“The scath of the dog and of the cat be on you. Of the boar, of the badger, and of the ‘ brugha,’ Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf, And the scath of the foul foumart.”Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 1, 1900
The role of the cat is somewhat uncertain but what we do know is that they mostly seemed to serve the same guardian and liminal function as gatekeepers of the Otherworld or related to the process of crossing over after death. There is also an impression they were associated on some level with the feminine, goddess or witch archetypal energy. It’s unclear to what extent they were kept as pets but they certainly were in some capacity, possibly for similar reason we keep cats around today, to keep mice or other critters at bay and for companionship. Ancient Scotland, Ireland and Britain most definitely had wild cats, likely similar looking as the Scottish wild cat today, said to be twice the size as domestic cats. In the Brehon Law, the Irish Fili were said to chew on a piece of raw flesh of pig, dog or cat to induce a meditative and prophetical state and various aspects of cat ownership were mentioned. 1
Images are from “Cats in Medieval Manuscripts” by Kathleen Walker-Meikle
An early Irish poem written on the margins of a 9th century scribe describes a man’s loving relationship with his white cat called Pangur Ban…
The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has madeTranslations by W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
There are many old Irish legends regarding huge monstrous cats dwelling in caves. P.W. Joyce mentions a few and is worthy of quoting in full…
“One of these monsters, named Irusan, that had his dwelling in the cave of Knowth on the Boyne, once seized the poet Senchan in his mouth and ran off with him, till he was rescued by St. Ciaran. Another tremendous cat named Luchthigern (‘mouse-lord’: luch, a mouse), lived in Derc-Ferna, now the cave of Dunmore near Kilkenny, till he was killed by a ban-gaisgidheach or female champion of Leinster. Three monstrous cats dwelt in the cave of Croghan, from which Conall Cernach and Laegaire the Victorious had to fly for their lives ; but Cuculainn withstood them though he was not able to kill them.”
In another tale, the Immram Maele Dúin, Voyage of Maelduin, Máel Dúin was an attractive and brave warrior who defeated everyone local to him in various games such as spear casting and racing horses. A jealous youth made fun of him exposing that he knew the truth of Máel’s birth and of him being a foster child and that he knew no true kindred. Máel refused to eat or drink until his adoptive parents told him the truth, so his foster mother, the queen sent him on a journey to find his biological mother. Once there, his mother told him about his real father’s death or rather, murder. He was urged by a community member, an ill tempered man named Briccne to seek revenge for his father’s death. Máel sought the advice of a druid named Nuca at Corcomroe who advised him how to find the murderers. So, he set off on a sailing voyage with his 3 step brothers. They visited many islands such as the island of ‘colourful birds’, ‘angry smiths’, ‘eternal youth’, ‘red fruits’ among many others.
There was one particular island however that was the ‘The Palace of the Little Cat’ that held a great fort with large pillars in the front of it. Nobody was there on the island except for a curious little cat hopping from pillar to pillar, guarding the area. They explored the fort to find lots of food, soft beds and various treasures. Máel asked the cat if the food was prepared for them. The cat looked his direction but said nothing and resumed his play so Máel assumed they were given permission. They ate and drank until they were satisfied and went to sleep. The next morning they gathered the remaining food with intent on continuing their journey. The eldest brother asked if they should not take one of the torques away with them to which Máel replied absolutely not. The brother ignored Máel’s warning and took down the torque starting to walk away with it. The cat suddenly appeared again and sprang on him like a “blazing fiery arrow” going through his body and reducing him into a pile of ashes. Máel apologized to the cat and returned the torque to its place on the wall. He collected the ashes of his brother and they cast them into the sea, mourning him as they continued their journey but thankful they had escaped with their own lives. By the time they reach their destined ‘island of murderers’, Máel had learned so much about the world and himself that he could only marvel at all he discovered and they made peace.
There is an enormous amount of folk lore surrounding the cat (especially the black cat) in regards to both, their healing (lucky) and cursing (unlucky) capabilities, particularly of their fur or tail or of them simply crossing your path or car. Various practices were referenced heavily throughout Lady Wilde’s folk collections (for what one might consider them worth with her being a contentious character) such as these from her book Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland…
A black cat without any white spot has great power either for or against witchcraft, and the hair must be taken from a cat of this description, for the demons fear it.
When changing your residence, it is unlucky to bring a cat with you, especially across a stream, and a red and white cat is particularly ominous and dangerous. If a black cat comes of her own accord to your house, keep her, she is a good spirit; but do not bring her, she must come freely, of her own good will.
The tail of a black cat rubbed on the eyes has marvellous curative properties, and the blood of a black at is largely used in all mystic cures for disease.
The cat sí (Irish) or cat-sìth (Scottish) was/is a fairie creature that was said to resemble a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. Legend has it that the spectral cat still haunts the Scottish highlands. The legends surrounding this creature also appear in some Irish tales. In some folk legends the cat is a fairie and in others, a witch in disguise. It was old folk legend that a witch could transform into a cat nine times and this may have been where the old myth that cats have nine lives comes from. The cat sídhe may have originally been inspired by the Irish lynx, Scottish wildcat itself or Kellas cats as they are now called which are a distinctive hybrid between the wildcats and domestic cats that are only found in Scotland today. Typical Kellas cats resemble large black wildcats, but with some peculiar features to domestic cats and have been present in Scotland for centuries, most likely since the introduction of domestic cats used for mousing.
The cat-sìth are not generally trusted and it was thought that they could steal a person’s soul before it was claimed by the gods or passed over. Watches called the Fèill Fhadalach (Late Wake) were performed at night and sometimes the day to keep the cat away from a corpse before burial. Methods of distraction were used such as games of wrestling, riddles, fire, music and even catnip to keep the malevolent cat away from the room in which the corpse lay. On Samhain, it was believed that the cat-sìth would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out for it to drink. If you didn’t leave out milk, your house could be cursed and your cows’ milk could run dry. The cat clearly had and continues to have a very mixed connotation, nuanced in their symbology of light or dark depending on the context of their presence.
An Irish tale of the cat sí…
“Once upon a time there was a man living near Ballymalis Castle, called Jeramiah Carter. One day he went to Killorglin to buy sheep. When he came home his wife told him that the cat was making mournful noise around the house all day. He went to hunt out the cat but couldn’t find it. Next day his sheep strayed away and he did not know where to find them. At last he said he would go towards the castle in search of them. When he reached Ballymalis Castle he heard a great wailing within. He waited for an hour, and at last a big cat came out on top of the castle. The cat spoke to him and told to tell her sister at home that her mother was dead. He got his sheep and went home. When he reached home he told his wife what the cat had said. When the other cat heard the news, she went away and was never seen again. It is said that those two cats were witches. They went to Ballymalis Castle and were there for many years after. I heard this story from my mother and she heard it from her uncle, who was seventy years at that time.”Margaret Doyle, County Kerry, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0471, Page 185
- Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland, Longmans, Green and Co. 1903. Pg. 243.