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Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Jeremy Harte


(Upcaptioned illustrations used with article are from
sixteenth and seventeenth century woodcuts.)

It was a dark and stormy night. A man was running home through the rain; he threw himself through the door of the house and slammed it behind him. His wife jumped up, surprised, and even their old tom cat looked up curiously from beside the fire. Asked what was wrong, the man came out with a queer story. As he had been walking along the lonely wet road homewards, he came across a long line of cats, like a procession – and as he said this, their own cat paced towards him. This procession seemed to be a funeral, since there were four cats at the front carrying a coffin draped in black – and here their own cat fixed his deep green eyes, fascinated, on the speaker. On top of the coffin there was a little cushion, and on that cushion a crown . . . and at this, their own cat swelled up to twice his size and hissed out the words 'So! Old Tom's dead and I'm King of the Cats!' And he turned round and bolted up the chimney before either of them could stop him (Jacobs 1894:156; Briggs 1970:B1.294).

'It's nature breaks through the eyes of a cat', say the Irish. 'Someways they would put a dread on you. What company do they keep? When the moon is riding high and the wind tearing the trees, and the shadows black with cold, who is it calls them from the hearth? Tell me that' (Glassie 1985: 178). Cats pass unchanged from the cold, wet wild into the home, and at a time of their own choosing go out again. There is no other animal, wild or tame, that behaves like this, which is why motif B342 is always told as King of the Cats. It is a simple enough drama, with three actors, and a parallelism of plot. First the man speaks, and the cat is surprised: then the cat speaks, and the humans are surprised. The man goes in from the lonely road to the warm hearthside; then the cat goes out from the house to the wild. And the wife sits by the fire, listening to them both, passive and domestic.

But what of women who did not stay at home? Might they not, like cats, slip out unseen at night to meet strange company in the woods and fields? Lady Sybil of Bernshaw Tower certainly did. She was a woman of independent spirit; she rejected all advances from men, but the Devil made her a better offer and she sold her soul to him. After that she spent her days wandering among the crags and cliffs that rise beyond Burnley, and her nights dancing with the Lancashire witches. Lord William of Hapton Tower was the most persistent of her suitors, and at length his moment came, for he came across Sybil when she was in the form of a doe and he hunted her down with his dogs until she was compelled to change back to human form and agree to be his bride. The marriage was not a success. Within the year Lady Sybil was out again at nights, this time in the form of a white cat. She and her unholy sisters enjoyed themselves hugely spoiling all the corn of the neighbourhood, but when they were at Cliviger Mill they kicked up such a racket that the miller's boy woke up, stumbled into the building knife in hand, and hacked away at the fleeing animals. Next morning Lady Sybil lay indisposed in bed, her right arm thrust firmly under the bedclothes, but the miller's boy was angrily knocking at her husband's door, and in his bag he carried a lady's severed hand (Harland & Wilkinson 1873: 5–7).

Witch cats are not uncommon, and they usually meet their end through a transferred blow of this sort (Baughman 1966: motif G275.12). On the Island of Purbeck, in my native Dorset, the old road used to pass through a toll gate just outside Ulwell, and a cottage beside the road was home to the witch, Jinny Gould. She used to sit out on the gate at nights in the form of a cat, getting a lot of fun out of terrifying travellers, until one drunken carter picked up enough daring to land her a blow across the back with his whip. Suddenly the cat vanished, and back in the cottage Jinny lay dead (Luckham 1906). Today both the tollgate and the cottage are gone, although haunted gates survive elsewhere in the county. Normally it is ghosts which sit on these liminal markers, not witches, although a cat-witch is reported from a farm gate in Cheshire (Briggs 1970: B2.628). A Dorset witch is much more likely to take the form of a hare. One of these animals used to linger around the hills near Ulwell, teasing hunters by running in and out of range, but never getting hurt. Nobody had the cunning to load their gun with a silver sixpence, which is what men ought to carry when they suspect they are dealing with a quarry which is not right. By this means the resident witch of Worth Matravers was crippled in the leg, and another, waiting by a stile for the hunters to go home, was lamed by the silver gunshot and then ripped up with a sickle (Knott 1963: 19; Udal 1922: 207, 330).

