This piece was brought to you by A Male Reader.
The history of cats in Europe and North America is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Really, no history is. The story of the cat is one of violence, black magic, fire, and cruelty.
Few animals have garnered such enduring cultural hatred; perhaps their only peers are snakes, insects, toads, and rodents. Over time, humanity’s beliefs about the sentience of animals and the value of life in general, as well as our sense of empathy have changed drastically for the better. It should come as no surprise that the generations who brought us astonishingly horrific inventions such as the thumbscrews and the rack should have occasionally turned their attention to persecuting nonhuman creatures as well.
The cat síth (“cat shee”), meaning “fairy cat,” was a legendary dog-sized cat, black with a white blaze on its chest, known to haunt the British isles. It enjoyed three things: milk, catnip, and stealing away the souls of the dead before they reached the afterlife. To prevent this, relatives of the deceased were appointed to stay up with the body to make sure no cats came near. They avoided heating the room where the body lay, as heat would attract the cat síth, and filled the other rooms of the house with catnip as a distraction. Also, as a “distraction,” there were bonfires, riddles, music, and games.
In the highlands of Scotland, there was a rite called the taghairm, which roughly translates to “the calling of spirits from the vasty deep.” It was believed throughout Europe that the Devil hated to see a cat suffer and you could conjure the Devil (or a demon, or a cat síth, depending on who you asked) by roasting a live cat on a spit. Drawn by the horrible yowls of the cat on the spit, other cats would gather until finally a giant cat appeared and beseeched you to stop torturing his kin. In exchange for putting the tortured cat out of its misery, you would be granted a favor or knowledge of the future.
Muslims revered cats for their fastidiousness and consider them ritually clean animals, unlike dogs. Cats were allowed inside homes and even mosques and are believed to seek out those who are praying. Many hadiths forbid the torture or killing of cats and Muhammad is quoted as saying that “a love of cats is an aspect of faith.” There also stories of the prophet allowing a cat to give birth on his cloak and cutting off the sleeve of his prayer robe where his beloved cat Meuezza was sleeping rather than wake her. This admiration alone made the cat a villain to medieval Christians who were suspicious of both Muslims and cleanliness.
The medieval writer Walter Map accused the Cathars, a gnostic Catholic sect, of worshiping a black cat “of marvelous size.” During ceremonies, he wrote, it would come down from the ceiling on a rope and the worshipers would kiss the cat’s “most private parts.” The Knights Templar were also later accused of worshiping cats, because no conspiracy is complete without the Knights Templar. Both of these groups were later massacred by the church.
In 1233 came the Vox in Rama, a decree by Pope Gregory IX, which marked the beginning of the Inquisition and church-sanctioned witch hunts. The papal bull encouraged bishops to collaborate with inquisitors in search of dangerous heretics that were said to worship the devil in the form of a demonic black cat. In great detail the Pope described the ceremonies where the heretic cultists would kiss the giant cat’s buttocks before falling into an indiscriminate, orgiastic frenzy which usually included homosexuality and incest.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII excommunicated all cats, and declared any cats found living with witches were to be burned alongside their owners. It became practice across Europe to kill cats whenever possible, leaving rats and mice without predators. These rodents brought fleaswhich carried the plague. It was believed, of course, that cats and dogs were spreading the sickness and hundreds of thousands of these animals were exterminated, exacerbating the problem. There are stories of hysterical people attacking cats in the street, believing that they carried the “miasma” that spread the plague.
Cats, in addition to being familiars to “witches,” were also used as spell ingredients. Their blood was used for healing, their bile for seeing the unseeable. The ashes of a black cat’s heart were said to provide powers. Spells called for cat’s hair, eyes, brains, and fat. For domestic luck, live cats were interred beneath the last floorboard of a newly built home.
In Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston recounts performing the hoodoo ceremony to acquire the most famous cat-derived talisman, a black cat bone. This special bone, taken from a black cat boiled alive in a pot at midnight, held magic and could grant you good luck, protection, invisibility, and love. There were various ways to identify the magic bone. Sometimes it was the one that floated to the top of the pot or floated upstream when dumped in a river. Sometimes it was the one that tasted bitter or that had a dark reflection in a mirror. You can still purchase chicken bones sold as “black cat bones” today from hoodoo shops and online.
