Lore

Lore is a bi-weekly podcast (now also a TV show and book series) about dark historical tales. Each episode explores the mysterious creatures, tragic events, and unusual places that fill the pages of history. Because sometimes the truth is more frightening than fiction.

Episode 213: Dark Tails

October 30, 2022

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Description

One source of common—and dramatic—folklore is living right inside many of our homes. It’s a feature of civilization that dates back thousands of years, and the superstitions it has attracted make for a powerful—and problematic—history.

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Transcript

It wasn't at all what they were expecting to find.

Back in August of 2016, workers at St. John's College at the University of Cambridge opened up a section of wall to put in some new electrical wiring and stumbled upon something else, an old leather shoe.

Now let's be clear, old buildings have a long history, and St. John's College has been around since 1511, making for plenty of time to accumulate odd things.

It wasn't anything fancy, just a dusty old shoe, about the size of a modern size 6, and most likely worn by a man.

But this simple old shoe, estimated to be about three centuries old, is more than just debris.

It's a clue.

You see, it's evidence of a practice that historians refer to as concealment.

It was a folk ritual, designed to protect the building the object was hidden inside.

How it was supposed to actually work is still a bit of a mystery, but there are some who believe that shoes were viewed as capable of trapping the devil.

And while thousands of shoes have been found in walls, attics, and chimneys all across England and its former colonies, other items were concealed as well.

We've talked about witch bottles before, but folks also frequently hid locks of hair and wigs.

It was believed that fairies or witches who might try to enter a home through the chimney would spot the hair, believe it was a real person standing guard, and run away.

But of all the types of objects found hidden inside the chimney or roof of an old home, one group always gets a bit more notice.

Cats.

Specifically, the mummified remains of entire cats concealed in a hidden space to act as a charm to ward off invaders, both the spiritual and the material kind.

Cats you see are special to a lot of people, and they have been for a very long time.

From household companions to a central figure of the Halloween season, it's hard not to bump into them.

And once you learn about the folklore, you'll understand why.

I'm Aaron Mankey, and this is Lore.

Ask any mythology or folklore fan about cats, and they'll almost always make a common mistake.

Most people will definitively state that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, which you might be surprised to learn, is wrong.

The ancient Egyptians had an entire pantheon of deities, some of which had animal-like features, ahead of a jackal, head of a falcon, that sort of thing.

And one of their gods was Bast, or Bastet, who was often depicted with the head of a cat.

But the Egyptians didn't worship cats, they simply recognized that cats had a strong resemblance to Bast and considered them special because of that.

Is that nitpicky?

Perhaps.

But it'll make you popular at parties too.

I'm sure.

Bast had a number of different names.

Lady of the East and Goddess of the Rising Sun were two.

Also Goddess of the Moon.

They even called her the sacred and all-seeing eye, which I assume is a reference to that annoying thing cats do when they walk away and lift their tails, but I could be wrong.

Now one other place in Egyptian culture that cats made an appearance was in the home.

Partly because they were helpful at killing pests, like rodents, snakes, and scorpions.

And partly because they were a living, breathing reminder of Bast, who was the goddess of health.

Having cats around was thought to increase the health in the home.

And they were so revered that whenever a cat died, they would be mummified, placed in a small coffin, and buried.

Then the folks who lived in that home would celebrate their cat, often shaving their eyebrows as a sign of mourning, a period that would only end once their eyebrows had grown back.

Some cat mummies, however, were manufactured on purpose.

They were prepared by various priests, available for purchase as a talisman and offering to Bast.

In fact, some temples had mass tombs that they used to house all the mummified animals brought to them.

And friend, let me tell you, this was a big industry.

Experts believe upwards of 70 million of these animal mummies were made and sold.

But of course, ancient Egypt didn't have a monopoly on cats.

In fact, they were featured heavily in quite a few other cultures around the world, too.

The Babylonians considered them sacred as well, thanks to their resemblance to Nurgall, the god of death and war, who was often depicted in the form of a lion.

Nearby in India, it was the tiger that was revered for its connection to Parvati, the goddess of power, motherhood, and balance.

And centuries ago, the Scandinavian people loved and protected a breed of feline they called the Skogkat, known today as the Norwegian forest cat.

Why?

Because the goddess Freya was said to have a chariot that was pulled by cats.

In the folklore of the Ojibwa people of North America, there's even a creature known as the Mishipeshu.

