During roughly the same time that Emperor Hsuan Tsung was lovingly painting cats in China, in Europe, with the advent of witch and heresy trials ushered in by the Inquisition, the cat was being subjected to the cruelest period of its history. Swept up into the divine plan of the church to undermine the power of women and to eradicate the ancient Pagan beliefs, the black cat, in particular, became the symbol of witchcraft and heresy.  In part, the cat’s own double nature aided its persecution.  In many ways, the elusive feline stands between this world and the unknown making it a dualistic, mystical creature.  Suddenly appearing in a room and then disappearing, needy yet aloof, lazy yet attentive, loving yet vicious with eyes that seemingly see into one’s soul, the cat is unpredictable, and can never be completely tamed. Unlike the subservient, dependent dog, it cannot be controlled and sets the terms of any relationship.  Hence, our frowned upon feline and, to some extent, women were feared and loathed by men in the Middle Ages, who deluded themselves with the idea that they were the masters of this world and should hold dominion over all.  Even so, not everyone detested the cat during this time, and the society reflected the dichotomy of this love hate relationship. 

The first truly abominable act in the whole repertoire of diabolical plays wherein the cat was the main tortured character had been going on in Scotland since Pagan times and was appallingly last practiced on the Island of Mull in the seventeenth century.  Taigheirm, which means to summon evil spirits, required a brutal sacrifice of black cats to the devil in order for the torturers to be granted two wishes. The last two Scots to practice this horrendous rite of continuously roasting live cats on a spit were Lachlan Maclean and Allan Mac Echan.  Commencing at midnight between Friday and Saturday, the rite lasted four days and nights.  Impaled on a spit cats were slowly burned alive so that their shrieks of pain would be audible to the dark spirits that the two men wished to summon.  Once one cat finally died, another was immediately put upon the spit so that hardly any lapse in the cries of pain occurred.  After some time, black cats were said to have started flying around the barn or house where the rite was performed calling out, “Laclain oer,” or “Injurer of cats”(Van Vechten, 1921, p.100), even so, our two brave men were able to continue turning the spit.   Finally, a huge black demon cat would materialize and threaten the men to stop.  Once the four days had passed, and dozens upon dozens of cats had been killed, the men, due to their vicious acts, were free to demand their wishes of wealth and prosperity.  The devil then, disguised as a demon cat, begrudgingly granted all their wishes. 

Taigheirm Ritual Source: jonathanburtonblog.net

Taigheirm Ritual
Source: jonathanburtonblog.net


Van Vechten, Carl. (1921). The tiger in the house. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats

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