Cats have featured in folklore from around the world for thousands of years. While in some examples they are a good character or represent good luck, in other tales they are evil and symbolize negative forces. The stories relating to cats have even influenced many modern rituals and holidays.
The Celtic people of Scotland and Ireland have many folklores that relate to cats, especially one cat called Cait Sidhe in Ireland and Cait Sith in Scotland. In both cases, the name of the cat is pronounced as ‘caught shee’. This translates literally as the ‘fairy cat’. In images relating to the tales, the cat is a large black cat with a small spot of white on its chest.
One example of folklore that revolves around this feline character is the tale of the King of the Cats. Senchan Torpeist was an Irish poet who lived long ago and was so famous that even William Shakespeare wrote about this man. Shakespeare wrote that when Torpeist used his poetry to criticize mice on his kitchen table, all the mice dropped dead, supposedly from shame.
When the poet visited King Guiare, the king offered him many things to eat. Torpeist found fault in everything that he was offered and would only accept an egg. Unfortunately, a rat stole the egg before he could eat it. In response to this incident, the poet used his skills to create a poem about how the cats of the land were useless as they had not ridded the world of rats. In this poem, he mentioned the king of the cats, King Irusan.
As soon as Torpeist said the poem, it prompted an appearance from King Irusan himself. The king of the cats was very angry and forced his way past the guards. According to the folklore, those who witnessed the incident described King Irusan as being the size of a bull with sharp claws and fearsome looking teeth, which he bared.
King Irusan wanted revenge on Sechan Torpeist and fled with him back to his lair with the intent of making Torpeist face some criticism in the same way he had made everyone else suffer at the hands of his criticism.
However, King Irusan’s plan did not work as the poet was rescued by St. Kieran, who was known as the first saint to be born in Ireland. Rather than being grateful that St. Kieran had rescued him, Torpeist was perturbed and used his rhymes to criticize St. Kieran for his interference in the matter.
King Irusan is not the only cat to feature in Celtic folklore as a king of cats as there is also the tale of the farmer’s cat, which is also portrayed in a similar manner. According to this tale, a farmer was walking home one evening when he saw eight cats carrying a coffin followed by many more cats who were chanting. The coffin was topped with a royal shield.
When he arrived home, the farmer told his wife about what he was seen. The farmer’s cat was curled up in front of the fire but, on hearing the story, sat upright immediately. According to folklore, the cat suddenly exclaimed, “What? Old Tom is dead? Therefore, I must be the king!”. As soon as he had said these words, the cat shot up the chimney and was then never seen again.
There are several more beliefs relating to the king of cats in Celtic folklore that have influenced rituals and celebrations in that culture. One such belief is that the Cait Sidhe could steal the souls of dead people before their souls were claimed by God. Therefore, Celtic people had many rituals that revolved around preventing this from happening. They would put out fires in the room where the body was kept as they feared that the heat would attract the cat and they would also play lively games around the body late at night.
Another belief relates to the night of Samhain, which is also known as Halloween. It is a Celtic tradition to leave out a saucer of milk by the front door for Cait Sidhe. Those who do this allegedly receive blessings from Cait Sidhe as a way of thanking them for the treat. Those who do not do this have a curse put on their cows.