It's commonly known as the Lake Panther, and is said to resemble a giant cat with scales and horns of pure copper.

And among Buddhist practitioners of Siam long ago, there was a particular sect that believed those who lived a good enough life, the holiest and the best of the best, would be rewarded with the ultimate prize.

Their soul would be placed inside, you guessed it, a cat.

It's honestly amazing just how many cultures and religions around the world have held them in high regard.

They've been a protector of the living, a companion to the dead, and a symbol of fierce power.

It's almost too easy to take it all for granted and just assume everyone is on good terms with our feline friends.

But the truth is, much of what we believe and discuss about cats falls into an entirely different camp, because throughout history, there have been stories and superstitions that paint them in a darker light.

Tales that have endured for centuries, altering the way we view these animals.

But be warned, while these stories are incredibly fascinating, you may never look at cats the same way again.

Chances are good that your Halloween decorations, or maybe that spooky t-shirt you love to wear, displays one of the major symbols of the supernatural season, the black cat.

But symbols often have more than one meaning, and the cat is no exception.

In England, for example, there is an old mining superstition that claims that it's bad luck to say the word cat while underground.

In the Netherlands, it's thought to be a good idea to watch what you say around your cat, since they are considered to be terrible gossips.

Cats have often been a source of divination over the centuries as well.

In the area around Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, folks believe that you can tell the status of the tide just by looking at how wide a cat's eyes are.

And in Wales, the sound of a crying cat on board a ship means that there is a difficult voyage ahead.

Interestingly, there is one folk belief that's shared between England and Japan, and it has to do with the dead.

It seems that people in both countries, completely independently from what I can tell, believe that a cat had the power to reanimate the dead simply by jumping over the body.

In England, those undead bodies became vampires.

In Japan, though, they were simply puppets of a darker power, the cats themselves.

Speaking of death, we can't forget the Middle Ages and the deadly outbreak known as the Black Death.

Many experts still believe that the illness was carried by fleas, which in turn were transported on rats.

And knowing that, you and I might assume that cats were the hero of the day during such an outbreak, but sadly it was quite the opposite.

When the Black Death burned its way across Europe, thousands of cats were killed in an effort to stop the spread.

And one reason might just be connected to Pope Gregory IX.

Why?

Because in the year 1233, he issued a decree that declared Satan to be half-cat, and therefore all cats were satanic, especially the Black ones.

Pope Innocent VIII added onto that idea in 1484 by stating that the cat was the devil's favorite animal and an idol of all witches, drawing a tight connection between the two.

It's unclear how many cats were killed as a result, but the folk beliefs that still exist today serve as a reminder for how long superstitions can stick around.

One more general bit of folklore concerning cats.

It seems that for a very long time, people have believed that cats have the power to steal a baby's breath, and there are a lot of different explanations for why and for how it works.

But at the root, some scholars believe it can all be traced back to the Renaissance idea that our soul is attached to our lips.

This folklore first appeared in print in 1608, and within two centuries there were court cases blaming infant death on cats in the home.

How?

Well, some thought that the cats were drawn to the baby's lips by the smell of milk, and then inadvertently licked the soul away.

Others felt it was more intentional, an attack by the cats on innocent children.

And this led to a more generalized folklore about how people shouldn't let their cats sleep near their infants, lest the animal put the baby at risk.

But cats have always been a common household pet, and however tragic it may be, sometimes infants die.

And you know how good people are at connecting the dots between two things they feel must be related, even when they really aren't.

Speaking of cats and babies, we can't forget that wonderful branch of folklore known as maternal impression, the belief that a pregnant woman's experiences might impress themselves upon the child she would raise.

And in England, it was believed that simply picking up a cat might cause the baby to be born with cat-like facial features.

And look, I get it, people long ago held some pretty unusual beliefs.

The amount of supernatural influence and power that they attributed to the common house cat was practically at blockbuster superhero movie levels, and we do have to wonder just how committed most of those people were to those beliefs.

But what's clear is that a good number of people did accept it all as the gospel truth.

And we know that because of at least one story they left behind.

A story that spread fear across an entire country.

There's a lot that we don't know about her story.

Taking place in 1569, that's not unusual.

Most people, for most of history, slipped through life without much by way of proof they were ever there.

And the same was almost true for Agnes.

I say almost because the unusual nature of her story helped put a few more of the important details on record.

