Black cats and werewolves once thought to be
witches in disguise.
Black cats are hallmarks of the playfully spooky modern celebration of Halloween. But they weren't always associated with wholesome autumn fright. Black cats and other creepy creatures were once seen as harbingers of death and disaster, according to Walter Stephens, author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief, published in paperback this month by University of Chicago Press.
Such creatures were believed to be witches' companions, or worse yet, witches who had disguised themselves as animals to inflict pain and suffering surreptitiously, Stephens says. In the 15th century, witches were widely believed to be the cause of all the bad things that happened to good people. Faced each day with a hard life in which tragedy was the norm, people needed to blame someone other than God. Accused witches became popular culprits.
How did a witch, usually a woman, allegedly wreak havoc on the unsuspecting? By masquerading as screech owls, black cats and werewolves, according to the writing of the day as researched by Stephens, a professor in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the Johns Hopkins University. Today's Halloween costumes can be seen as a benign manifestation of this centuries-old popular belief in witches' maleficent shape-shifting, Stephens says.
"Disguise makes a person ghostlike, and ghosts can go where living people cannot," Stephens says.
In Italy, peasant mythology of the time evidently imagined that witches transformed themselves into cats to kill babies in their cradles. When there wasn't any sign of injury to a deceased child, it was often theorized that the child had been attacked by a cat — the wounds they make are small and demons could make them heal instantly, it was believed. Similar tales were told of witches who became wolves to attack older children and adults outdoors.
The companionship of witches and cats was also a commonplace element of English witchcraft theory. The English witch's "familiar," the domesticated demon who carried out her evil deeds, could be incarnated as a small animal. The companionship between a marginal person and her pet was often interpreted by believers in witchcraft as a relationship between human and demonic enemies of God.
"Even today, the Halloween witch has one inseparable companion: her black cat," Stephens says. "For North American children conditioned by relentless commercial culture, a hissing black cat with arched back is a primary symbol of Halloween."
Stephens welcomes opportunities to work with the media. To arrange an interview with him, contact Amy Cowles at 410-516-7160.
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