WITCH-FAMILIARS AND STORM-RAISERS

I reached out absent-mindedly towards my green filing tray – the one with the hundreds of scraps of paper – ideas for all those totally awesome and stupendous future blog posts. But my hand landed upon a sleeping tabby, and something about her sleepingness was saying Wake me if you dare!

So I picked up instead a book I’ve been meaning to examine in more detail for some time now. It’s a huge, weighty, falling-to-bitsy book with a detached spine and no dust-jacket, published in 1973 by the Reader’s Digest Association: Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Various authors, artists and contributors.

I have been sleuthing around for this particular treasure for some time because I suspect it may be the book given to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull by his American manager one long-ago rural hippie Christmas, and which subsequently inspired the weird, atmospheric collection of songs that became Songs from the Wood (1977). It’s impossible to know for certain since the CD booklet notes – as might be expected from a 70s prog-rock band – are somewhat artsy-fartsy and airy-fairy – but I believe it may well be. I know – I’m a little old sad person. Things like that interest me.

It’s possible that Ian Anderson never so much as dipped a pointy nose into this volume or followed its tiny text with a pointy fingernail, or stood on one leg and played the flute in the same room as one of its cousins – but I like it in any case. It’s inspiring: a treasure trove of the weird and the arcane – of history, legend, rumour and tall tales. And lots of lovely pictures. You could build an entire writing career around this one volume, if you happened to have a whole writing career in front of you. Unfortunately, I don’t.

So, I turn to the index and find a creased orange postit-note pencilled Cats. References I had earmarked for just such an emergency – when a tabbycat snores in the post-tray.

The first reference to moggies is this one, on page 44:

Witches were once said to disguise themselves as cats, and many people refused to talk near a cat, for fear that a witch would learn their secrets.

Cats were regarded as the most common of witch-familiars. Puss would advise his mistress and run malicious errands for her. Their lives were thought to be so intertwined that if the cat was wounded the witch would be wounded in a similar fashion.

Cats, unlike dogs and horses, are said to be fond of ghosts, purring whenever they meet them. Cats can predict the wind or even, some say, raise it by clawing at carpets and curtains. When a cat washes its ears or sneezes, rain is sure to come, and if a cat sneezes near a bride on her wedding morning she will have a happy marriage.

Black cats are mostly believed to be lucky, although in Yorkshire (they always have to be different in Yorkshire) it is lucky to own one but unlucky to happen upon one by accident. White cats, unlike white horses, are usually said to bring bad luck.

Then of course there is the Cheshire Cat. Lewis Carroll’s Alice met a version of him in Wonderland. It had the ability to melt away into invisibility leaving only its grin behind. However, the common saying “to grin like a Cheshire Cat” was around long before Carroll picked up on it. Some say that Cheshire cheese used to be decorated with the head of a cat, others that the expression comes from the open-mouthed wolf-heads on the arms of the 11th Century Earl of Chester.

There is the story of the Doctor’s Devils. Gustavus Katterfelto, an 18th Century conjuror and quack who toured England dispensing worthless flu cures at five shillings a bottle. He made a grand entrance to each town in an antique horse-drawn carriage with two ‘negro servants’ in coloured livery parading through the streets and blowing trumpets. He kept two black cats with him at all times. These were known as the Doctor’s Devils although, sensibly, Gustavus always denied that they were of diabolical origin.

Witches were supposed to ride to their Sabbats on broomsticks, and in illustrations are often shown with a cat perched on front or back of the broomstick. However, the Cornwath witches, executed in 1664, claimed to have ridden upon ‘cats, cockerels and bundles of straw’.

At the first major English trial for witchcraft, in Chelmsford in the year 1566, Agnes Waterhouse, her daughter Joan and Elizabeth Francis, all from Hatford Peverell, were accused of each possessing in turn a black cat named Satan. Cat Satan was said to talk in a strange, hollow voice and occasionally assume the shape of a toad or a black dog. For each of his services to her Agnes was said to have paid him a drop of her blood: her face was said to be marked by spots where Cat Satan had sucked blood from it. She then apparently gave Satan to the other two defendants, for whom he was said to have spoilt butter and cheese (decked out for the occasion in an ape’s head and a pair of horns with a silver whistle about his neck), drowned a neighbour’s cows and bewitched a man to death.

How foolish and dangerous we all were, and how close even now to such beliefs. All those foolish, innocent girls and women killed. And I try not to imagine what must have happened through the witch-finding years, to those cats that just happened to have been born the wrong colour, at the wrong time, fed by the wrong woman in the wrong village or condemned by a sinister name.

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