More Familiar Than You Might Think: The Black Cat in Popular Culture

'The Wonderful discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower.’ 1619. © The British Library Board, C.27.b.35
‘The Wonderful discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower.’ 1619. © The British Library Board, C.27.b.35

By Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar, Associate Investigator, The University of Melbourne

A casual google of ‘Halloween’ will throw up a few things. There are the ubiquitous pumpkins, the skeletons, the ghosts. There are even some rather disturbing pet costumes involving all three of these things. And there are the cats. Always black cats, always a staple of anything witchy or supernatural. Cats are witchy. Anyone who grew up watching 90s television (perhaps not a large contingent of my current audience…) can tell you this. The reason that we watched Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, was not for the rather worrying high-school politics, but for her adorable talking cat, Salem. Everyone knows that a witch will have a black cat. But how many people can actually tell you why? Sabrina-The-Teenage-Witch.jpg

For the answer to this question we need to go back about four hundred years to England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). This was the period when witch-trials really took off in England. Between 1558 and 1736, approximately 1000 men and women (but mainly women) were tried for witchcraft. Of these, about half were executed. Witch-trials were often the subject of sensational pamphlet accounts; stories circulated in the public domain. In a significant portion of these narratives, witches were portrayed as people who owned small, domestic animals: often in the form of cats. These creatures were known as familiar spirits. They did not have to be cats. Although they most commonly appeared as such, they also appeared (in descending order) as dogs, toads, wild birds, poultry, moles, and rats. Some took far more exotic forms. Take, for example, the talking familiar with a head like an ape that appeared at the bottom of one accused witch’s bed. Or the dog with horns on its head. Or the animal that chose to appear as first as a bear, then a horse, a cow and, finally, a dragon. Some familiars looked normal but had strange characteristics; like the mole that appeared normal until it spoke in a hollow voice. Or the two familiars, Grissell and Greedigut, that were described as being in the shape of dogs with great bristles of hog’s hair on their backs. Whatever form familiars took they performed one role: they were animalistic embodiments of the Devil

Kit the cat, a familiar from the TV series ‘Charmed’.

This information may surprise some people. Not least the owners of the shop in a famous Melbourne arcade who advertised a children’s holiday programme that would help them to find their familiar spirit (I really should have gone but it would have looked a bit odd without a convenient child). I have often wondered if the makers of Sabrina or Charmed knew about the demonic origins of the creatures they were so cosily introducing. Witches were believed to enter into a pact with the Devil, who appeared to them in animal form. By promising a demonic animal their soul, witches traded away their very being for the ability to hurt their neighbours, to get rich, or to take revenge on the many people who they believed had injured them. But perhaps these cosy depictions from 90s television are actually wholly appropriate. Witches in early modern England were believed to have affectionate, intimate relationships with their familiar spirits. They fed them (sometimes with milk but more often with blood from their own bodies), made them nests out of wool, and slept with them in bed.

How are we to understand familiar spirits? These creatures clearly were not actually animalistic incarnations of the Devil, but this does not mean that they did not exist. I would argue that the very ordinary, domestic nature of these spirits implies strongly that sightings of familiars were based on real sightings of animals whom old, often lonely men and women formed relationships with. Many witches were condemned for talking to these creatures – and of course talking to an animal can only mean that it is demonic. Accusers, witnesses, magistrates, and pamphleteers all imagined these animals as the witch’s link with the Devil; the witch’s way of accessing the harmful magic that could kill children, torture neighbours, lame cattle, and make men impotent. But how did witches view these creatures?

Except for a brief period during the 1640s, accused witches were not tortured in England. In many ways this makes it more difficult to understand why so many men and women confessed to crimes that they could not possibly have committed. Hundreds of people confessed to making a pact with their demonic familiars and to sending them to harm those who had wronged them. So how should we read these stories?

Surprisingly enough, anyone who has read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy may know of one possible answer to this question. Pullman’s animalistic creatures, known as daemons, were described as manifestations of a person’s inner self. These creatures were intelligent, emotionally aware, and reflected aspects of their companion’s personality. I would argue that this is how we should look at witches’ confessions of harming people with their familiars. Familiars were not just black cats or other domestic animals. They served as physical manifestations of witches’ unutterable emotions: of extreme rage, anger, malice, envy, hatred and, in some cases, love. Witches used their demonic creatures to act upon these emotions. Without their cats, witches had no power but, with them, they were able to take credit for the illness that killed the man who slapped them in the street, or the woman who refused them alms. The black cat was a powerful figure and, even early in the witch-trials, owning one of these familiar spirits was enough to result in arrest, trial and, for some men and women, death. The association between cats and witchcraft is so strong that it continues four hundred years later; even when we no longer remember why.

Those interested in the links between witchcraft and emotions in early modern Europe and beyond may like to attend our upcoming symposium: Witchcraft and Emotions: Media and Cultural Meanings. This symposium will be held from the 25th – 27th November 2015 at Graduate House, The University of Melbourne.

Charlotte-Rose Millar is an Associate Investigator and research assistant based at the University of Melbourne. Her PhD was completed through the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne with Prof. Charles Zika. Her research focuses on early modern English witchcraft, diabolism, popular print and emotional experience. More on her research here. 

Further reading:

Millar, Charlotte-Rose, “Sleeping with Devils: The Sexual Witch in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England, edited by Victoria Bladen and Marcus Harmes, (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015).

Oldridge, Darren, The Devil in Early Modern England, (Stroud: Sutton, 2000).

Sharpe, James, “The Witch’s Familiar in Elizabethan England,” in Authority and Consent in Tudor England: Essays Presented to C.S.L. Davies, edited by George W. Bernard and Steven J. Gunn, (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2002).

Wilby, Emma, “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland,” Folklore 111 (2000): 283-305.

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