Witch hares

Hunters in those days were interested in anything they could sneak home for the pot. A malicious witch could have changed herself into all sorts of different creatures to deceive them, but the stories are always about a witch-hare – which is odd. But then, hares are an odd sort of creatures altogether. I was once out walking in Purbeck, crossing the downs above Lulworth, when a jack hare came lolloping down the farm track towards me, staring at me. In the moment before he darted off into the stubble I had the queer feeling that it was the hare who had right of way, and it was I who should have turned aside. The other creatures which one disturbs when out walking always fly away or scuttle into the bushes, but when an animal stops and looks at you, it is uncanny. At any rate, I am not the only person to feel this. In the thirteenth-century charm, 'The Names of the Hare', he is the brodlokere and the make-agrise – the starer, the one who makes you afraid: and he has seventy-five other names, too (Evans & Thomson 1972: 202–5). George Gifford captures the same feeling, although he is writing sarcastically, at the beginning of his Dialogue On Witches. The believer in witches confesses, 'In good sooth, I may tell it to you as to my friend, when I go but into my closes I am afraid, for I see now and then a hare, which by my conscience giveth me is a witch or some witch's spirit, she stareth so upon me. And...there is a foule great cat sometimes in my barne which I have no liking unto' (Gifford 1931). Both these animals seem to be singled out as humans-in-disguise because they are usurping the human right to stare. Mowgli stared at the wolves, and they could not return his gaze; this is the magisterial gaze, which carries with it a right of dominion (Baker 1993: 158). People in authority look unflinchingly at their subordinates, who must not stare back at them – but the cat is a heretic to this system of belief, because a cat can look at a king. It is refreshing to find that neither Hitler nor Ceaucescu were fond of cats. Stalin didn't like them much, either.

Talking hares

In the army, where all the outward forms of power have to be carefully conserved, this business of staring back is forbidden. Queens Rules make it a punishable offence, under the name of Dumb Insolence. Naturally one expects the insolence of animals to be dumb anyway, but in the stories they do sometimes get to speak. In Co. Roscommon a man went to shoot a hare, but it turned to look at him and said 'You wouldn't shoot your old grandfather now, would you?'. John Page of Clooncondra saw another hare jump up on an old wall, and followed it for a mile, waiting for the moment that a brown face would peer out from under the ivy so that he could bang at it with a stick. But when it did appear, the hare told him to mind his own business and then (as he seemed to be a little shaken by this) advised him to go home and pour himself a drink (Evans and Thomson 1972: 97, 159, 177). One of our Dorset hares was in the habit of jeering 'Huntsman, shoot better!' every time a shot whistled past her head, until one moonlit night a sportsman loaded up with a silver penny and so reduced her to silence (Udal 1922: 330).

Dumb women

As this last example might suggest, it is not only animals which are supposed to be dumb. When witch-hares enter the story, the talking beast is not just a beast, but stands metonymically [see illustration] for the talking woman. (Le Guin 1987: 10–13) How to silence them, one way or another, tested the ingenuity of many men in old Dorset. As you leave Purbeck, taking the Wareham road out of Corfe, you can stop at a pub called the Quiet Woman. The name is wordlessly explained by the sign – she is only quiet because she has no head at all. It is a drastic way of solving domestic problems, but it must have caught on, as there are seven or eight pubs with the same sign up and down the country (Larwood & Hotten 1951 [1866]: 267). At Halstock near Sherborne the sign is reinterpreted by locals, who say that it commemorates the beheaded martyr St Juthware. This does not alter the underlying meaning so much as extend it, since the beheading of women, whether saints or sinners, is a way of requiring faceless submission from them (Doniger 1995). Many a generation of Dorset men must have waxed loquacious in the snuggery over this one, but closing time comes, and they had to stumble home to the accusing stare and restless tongues of their wives. 'Let the women learn in silence with all subjection', said St Paul hopefully (Timothy 2:11), a text which was much quoted in the days of the Puritans, but not always with the desired effect. 'Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft' (1 Sam:15:23) was another: it was painted above the chancel arch of Marnhull church, without having much influence on Fanny Coombs who roamed the Common at night in the form of a hare (Marnhull Womens Institute 1940: 30). Control seemed very necessary, for who was to know what women might say once they took it into their heads to talk? The legislation passed against their loose speech in 1624 included not only swearing, but spells (Warner 1990: 12). There is also a healthy fear of gossip in misogynist literature, as the realisation dawns that women, being privy to the secrets of the home, might be able to let on about a number of rather embarrassing things. As, indeed, might animals. Tobermory, the cat in Saki's short story, causes general consternation when he acquires the ability to speak about what he has seen and heard, and a bowl of poisoned fish is rapidly prepared (Saki 1930: 119).