As far as historians can tell, she was born around 1542, making her roughly 27 when her life took an unusual turn.

Her father was a butcher, and she herself worked as a domestic servant in a house in Leicestershire, England.

Sometime in 1568, though, Agnes became pregnant.

Back then, becoming a mother out of wedlock was practically a death sentence.

She risked losing her job, being cut off from all her friends, and getting labeled by the church as a deviant.

Needless to say, things weren't looking up for poor Agnes.

In January of 1569, she went into labor.

Whether or not the child would be welcomed by the local community didn't matter at that point.

But when it was all over, folks noticed something.

There was no baby.

At least not that they could hear or see.

Now for a woman in the position Agnes found herself in, that was a problem.

Because people would start whispering that she had killed the infant herself to escape the stigma of motherhood outside of marriage.

It wasn't a wildly common thing, but it also wasn't unheard of.

And it was a crime punishable by death.

When asked, Agnes seemed to have an evolving story.

At first she told people that the child was healthy, but being nursed by another woman in a nearby town.

Then her story changed to a premature, stillborn birth sometime before Christmas a month earlier.

But soon, one more explanation began to push all the others out of people's minds.

You see, later descriptions of the birth paint that day in darkness.

Literally, I mean.

One of the women present, Margaret Harrison, later said that the midwives willed her to fetch a candle for they had not light.

And then when she returned with that candle, she saw something laying on the dirt floor, right where she would expect to find the baby.

But it was something else.

Something unnatural.

On January 22nd of 1569, just a couple of weeks after this rumored birth, Agnes was brought before the local archdeacon to testify in a religious court.

That's where Margaret Harrison gave her description of the call for light and witnessing something odd.

But others testified as well.

One of the midwives, a woman named Margaret Rue, claimed that prior to the birth that day, she had examined Agnes to see how dilated she was and felt her finger get pricked by something sharp.

The other midwife, Elizabeth Harrison, told the court about an experience she had days before the birth while out walking with Agnes.

They came across a Dutch woman who saw the pregnant woman and uninvited, I would expect, admitted a moon calf would be born, an old name for something unnatural and inhuman.

Elizabeth then attended the birth and claimed that the prediction came true.

Agnes Boker's child was a cat, a dead one to be fair, but a cat nonetheless, born hind quarters first.

And before you think it was a trick of the shadows in that dark room, let me add this.

They had a body to examine.

At first, the midwives simply took it to a couple of local men to give it a look.

After cutting it open, they found bits of bacon in its stomach, but noticed nothing else out of the ordinary.

Then it was handed over to a deputy working for the Archdeacon, and he, if you'll pardon the pun, took another stab at the autopsy.

That man, Anthony Anderson, even went as far as to kill and study a separate cat so he could better compare the two creatures and said it contained the full length, thickness, and bigness of the same, measured by a pair of compasses.

And with that, the story spread.

Honestly, how could it not, right?

Woman gives birth to cat seems like a headline pulled straight from the pages of a 1986 copy of the Enquirer right alongside photos of Bat Boy and the Loch Ness Monster.

It was tailor made for travelers to carry with them as they roamed far and wide.

Agnes Boker, they said, had done the unthinkable.

She had given birth to a monster.

From the ancient world to the modern home, cats have always had a place alongside us.

And it's easy to understand why, given how important they were for protecting our ancestors, as well as the comfort and support many folks today receive from them.

One of the things I love about folklore is that it acts as a sort of flypaper, catching all the things that people have considered important over the years.

Some folklore deals with obtaining things of value, like treasurer or good health, while other bits reflect our hunger for safety and consistency.

The fact that cats feature so heavily in global folklore is proof that they are and always have been an important part of human culture.

For Agnes Boker, though, it seems cats were, at the very least, a scapegoat.

To give birth and then stand before a church tribunal and claim that the baby had been a cat made for an entertaining and even horrifying revelation.

So I hope you can see why the Archdican needed to look into the matter.

On the secular side, though, the authorities also needed reassurances.

You see, assuming the cat's story was just a curious tale, they still needed to determine the true events.

Because if a human baby had been born, where had it gone?

Then if the answer was infanticide, Agnes Boker was on thin ice.

On February 18th of 1569, about three weeks after her religious trial, the Earl of Huntington held his own as a representative of the Crown.

