Tabby and grey cats are believed almost universally to be harbingers of good fortune. Be prepared for a windfall should either decide to take-up residence in your home as one belief held was that this feline selection indicated that the homeowner was sure to come into money within the near future. White cats though have through time been viewed with some suspicion despite their colouring due to a problem with their hearing. Often being deaf a white cat was thought to be unlucky.
Cats have also been thought to be as useful as barometers at indicating possible changes in the weather; one sneezing indicating rain, whilst sitting with the back to the fire preludes a storm, and finally a cat sharpening its claws on a table leg indicated fine weather to be imminent (and some DIY). Perhaps because cats were believed to have meteorological connections as well as many listed here, sailors traditionally avoided saying the word ‘cat’ when about to embark on a sea voyage for fear of attracting misfortune on the ship and crew.
Perhaps we can begin to understand why the black cat has been seen to be a harbinger of good luck in some countries once we know that the Egyptians revered the Goddess Bast, symbolically portrayed as a black female cat. She was one of the most important goddesses having curative powers. The Romans also respected black cats and cats in general believing them to be sacred and associated with the Goddess Diana. The cat is still held as dear to many today and perhaps because of such associations but this has not always been the case.
Today though such a cat is almost universally seen to be an omen of misfortune for the owner except in the British Isles. Here, historically, a black cat has been treated to extreme luxuries and pampered almost beyond belief in order to ensure that the owner maintained prosperity. If you are not fortunate enough to be an owner of a black cat according to traditional folklore in the British Isles then you may be lucky to have one cross your path or stroll into your house - both events are positive signals and should bring good fortune in the British Isles. However these events signify the opposite to be true elsewhere.
The black cat was also used as part of elaborate rituals having great faith in the curative powers of the animal or usually to honour the gods. One ancient British belief once held followed that a small amount of blood from a black cats tail would heal any sore if rubbed on it directly or cure illness. Winston Churchill, the World War II British Prime Minister was reputed to believe that stroking black cats was an encouragement of good fortune and is alleged to have attributed some of his success during this time to this practice. In sport British cricketers have traditionally held it to be an omen of good fortune if a black cat is seen on entry to the field.
Elsewhere, a black cat is not to be trusted and has been associated with the powers of darkness. Known as a nocturnal creature since ancient times the black cat was believed to be an animal to be avoided. Witches were believed to be able to transform into a cat at will, Old Nick too was thought to be present on such occasions. To talk in the presence of a cat was thought to attract the attentions of witches, and such talk would reveal the person’s secrets. The cat was thought to be serving the witch when it appeared, perhaps even the witch as it was possible for them to transform into a cat (dog, toad and fly). Having consorted with such company it is understandable why the black cat became something to fear, reaching a height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries during purges to out witches.
In Britain many theatres have maintained the tradition of keeping a cat to catch any stray mice. Having a black cat though was thought to bring good fortune to the players and prosperity to the theatre itself except if it is seen running across the stage during a performance as misfortune will follow.
A common belief held was that cats have the ability to see earthbound energies, spirits and ghosts and that a cat will purr when one is present.
One of the most famous felines must surely be ‘The Cheshire Cat’ from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The expression to ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’ is traditional that was common long before the story became well-known. The cat in the story and folklore is known for a grin that is ever present with an ability to vanish leaving only the grin visible. There are many thoughts on how the expression came to be so popular. One follows that the symbol of cat’s head was used to identify Cheshire Cheese. The cheese is available in three colours - red, white and blue, the colours of the flags of Great Britain. The blue is produced naturally and was originally used quite often to treat wounds long before people knew that it contained penicillin. Another belief tells that the origins of the Cheshire Cat can be found in the coat of arms belonging to the family of the eleventh century Earl of Chester, which depict wolf heads which are open-mouthed.
The name ‘Doctor’s Devils’ was given to the two black cats which accompanied one of the most famous British quack doctors in the eighteenth century. Gustavus Katterfelto toured the country providing flu cures which were ineffective. The cats were seen to be connected to his practice and signalled to many that Gustavus was dealing in more than medicinal remedies to attract people to part with their money.
The most notorious witch trial in England (UK) was perhaps was the first which took place in 1566 at Chelmsford and revolved around the actions of a black cat. Joan, the daughter of Agnes Waterhouse, Agnes herself and Elizabeth Francis, from Hatfield Perverell. Each in turn had ownership of a cat called ‘Satan’ which during the trial was said to be responsible for a number of events. Satan is said to have found Elizabeth a husband and son only after killing a man who refused her approaches. After giving the cat to Agnes and Joan, Satan was said to have drowned cows, spoilt dairy produce and even drove a man to commit suicide. Satan was said to be a creature that could transform into a toad or dog at will, and also possessed the power of speech. Joan was released after the trial but Agnes was hanged after her confession. Elizabeth received a sentence of a year in prison (later hanged for witchcraft in 1579).
‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ has been an expression in common use since around the mid 1600’s. A variation is known as ‘it’s raining pitchforks and shovels’. The origin of both phrases has been lost. Both expressions refer to excessively heavy downpours of rain. Perhaps these torrential downpours were thought to be extraordinary, so strange that anything was likely to fall out of the sky when the heavens opened.
‘Taghgairm’ was the ancient Scottish Gael term given to the ritual of placing a live cat over a fire and then spitting the poor unfortunate for divination purposes. As the cat was cooking other cats would appear and questions were said to be answered, the questions being posed by the person turning the spit. This ritual indicates that the cat was a creature thought highly of amongst the Gaelic people. In Ireland, Caithness, famous now for hand-blown glass work, now bears the name that was once given to the Catti Clan (cat-people).