are particularly effective hunters at times when light is low. When watching their feline companions’ habit of going out when it was getting dark, humans began to think that their cats were night hunters, although they actually prefer hunting at times of low, rather than no, light, such as twilight and dawn. As such, in the human mind, cats became linked to the darkness and unseen terrors of the night. This, in addition to concerns around their power and perceived cunning, did little for their reputation, and cats became suspected of being malevolent forces which operated in the shadows. This was perhaps compounded by cats’ intelligence and the sense that they, somehow, understand us. I mean, who hasn’t been unnerved by a feline staring intently at them, as if they can see right through us?
Finally, through their connection to the moon, the cat developed strong associations with the Goddess and feminine energies. We still see it in our language use today, where cats are referred to using a range of feminine pronouns. Take, for example, the range of Good Girl cat treats, where the equivalent for dogs is called Good Boy. While this association between cats and femininity has many positive connotations for us today, this has not always been the case. Just as cats were seen as being powerful, cunning and malevolent, their association with the feminine made them particularly subversive in the strongly patriarchal societies of the early modern period.
This gradual accumulation of negative associations, with the cat becoming synonymous with the moon, darkness and femininity, eventually led to their association with the ultimate evil – the Devil. By the witch trials of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, testimonies of cats’ transformation into evil spirits were being used as evidence in court trials. For example, a report of a trial from Exeter shows a woman was condemned to be hanged because of the report of her neighbour, who testified that she saw a cat jump in through her window before turning into the Devil. If the cat wasn’t presented as the devil incarnate, it was often thought to be a servant of the dark lord. As such, companion cats were often called imps, another word for a mischievous demonic spirit.
So, while the association between cats and witches may be something we celebrate today in our popular culture and our practice, it is a tradition which is based on the persecution of countless human and feline victims of religious fervor.
When I came to write The Magic of Cats, I thought this association between witches and cats would be the main focus of the book. However, the more I looked at these ancient connections, the more I realized that many of them were being significantly challenged in the twenty first century. Cats are no longer seen as the mystical and malevolent figures they once were. Vestiges of that tradition may remain, but a quick search of the internet shows that our relationship with cats has shifted significantly. Videos of cats doing ridiculously charming things are everywhere on social media. We no longer suspect they are up to no good, just marvel at their ingenuity, cuteness and, in many cases, inelegance!
And the more we bring cats out of the shadows, the more we are able to see that some of our ancestors saw them in that way too, before they became caught up in the whirlwind of religious persecution. For example, the changeability of a cat’s eye may seem to link them to the moon, but what it is actually reacting to is the reflected light of the sun. The Egyptians associated cats with their sun god Ra, who appeared in the form of the great cat, Mau. Many cats spend their days laying in the sun, basking in the warmth of its rays. So, while some of our ancestors did frame the cat as a creature of the night, they are also, very clearly, creatures of light and of the day. And that, in the end, became the starting point for The Magic of Cats. While I, in no way, want to erase the moonlit magical associations our ancestors built around felines, I do think it is about time we embraced that sense of changeability we find in the cat itself and update how we see them. In fact, cats themselves are showing us how to do this, by changing and adapting to the world they now find around them.
Our associations with the magical lore around cats may be becoming more positive, but is that enough? I feel think that, while we should embrace the old ways, we need to learn to embrace the new if we wish to truly appreciate the magic of cats.
[Andrew Anderson is the author of Magic of Cats.]