• Christine Dorman

Celtic Halloween: Black Cats and Witchcraft

Halloween is Celtic in origin. Witches and black cats are emblematic of Halloween but are they Celtic?

Dame Alice Kyteler, a successful Irish businesswoman, owned and managed an inn in County Kilkenny. She married four times. Each of her husbands died under mysterious circumstances, leaving her richer and richer. By the time she was a widow for the fourth time, life seemed to be good. She was an independent woman, a wealthy proprietor, and local businessmen flocked about her, courting her, and showering her with gifts.

In 1324, all that changed. She became the first person charged in Ireland with witchcraft. Her accusers? Some of her children. Alice’s maid, Petronella de Meath, was arrested and tortured until she confessed to practicing witchcraft with her mistress. The authorities also arrested Alice’s eldest son, William, whom her other children claimed was her favorite. He was convicted and sentenced to attend three masses a day for a year and to feed the poor. Petronella’s fate? She was burned at the stake. The court found Dame Alice guilty and condemned her to burn as well, but she was sentenced in absentia as she had escaped prison. Her establishment, the Kyteler Inn, still exists and operates as a hotel in Kilkenny. It is said to be haunted by Dame Alice’s ghost.

That’s appropriate. While witches are emblematic to modern Halloween, Samhain, the Celtic fire festival from which All Hallows’ Eve originates, is not about witches. It’s about ghosts. And faeries, of course, since almost everything in Celtic culture is impacted by the Good People.

Dame Alice Kyteler was condemned as a witch but she lives on in Celtic legend as a ghost.

Dame Alice was one of only 4 to 10 people (sources disagree on the number) of people accused of witchcraft in Ireland. Ever. Great Britain, on the other hand, tried thousands of people for witchcraft. At the height of the hysteria, in the late 16th to 17th century, Scotland alone had five nationwide witch hunts and arrested over 400 people on charges of witchcraft. Wales also had its share. Both are Celtic lands, but they were operating under English common law and the Witchcraft Acts enacted during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Ireland, during that time, was governed by Brehon law, an ancient legal system used by the Druids. Brehons were judges. According to www.libraryireland.com/Brehon-Laws/Druids.php, not all Druids were Brehons, but most, if not all, Brehons were Druids. So legal authorities in Scotland and Wales viewed witchcraft through an Anglo-Saxon lens while Ireland’s perspective reflected a Celtic worldview.

Predictably, then, the consequences of practicing witchcraft in Scotland differed from the punishments in Ireland. In Scotland, anyone accused of even a minor act of witchcraft, such as buying a protection charm could be jailed. If the person was convicted a second time, for something as small as making a love potion, the automatic sentence was death by burning. In Ireland, a charge of witchcraft generally resulted in jail time. Death sentences were given only in cases involving murder.

Witchcraft hysteria swept through British society in the late 16th century but it was barely a blip in Celtic folklore.

But while the legal systems practiced in Scotland and Ireland differed, the culture of the two lands was highly similar. The Scots and Irish were and are Celts as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon English who invaded their lands and impacted their laws. By the mid-17th century, Brehon Law had been replaced in Ireland by English common law due to the British occupation of the island. Still, in Scotland and Ireland, Celtic folklore and traditions continued and witchcraft has played only a minor role.

There are a few mentions in Celtic folklore of how to protect oneself from “black witchcraft” and there are a handful of ways to break curses. Mint was said to help in breaking spells. That seems to specifically address harm caused by witches. Here are some others:

Protection from Witches

--On the morning of Beltane (May 1st), Rowan twigs were used to start the fire. This was believed to protect against the mischief of witches.

--In the evening, on Beltane, the anti-witch protection was fortified by placing sprigs of rowan blossoms on window sills, doorsteps, and rooftops.

--Protection against witchcraft could be obtained any time of the year by hanging a staff of ash over the front door and / or scattering ash leaves to the four winds.

--Willow branches, kept in the home, were said to protect against sorcery.

Remedies for Curses

--A tea or soup made from stinging nettle is said to reverse and send back curses (Note: nettles can cause a severe rash. Don’t even pick them, let alone consume them, unless you know what you’re doing.)

--Reverse a curse by sprinkling rue tea around the outside of your house nine days in a row.

--Yellow yarrow is said to reverse curses but I’ve found no specifics on how.

Gardeners plant rue to repel pests. Celtic folklore says the herb can repel curses as well.

It is important to point out that remedies for curses aren’t reserved for those people who’ve been hexed by a witch. In Celtic folklore, faeries are renowned for cursing humans. In fact, most misfortune, from human illness to financial disaster to a cow not giving milk is, in Celtic culture, routinely blamed on faeries, not witches. Also notice that none of the folklore mentioning witches is connected to Samhain.

There is one Celtic folklore character, however, who is a blending of the concern about witches and the main Celtic preoccupation, faeries. That character is the Cat Sith, and it has a definite connection to Halloween. The Cat Sith appears as a large black cat, its back arched, hackles raised, tail up, eyes glowing with yellow fire. In most Celtic folklore, it is considered a faerie. A malignant one. In the Scottish Highlands, the Feill Fadalach, the Late Wake, was established to guard against this faerie. The folklore warned that the Cat Sith would enter a room where a newly deceased person lay. The black cat would walk over the corpse and, with that simple action, steal the person’s soul. The highlanders responded to this threat by having someone sit with the corpse constantly until the funeral to protect the person’s soul from this evil faerie.

On Samhain's Eve, beware the soul-stealing Cat Sith!

In some versions of the folklore, though, the Cat Sith is said to be a witch in animal form. According to this lore, a witch can turn herself into a cat eight times, but if she does so a ninth time, she will remain a cat forever.

Whether witch or faerie, the Cat Sith is associated with Samhain. On Samhain’s Eve (October 31st), people would leave out a saucer of milk for the Cat Sith. The cat would then make the rounds of the houses, blessing any family who had left milk for it and cursing those who didn’t. Trick or Treat!

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Next week, the Celtic Halloween series continues with “Spooky Celtic Tales.”

Slan Go Foil!

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