'Mummy, what's the difference between a metaphor and a metonym ?'
'Well, Susie, a metaphor cannot be literally true . . .'
'Like, when you describe Daddy as a "tower of strength"?'
'Yes, indeed. Whereas a metonym takes an attribute or adjunct of the thing instead of the thing itself. So, one can say 'The Crown' when referring to the Queen, or 'The turf' when meaning horse-racing.'
'And,' interjected John, 'there is also synecdoche. That means naming the part for the whole, like just saying "keels" for "ships".'


A coven of cats, crows and hares

By speaking, animals cease to be subordinate. 'He's probably in the local newspaper office at the present moment, dictating the first instalment of his reminiscences', someone says of Tobermory, and the tomcat in the story with which we began speaks only when he is revealed as a king. Looking at it the other way round, when women are rebellious, they count as witches, and witches practice their insubordination in animal form. The indictment against Bessie Thorn of Aberdeen specified that 'accompanied with thy devilish companions and faction, transformed in other likeness, some in hares, some in cats, and some in other similitudes, ye all danced about the Fish Cross', and at Auldearn, Isobel Gowdie confessed to rampaging through the countryside with the rest of the coven in the form of cats, crows and hares; they ate, drank and wasted their neighbours' goods in an orgy of spite (Davidson 1949: 66–67). Isobel offers two similar charms, one for turning yourself into a hare, the other for transformation into a cat, so she must have regarded the two animals as homologous. Most people felt that way. In 'The Names of the Hare', Wat is called wodecat, bromkat, and fursecat – he is the cat of the woods, the broom and the furze, as in Welsh idiom (Evans & Thomson 1972), while Puss by contrast is the cat of the household. But even Puss – a name adopted from the Germanic languages as a convenient sort of sound to call cats with – soon acquired a secondary meaning of 'hare' in English usage (OED s.v.).

Dog is to cat as man is to woman

Looking at it from the point of view of superstitious men, there have to be limits. You cannot go about your business in the fields trembling in case almost any wild animal is your neighbour in disguise. But although it makes sense to limit the possible witch creatures to one or two species, there must be a reason behind the particular species which are chosen. No witch, for instance, ever transforms herself into a dog. Not that there is anything sacrosanct about dogs. They appear as familiars; the Devil himself had no compunctions about presiding over the Sabbath in the form of a mickle black tyke. But the rules of gender still hold good in those abandoned revels where every other rule is broken. Women cannot become dogs, for dog is to cat as man is to woman, and as Devil is to witch. Come to that, there are never any witch vixens, even though foxes – like cats, which they resemble in so many other ways – have that unnerving habit of giving you a cool stare when they feel they can safely do so. The uncanny fox of tales and balladry always turns out to be the Devil (Briggs 1970: B1.47; Baughman 1966: motif G303.3.3.2.2). By contrast, cats can function as vehicles for transformation, for transgressing the critical boundary between people and animals, because they are already breaking limits of another kind. Passing indifferently between two worlds, the cat appears at one moment settled by the comfortable fireside, at another walking in the wild woods, as Kipling says, on its wild lone.

