Friday, 31 October 2014

Paint it Black Part Two

Nothing says Halloween like the most famous witch’s familiar, the black cat… The most common superstition in Western beliefs is of the ill fate that will ensue if a black cat passes your path. This belief originates from the Middle-Ages and is linked with witchcraft. At the time a cat, and most commonly a black cat, was seen as a witch’s familiar. There are several other associations between black cats and ill-fate such as the Scottish tale of the cat sìth. This particular tale also recounts the connection with a witch’s ability to transform into a cat. The belief with the cat sìth tale was that cats would steal the souls of the dead before they were claimed by the gods. This ability to shape shift is also mirrored in the 1500s with the English folktale describing a father and son who injure a black cat only to discover an old woman suspected of being a witch limping from the injury the following day. Black cat stories are also popular in American literature from Poe’s The Black Cat to the folktales of The Black Cat’s Message, and Wait until Emmet Comes (Schlosser, 2004). The black cat lore and symbolic representation has crept into popular culture from femme fatale characters to product mascots. 

But cats are not the only ones enable to escape the shadow of urban myths and legends.Spiders have many myths or urban legends caught in their web and conjure images of creepy crawley eight legged beasts weaving their sticky traps to catch their next feast. However, although spiders do have their place as the witch’s familiar the most popular of them all is that black widow spiders whose infamy comes from the belief that they eat their mates. This particular myth is one that has more to do with misunderstanding than a reality. The fate of the males that mate with the female black widow is also dependent on the species of black widow. Southern black widow spiders are above all the most likely to kill and consume their mates. Southern black widow females are also strongly protective of their nests and will be aggressive in defending their eggs. The belief that the female black widow spider always kills and consumes her mate has crossed the species boundary to become the moniker for human women that have killed their lovers and popular culture femme fatales (Marvel Comics).

No Halloween would be complete without a witch’s brew… And what would all this talk of the witch’s familiars be without the iconic species in their incantations. Frogs and toads are the top ingredient in many of these potions, such as the concoction being brewed by the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Round about the caldron go;
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under the cold stone,
Days and nights hast thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!”

Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I

While the toad and the frog are the only beings on this particular list that are not quite black, the Catholic church associated the frog with witchcraft. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the connection to witchcraft is made through the toad. And in more contemporary tales of witchcraft, toads and frogs are represented in the Harry Potter series as tasty treats of confectionary (chocolate frogs and peppermint toads).

Of all the animals mentioned in the past few weeks through Paint it Black Part One and last week’s Do you See What I See? there are several positive alternatives views and beliefs of the species associated with witches and witchcraft.

The first positive aphorisms are the idea that a spider on a wedding dress is a good luck omen or the French proverb "Araignée du matin—signe de chagrin; Araignée du midi—signe de plaisir; Araignée du soir—bon espoir" which link spiders and forthcoming human emotions with the time of day (Rolland, 1881, p.241). There are nursery rhymes that connect our reaction to a spider with our own well-being… "If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive" (Wise, 1993, p.141). The positive bend extends to black cats as well…Not all black cat associations are negative. In Japanese, Scottish and English Midlands cultural references the black cat is seen as a good omen from the attraction of suitors for single women to a symbol of prosperity. Now when we look at toads and frogs, the positive twist on the toad or frog come in the form of the fairy tale. So on this Halloween night if you are a Princess seeking her Prince you may not need look any further that to find your own Iron Henry

Rolland, E. (1881). Les reptiles, les poissons, les mollusques, les crustacés et les insectes. Maisonneuve & Cie. France:Paris.

Schlosser, S. E. (2004). Spooky Southwest:Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and other Local Lore. Globe Pequot Press, Augusta:AL.

Wise, D.H. (1993). Spiders in Ecological Webs. Cambridge University Press. New York:NY.

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