October 31, 2008

Black Cat Lore for Halloween



House cats are not native to the Americas. The Europeans who colonized New England brought their cats with them, and also brought their feline folklore. Cats, particularly black cats, are associated with witchcraft. They are one of the favorite forms that a witch's soul takes when outside her or his body.

During the 17th century New England witch trials, victims of witchcraft would often see their tormentors in the form of cats. Here's and example from Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem. Katherine Branch, a servant in Stamford, Connecticut, claimed in 1692 that she was bewitched. A cat appeared and spoke to her, asking Katherine to come away to a place where there were "fine folks and fine things." Soon, more and more cats appeared, until she saw a table with ten cats seated around it, eating meat. The cats briefly turned into women, before turning back into cats again. Unfortunately, the court records don't indicate what color the cats were, but doubtless several of them were black.

Beliefs about cats and witches persisted well into the 19th century, as Clifton Johnson records in What They Say in New England. In Western Massachusetts, a man named Jones had a saw mill that kept him very busy, and an attractive wife whom he neglected. One dark night Jones decided he had to work at the mill. His wife used all her wiles to convince him to stay at home with her, but without effect - Jones trudged off to the mill. After he had been at work for a while, a friendly black cat appeared inside the mill. It frisked around the mill, and rubbed up against Jones as he worked. The cat got too close to the saw, though, and lost a claw. With a howl, it ran off. When Mr. Jones got home later that night, he noticed that his wife was looking pale and was hiding one hand from his sight. When he finally got a glimpse of her hand, he saw that she had lost one finger.

In the early 1800's, the Wilbur family was afflicted with poltergeist activity, and it was believed that a witch was causing it. Clothing would be cut and slashed while hanging in the closets, and small items would go missing. Granny Bates, a member of the family, was suspected of being the witch to blame. A large black cat, with facial features similar to Granny, was once found inside a closed bin, and during a prayer meeting this same cat walked through an unopened glass window. The cause of the trouble was never found.

In the 19th century it was also thought that a black cat will bring its owner good luck, in spite of its connections with witchcraft (or perhaps because of its occult power).

Black cats continue to have supernatural connotations in the 21st century. The bad luck that results from a black cat crossing one's path is well-known, but the black cat has other, more surprising connections with the supernatural as well. Large black cats, similar to panthers, are often seen near the Hockomock Swamp in southeastern Massachusetts, an area also inhabited by large hairy humanoids, giant birds, and unusual balls of light. Author Joseph Citro feels that the Hockomock Swamp may be a gateway area, similar to the Bermuda Triangle, and the large cats could be guests from an unknown world.

Spooky! Happy Halloween!

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