Every year, on the second Wednesday of Lent, the people of Ypres, Belgium celebrated Kattenstoet, the Cat Festival. Cats that had spent the winter inside the town’s Cloth Hall hunting mice were thrown from the 23-story belfry. The number of cats killed depended on how well the city was doing. In a prosperous year, perhaps only three cats would be hurled from the tower. The first festival was some time in the thirteenth century, and the last involving live cats was in 1817. Supposedly the last living cat ever thrown from the Cloth Hall belfry survived the plunge and according to the 19th -century Ypres archivist Jean Jacques Lambin “scampered [away] as fast as it could, not ready to be caught once more for the same purpose.” Today, the festival is held every three years, and a jester throws toy cats from the tower into the eager, grasping hands of the crowd. Later, there is a mock witch-burning.
For hundred of years in various cities and villages, cats were trapped in bags and wicker cages and thrown into bonfires on religious holidays as part of the celebration. Sometimes they were hung from a pole over the fire and roasted alive for entertainment. Of course it wasn’t just peasants and sorcerers who enjoyed cat-torturing. In 1563, Elizabeth I had cats stuffed into an effigy of the pope and burned at her coronation.
When William of Orange and the Duke of Anjou arrived in Bruges in 1582 they were welcomed with banners and parades. The most spectacular decoration was a huge pyre in the form of a ship, which was filled with fireworks. It was also filled with dozens of cats. The lords were treated to a firework show, and according to a German account of the festivities, “the screams of the hapless creatures on the ignition of each firework produced further cheers and merriment among the happy throng.” Once the fireworks had all been detonated, the ship itself was set aflame, immolating the cats.
Every year at the Midsummer festival in Paris, a sixty-foot pyre was erected, lavished with crowns and flowers and surrounded by hundreds soldiers employed for crowd control. In the center of the pyre hung dozens of cats tied in bags. Officially beginning in 1471 with Louis XI and followed by generations of subsequent monarchs, the king set the pyre aflame with a white taper decorated with red velvet before retiring to specially-erected seating to watch the spectacle. The cats dying cries were drowned out by the celebratory music and there was a public feast funded by the crown. Later, the remains of the fire were collected as good-luck charms. In 1648, just before moving the French court to Versailles, Louis XVI himself ignited the blaze while crowned with garlands of roses before moving on to the dancing and feasting. After the departure of the court from Paris, the bonfire lost its splendor and the tradition died out.
Surprisingly, it was two dogs who were killed during the Salem Witch trials.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on science and reason, that belief in witches and the diabolical power of cats began to disappear. Cats were recast as symbols of cleanliness, which was suddenly becoming a valued thing, but it wasn’t until later that a combination of Orientalism, Egyptmania, and fear of contagion brought the cat back into vogue in Europe. As science advanced, germ theory was recognized and people began to worry about the diseases their animals might be carrying. Cats, with their impeccable hygiene were clean in a way that dogs and horses were not. Surrounded by ancient depictions of cats from the newly “discovered” Egyptian tombs, and as travelers brought back exotic cats from countries like Persia and Siam, cats were soon elevated from barely-tolerated ratters to household companions. By the Victorian era, they were seen as beloved pets and “cat fancy” organizations began to appear.
Worldwide, cats are the most popular pet. In 2012, Americans alone spent fifty-two billion dollars on their felines. Few modern cats receive the treatment that their ancestors faced, and their widespread persecution is no longer culturally sanctioned. There are no federal laws on cruelty to domestic animals, instead discretion is left to the state. There are currently twenty-three states where cruelty to animals is a felony, punishable by a minimum year in prison.
It is nearly impossible to imagine the kind of spectacle described by historian Norman Davies happening today, where “the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the [cats], howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” The equivalent would be if, at President Obama’s 2012 inauguration, part of the festivities had included burning live cats in a wicker effigy of Mitt Romney.
It was once believed that placing a bean in a dead cat’s heart before burying it would imbue the beans that sprouted from it the ability to make one invisible. The animals we once hated and treated like monsters have found their way into our breast; the seed has only just begun to grow.
Read more The Devil in Disguise: the Cat in the West at The Toast.