I own three cats, and they have never been anything other than angelic. Most people I know I feel the same way about their feline friends. Every so often, however, I will hear someone talking about bad cats — they tear at the furniture, mess the house, or simply cannot be tamed. While such behavior is certainly undesirable, I always try to point out that it can be worse.
For example, what if your cat were possessed by a devil, or was a demon in feline guise?
In our rationalist, post-Enlightenment world, that seems a bit far-fetched, but for much of history and in many cultures, it was not uncommon to believe that our delightful household companions might have demonic ties.
Because cats are by nature nocturnal, elusive, and independent, many ancient peoples associated them with dark and mysterious things. These included night, the moon, magic, and even death … and such themes were a natural segue to align cats to demonism and evil powers.
This belief has deep roots in the ancient world. The Israelites were very suspicious of cats and called them “demons of the desert,” according to Isaiah. For the Chaldeans — the Mesopotamian tribe which came to rule Babylon — cats were to be shunned, referred to as “the accursed ones.” In Iran, the Zoroastrians considered cats to be servants of the devil Ahriman.
The suspicion that cats were tied to evil powers was found as far away as the Malay Archipelago, where a demon known as a bajang, normally of deformed human shape, would sometimes assume the guise of a cat in order to gain access to villages, where it would eat fetuses and wreak havoc. In Japan and the Scottish Highlands, meanwhile, demonic cats were believed to steal the souls of the recently deceased and drag them to hell.
Ancient Egypt is usually cited as a rejoinder to this ailurophobia — for Ra’s daughter Bastet, cats were considered divine. Bastet even had her own city, Bubastis, where cats were sacred. Still, Egyptians acknowledged that the cat had a dual nature. It could be divine, but it could also be demonic.
Sekhmet, the lion goddess, is considered Bastet’s twin, but their relationship more resembles opposite sides of a coin. Bastet is typically considered a tranquil domestic goddess, while Sekhmet was famed for deviltry, violence, and uncontrolled wildness, known to rejoice in slaughter and lap up the blood of humans.
The Christian era further solidified the links between demons and cats. A theory existed that demons had been prolific in the pagan world, and with the coming of Christ, people were now considerably more resistant to their influence. The demons did not just disappear, however — they transmigrated into the most amenable hosts they could find: animals. Thus, animals were considered ripe for demonic possession, in particular cats, which already had potential ties to sinister forces. A possessed cat would exhibit behavior much like a possessed person: speaking in tongues, levitating, performing acts of sacrilege, and spitting fire or vomiting forth strange objects.
Certain demons were thought to be especially likely to assume the form of a cat. Chief among these was Baal. A former Semitic divinity considered by the Israelites to be a false god, Baal had stuck around and eventually evolved into a major arcana, becoming one of the princes of Hell.
He was depicted with a tripartite nature — equally man, toad, and cat. As a cat, he could easily sneak into towns and villages and wreak havoc. Cat-Baal was blamed for defiling a French church, including killing the priest with bursts of toxic vomit and removing the human head from a statue of Christ and replacing it with a feline one covered in some kind of reeking liquid.
Baal was also accused of appearing as a cat during a Holy Week procession in Spain. It was said that the cat defecated on the crucifix carried by the parishioners. When shocked church members tried to shoo it away, the cat grew to enormous size and chased them off with huge fangs bared, then released a fart so powerful it broke windows.
Such stories further enforced the belief that cats could be in league with demons. Sixteenth-century French scholar (and demonologist) Nicholas Remy even commented that “all cats are demons.” The Enlightenment quashed such stories by making them unfashionable and vulgar. Still, the belief in possessed cats continued, proving especially resilient in some areas; within the last decade, cats and goats have been tried for witchcraft and demonic possession in Africa. A horror film was even made in Ghana about demonically possessed cats.
There were multiple accounts of a demonic cat in London during World War II, and there is a demonic cat which is to this day believed to haunt the U.S. Capitol. Known as “D.C.” (for “demonic cat” and “District of Columbia”), it is also the one which has been most testified to. Prowling the Capitol for the past 150 years, it has been seen by maintenance workers, guards, and even a gaggle of well-known politicos. Among other honors, it is the only demonic cat to have its own Wikipedia page.
The demonic cat in Washington has long been considered a harbinger of national disaster. It is known to appear, growing in size over a period of nights, to presage catastrophes soon to strike the nation. These have included sightings before a flood killed 2,200 people in Johnstown, Pa., in 1889; prior to a hurricane which killed 8,000 in Galveston, Texas, in 1900; and in advance of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.
The demon cat was also said to appear before Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, and in the days before Richard Nixon’s resignation. Its current whereabouts are unknown, and it has not been seen for in recent memory — but it is telling that a maintenance worker reported strange meowing sounds the night before the 9/11 attacks. Somewhere deep in the recesses of the U.S. Capitol Building, at least one demonic cat still lurks in the modern world.
Paul Koudounaris has a Ph.D. in art history and is the author of The Empire of Death, a study of religious sanctuaries decorated in human bone, and the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies, a study of 17th-century decorated skeletons. He has written for a wide selection of magazines and newspapers, including several features for Fortean Times. He can be contacted at his website, Empire de la Mort.
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