Chances are, if you’re in my social circle and you’ve heard of a Cat Sìth before, you’re thinking of the Final Fantasy character. (And you’re annoyed that I’m not spelling it “Cait Sith.”)
Well, this here’s his granddaddy.
The Final Fantasy character is based on a figure in Celtic mythology—predominantly Scottish, though the Cat Sìth also appears in some Irish stories, where it’s called the Cat Sidh. However you spell it, the meaning is the same. “Cat” means what you would expect it to; the second part refers to the Celtic fairy legends.
Legend has it that a large black cat with a tuft of white on its chest is not actually a cat, but a fairy spirit in disguise. As if that promotion’s not cool enough, Cat Sìth is also said to be the king of the cats.
And if you know cats, you know they don’t always get along very well with humans.
Scottish folktales hold that the Cat Sìth can steal a human’s soul. If it walked over a dead person’s body before traditional burial rites secured the soul’s passage to the afterlife, the Cat Sìth could take the soul instead. The dead would never be able to pass to the gods.
Pretty serious stuff for a cat burglar.
These stories weren’t just campfire fare, though—some Scots believed in it enough to come up with cat-distracting burial rites. From the moment of death’s discovery to the burial, the deceased’s family and friends kept watch over the corpse. They called it Feill Fadalach, or Late Wake, and they did more than just keep an eye out for black cats. Their chief objective? To keep the Cat Sìth entertained.
Naturally, it involved catnip.
Mourners often scattered catnip in every room of the house except for the one where the corpse rested. They didn’t stop there, though. To make the room even more unappealing, they would make sure there were no fires in the body’s room, because Cat Sìth was attracted to warmth. Then they told each other riddles to keep the Cat Sìth thinking, played music, and tried to keep its spirit distracted with horseplay—or, uh, catplay.
Honestly, it sounds pretty fun for a funeral, even if the cat spirit doesn’t bother to show up.
Cat Sìth wasn’t all bad, though. At Samhain—the Celtic precursor to American Halloween, along with All Saint’s Day—households that left a saucer of milk for Cat Sìth were said to be rewarded with good luck. Of course, it would curse homes without milk and make their farm’s cows go dry, so you couldn’t exactly call that benevolent. I guess Cat Sìth reads his Machiavelli.
So is this where the whole “black cats are bad luck” thing comes from?
Maybe, in part, but there are many other folktales about black cats from around the world—stories that foretell both good luck and bad luck. However, there’s another superstition that’s a little more spot on for Cat Sìth: there were some variations on the legend. Instead of a fairy spirit, some stories said that a witch could take the form of Cat Sìth eight times and still be able to switch back. On the ninth transformation, though, she would be stuck as a cat forever.
Could this be why we say that cats have nine lives? Well, the link is stronger, anyway.
There’s one last thing, before those of you with black cats run off and start going on about how your kitty is actually a fairy king—oh, yes! I know you’ve been thinking it. I sure have.
Cat Sìth, it turns out, is not just any large black cat with some white chest hair. The legend is most likely based on the Kellas cat, a cross between domestic cats and Scottish wildcats. Kellas cats were thought to be fiction until the first specimen was caught in 1984. Likely due to their wild heritage, Kellas cats can be violent when cornered.
Remember, kids: even if it can’t steal your soul, it still has claws.