With Halloween around the corner, it’s time to go over some black cat mythology. Let’s dive in to the Scottish folklore surrounding the cat sith, to understand why these shadowy felines are symbols of Halloween.
The cat sìth (also spelled cait sìdhe) is described as a large black cat with a white patch on its chest. It is often depicted standing on all fours with its back arched and fur standing up. It’s also pictured standing on two feet, in a humanlike way.
The cat sith is a spectral cat that haunts the Scottish Highlands. There are also stories in Irish mythology that mention this creature, though they spell it cat sí.
Many creatures and stories in Irish mythology and Scottish folklore overlap due to the proximity of these two countries, including that of the cat sith.
Cat sith is derived from the Gaelic words cait meaning cat and sithiche meaning fairy. Don’t be fooled, these fairy cats are anything but sweet. They were widely feared due to their penchant for soul snatching and other nefarious activities.
Cat sith & soul snatching
One of the most terrifying beliefs about the cat sith was its ability to claim souls. If a cat sith passed over a dead body before it was buried, the creature would steal its soul before the soul could go to the afterlife.
Cat sidhe frequently preyed on funeral parlors and other places where the dead were kept before burial, in the hopes of finding the most souls.
Legend said that Scottish people would guard their dead to keep them safe during a feill fadalach. This was essentially a wake where the living used various methods to deter the cat sith.
They would spread catnip to all of the rooms except for the one where the body was being kept. They kept this room cold, because the cat sith (like all cats) loved warmth.
The people guarding the bodies played games where they would wrestle and leap over each other to distract the cait sidhe. They also played music and told riddles, all in hopes to sidetrack the cat sith from its soul thievery.
Cat sidhe and Samhain
One of the reasons black cats are associated with Halloween is because of the black cat mythology tying Samhain to the cat sidhe. Samhain is the Celtic fire festival signaling the end of the fall harvest, from which Halloween is derived.
On Samhain, it was believed that cait sidhe would visit farms to steal the milk from cows, and curse the home. This curse would render the cows unable to produce milk in the future.
However, if people put out a dish of milk for the cat sith, it would bless the house, and sometimes even leave gifts.
If you’re interested in learning more about Samhain, make sure to check out our guide to the traditions of Samhain. It gives the history of the holiday and goes in depth about the mythology surrounding it.
Witches and black cats
Throughout history there has been a long standing connection between witches and black cats. There is even black cat folklore tying witches to the cat si.
Most Scottish mythology accepted the cat sith as a fairy creature. However, Irish folklore believed that the cat si was actually a witch.
They believed that witches had the power to transfigure themselves into a black cat and back to their human form. They were able to do this form switching nine times.
However, after the ninth transformation, the witches would remain permanently in their feline form. This could be one of the possible origins of the common phrase “cats have nine lives”.
Stories of the cat sith
While many stories mention the general description of cat sidhe, there are some stories in which a specific cat sith is mentioned.
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Summoning Big Ears
There’s a version of the cat sith called “Big Ears” that could be summoned during a divination ritual called taghairm. Once he was called, he would fulfill the summoner’s wishes.
The taghairm involved burning multiple cats on a bonfire over a period of four days and nights. This would summon Big Ears, a demonic cat that enjoyed the torture of other cats.
The King of the Cats
There’s a story called The King o’ the Cats, which comes from the British Isles. The tale begins with a gravedigger, recounting a story to his wife, while she was holding their black cat named Old Tom on her lap.
The man said that he was working at night, digging a grave when he noticed synchronized meowing.
Surprised to hear the sound, he turned to see nine black cats with white spots on their chest, standing on their hind legs. They were carrying a small wooden coffin with a black cloth draped over it.
The cats marched forward, meowing in unison. They suddenly stopped in front of the man and said “tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Tildrum is dead” and marched off.
During the course of the story, the gravedigger’s cat Old Tom was meowing along. However, when he got to the message from the cats informing the gravedigger of Tim Tildrum’s death, Old Tom began to grow in size.
He turned from a regular house cat into a large cat sith, and exclaimed to the gravedigger “What? – Old Tim is dead? Then I am the king of cats now!”. At this declaration, Old Tom ran up the chimney, never to return.
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More black cats
If you enjoyed learning this black cat mythology about the cat sith, then you might be excited to know there are actually several national days of the year dedicated to black cats.
In addition to the national days dedicated to black cats, Halloween is also a time of the year when black cats are celebrated!
Looking for more mythology posts?
If you enjoyed learning about the cat sith in Scottish and Irish folklore, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more mythology of some of your favorite things!
- The Legend of Stingy Jack – Learn the origin of modern day jack o lantern carving in this Irish folk tale where a man outsmarts the devil.
- The Legend of the Dogwood Tree – There are many symbols of Easter, and this story explains the religious meaning behind dogwood trees and why they are a symbol of the holiday.
- Who is Cupid? – Not only is Cupid a symbol of Valentine’s Day, but he’s also a Greek god featured in multiple Greek myths including The Story of Cupid and Psyche and The Story of Daphne and Apollo.
- National Goddess of Fertility Day – Learn about Aphrodite, the Greek fertility goddess and the other fertility goddesses this March 18 national day celebrates.
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About the author
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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