Liminal weasels

To serve as a vehicle of transformation, an animal has to be a borderline case – half-trusted, half-feared. The contrast between our Dorset witches and those of classical antiquity bears this out. The ancients never really took to cats, and in order to keep the house clear of mice they relied on other creatures – sacred snakes, and weasels. Passing in and out of the house through cracks in walls and doors, these were liminal animals. And Thelyphron in The Golden Ass tells how he lay awake near midnight in a house threatened by strygae or witches, 'beginning to feel thoroughly frightened when all of a sudden a weasel squeezed in through a hole in the door, stopped close by me and fixed her eyes intently on mine. The boldness of the creature was most disconcerting . . .' (Apuleius 1950: 66). It is, of course,a transformed witch. So in ancient Greece, weasels provide a way of talking about the fear of witches (and women) because they are semi-domestic, while cats are rare. In England, cats provide the same language because they are semi-domestic, while weasels – though common enough – do not count. There are no cat-flaps for weasels, no convention by which they can run in and out between home and the wild.

Fifteenth-century allegorical depiction of Lust by Pisanello.

The witches of Apuleius are sexually voracious. Man-eaters in more senses than one, they go far beyond anything attributed to their English cousins: but although the sex-life of our native witches is passed over in silence, animal transformation offers a speechless interpretation of it. Puss, as we have seen can be both cat and hare, but increasingly from the 18th century she can also be a woman – a flirtatious young woman. It is only a small step from metaphor to euphemism, from the general sense of puss to the specific one of pussy, but this is too simplistic a reading. Small furry animals are not just transferred anatomy, but occur in all sorts of contexts as a reflected commentary on female identity and sexuality. At the most decorous end there is the squirrel carressed by the queen on a thirteenth-century tile design: the more blunt approach is shown in the mouse taken for a walk on a leash (can this really have worked in practice?) by a sixteenth-century prostitute advertising her services.(Jones 1991: 198). Cats, right from the first date of their domestication, have belonged to or signified women. Bast was a goddess; in ancient Egyptian art, the cat appears curled up snugly under women's chairs, while master is signified by a brace of hunting dogs (Malek 1993). These images must have been brought, with the breed of cats themselves, to Northern Europe – otherwise why would Freyja's chariot be drawn by cats? (Snorri 1954: 53). Meanwhile, a great deal of innocent fun was being derived from linking imagery of hares and rabbits with the feminine. The rabbit is called a coney (to rhyme with honey), it lives in a hole, and so on. This is an unexpected insight into the hunt of the witch hare, who will after all turn into an old woman as unattractive physically as she is morally, but this is not the only kind of witch. There is, for instance, the lady 'straight as willow wand' in the ballad, who despises her magical competitor, the coal-black smith. 'She turned herself into a hare/ To rin upon yon hill/ And he became a gude greyhound,/ And boldly he did fill' (Child 1904: 78).

Bonfires of cats

The image of the hare-hunt is used in contexts varying from the seduction of high-born ladies to the lynching of unpopular old women. The one constant factor is the use of violence to define relationships between men and women – part of a style of discourse which constantly links sex with aggression, and particularly with the aggression of hunting (Roscoe 1994: 61–64). The same metaphors come into play when cats are being pursued, only now the romantic image of the hunt is dropped in favour of something much rougher. 'A woman who enjoys sex is a 'hellcat', a 'wildcat', a 'tiger' – a rapacious beast; all terms applied to violent women as well' (Dolgin 1977: 299) but from the point of view of the unfortunate biological cat, the violence is all one-sided. Under suspicion of being witches, cats were tortured with all the ingenuity men could command. The ritual bonfires lit for the various calendar festivals between Lent and Midsummer were used for this. At Metz cats were enclosed in wicker cages over the flames, in Alsace they were thrown in, and in the Ardennes they were carefully strapped onto the ends of poles and held just above the flames. At Paris the midsummer bonfires consumed whole sacks and barrels of cats. These were the bonfires which Louis XIV was honoured to light in 1648. He wore a crown of roses, and was dressed as if for a dance (Frazer 1923: 38–40). The men who kindled these bonfires were unable to burn the witches who weighed so heavily on their imaginations, but they could round up cats as substitutes, and they explained their pleasure in the screams of the dying animals by interpreting each one as a witch who had been captured during her time of metamorphosis. Even when the witch belief was gone, the motives for purgative cruelty remained. Still in Paris, but a century later, there was a day during which the apprentices and young men were free to go on the rampage, killing as many cats as they could. Many unspoken meanings lay behind this horrid custom, but among them was the opportunity given to the lads to get their own back on important local women by aiming blows at their pets (Darnton 1985).

