Dipping our toes into the murky waters of the cats’ darkest period
Last year I added a date in my diary to see the most famous cat festival in the world – the ‘Kattenstoet’ (Literally meaning Festival Of The Cat) which is held in the month of May in Ypres, Belgium. Disappointingly, I’ve just found out that the festival is only on every 3 years so I’ve had to skip forward another year in my diary, to May 2015!
The festival of the cat looks like a lot of fun with people dressing up as cats of all shapes and sizes, along with the history of the cat paraded through the streets in the form of giant statues, for example a statue of Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess, The Norwegian Goddess Freyja who was always depicted being pulled along in her chariot by two beautiful majestic felines. There are all kinds of other feline deities and mythical characters.
The parade, in complete contrast to the worshipping of the cat, ends at the belfry tower of The Cloth Hall from where toy cats are thrown from the tower to their ‘supposed’ deaths, a ritual which goes back centuries and sadly, a ritual which originally used living cats. This ritual lasted until 1817, which is when the last cat is officially recorded as having been thrown to it’s death!
There has been many theories as to the origins of ‘cat throwing’ in Ypres from witchcraft and the need to banish perceived evil, to killing off the cats once their use for killing vermin came to an end (to keep rats away from wool stored in the belfry), or as Roger Tabor suggested in his book ‘The Rise Of The Cats’ , to display the cat as an animal with supernatural powers, seeing as cats can ‘right themselves in mid air, and land on their feet from great heights.
Whatever the reason, Belgium was not the only country where the cat fell wildly out of favour, before becoming the Western World’s most favourite pet again.
So, how did our favourite pet, so idolised in Egypt, fall out of favour?
Taking a step back in time.
Who knows why but cats have always been associated with gods, rituals and folklore. When Christianity became the main religion, all others were seen as pagan. Deity figures like the cat became demonic overnight, as well as followers of other religions who were labelled heretics. Woman with cats were seen as witches, especially ones with black cats.
There teachings merged early christianity with the teaching of the Persian prophet Mani. Involved in their worshipping were black cats, and it was stated that the Cathars were named after cats. The Waldensians also used cats in certain ceremonies. These sects were soon under scrutiny by mainstream Christians, classified as heretics, and so began the ruthless Albigensian crusades and the association with the cat and devil worship.
In the book ‘ The Rise Of The Cat’ Roger Tabor goes on to paint a picture of the 13th century an era he calls The Sinister Swing. This is when fundamental shifts in social and religious viewpoints meant that cats were persecuted in their 1000’s.
The Knights Templars are seen as having a strong connection in the demonisation of cats. In the 13th century all Christians were driven from the holy land and a third of all the Knights Templars based themselves in France. This huge ‘army’ unnerved King Philip who denounced them as heretics and extracted confessions out of the Templars under torture. Some, under interrogation, admitted to kissing a black cat during services and idolising Baphomet, whose name came close to the cat goddess Bastet. The ‘confessions’ were enough for King Philip to destroy the order. During this period Pope Gregory IX also declared that heretics worshipped the devil in the form of a black cat and set about establishing the Inquisitional Courts.
During the 14th century Pope Clement V joined in the persecution of The Knights Templar, as part of Papal policy, with charges such as homosexuality and worshipping the devil in the form of a black tom cat.
The late middle ages became a time of unspeakable cruelty to cats, thousands of which, were burnt alive or hanged. Through-out Europe they were bundled into wicker baskets above bonfires and their agony prolonged to make the devil suffer.
In 1559 the coronation of Protestant Queen Elizabeth l included an effigy of the pope which ended up on a bonfire. Trapped inside it’s wicker frame were live cats. The piercing screams were said to mimic the Pope’s dialogue with the devils.
Roger Tabor makes an interesting point in that the biology of the cat was greatly misunderstood and the thing that made the Egyptians see cats as gods also made Medieval Europe see them as devils. The cats reflective eyes at night and the piercing scream of the female cat during sex (a tom cats penis is barbed which rakes the female’s vaginal wall as he withdraws).
It’s a known fact that cats and women are intrinsically linked but sadly this meant the cat was vilified and tortured along with thousands of women accused of being witches. I found an interesting web site with a time line of Witch Hunts. The first witch to stand trail in the UK was in 1565 and the last accused witch was executed in England in 1684, France in 1745, Germany in 1775, Switzerland 1782, Poland 1792, and South America in 1830! The number of cats that were killed during the whole witch hunt period must roll into the thousands.
Many cats did find themselves still revered during this period, if lucky enough to be born in a part of the planet not obsessed with decimating them!
Cats were and still are highly regarded in the Middle East.
The cat is especially revered in Islam. It is said the great Prophet Mohammed, preparing to attend prayer, began to dress himself. However, he soon discovered his cat Muezza sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than wake her, he used a pair of scissors to cut the sleeve off, leaving the cat undisturbed. The Far East also held the cat in high esteem. There exists a special Thai manuscript called ‘The Cat Book Poems’ written between 1350 and 1767. Whilst the West were burning and hanging cats the temples looked upon them as sacred creatures.
So, what made the western world love them again!
The cat slowly crept into more favourable light during the 17th century and 18th centuries. Artists began to paint cats in favourably light again, The Dutch I believe were the first, and towards the end of the 17th century literature introduced the most famous cat of all ‘Puss In Boots‘ in the original version by Charles Perrault.
Forward-thinking people like writer Dr Johnson had many cats, one of which, his beloved Hodge, features in a statue at the bottom of London’s Gough Square. In 1871 the first ever cat show was organised by Harrison Weir. He set out to change peoples’ perceptions of cats and the show became a huge success, still going strong to this day. We can thank Harrison Weir for the luxury lifestyles most cats find themselves living in Western society today! Of course it helped that most churches changed their view that any unusual or unexplainable act of nature was demonic and therefore witches and their cats were evil spirits.
It’s such a fascinating fact that for centuries, humans have either worshipped or persecuted cats, using them in strange rituals due to the cat being seen as possessing magical powers, bringing good luck and fertility, or having evil satanic connections.
We frown upon the views of this backward thinking now but even in the 21st century superstitions still exist linked to the past. In the UK and Japan, having a black cat cross your path is considered good luck, whereas if you live in the USA or several European countries, it is bad luck to have a black cat walk by.
So… Roll on May 2015 when I can finally visit Belgium and enjoy the ‘Festival Of The Cats’ and celebrate the cat in all it’s glory without one actually being harmed!
Copyright: Anita Kelsey 2014 – UK Cat behaviourist and cat groomer