Sunday 18 September 2011

The Evil Cat

Did you know that in the 16th century artists often used cats to represent evil. And before that in 1232, Pope Gregory started the Inquisition. The Inquisition was the "fight against heretics" . A heretic was someone who believed in something other than the established Christian beliefs. The Inquisition declared that heretics worshiped the devil in the form of a black tom cat.

There is no mention of cats neither wild nor domestic in the Old or New Testament of the bible. In AD 500 the Talmud (the central text of mainstream Judaism) praised cats for their cleanliness. That was it.

However as Christianity spread, Jesus became known as "The Lion of Judah". At the time lions roamed in numbers throughout the middle east.

Moving forward again to 1344, to the French town of Metz, cats were blamed for an outbreak of a disease of the nervous system called "St.Vitus's dance". And in 1347-1348 the cat was blamed for the spread of the bubonic plague commonly called the "Black Death". The plague reduced human population numbers by one third. The Lord Mayor of London ordered all cats be killed, thereby exacerbating the continued spread of the disease as it was spread by small rodents and the fleas on rodents - a cat's primary prey.

In the early part of the 15th century the Knights Templar (a Western Christian military order) protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. They were accused of worshiping the devil in the form a black cat.

The 15th century was the time of revival of pagan rites. Although the word has negative connotations to some, pagan beliefs are in fact quite modern: a belief of the divine in nature. One pagan rite of the time was the cult of Freya which honored the fertility of cats (even then people had a distorted view of cat breeding!). They were accused of heresy and then witchcraft.

Pope Innocent III decreed in 1484 that witches worhipped Satan and that they took the form of their familiars. Most often a witch's familiar was a cat. People of Europe who kept cats were tortured and killed. It was believed that as cats slept all day and became active at night they were guiding evil spirits. As cats mated and caterwauled at night it was believed that the sounds were those of the people being consumed by cats.

The cats of Hungary had a cruciform incised into the cat's skin to prevent them from becoming witches. Old women were thought to turn into black cats.

Witchcraft spread to the USA where in 1692 the famous Salem witch trials took place. Twenty people were executed out of 150 accused.

The legacy of the cat's association with the devil made by the church is carried forward to the present day. Black cats are the least popular and many people have superstitions regarding black cats. This is despite the belief that black cats are healthier than cats of other colors. Is another legacy of the early Christian church's contempt of the cat, the hypothesis that Christians might declaw their cats more than atheists?

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