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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Between the Worlds: Part Four

Black Cats & Witches

Cats have long been the objects of much superstition, and they are frequently associated with Halloween.  Cats were sacred to the Druids; it was believed that they had once been human beings.  Perhaps the cat had magical power because it was supposedly the most common "familiar" of witches (probably just the favorite companion of old ladies living alone).  Feline behavior towards a person on Halloween was often taken as an omen.  For example, if a cat jumps into your lap on this night, good luck is foretold.  Probably more prevalent is the belief that cats, particularly black cats, can be ill omens.  Everyone in the U.S. has heard that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck ahead.

The bad reputation of the cat may have been a medieval Christian reaction against the honor given them by the
pre-Christian Druids.  Medieval Christians burned cats along with accused "witches" (leading to an overpopulation of rats, which bred fleas, which carried the bubonic that's bad luck).

The figure of the witch is now an integral part of Halloween in our minds, but she may be a relatively late arrival.  How she got there is a story extremely long and complex.  I suspect that originally witches were just another of the various supernatural beings thought to walk or fly about the earth on Halloween.  Witches tended to get confused with sorcerers, who, since they may supposedly used evil spirits to carry out their work, would be particularly active on this night.  

The Real Witches - Wise Old Ladies in the Woods?

today regard the so-called witches of old Europe as simply survivors from the pre-Christian, nature-focused religions of the ancients.  In other words, pagans who revered nature (not Satan). 
The idea of older, traditional folks living off in the woods, continuing their seasonal celebrations, magical beliefs, and herbal medicine, is not far from our image of the witch.  
As Christianity gained ascendancy in Europe, witches were reinterpreted through Church dogma and came to be viewed (incorrectly) as Satan-worshippers.  Many of the popular (and often incorrect) notions about witchcraft derived from "confessions" extracted by torture from the accused "witches" of earlier centuries.
Most who were executed as witches during the "burning times" were most likely "strange" old ladies living alone in the woods, the mentally ill, midwives and herbalists, people who followed the "old ways" of the Celts, women whose remarkable ugliness or beauty brought attention.....those whose "difference" aroused suspicion in a fearful, ignorant, and tumultuous age.

Bats and owls are associated with Halloween probably because they are nocturnal -- active only at night.  Perhaps they join the spirits to fly about the night sky.  Owls were for thousands of years associated with knowledge and wisdom, especially feminine wisdom, and so are a fitting companion for the witch, the Old Wise Woman.  (Owls were a symbol for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, as well.)
The witch's cauldron may represent the "cauldron of Cerridwen" of Celtic myth, source of wisdom and rebirth -- and the direct symbolic predecessor of the Holy Grail.  In myth often one was cut up and boiled in the cauldron, to emerge again reborn in wholeness, health & wisdom
The cauldron and later the Grail were believed to be guarded by a hideous woman-beast.  In many Celtic stories it is through this terrifying creature that the magic vessel is finally encountered, and only the person who can accept and kiss her can gain access to the wisdom and renewal she guards.  By embracing the pain and struggle of life we gain wisdom and greater strength.

This image of the old witch hovering over her cauldron embodies beautifully the original symbolic meaning of Halloween. 
This is the night when we confront perhaps the ultimate riddle: As winter approaches, the world comes face to face with the power of death and darkness, which holds within it the promise of rebirth.  On the wheel of the year, the cold stillness of the coming winter will take us around again to the warmth and renewal of spring. 

Behind our holiday called Halloween lies the eerie, magical mood of the ancient festival of Samhain and All Hallow's Eve. 

Perhaps we would do well to remember some of its original meaning -- not to conjure up real fears again, but rather to rekindle a feeling of wonder toward the great cycle of death and rebirth in nature and in our lives.

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