Mankind has a long and inconsistent history with the humble cat; venerated as a god in ancient Egypt but denounced as a servant of the devil by the Church in the 13th century, a sign of good luck in some cultures and an evil omen in others.
It is perhaps an obscure papal bull issued in 1232, condemning devil worship in Stedingerland, which helped to entrench in the popular imagination an association between the black cat and occult power. During the Middle Ages, in Europe, black cats were often believed to serve as a witch’s familiar – a demonic imp able to take on any animal form who acted as a witch’s close attendant, having been given to her by the Devil or gifted by another witch. Witches were also believed to be able to interpret the wails of a cat.
At the time, it was also commonly believed that witches could shape-shift into black cats to escape peril but witches could only change into a cat eight times before remaining forever in a feline form. Whether this is the source of the popular saying about cats having nine lives or its origin is something more prosaic concerning the animal’s uncanny ability to survive great falls; we will never know but nine has long been a ritually symbolic number.
The black cat as a symbol of a nocturnal, lunar beast associated with evil and death is found in many cultures across the world and in Brittany it was said to be one of the Devil’s many guises. Sometimes one might meet the Devil in this form at a crossroads but to enjoy a token of the Devil’s wealth it was necessary to sell him your soul, signing the contract with a little blood taken from the forefinger of your left hand. According to the terms of this pact, you would, after death, belong to the black cat; a creature popularly known here as Paolig, a Breton nickname for the Devil that literally translates to little Paul.
Some Breton tales expand on this theme and talk of the black cat as ar c’hazh arc’hant (a money cat) that was given to a witch as a gift from the Devil in exchange for her soul. To secure such a cat it was said to be necessary to visit a crossroads at midnight and there invoke the Devil. The witch’s supplications would be rewarded by the appearance of a large black cat who would be accompanied by another smaller cat which would be given to the witch along with a purse containing a few gold coins. If well cared for, the cat would start wandering at night; returning each morning with a gift of gold coins for its witch but upon the expiry of the contract period, the cat immediately takes the witch’s soul to the Devil.
However, one was said to have eight out of nine chances to escape his clutches; odds that perhaps explain why many folk were thought tempted to sell their eternal souls for temporal riches. All contracts, awarded by the black cat, were held to be written down in chronological order on his ledger but he had an undisputed right only to every ninth entry. One could never know one’s ranking in the Devil’s account book and so it was always necessary to take care to avoid his claws as the hour of your death drew near.
One Breton tale relates the story of a weaver from Quintin who, as a teenager, sold her soul to the Devil in exchange for a chest full of new clothes made of the finest linen. When she died many years later, the pallbearers at her funeral were embarrassed to find themselves unable to lift her diminutive coffin from the table. These men were millers; healthy and strong but they could not envisage how they might carry such a weight to the church. Imagining some trick was being played on them, they opened the coffin and were startled as a big black cat jumped out and ran away through the open doorway.
Another tale concerning the capture of a ‘money cat’ says that a person who wished to possess such a beast should stay several nights at an intersection of five roads with only a dead hen in a sack for company. One’s patience would be rewarded by the appearance of the cat which you would lure towards you with the dead hen. Once captured, the cat was to be placed in the sack which needed to be tied securely with white twine. It was then necessary to travel immediately and without deviation to what would become the cat’s new home but on no account were you to look behind you, no matter what noises you heard following you. Only once home could the cat be let out of the bag and transferred to a chest where it would be kept until tamed. When fully tamed and comfortable, the cat would reward its owner with a gift of gold; new coins appearing in the chest every morning.
These black cats were said be tremendously loyal to their temporary custodian but only if they were treated as the master of the house and fed with the first morsels of food at mealtimes and succoured with milk from the breast. However, one tradition holds that this cat serves not one but nine masters and takes only the soul of the last of these. For those owners who wished to renege on their agreement with the Devil it was vital that the cat be passed on to someone else before their death. It is said that there was once a market, held each year at Christmas in Gourin, central Brittany, which was established solely for the trading of black cats. Alas, this market eventually became a victim of its own popularity; deluged with throngs of people from across Brittany and further afield, the commune banned the market to save the town from chaos and the gaze of the evil eye that fell upon it as a result of the presence of so many diabolical cats.
Breton tales often like to portray a balance in nature and stories involving the black cat are no exception, for the animal brings not just wealth but also misfortune. There are many versions of such tales that typically follow a pattern similar to this:
Barely scraping a living from his meagre plot of land, a poor but decent man reluctantly concludes that the only way that he can be sure to feed his ever-growing family is by selling his immortal soul. One night, he walks to a desolate spot where five roads cross and there makes his deal with the Devil. In return, he secures a black cat which he takes home, giving it a place of honour near the hearth. The family treat the cat well and always ensure it gets the first taste of their pottage and is breast fed before their baby son. Settled and content, the cat very soon starts disappearing at night, returning each morning with a purse full of gold coins. It is not long before the once impoverished family are richer than they ever imagined possible.
