Cats and Witchcraft
In the 15th century, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, there was a revival in pagan rites. The cult of Freya honored the fertility of cats. Cultists were first accused of heresy, but accusations of witchcraft soon followed.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII decreed that witches worshipped Satan and that they took on the form of their animal helpers, called "familiars." The usual "familiar" was a cat.
Throughout Roman Catholic Europe, people were tortured and killed because they owned or cared for cats. A lack of understanding of cat behavior perpetuated the myths. Cats slept, or pretended to sleep, all day so that they could wake at night to guide evil spirits.
The shrieks of cats as they mated were interpreted as the cries of innocent people consumed by the "familiars." In Hungary, it was said that all cats automatically become witches between the ages of seven and twelve years unless a cruciform incision was made in their skin at birth. Old women were accused of turning themselves into black cats at night to slip into stables to harm cattle.
The witch hunts spread through Europe and across the Atlantic to the American colonies, where they culminated, in 1692, in witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts; here, 150 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 were executed.
In Europe, the association of cats with heresy and witchcraft led to cat "festivals" in which cats were tortured and killed. The Ypres Cat's Parade in France, which originated around AD 962, is an example. Cats were thrown from the belfry for being associated with witches.
Today, the rehabilitation of the cat is so well established that the Ypres Cat Parade is a popular attraction for cat lovers, who come to see models of cats paraded through the streets and cloth toy cats thrown from the belfry.