every witch needs a black cat (or two.)

every witch needs a black cat (or two.)

Hello October! I took the last two Witchy Wednesdays off while I was in New York visiting the World Maker Faire, the Brooklyn Book Fair, my US editor, and all my favourite haunts (Madison Square Park, Central Park, Obscura, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hayden planetarium, Katz’s Deli, the Morgan Library, etc…) Now I’m back home, where it’s properly autumn, happily settled in a landscape that’s dotted with apple trees, pumpkin patches, turning leaves and wood smoke.

I adore all that comes with fall – cool, frosty mornings that beg for kitchen fires and hot porridge, the late harvest of root crops from the garden, the last burst of colour in the grasses and trees. Most especially, I love the traditions and tales that come with this time of year, legends that have been passed down through the ages that evoke the images of otherworldly beings all doing their best to reach through the veil of forgetting to touch our otherwise ordinary lives.

Many of these tales have changed over time, often to the point where we no longer remember their origins or understand their meaning. From now until November 1st we’ll be surrounded by candy corn, sheet-clad ghosts and shrieking cats. It’s the latter that I’m focussing on in today’s post, the glorious yet misunderstood black cat.

Xeno, the muse.

Xeno, the muse.

Over the course of the last twenty+ years, I’ve had the honour of caring for a handful of black cats. They’ve come into my life in different ways – two strays, one shelter cat, one barn cat, one via friends, and one from an elderly Polish woman in Chicago who’d taped a sign to her apartment door that read, “FREE CATS INSIDE.” When I’d visited the woman’s home with my little boy in tow, my son had immediately been drawn to a small black kitten that was curled up inside a cardboard box in the far corner of the kitchen.

“Does that one need a home?” I’d asked.

“You don’t want that one,” the woman had replied. “He’s wicked, he’s wild, he’s evil, he’s black.”

“Then that’s the one for me,” I’d said.

Every so often I’d see the woman around my neighbourhood and she’d stop me and ask, “how’s that cat?”

“Fine, lovely, wonderful,” I’d say with a smile.

“He’s gonna be bad one day,” she’d warn, wagging her finger at me. “You can’t bring him back…”

We named that sleek amazing feline “Rune,” and while he may have been agile and energetic, he was never evil or bad. He travelled with us from Chicago to Nova Scotia and lived a long happy life. From the day I brought him home until the day he was no more, I felt lucky to have crossed his path.

Rune

Rune

 Why the fuss?

In some cultures black cats are seen as creatures that bring good luck rather than bad. In parts of Scotland, the appearance of a stray black cat on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity and good fortune to come. In Japan, black cats supposedly serve to attract suitors to their female owners.

Sadly, in many Western cultures, the black cat has long been associated with evil and bad luck, and to their detriment those associations have stuck. Historically they’ve been thought to be the Devil incarnate, the companions (or familiars) of witches, or the bearers of misfortune.

Perhaps the earliest vilification of black cats comes via the Vox in Rama, a papal bull issued by Pope Gregory IX around 1232. Because of the association of black cats with so-called heretics and followers of Satan, black cats were slaughtered in large numbers throughout Europe well into the 19th century. They were all but exterminated during the Black Death pandemic circa 1348, (which coincidentally may have worsened the spread of the disease because there were fewer cats around to kill the rodents that carried it.)

Witchy kitties.

Witches are often depicted as being accompanied by an animal – an owl, a raven, a dog, a rabbit, a toad, and most commonly a black cat. This stems from folklore that says that witches have the ability to speak to animals and can thereby enlist them to do their bidding. The animal thus becomes a “familiar” to the witch and is privy to her craft. Often, the pets of women accused of witchcraft were put to death alongside their owners.

When witch hunting hysteria hit Europe in the mid 1500’s, every wandering homeless woman and the alley cats that followed her, were suspected of witchcraft. This tale from Lincolnshire takes the notion of the familiar a step further and places the cat in the realm of shape-shifting. It also aptly illustrates the thinking of the day.

A father and his son were frightened one moonless night when a small creature darted across their path into a crawl space. Hurling stones into the opening, they saw an injured black cat scurry out and limp into the adjacent home of a woman suspected by the town of being a witch. The next day, the father and son encountered the woman on the street. Her face was bruised, her arm bandaged, and she now walked with a limp. From that day on in Lincolnshire, all black cats were suspected of being witches in night disguise.” – from Cat Superstitions, kinrossfolds.com

Wickie, my first black cat.

