So Historic England have put out a call for people to look for ‘witches’ marks’ in their attics – carvings and marks on beams that would repel evil spirits and malevolent forces. We have in our collections two cats (or the vestiges of two cats) one probably and the other certainly, placed in the attic for that same purpose.
The first (HCMS 1969.150) was found in Riverside Cottage, Corhampton, in the 1960s. This is the more dubious as it hadn’t been ‘arranged’ in a particular way (as far as I can tell). According to Ralph Merrifield’s 1987 classic ‘The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic’ cats deliberately placed in the attic were set up in ‘hunting mode’, often with a rat, mouse or bird in their jaws. This poor desiccated puss doesn’t look very fierce, it must be said.
The other one (HCMS 1969.270) is a classic example. It has been stuffed with straw and is in a very lively (well, you know what I mean) pose. There’s no record of a rat, mouse or bird being in the vicinity, but the earlier owners of the house in Chawton, where it was found were definitely hoping it would keep vermin or evil influences at bay.
Merrifield quotes an article by Miss M Wood (‘Dried Cats’, Man, November 1951) where twenty-two examples are listed, and suggests that the practice may have originated from the sacrificial use of animals during the building process. It developed, however, as an antidote to witches, particularly in the 17th century. Witches were supposed to work their evil by familiar spirits, such as rats or mice, and a sentinel cat would be the perfect (so to speak) guard.
There was another desiccated (and salt cured) cat in the collections – striking quite the most scary pose – but the place of discovery, beneath a beach hut at Christchurch, suggests something less than a deliberate concealment.
Hampshire Cultural Trust
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.