Ever have the privilege of living with a cat? If you have, you know that they have a certain degree of unique magical energy. It’s not just our modern domesticated felines, though - people have seen cats as magical creatures for a long time. Let’s look at some of the magic, legends and folklore associated with cats throughout the ages.
Touch Not the Cat
In many societies and cultures, it was believed that a sure-fire way to bring misfortune into your life was to deliberately harm a cat. An old sailors’ tale cautions against throwing the ship’s cat overboard - the superstition said that this would practically guarantee stormy seas, rough wind, and possibly even a sinking, or at the very least, drownings. Of course, keeping cats on board had a practical purpose, as well - it kept the rat population down to a manageable level.
In some mountain communities, it is believed that if a farmer killed a cat, his cattle or livestock would sicken and die. In other areas, there’s a legend that cat-killing will bring about weak or dying crops.
In ancient Egypt, cats were regarded as sacred because of their association with the goddesses Bast and Sekhmet. To kill a cat was grounds for harsh punishment, according to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote, "Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him.”
In both France and Wales, there’s a legend that if a girl steps on a cat’s tail, she’ll be unlucky in love. If she’s engaged, it will get called off, and if she’s seeking a husband, she won’t find him for at least a year following her cat-tail-stepping transgression.
In Japan, the maneki-neko is a cat figurine who brings good luck into your home. Typically made of ceramic, the maneki-neko is also called the Beckoning Cat or Happy Cat. His upraised paw is a sign of welcome. It is believed that the raised paw draws money and fortune to your home, and the paw held next to the body helps keep it there. Maneki-neko is often found in feng shui.
England’s King Charles once had a cat that he loved very much. According to legend, he assigned keepers to maintain the cat’s safety and comfort around the clock. However, once the cat fell ill and died, Charles’ luck ran out, and he was either arrested or died himself the day after his cat passed away, depending upon which version of the story you hear.
In Renaissance-era Great Britain, there was a custom that if you were a guest in a home, you should kiss the family cat upon your arrival to ensure a harmonious visit. Of course, if you’ve had a cat you know that a guest who fails to make nice with your feline could end up having a miserable stay.
There’s a story in rural parts of Italy that if a cat sneezes, everyone who hears it will be blessed with good fortune.
Cats and Metaphysics
Cats are believed to be able to predict the weather - if a cat spends the entire day looking out a window, it could mean rain is on the way. In Colonial America, if your cat spent the day with her back to the fire, then it indicated a cold snap was coming in. Sailors often used the behavior of ships’ cats to foretell weather events - sneezes meant a thunderstorm was imminent, and a cat who groomed its fur against the grain was predicting hail or snow.
Some people believe that cats can predict death. In Ireland, there’s a tale that a black cat crossing your path in the moonlight meant you’d fall victim to an epidemic or plague. Parts of Eastern Europe tell a folktale of a cat yowling in the night to warn of coming doom.
In many Neopagan traditions, practitioners report that cats frequently pass through magically designated areas, such as circles which have been cast, and seem to make themselves contentedly at home within the space. In fact, they often seem curious about magical activities, and cats will often lay themselves down in the middle of an altar or workspace, sometimes even falling asleep on top of a Book of Shadows.
- Sixteenth-century Italians believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of an ill person, the person would soon die.
- In Colonial America, Scottish immigrants believed that a black cat entering a wake was bad luck, and could indicated the death of a family member.
- The Norse goddess Freyja drove a chariot pulled by a pair of black cats.
- A Roman solder killed a black cat in Egypt, and was killed by an angry mob of locals.
- Appalachian folklore said that if you had a stye on the eyelid, rubbing the tail of a black cat on it would make the stye go away.
- If you find a single white hair on your otherwise-black cat, it's a good omen. In England's border countries and southern Scotland, a strange black cat on the front porch brings good fortune.