There is a social drama implicit in the stories of the cat-witch. Lady Sybil of Bernshaw Tower was nobly born, after all, even if she went slumming with low company at the Sabbath, whereas the lad who brought about her downfall was a miller's servant. It is the same social distance as lies between the white lady and that hero of labour, the rusty, fusty, musty, dusty coal-black smith. At Strasbourg a workman, plodding home after a hard day in the fields, was set upon by three fiend-like cats. He acquitted himself manfully with his axe, and beat them off: but come next morning, he was arrested for molesting three reputable ladies from the town. Quoting the cat experience as his alibi, he asked for the ladies to appear and dispute it, but they were indisposed – this seemed a suspicious circumstance: so the judges ordered for them to be searched, and the marks of the axe were found on their bodies. In other stories the antithesis is not between classes, but simply between men and women. In Swabia a soldier used to drop in on his girlfriend whenever he could find time – the garrison allowed him nights off sentry duty – but early in the relationship she told him not to try doing this on a Friday. This weighed on his mind, and come one Friday night he set out quietly towards her house. As he entered the street, a white cat slipped out of the shadows and paced behind him. It refused to be driven off, and increasingly frustrated at this betrayal of his plan, the man drew his sword and slashed at it, cutting across a paw; then he carried on uninterrupted to the girl's house. He was told she was in bed, but he would not take no for an answer and ran up the stairs to see her. There she was, under tumbled bedclothes in which a spreading bloodstain could hardly be concealed. Tearing back the coverlet, he found the stump of an arm where his earlier blow had struck home (Howey 1931: 97–99).

Transferred violence

Perhaps because the witch in this story is, for once, an attractive girl and not a hag, symbolic nuances are present in every detail. Her lover strikes at her with his weapon, and she bleeds on the bed-linen; but this bloodstain on the sheets, which acts as proof that she is an impure witch, is exactly the same token which (if everything had gone to plan) could have been produced as evidence that she was a pure bride. Her lover is a soldier, and he is under orders that prevent him from seeing her every night: but the only order which she gives him, the prohibition on Fridays, leads to disaster because he refuses to accept her right to impose conditions and responds with violence. She passes herself off as something which she is not, twice over – firstly as a village sweetheart when she is really a witch-girl, and then as a white cat when she is really a woman. That will explain why it is the animal's paw which is cut off in this story, as in so many others. The enormity of a transgression of the human/animal boundary is pointed up by the contrast when the paw of the cat (or hare, or wolf, or whatever) is found to have turned into a human hand.

These stories about the transferred blow are a kind of fantasy transposition of actual events. In real life, men find that women are not what they expect them to be (quiet, docile, dependent and so on) and they beat them up. In the reversed mirror of legend, men beat up not-women in the forms of cats and hares, and only after this do they find that they were not what they expected them to be. Either way, we are dealing with a moment of discovery at which a woman can be redefined as a witch, and treated with violence. In the stories, as in real life, the male violence is ritualised – the blows and silver bullets are measured and coercive, not spontaneous responses. And an important part of this ritual involves breaking into the witch's house.

Men have to transgress the boundaries of the witch's house to unmask her. She appeared as an animal outside, but will be revealed as a woman inside: not until this is proved can the conflict come to a resolution. Sometimes – at least in the stories – just seeing is enough. The witch hare of Castle Eden was coursed by a magical greyhound until she ran for home and slipped in through a space cut in the back door, blood dripping from her savaged hindleg. When the hunters caught up, they smashed down the door. Inside they found the woman bandaging her leg – and from that moment her power was broken. End of story (Grice 1944: 99–102). It is interesting to see how carefully many of these stories define the mode of entrance of the witch hare. In a version from Co. Galway she slips in through a hinged window; in a Caernarvonshire narrative she jumps over the lower half of a stable door; in another from Cardiganshire, she escapes up the chimney (Evans & Thomson 1972: 161, 169, 172). Of course the plot depends on the hare getting into the house by some means or other, but storytellers are making a feature out of her way in. The sense of transgression, of boundaries being crossed, is never absent. It occurs, too, in those stories which describe the invasion of a victim's house by witch animals – the sort of thing which we would nowadays call psychic attack. At Sutton-on- Trent the wife of a weaver was afflicted by a cat which appeared on the stairs and, after running onto her bed and clawing her, escaped through an attic window. The weaver lay in wait and struck at it with a toasting fork: after that, a local witch went around for a few weeks with her face bandaged, and the trouble was over (Addy 1895: 44). Similar accounts were being made in the era of the witch trials. 'The Night following, as he lay in his Bed, there came in at the Window, the likeness of a Cat, which flew upon him, took fast hold of his Throat, lay on him a considerable while, and almost killed him' (Mather 1862 [1693]: 142).