Wickie, my first black cat.

Black coat syndrome.

While most of us would readily deny a belief in the superstitions surrounding black cats, the biases that went along with them have made a lasting impression within our culture. Black cats (and black dogs, for that matter) are statistically overlooked when it comes to pet adoption in animal shelters. Time and again, they’re the last of a litter to find a forever home. They’re also euthanized in greater numbers than cats of other colours. Some say it’s because they’re difficult to photograph, which causes them to come across as “less friendly” on web sites and such. Others believe it’s tied to the bad rap they’ve gotten in the past. Whatever the case, these wonderful felines are still being discriminated against in the 21st century, and that needs to change.

The controversy continues.

In 2013, when an animal shelter in the US ran a black cat adoption campaign during the month of October, people in the surrounding area got their knickers in a twist. The bold move on the centre’s part was considered outrageous since many animal shelters across the States have gone the opposite direction and banned the adoption of black cats during October. The reason for the ban is a faulty one, based on the belief that scads of Devil worshippers are looking to sacrifice black cats on Halloween. It’s an urban legend of course. The cats in question are more likely (and not by much) to fall prey to some nut who thinks it would be cool to have a black cat slinking around for a Halloween party. Come November 1st, they’ll decide they don’t want a long-term pet, and out goes kitty with the post-party trash.

Happily, there’s some hope for the future. An increasing number of animal shelters are declaring black cat adoption months  throughout the year, (October included) with some even giving discounts to those who adopt black cats on a Friday the 13th. The next time you’re thinking of adopting a cat, I hope you’ll choose the wee black kitten in the back of the litter, or the sage ebony feline that’s been waiting far too long for a forever home. I promise, you’ll count yourself lucky, indeed.

Xeno knows.

Xeno knows.

 

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly. – from Rilke’s, Black Cat

"Headscarf left behind" by Yulia Brodskaya

“Headscarf left behind” by Yulia Brodskaya

Crone…the word alone conjures the image of an elderly woman with a wrinkled, warty face and penetrating gaze. In fairy tales, she’s often referred to as a hag or a witch, and (to the dismay of many an unwitting character) her advice and her voice is dismissed until it’s “too late.”

In some ways, things haven’t changed much since such folk tales were first told and written. All too often we push women aside as they age, relegating them to the fringes of society, leaving their wisdom unnoticed (and to our great loss) unheard. What is it we fear in the crone? Are we afraid she might tell us what we don’t wish to hear? Are we afraid she might be right? Or are we simply afraid of the inevitable…that we too are destined to age and decay and one day turn to dust.

Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength. – Betty Friedan

I like who I am now. Other people may not. I’m comfortable. I feel freer now. I don’t want growing older to matter to me. – Meryl Streep

I’ve often marvelled at the audacious, brilliant verve that the wise-women I know possess. For some women, they seem to have been born with it, for others, it’s part and parcel of their “becoming.” To a one, they’ve embraced the aging process by throwing caution to the wind, speaking their minds, and claiming their right to rant and rave.

My Grandma B. - soft spoken, ever-wise, and always neat as a button.

My Grandma B. – soft spoken, ever-wise, and always neat as a button.

 

No matter what you do, someone always knew you would. - Miss B. in The Birth House

Marie Babineau, AKA “Miss B.” in The Birth House is a sage femme, a fictional midwife created from my fond memories of several beautiful crones I’ve known in my life. She’s a witchy mash-up of grandmothers-plucked from my family tree as well as a few branches outside my ancestry. I loved spending time with Marie. I adored writing her dialogue (especially since it allowed me to channel my inner crone to come. ) The line above is, hands-down, the most quoted passage from the novel. It came from a seniors’ recipe collection that my husband’s dear Baba McKay gave me. The book has sayings and bits of wisdom peppered throughout, and that one, along with “a lie is as difficult to unspread as butter,” are two of my favourites.

The person who served as the greatest inspiration for Marie Babineau was a woman I considered to be my own “Miss B.” She lived two doors down from me when I was a graduate student in Terre Haute, Indiana and she didn’t mind people referring to her as a witch. Her long, narrow back yard was enclosed by a tall wooden privacy fence, making her garden (lush with vegetables, medicinal herbs and ever-blooming flowers) a magical oasis in an otherwise plain university town. Her big Victorian house was filled with interesting objects (crystals, bones, antiques, odd bits of taxidermy, and countless witchy trinkets.) She invited me to tea one afternoon after she caught me leaning off my front porch, attempting to wash my hair in the middle of a sudden, intense cloudburst of rain.