However, the Devil’s bargain only lasts for one year and with the deadline looming, the now wealthy farmer turns his mind towards settling his account and surrendering his soul. Suddenly, the bargain does not seem as appealing as it did a year ago and the man anxiously searches for a solution to his plight. He tried to sell his cat but no one was willing to take it and the market in Gourin had not been staged for many years. Seemingly, his only hope was the parish rector who, to his great relief, agreed to rid the household of the cat in exchange for a portion of the Devil’s gold.
Late the following night, accompanied by two other priests from the parish, the rector arrived to perform the exorcism. The cat was not expected to return to the house until a little before daybreak and so the priests readied themselves, earnestly praying as they donned their surplices and stoles. The cat must have returned sometime around four o’clock because shortly after that hour, the house trembled with the noise of harsh shouts, terrible screams and appalling blasphemies. Suddenly, a frightful crash of thunder shook the house and an eerie silence descended across the farm.
The priests, whose faces and vestments were now as black as soot, had succeeded; the Devil had been cheated and the black cat was gone. They bade the mistress of the house prepare them a hearty lunch and relayed a little of how they managed to capture the cat and the fierce struggle that had ensued. They told of how they had bested the Devil and that as he returned to Hell, in his rage, he broke wind with such ferocity that the priests were knocked to the ground. The rector explained that it was this sulphurous miasma that had blackened their garments and fouled the air.
Unhappily, the story does not end there, for it is reported that the poisoned air spread across the land contaminating the potatoes and giving them mildew. Denied his bargain, the Devil took his revenge on the farmland; the leaves of the potatoes were as black as charcoal, so, could only have come from the fires of Hell. Similarly, the stench of the diseased crop could only be the smell of a roasting from Hell. It is unsurprising that the story is usually set in 1845-6, the years of a ruinous potato blight in Brittany.
There were several ways to outwit the Devil and emerge unscathed with a little of his wealth. In one example it was necessary to take a pitch fork, a completely white feathered hen and some golden grass to a point where two roads intersect. When the black cat appears at midnight it is crucial to immediately release the hen so that the cat chases after it. The hen while running away will scream that the cat has better things to do than chase her. The golden grass will allow you to understand the languages of the beasts, so that when the cat responds to say that he can stop watching over the treasure buried in such-and-such a place for a few minutes, time enough to catch a chicken, you will learn where the treasure is hidden and need only to quickly dig it up with your fork. Even assuming the animals obligingly followed the anticipated script, securing the semi-mythical golden grass would likely have made this a most challenging enterprise!
Sometimes, folklore offers us contradictory advice for it was once said that those who owned a black cat should not allow it to leave the house else it would attend a witches’ sabbath and no longer bring home any gold. Although most Breton folk tales seem to indicate that closed doors will not contain a cat as it is often said to be the form most favoured by fairies and witches; two notoriously nocturnal anti-social groups held to be able to assume the form of almost any animal and travel at will.
It was once believed that, on certain nights, witches liked to congregate in secret at the ancient dolmens and circles of standing stones that pepper the Breton landscape. If anyone happened to stumble upon their circle or was caught spying on these nocturnal meetings, they seldom lived long. Others, terrified at the sight presented by the gleaming eyes of these witches cum cats, fled in terror and found that the hair of their heads had turned white as snow from dread. Long afterwards, they would sit by the fireside trembling visibly at nothing and when asked about their very evident fears would only groan balefully.
A popular story was told of Yann Foucault, who one moonlight night, was returning from a successful day at the fair in Rostrenen where he had celebrated the sale of his crop a little too robustly in the town’s many taverns. The cool night air was as invigorating as the lambig he had been drinking and he walked merrily at pace along the road that crossed the high moor towards home. The moon emerged from behind a thick cloud just as Yann rounded a bend illuminating a sight that instantly dropped the song from his throat and made the blood freeze hard in his veins.
Before him, ranged in a circle around an old wayside cross hewn from a block of cold granite were at least two dozen cats, all of immense size and of all colours and hues. Yann began to tremble as though he was caught in the grip of a terrible fever, for the cats were wailing, hunching their backs high and shaking their tails. The poor man was frozen in fear, mesmerised by the spectacle of the cats’ hairs bristling on their backs as though being pulled upwards by the very moon itself and their eyes, like hot coals, darting fire across the night. The dreadful caterwauling rose to a crescendo as the cats sprang towards him and it was at this point that Yann gave himself up for lost.
Fully expecting to be torn to pieces, he closed his eyes tightly and began reciting a prayer but instead of feeling claws scratching at his flesh, he felt an animal pushing against his legs. Yann opened his eyes and immediately recognised his own cat, now purring loudly, stroking his leg with her tail and fawning over him with clear affection. He was dumbfounded as the animal looked up at him, saying: “Pass, my master, Yann Foucault”. A great silver tomcat, whom Yann supposed to be the leader, nodded in agreement and also spoke in the language of men to say: “It is well, go on your way, Yann Foucault.”
