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January 24th, 2014

On the Darkness of Cats

[This is an updated version of a post that I wrote last year for Marge Simon's Dark Poets column in the Horror Writers Association (International) newsletter, reused with Marge's kind, dark permission.]

Everyone knows that cats are the darkest and most mysterious of beasts, uncanny creatures of the night, companions of witches, madmen and poets. They slink through midnight graveyards and ride the night sky on broomsticks with their witchy mistresses. Their relationship with death is intimate; they meet the grim reaper nine times to our once. Darkest of all their rumored crimes is that they'll smother a baby in its cradle, stealing its warm breath.

Everyone knows all those things. But cats are essentially contrary beasts. As well as representing the forces of darkness, they are perfectly capable of embodying pure fluffybrained silliness. My blue-point Ragdoll furball, who kills the desperate bathmats every evening and yowls to me every morning to follow him outside so that I can protect him from the evil swooping birds out there, is an unlikely ally of the dark.

That doesn't mean that cats aren't mysterious, that they don't see and hear things invisible and inaudible to us, that they don't have, ahem, peculiar capabilities – even my own silly Felix. But did cats always walk on the dark side? How far back does their dark reputation really go? Were witches in the ancient world accompanied by feline familiars?

When we think about cats in the ancient world, we automatically think first of Egypt, – though DNA evidence has now shown that they were first domesticated in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, probably in the Fertile Crescent after wild mice gained a taste for stored grain and moved indoors

My real historical and linguistic expertise is in Greece and Rome, from the Mycenaean Bronze Age through the Roman Empire – very roughly 1600 BC to 400 AD – so I can't pontificate with any huge confidence about the darkness of cats in ancient Egypt. We know that they were mummified in enormous numbers (though the goddess Bastet was, it seems, originally lion-headed, rather than domestic-cat-headed) but their portrayals in art are generally of sandy-colored, stripy-spotty beasts in various sunshiny scenes, including the famous one of the cat boating on the reedy river with its (human) family. The often-reproduced "black" cat from the British Museum is actually bronze, with a stripy tail, so he or she would originally have been a lovely sunny goldenen colour. More importantly, perhaps, cats seem conspicuously unimportant in treatises on Egyptian magic, black or white. They barely rate a mention even in Sir Wallace Budge's classic Egyptian Magic.

I can be more confident about ancient Greece and Rome, which I have spent an unreasonable amount of my life learning about, including a long-unfinished Ph.D on the Tripartite Godhead in Indo-European Religion. Dogs were ubiquitous throughout Greek and Roman history, both as pets and as working animals. Cats, on the other hand, were quite rare from the Bronze Age right through to the time of Pericles and Euripides, the 5th century BC (in part, at least, because their export from Egypt was forbidden). In place of cats, children often had ducks as (one suspects somewhat unsatisfactory) pets, and ferrets or even snakes were kept to control unwelcome rodents. Cats gradually increased in numbers in Greece and Rome from the 4th century BC onwards, and spread with the Roman Empire, but even when they became more common, it seems that they still didn't walk on the dark side.

On the other hand, witches (both male and female) were thought to be common enough throughout that whole period – though, as usual, probably more in the overheated imagination of ignorant villagers than in real life. (It might be worth noting that, in ancient times, foreign women were reputed to be the most powerful of witches. The witches of Thessaly, to the north-east of Greece, were proverbial, like its beautiful horses. It's no coincidence that Circe and Medea, most dangerous and illustrious of ancient witches, came from Colchis at the far end of the Black Sea – about as distant a place as the Bronze Age Greeks could contemplate.)