Witch stones and horseshoes

Wherever the boundaries of a house can be breached, there is a danger that witches may come in. Doors, windows, chimneys and holes in the roof are all suspect. This identification of the danger makes sense of the locations chosen for those apotropaic charms which ward off witchcraft from the house. They are found all over the country; Dorset alone offers a rich variety. In Hilton, charms were stuck in the windows to keep witches away. At Abbotsbury, holed stones from the beach were tied onto the front door key, which was left in the lock for safety's sake – people worried in those days about repelling witches, but they did not give a thought about letting burglars in. At Hawkchurch, as elsewhere, horseshoes were nailed over cottage doors with the stated purpose of keeping the witches out (Dorset County Chronicle; March 1906; Pulman 1875: 535). 'Many who nail up an old shoe in our vessels and houses, though not liking to own their belief, yet consider it would be a pity to receive harm from neglecting so easy a precaution. A piece of bacon stuck with pins used to be suspended in chimneys to intercept witches in their descent, and so avert their visit' (Roberts 1856: 530). This is the Lyme Regis version of a common ritual item, the animal's heart stuck with pins, which was used in ways ranging from aggressive counter-magic to a simple good-luck charm. Bullocks' hearts were used in Dorset, as they were in Devon, while Somerset people seem to have preferred those from pigs (Udal 1922: 213; Kittredge 1920: 99).

Walled-up cats

All these things – the pin-riddled heart, the written charm, the witch bottle and the horseshoe – would be set up where they could avert a danger which came from outside and sought to pass through gaps into the house. People fought back with lucky charms or counterspells, but this was not the only way. Similia similibus curant, like heals like, in magic as well as in medicine. So witch animals could be kept away by hanging up the tortured body of another animal of the same kind. Cats were trussed up and left to die in roofs, their mummified bodies acting as guardians against any witches who might try to break in. A schedule of these relics was drawn up when they first began to be revealed during the renovation of rural houses (Howard 1951) and since then Dorset examples have been published from Corfe Mullen and Marnhull (Pennick 1986: 11; Dewar 1952) and I know of mummified cats from Blacknoll in Winfrith Newburgh and from Maiden Newton. Given the symbolic links between cat and hare, it would be surprising if hares were not occasionally found guarding the boundaries of buildings in the same way, and this turns out to be the case (Howard 1951). They are comparatively rare, but then it is much easier to catch a live cat than a live hare.

The twisted bodies of these sacrifices always arouse mixed feelings when builders come across them. A blow of the hammer breaks open the little hollow where they have been concealed for two or three hundred years; people discuss it as part of their ownership of the past (so curious, these rural superstitions) but they soon go quiet on the subject and have them circumspectly walled up again. Then the cats can continue their work as magical guardians, whereas when they were laid out on the kitchen table, they looked too much like the remains of abused living creatures. Once out of sight, the mummified cat is no longer simply protecting the house, but has come to stand by synecdoche for the house itself – which is obviously impossible when it is in full view as a physical object. Until it is returned, through concealment, to the supernatural realm, the house (or, nowadays, the pub or restaurant) will be troubled by fires, accidents and structural collapse (Pennick 1986: 13, 15). That is how the custom makes sense. But there is something unfair about this to the cat that once lived, rather than the cat-as-symbol. Abused in the first place by being pinned down, walled up and starved to death, it is now reduced to a magical amulet, a sort of leather artefact stared at by curious visitors. And for once the cat cannot assert its independence by staring back.

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Originally published in At the Edge No.6 1997.


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Created July 1997; updated November 2008