Fairy lore in Brittany sometimes directly connects cats and fairies, such as in the legend of the fairies of the Emerald Coast. In that tale, the fairies manage to attract a group of fishermen to join them in their nocturnal dances under the light of the full moon. Having gone willingly, the men were soon bewitched and transformed into six black cats and six white cats. Their only hope of regaining human form was to weave a golden mantle and silver robe for the fairies using only the sand of the seashore. Once their task was accomplished, the men regained their human form but history does not tell us how many years had passed by then. In another tale, a fairy changeling is unmasked having betrayed himself by uttering a most curious exclamation: “I was born in Pif and Paf, in the country where cats are made, but I never saw anything like it!”
Like the fairy folk, the black cat is often representative of nocturnal intrusions and stealthy movement, both qualities closely aligned with witches who were thought to assume feline form to better access the hidden world of magic. Some Breton traditions held that black cats themselves were witches but only when they had not had the end of their tails cut off.
Black cats were sometimes ascribed supernatural powers independent of their association with witchcraft. For instance, it was thought they could prevent the bread from rising if they entered a bakery and could spoil the catch if they crossed the path of fishermen. Other superstitions abounded, such as no cat that had been purchased would ever catch mice, and that the pupils of a cat’s eyes were so linked to the moon that they changed colour and dilated during a rising tide.
Finding a black cat with only one white hair was considered most auspicious as it was said that anyone who could pluck a white hair from a black cat without getting scratched would receive great riches or else great love. One belief from southern Brittany warned against accidentally swallowing a cat hair as it could turn into a snake in one’s stomach and cause a most painful death.
In yesterday’s Brittany, a woman seeking a husband needed to avoid treading on a cat’s tail – in the west of the region the bad luck was said to last for seven years but in the east it was held to last for as many years as the cat had shrieked. If a cat left a house or stopped jumping on its owner’s bed, the person was thought likely to die soon although a cat lying on the bed of one who was dying was quickly moved away for fear that it might be the Devil waiting to carry away a soul to Hell. To kill a cat was to bring grave misfortune upon its owner or their household.
Many traditional Breton folk remedies involved cats; to recover quickly from a bad fall, one needed to suck the blood from the freshly amputated tail of a male cat. Similarly, blood from the tail of a black cat was said to have healing properties if rubbed on the affected area; while stroking the tail of a black cat across a wart during the period of the new moon in May was said to be a sure way to make it disappear.
An invisibility spell from an 18th century Breton grimoire or book of spells called for a completely black cat and a brand new cooking pot that was filled with water and brought to the boil. Once boiling, the unfortunate cat was introduced to the pot and boiled alive until totally defleshed. It was then necessary to pick the 250 or so bones out of this unholy broth and taking each, one at a time, put them between your teeth until you could no longer see your reflection in a mirror. The bone that you held between your teeth at that moment was said to be the one that could make you invisible every time you held it between your teeth thereafter.
Similarly, eating the warm brain of a freshly killed cat was also said to grant one the power of invisibility and several other Breton spells of invisibility involved replacing the eyes of a cat with beans and burying the animal’s carcass in a dung-heap for a day. The beans then needed to be placed under one’s tongue for the spell to work.
The power of cats could be contained and turned to one’s advantage if certain rituals were followed, such as applying butter to their paws or cutting off their tail when first homed. Similarly, burying a dead cat in an apple orchard was thought to make diseased trees bear fruit again. Enclosing live cats within the walls of buildings seems also to have once been regarded as a powerful talisman as cat bones have been discovered in many sites across Brittany, including the 14th century Château de Combourg; childhood home of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) one of Brittany’s most important authors. In his memoirs, he evokes his lonely childhood and nights spent tormented by nightmares of a man with a wooden leg who haunted the staircase of his turret chamber, sometimes he dreamt that the wooden leg wandered alone accompanied by a black cat. Some 30 years after Chateaubriand’s death, the skeleton of a cat was found inside the tower’s walls during renovation work.
The belief that the cat possessed an innate power, usually malevolent, seems to have once been quite widespread in France and other European countries. How else might we explain the common instances of the torture and slaying of cats in the literature and history of the 17th and 18th centuries? Perhaps these were manifestations of a popular desire to protect against the malevolent power of witchcraft; destroying the cat, destroyed its power and that of its associates?
In some parts of France during this period, festivals were held that revolved around roasting live cats over bonfires or throwing the animals high into the air to smash into the ground. Even as late as the middle of the 17th century, when the practice was officially proscribed, live cats were tied up in sacks and thrown onto Midsummer bonfires although the practice was still reported in the east of France well into the following century. The persistence of this practice may have been related to the once popular belief that cats, witches and other disciples of the Devil participated in grand sabbaths on Midsummer’s Eve. I have found no record of similar practices taking place in Brittany and feel confident that they would have been noted had they existed or even been hinted at.
Perhaps this suspicion of the black cat is rooted in a fear of the cat’s fiercely independent nature and its ability to move with effortless grace in the hours of darkness. Whatever the reason, cats possess a quality that has fascinated mankind since the dawn of recorded time and the animal has long held significant symbolic weight in the folklore of Brittany and other parts of the world. Even today, we here probably make more symbolic use of cats than of any other animal and the language remains rich with cat related idioms and proverbs.