Sadly, I have not been able to find a single connection, in classical Greek or Roman literature, between cats and witches, ghosts, the underworld or any other dark concept. (I've read a very wide sample of Greek and Latin literature over the years, as well as plenty of secondary sources, but I'm grateful for Georg Luck's excellent 1985 book Arcana Mundi, which brings together most of the ancient sources on magic and the occult, with intelligent commentary.) The earliest trace that I've been able to find of the darkness of cats was a rather tawdry spell from the Papyri Graecae Magicae (a motley occult collection of texts from Greco-Roman Egypt around the 4th century AD), where a cat must be "made into an Osiris" (drowned, and thus given new life in another world) with papyrus stuffed into its orifices and wrapped around it – all for the lofty aim of fixing a chariot race! This seems as profoundly unconnected with feline darkness as another spell which requires a smoke offering of the heart of a cat and the droppings of a mare. (There are probably more cat-spells in the full PGM, which I've barely sampled.)

It wasn't that ancient Greek and Roman witches, busy with graveyard bones and poisonous herbs, didn't have animal companions! They were closely and frequently associated (at least in literature) with howling dogs, with owls and wolves and even toads, and most of all with snakes – but never, I am sorry to say, with cats. Even Hecate, the dark, uncanny goddess of roadside graves, revenants and witches, had no known interest in cats.

Dogs, normally howling, were Hecate's constant companions, and puppies were her preferred sacrifice. As the Greek poet Theocritus wrote of Hecate, in the Idyll which is one of our best pieces of source material for ancient magic: "the dogs shiver before her when she comes over the graves of the dead; the dogs are howling." Indeed, if it ever occurred to the Greeks and Romans that night-stalking cats were uncanny, the thought has left vanishingly little trace in the literary or artistic record.

I will leave it to people better-qualified to me to show just where, when, why and how cats really became the quintessential creatures of the night in the popular imagination. But whether the Vox in Rama (purportedly a papal bull issued by Pope Gregory IX in the early 13th century) is authentic or not, its lurid claims of heretics kissing the rear end of a supernatural black cat before a debauch seem emblematic of the way that cats (especially black cats) were thought of through the Middle Ages and beyond. I suspect that it's significant that J.G. Frazer posits in The Golden Bough a long tradition among the Celts of witches transforming themselves into cats (as well as hares), explaining why cats were so often burned to death in the pagan fire-festivals of Europe. Frazer also records a more charming Celtic belief that witches rode at Halloween on tabby-cats transformed into "coal-black steeds".

I've toiled in the fields of scholarship long enough to know that pretty much every "fact" innocently relied on by non-experts is vigorously disputed by the learned – but it does seem fairly solid that, by the time that witch trials really took off in Europe in the 15th century, cats were creatures of darkness, and frequent witches' "familiars": demons in the form of domestic animals, which suckled on the witches' blood from their tell-tale witches' marks. Indeed, these days, most people would find the idea of the other animal familiars mentioned in the witch trials (toads, hares and dogs, for example) rather odd.

Really, though, it's no wonder that cats are seen as dark, mysterious, even spooky creatures. They can disappear from full view silently, in no time, and can evade all the skills of human beings to find them – then they can re-appear from nowhere, just as silently, with no apology. They can manifest themselves on a warm bed, snuggled behind your knees, with you having no memory of how they got there. They seem just as confident and comfortable in the cold, dark night garden as snuggled on the warm, bright sofa. Indeed, their uncanny-eyed midnight selves seem scarcely to recognize their human families. Even by day, they see and smell and hear things that we can't – and we can't help suspecting that they might be right.

Despite the fact that my fluff-brained cat is incapable of killing even a baby mouse (he brings his tiny prey unharmed to me to deal with, depositing them on the carpet and yowling in anxious triumph), I still start to worry when he whines and sniffs for hours at something invisible and inaudible. After a day of such eerie goings-on, I might even be tempted to write a horror poem starting, "The cat's convinced there's something in the corner, something bad."

I'll leave you with the last few lines of an ambivalent cat poem that's included in my new illustrated chapbook of cat poems, The Duties of a Cat. When I wrote "Soft silk sack", I thought was all sweetness and light. It was only afterwards that I thought about the bones.

Now on my lap
a soft silk sack of bones

turns, warm, against my thigh.