Even the Secretary of State for Queen Elizabeth I, a guy named Edmund Grindel, got involved.

And remember, they weren't looking for more stories of supernatural offspring.

No, they needed firm evidence that a crime had, or had not, been committed.

In the end, though, no one could prove that Agnes had killed her own baby.

But the role of a cat seems to have been figured out.

It turns out, about a week before she gave birth, Agnes had asked her neighbor if she could borrow the lady's cat, but was told no.

It went missing anyway, perhaps lured into Agnes' home with a bit of bacon.

Edmund Grindel himself made a statement about the supernatural accusations, stating that, for the monster, it appeared plainly to be a counterfeit matter.

But yet we cannot extort confessions of the manner of doings.

In other words, they spotted the lie, but failed to uncover the truth.

Looking back on the story, it's an unusual and bizarre collision between fact and fiction.

Agnes found herself in a difficult position, and whatever the true outcome was going to be, history had taught her that there was a chance people might believe an outlandish story, as long as that story had enough folklore to back it up.

And while it didn't work, it does serve as a reminder of just how easily the public can be swayed by a rumor and a little bit of fear mongering.

Both then, and even now.

We want to believe in unusual connections, and I think it's fair to say that people will never give up looking for them.

Because just like cats, folklore has nine lives.

Stories exploration has given us quite a tale to dissect, but I hope the journey gifted you with a better understanding for the history and the significance of our beloved feline friends.

But if you think you've heard all there is to know about cats throughout folklore, you'll be delighted to know that we've got one more treat to share with you.

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As I mentioned earlier, cats are found everywhere around the world.

Whether characters of fiction or footnotes in history, just about everywhere you look, there's a cat to be found.

Now before I explain one last feline tradition to you, we need to think back to the attitudes of medieval Europe toward cats.

Remember, there was not one but two decrees by the Vatican concerning their connection to the devil, painting them with the brush of mistrust and fear.

But of course, modern science might hold some of the answers.

When it comes to the dangers that cats pose to pregnant women, it might be helpful to look at the parasitic infection known as toxoplasmosis, which can be caused by contact with cat feces.

The symptoms look a lot like the flu, headache, fever, exhaustion, that sort of thing, but can also include blurry vision and seizures, both for adults and their babies.

Now of course, toxoplasmosis isn't a modern invention.

It's been around for centuries, maybe even thousands of years.

Given the less sanitary conditions of the typical home way back then, people probably suffered from it a lot more often too.

And it probably didn't take long for folks to start drawing the connection between the illness and cats.

Throw in your normal everyday cat allergies with symptoms like coughing and wheezing and people might have started to think that their breath was being stolen.

And with a couple of popes adding their own spin on the matter, I sometimes think it's a miracle the cats aren't extinct today.

Which is the foundation for a bizarre tradition in the town of Ypres, in Northwestern Belgium.

You see, back in the Middle Ages, cats would be rounded up and captured and then taken to the bell tower that overlooked the town square.

And then, because they viewed these cats as agents of the devil, they were tossed from the very top, 230 feet above the square, in a cruel, barbaric form of execution.

Some say they did it every spring to kill off the cats they used throughout the winter to catch rats.

Others think it was a warning shot aimed straight at the heart of local witches and the evil spirits that served them.

Either way, it was a message written in blood.

Back in 1955, though, a new tradition took the place of that ancient, more cruel one.

They call it Kattenstut, otherwise known as the Belgian cat throwing festival.

And it's just as delightful as the old version was deadly.

Each May, people from all around gather in town for a celebration.

At some point each year, a person dressed as a jester climbs up the many stairs that lead to the belfry, lugging a heavy sack over their shoulder.

But the cats inside aren't alive, and they never were.

They're just stuffed animals, to be tossed into the joyful arms of all the children who gather in a crowd down below.

And that's what I love about how the town has handled their dark and twisted history.

They remember the past, yes, but they've also transformed it into a lesson about how wrong they once were, and how it's possible to become better.

It's good news for cat lovers for sure, but also a powerful lesson that any nation can look to for inspiration.

History is valuable, but it's also full of mistakes.

And it's our job as citizens of the modern world to hold both truths and tension, respecting the past while also demanding better for our future.

A lesson we could all stand to learn from.

All thanks to cats.

This episode of Lore was written and produced by me, Aaron Mankey, with research by Jenna Rose Nethercot and music by Chad Lawson.

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