Welcome to the latest in our on-going column, ev0king the Question. Here, we invite regular ev0ke contributors and guests to share their thoughts on a particular question. Sometimes, it will be silly. Sometimes, it will be serious. Sometimes, a little bit of both.
Below, find this month’s question, and answers from Pagans and polytheists from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. Do you have thoughts of your own? If so, please feel free to share them below.
The Question: Why do you think cats have historically been the most popular familiar for Western witches?
[Laurelei Black is an American folkloric Witch, Aphrodite woman, and author. www.linktr.ee/laureleiblack]
Not to diminish the domestic cat, in any way — I am, after all, the servant of His Most Glorious Tuxedo-ness of the Snub Tails — but I think the “cat as the quintessential Witches’ familiar” is an idea that hasn’t been around very long. Maybe 100 years? 150? I think the (black) cat and the Witch is an association that was made by early 1900s advertisers when they began marketing Halloween as a time to sell stuff.
If we look to the early-modern era for insight, we only see a few cats mentioned. We see a lot more rabbits, dogs, moles, and one or two en-spirited pieces of wood (All Hail Trullibub!) — but very few cats. In fact, the argument has been made that the term “pussycat” coming out of this time period had little or nothing to do with the feline, and was more commonly associated with the lepus (le pus) — the rabbit. Rabbits, after all, were famously associated with the moon, shapeshifting, and necromancy (since they love to burrow in graveyards which links them to death, and they have rapid fertility cycles that link them to re/birth).
While the “old Witch hare” remains a popular symbol in the UK and Continental Europe, there’s no denying the power of the cat in the Witch symbolism of the United States and beyond. Why is that true? Because the kitty overlords seek to maintain the dominion they first established over us starting roughly 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.
Joking aside, cats are one of the most common housepets worldwide, are independent and mysterious (like Witches), and are associated folklorically with some potent magickal Spirits/Deities — including Ishtar and Freya. With all those magickal, mystical links, the cat is firmly enthroned in the royal court of the Witch.
[Rebecca Buchanan is a regular contributor to ev0ke. Her short stories and poems have appeared in a wide variety of venues, a complete list of which can be found at Eternal Haunted Summer.]
Well because they’re cats, of course.
[Ashley Nicole Hunter is a founder of ev0ke, and an editor and regular contributor.]
Any animal (human or otherwise) that doesn’t obey society is likely to be vilified at some point in time. For some creatures, such as wolves, bears, and cougars, this can mean they’re hunted to the brink of extinction and utterly eradicated in some places. If the animal has a use, however, be that the need to breed with a human woman to increase the population, or depending upon a mousing cat to keep the grain safe, they become tolerated up to a point. Whenever something goes wrong, however, these animals are the first to become scapegoats.
Historically, we’ve seen women and marginalized members of society accused of witchcraft if the Church wanted their land or simply wanted to “thin the herd” in an area they wished to fill with their own people. Cats are quick to reproduce and loathe to obey orders, so fledgling serial killers and those who simply enjoy causing other creatures pain are often quick to harm them. All of the above are seen as “disposable” and open sport for cruelty because there will always be more of them, surely, so what’s the real harm?
We know, of course, that most of those accused of witchcraft over the years were anything BUT witches. However, a cat is very often what it appears to be: a cat. Doubtless they became popular amongst real witches, not just because of stories and symbolism, but because what good is witchcraft if it does not seek to empower the powerless and protect the weak? And at the end of the day, how much effort does it take you to put down a bowl of food, a bit of water, and provide a warm bed inside?
[Irisanya Moon (she/they) is an author, witch, and initiate in the Reclaiming tradition. She has written books and blogs on magick, resilience, and dancing with grief. Irisanya cultivates spaces of self-care/devotion, divine relationship (whatever that means to you), and community service as part of their heart magick, activism, and devotion to the godds. She is devoted to Aphrodite, Iris, Hecate, and the Norns. www.irisanyamoon.com]
At the start of the pandemic, my life was starting to crumble. I didn’t know I was at the start of a number of losses. I didn’t know I was going to lose a few things more quickly than I’d hoped. And I was already feeling the loneliness of the lockdowns and the ways life was never going to be the same again. Earlier in the year, I had gone to an animal shelter where I had made silly noises at the new kittens and realized I wanted to bring some of these little ones home with me. But not yet. I wasn’t quite over my previous cats’ deaths. I wasn’t quite ready to replace them (or feel like I was replacing them).
So I waited. And then the pandemic started and I felt the rush to bring some new life into my days. A beloved, who was one of the losses I hadn’t anticipated, suggested I bring home some cats as I would need them in the coming days. She was right. She often was. I filled out the adoption form for a local rescue and waited to see what kittens might be available.
It was a few weeks before my friend died that I met my cats over Facetime. They were shy and small, and one had a different name than he does now. They were perfect. And I brought them home two days after my friend died. The perfect little beans for comfort because of another loss that was already on its way, already packed and ready to drive away.
Cats are strange creatures. I’ve had cats before, with one living for 18 years and the other for 14 years. But when I was younger, there weren’t hundreds of YouTube channels on how to care for your cats. During the pandemic, I had time to watch videos. And I learned that I could have been a better cat mom. I learned about cat behavior and why they are (likely) the way they are. And that seems to be why I think cats are frequently named as familiars for witches.
They have attitudes, They have personalities. They do things that seem impossible and they’re not easily won over. At least, mine haven’t been. It takes time to build trust. They want to know you are safe, consistent, and caring. They want to know you will provide them with what they need to feel well and happy. And when you do this, they see you as part of their family. They offer to you their affection and their care in return.
They are powerful. They can sense when people are scared or happy. My cats can tell when I need some extra love and when I need some space. (Okay, not always.) Cats can understand when someone is coming to the door and when something is different, e.g., when it’s vet appointment day. They recognize when things have shifted. I often look at my cats when I hear a noise I don’t recognize. If they seem concerned, I will check it out. If they don’t, I don’t worry about it.
In all of my experience with cats, I have seen them step easily into magical spaces. I often teach witchcraft classes from home, and my cats have been in the room almost every time. At first, they were a little concerned and later they would follow me around the circle as I cast. Now, they are so used to magick that they often sit in my lap or play with my tools when I am working in a ritual or class. They know energy.
One of my previous cats was definitely my familiar. I was holding a coven meeting in my apartment and I’d had everyone lay down to do a meditation for our gathering. She proceeded to go around to everyone in the circle as our eyes were closed and lick their foreheads. A little furry blessing. This cat was unperturbed by what we were doing, moving in and out of the circle as she liked. I think animals and children do this so easily. They can enter magickal space without disrupting it. Their energy meets new energy without conflict or interruption.
My current cats are brothers, two black cats. They are almost always beside me, like shadows and stalkers. Always watching me to see how I’m doing and what I’m doing — except for when they know their automatic feeder is going to go off. Then that is the most interesting thing in their lives. There is something that is magickal about the way they move, the way they interact, and the way they can tap into the energy of what is. I also think because cats intuitively know who to trust, it feels like a blessing when a cat chooses you for a lap or a rub. And you can tell when someone in the room might be worth being wary of.
I have no doubt that cat popularity is because of all of these experiences. Combine that with the history of being worshipped in Egypt and feared in the Middle Ages, and you have animals who are certainly going to get picked for familiars by witches. As a witch, I always want a little dose of mystery, power, and cuteness by my side. Plus, they often like to snuggle and purr. Who doesn’t want that as part of their magick?