There is a mythological set of cats that makes its home in Celtic folklore. In Scotland, they are referred to as cait sith while in Ireland they are cait sidhe. Both versions are pronounced “caught shee” and translate into English as “fairy cat.” For the sake of simplicity, and because I’m of Irish decent, I will use “cait sidhe” for this article.
The cait sidhe are not ordinary cats, but rather fairies, witches, and other spirit-realm-type creatures taking the form of a cat. Those that have seen them describe them as being unusually large, all black cats with a spot of white fur on their chest. Generally, the cait sidhe is viewed as fearsome.
Title Image Credit: Airwolfhound via Flickr
A Few Cait Sidhe Tales from Celtic Folklore
Irusan, King of the Cats
Long ago lived a poet named Senchan Torpeist. This poet was so known for his ability to roast people with his rhymes that even Shakespeare wrote about him. Shakespeare noted that when Senchan began to criticize some mice on his kitchen table with his rhymes, they all dropped dead from shame.
On one occasion, Senchan was called to visit King Guaire (a human king). Senchan found fault in everything that the king offered him to eat. The only thing that Senchan agreed to eat was an egg, but before he could do so, a rat came and stole the egg away. This act of theft infuriated Sechan so much that he began to use his poetic skills to criticize all of the cats of the land – including (and I do believe was mentioned by name) King Irusan, the cat sidhe king of the cats.
Immediately King Irusan appeared, ferociously making his way past King Guaire’s guards. Those that were there described him as being the size of a bull, with teeth bared, and long sharpened claws. Irusan scooped up Sechan with every intent of taking him back to his lair for some criticism of his own, but he was stopped by St. Kieran. True to form, Sechan then turned his rhymes again St. Kieran for intervening.
The Farmer’s Cat
A farmer was returning home from his fields one night when he was met by a very strange sight. An unusual funeral procession was passing him by – 8 cats carrying a coffin that was draped with a royal shield and an entire parade of chanting cats following behind. The chant was some nonsense about the king of the cats being dead.
Intrigued by the sight, the farmer went into his house and immediately began to tell his wife what he had seen. He told her about all of the cats, the coffin, and the chant about the death of the king of the cats. As the story ended, the farmer’s cat who had been sleeping nearby suddenly sat up and said “Old Tom is dead? Then I must be king!” With that the cat disappeared up the chimney, never to be seen again.
Witches & Cait Sidhe
It is said that witches who are cait sidhe are able to change from human form to cat form only 8 times. A witch may choose to transform into a cat a 9th time, but then they must remain a cat forever. This legend could be the reason that cats are said to have 9 lives.
Cait Sidhe in Culture
According to Celtic folklore, a cait sidhe could steal the soul of the dead before the gods could claim it. Therefore, the Celtic people did everything they could to distract the cait sidhe from passing over the body of the dead prior to its burial. Day and night the body would be guarded during a Feille Fadalach or “late wake.” Many of these distractions played to the cait sidhe’s cat-like nature.
Games that included leaping and wrestling were played because a cait sidhe would love to watch or join in with these.
- Fires were extinguished in the room the body was laid in because the cait sidhe would be attracted to the warmth.
- Catnip was spread throughout all of the rooms of the house except the room the body was in.
- Music called coronach (“laments”) was played because the cait sidhe would love to stop and dance.
- Riddles would be asked, but never entirely answered. After all, the cait sidhe would love to ponder all of the different answers proposed by guessers.
This evil practice was last observed in May of 1824 as recorded by the London Literary Gazette. It was believed that a demonic cait sidhe named Big Ears would appear and grant wishes to those who took part in the ceremony. The ceremony required 4 days and nights of successively burning cats alive.
On the night of Samhain (our Halloween), everyone was to leave a saucer of milk for the cait sidhe. When the cait sidhe came by your house, he would either leave blessings as a thank you for the treat or curse your cows because you didn’t leave him the treat.
Behind every legend lies a kernel of truth…
Legends of the cait sidhe may very well be rooted in a variety of the Scottish Wild Cat known as the Kellas Cat. The Scottish Wild Cat looks kind of like a very large house cat and is believed to be the result of a wildcat and domestic cat mating. Typically, the Scottish Wild Cat is found in Tabby pattern, but there is a genetic variance that produces the Kellas Cat – a Scottish Wild Cat with pure black fur. These cats are known for being incredible hunters and ferociously territorial. They are heavily endangered; According to the Scottish Wildcat Association, only 100 remain.
What magical powers would your cat have if he/she could have magical powers?
Sources & Digging Deeper