She was unlike anyone I’d ever known. Our teas would vary wildly from one week to the next. One week we’d talk about guided meditation, the next I’d be greeted by a raucous hour of drumming and chant. Her “circle” included a former nun, a practising Ob/Gyn and several retired university professors. Outspoken and ever curious, she did a lot of things that both amazed and baffled me. (She once spent an entire autumn “observing” the head of a deer carcass that she’d affixed to the roof of her potting shed. Twice a day she’d visit the rotting thing and talk to it, believing that it helped her come to terms with death.) What a glorious example she was, always encouraging me to embrace all aspects of life, no matter how odd or off-putting they might seem.

Magical Maryann from "Advanced Style"

Magical Maryann from “Advanced Style”

At mid-life, one kid’s flown the coop and the other is in his teens. My years are increasingly littered with medical screenings and check-ups. In between these milestones, I’ve started to think about the kind of crone I’ll become. Will I be fearless? Will I be wise? Will I rage against the dying of the light? Heaven knows I’m trying to appreciate the wrinkles and silver hairs as they appear, but in this age of snip, suck, tuck and plump, it’s not always that easy a task. The women of Fabulous Fashionistas and Advanced Style inspire me. Have you seen them? If not, you should! They make 21st Century Cronehood look pretty damn good.

While scouring the Internet for women’s wisdom on aging, I came across this TED talk given by one of my favourite authors, Isabel Allende. I’ll give her the last word. “It’s great to let go, I should’ve started sooner.”

People, places and things mentioned in this post:

Yulia Brodskya – artist

Fabulous Fashionistas

Advanced Style

Isabel Allende

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse. 1902

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse. 1902

Welcome to Witchy Wednesday!

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be devoting to the topic of witches and witchcraft. I’ve long been a fan of all things “witchy”-crystal balls, incantations, black cats, etc., and as a child, my favourite Halloween costume was “the classic witch.” So, it seems only natural that I’d eventually choose to write a novel inhabited by witches of my own making in all their strange, enchanting glory.

While writing The Witches of New York, I gathered heaps of historical accounts and odd tales alongside bits and bobs of practical magic. Not all of it made its way into the novel, so I thought I’d share some of it here during the months leading up to the book’s publication. No spoilers, I promise, just a weekly post infused with witchy goodness.

WITCH – noun

1. a woman thought to have evil magic powers. (one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural power; especially: a woman practicing witchcraft with the aid of a devil or familiar.)

2. an ugly old woman. (hag)

3. a charming, alluring girl or woman.

4. a practitioner of Wicca

First known use: before 12th century.

What does the word witch mean to you?

When you hear the word witch, do you think of a woman wearing a pointy black hat and long black robe, flying through the sky on a broomstick? Is her face covered with wrinkles and warts, or does she have the perky-pretty face of Samantha from the 1960’s TV show, “Bewitched?”

I’ve always loved the moment in the movie The Wizard of Oz when Glinda the Good meets Dorothy for the first time. She floats across Munchkinland in her bubble of magic, then appears before the girl and asks, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”

There’s no “Hi, hello, how are you?” or “I understand you might be a little freaked out right now,” but just a scarily sweet, give it to me straight, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”

Glinda has it on good authority that Dorthy’s got some solid skills when it comes to piloting flying houses, so of course she assumes the girl’s a witch. I have to say that in that moment (even though Dorothy denies it) I, like Glinda, want to believe that even young farm girls from the Midwest can hold their own when it comes to magic. It was purely selfish speculation on my part, of course. I grew up in a land of corn fields and tornadoes. I spent lazy afternoons walking along dusty lanes singing songs about rainbows. If Dorothy Gale could be a witch (or at least mistaken for one) then maybe there was hope for me yet.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Over on Pinterest, I’ve been keeping a board of Witches to serve as inspiration while I write. The pins hold a wide variety of images, to remind me that all witches are not alike. Check it out if you’re so inclined, and then follow me on Twitter for some #WitchyWednesday fun. I’ll be sending out tweets from @SideshowAmi – including links to quizzes that will help you determine, which witch you are.

Follow Ami’s board Witches on Pinterest.

 

 

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