cats


cats
   Beliefs concerning cats, especially *black ones, are numerous and often contradictory (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 57-62, 241). On the whole, black cats are lucky in England, and therefore appear on greetings cards and as *charms; however, informants from several counties say it is unlucky if one crosses your path, especially on the way to work, or if it sits with its back to you. Occasionally, the belief is found that *white cats bring bad luck. Dreaming of cats is usually interpreted as a warning that someone is being spiteful or treacherous towards you.
   Perfectly normal feline actions, such as washing behind the ears or rushing wildly about the house, are thought to foretell rain or gales; the matter was debated in N&Q in 1889, with some correspondents saying it was true, but 'the paw must go right over the outer side of the ear', or the cat must 'place the paw behind the ear, and work it to the front right over her head, more as if she was brushing her hair than washing herself' (N&Q 7s:7 (1889), 309-10). A later issue (169 (1935), 202) adds: 'To discover from which side the wind will come it is necessary to observe the direction in which the cat is looking while scratching the earth.' Drowning a cat at sea will raise a strong wind, which in most circumstances is reckoned unlucky. All kittens born in May should be drowned, for they will be bad mousers, unlucky, good-for-nothing, and fond of bringing snakes into the house.
   The idea that cats could be witches' *famil-iars is found in writings and trial reports of the 16th century, and has now become a cliche. But they were only one among many animals of which this was said; similarly, though there are references to witches changing into cats, *hares are mentioned more often. There is no evidence from England of regular large-scale massacres of 'satanic' cats, or of burning them in Midsummer bonfires, as sometimes occurred in Europe. They were occasionally used for demonic 'special effects' - in 1677 a *bonfire for *Queen Elizabeth's Day consumed the effigy of 'a most costly pope ... his belly filled with live cats which squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire', supposedly representing a dialogue between Pope and Devil (Cressy, 1989: 177).
   Various cures involving the death or mutilation of a black cat are recorded in the 17th and 18th centuries: its head, burnt to a powder, was supposed good for eyeache, and blood from its cut-off tail or ears for shingles and erysipelas; the whole tail, buried under the *threshold, kept sickness away. *Styes were healed by stroking them *seven or *nine times with a black cat's tail - hopefully, still attached to its owner.
   According to old medical theory, cats' blood and brains are poisonous, and their very presence harmful to man; the evidence cited in support sounds typical of allergy: there is in some men a natural dislike and abhorring of cats, their natures being so composed, that not onely when they see them, but being neere them and vnseene, and hid of purpose, they fall into passions, fretting, sweating, pulling off their hats, and trembling fearefully, as I have knowne many in Germany . . . and therefore they haue cryed out to take away the Cats. (Edward Topsell, A History of Foure-Footed Beastes, (1608), 106)
   Topsell also thought that if a child got a cat's hair in his mouth, it would stick there, and cause wens or *king's evil. It was commonly said that a cat must never be allowed near a baby in its cot, lest it lie on the child and 'suck its breath'; this fear is still current, and not unreasonable, since the weight of a large cat might smother an infant. It was also thought wrong to let a cat into a room where a corpse was laid out, for if it jumped on to it, it would bring death to others (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 63-4). Some said a cat would never settle in a house while there was an unburied corpse there (Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 74).
   The dried-up corpses of cats are quite often found hidden away in cavities in the walls of old *buildings, and though some may have accidentally got trapped there, many are set up in lifelike attitudes, some even holding a dead rat or mouse. Traditionally, this was said to be done to scare mice away, just as dead vermin would be nailed to a barn door 'to warn others'; however, some folklorists interpret the custom as a survival of *foundation sacrifices, or as intended to repel witches' familiars in the form of *mice (Margaret M. Howard, Man (Nov. 1951), 149-5; Merrifield, 1987: 129-31). Small mutilated wooden cat-figures were found in the 1950s hidden in two old Essex houses, one accompanied by a piece of newspaper dated 1796; perhaps they too brought protection (N&Q 197 (1952), 367).
   See also *alien big cats.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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