Monday 14 November 2011

Cats steal the baby's breath

The idea that cats steal the baby's breath originates in a play of 1609 written by Benjamin Jonson. That is my theory. No one has made that claim before (14th Nov. 2011). In fact, it was not a play in the strict sense but a "masque", which was a form of entertainment at the "court" (extended family gathering) of a monarch.

Witch's familiar -  image in public domain

Ben Johnson was a playwright during the time of Shakespeare. He wrote a number of masques, one of which was The Masque of Queens. In this masque there is a poem called The Witches' Song.

At paragraph 5 it says the following:

The letter "s" was written as "f" in those days and people believed in witches. Witches were associated with witches' familiars. The black cat was the classic witch's familiar.

Witches may take on the form their familiar. The words are:

Under a cradle I did creepe
By day, and, when the childe was a-sleepe
At night, I suck'd the breath; and rose,
And pluck'd the nodding nurse by the nose.

So the witch crept under the child's cot during the day as a cat and came out at night to suck the breath of the child.

In modern times, this has been taken up as a warning against letting cats sleep with children. I am sure some people still believe that cats steal a child's breath in some supernatural way.  In practice, and putting aside the supernatural, the danger to infants must be slight but common sense dictates that a cat might sleep on a child that is on his or back fast asleep. This might present a danger to the child.

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