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Giving birth to a cat and the power of animal magic

Welcome to day 2 of my folklore magic series for April. I'm not a cat person myself (I have allergies and personal space issues) but if I had a cat it'd be black. When I was a kid I heard people say that black cats were bad luck and I decided then and there that black cats were my favourite. Black cats (and tuxedo cats) are awesome.


Fittingly, a Breton folktale called "The Black Cat" is our source of magic today. There are so many folktales that centre around animal magic that many collections have entire sections devoted to them. Most of my favourite animal magic stories involve snakes (a topic for another day) or cats, and I'm not sure whether that's to do with the stories themselves or the magic associated with these animals. Either way, I adore this tale.





Cat-skin magic. 2/30


So your dad marries again and now you've got a sister who seems to be your opposite in every way. When you reach marrying age, you're too pretty for words so your new mom tells you to take the cow and make yourself scarce all day, every day. But when your mom sees how happy the cow is and how much you love it she kills it, because that's the kind of mom she is.


A prince comes courting because he's heard about you somewhere and your mom dresses you up in your sister's clothes before she lets you talk to him. The wedding date is agreed upon so he goes home to wait, and what does your mom do? She locks you in a tower and sends your sister in your stead. The prince is temporarily tricked, but your faithful little dog won't stop barking at his bride-to-be, and before they ascend the steps to the chapel he figures it out and abandons her there.


Your mom does not take this well. In a fuming rage she visits a witch who tells her how to be rid of you for good, returns home and brings you up a special stew she's made herself that rekindles your hope she maybe cares. What you don't know is the stew is made of black cat and you're about to have a very bad night as you throw it all up and feel like you're going to die. But don't worry; it saves your life.


Because you don't die, next your mom tries something simple: making your and your father's lives so miserable you just decide to leave. But at the last moment, when you've boarded the boat to safety, she tricks your father into missing it and you're set adrift alone. Eventually you come to an island where you find a hermit's dwelling, and there you live for some time.


Surprise of all surprises, after 3 weeks of getting used to being your own boss for the first time in your life, you give birth - strange, since you've never known a man - and not to a child, but to a black kitten. Congratulations, mom! You treat the kitten just as you would a child and one day he tells you he needs a few things and then he's going to swim to the mainland.


Did you know your cat-son could talk like a human? No, you did not, but you've proven thus far that you're nothing if not adaptable to the unusual, so you give him what he needs and watch him swim to the opposite shore. The next time you see him, he's got a feast fit for nobility in his little cat knapsack and it lasts a long time.


When it runs out he swims back to the mainland, and when he returns this time he's on a ferry. Out of his knapsack he pulls dresses and jewels and tells you he's found you a husband on the mainland. He doesn't tell you about the advice he gave the man about his murderous mistress that saved his life, or how he's waiting even now to marry someone he assumes will be a cat, but you trust him so you go and dressed to the nines.


You marry Mr. Rio (who's relieved you're not a cat) and everywhere you go, your cat-son follows. Only the three of you know his true identity. Soon afterwards you decide to visit your family, and while your father is overjoyed to see you, your mom and sister not so much. But they plan a grand feast and invite everyone to meet you, even the witch who spun your wheel of fate.


When the witch sees the black cat she tries to escape, but your son confronts her - shocking everyone with his human voice - challenging her to a duel of water, wind and fire.


Now I've never read any battle like this one in any story I've read before. First they spew water at each other and the cat spews 3x what the witch does. Then they blow wind at each other and the cat blows the witch down. Then they spew fire at each other "like two enraged dragons, or two devils from hell" (p 136) while the dinner guests watch them in the courtyard, and the cat burns the witch to ashes.


But he's not done there, is your cat-son, no, he is not. He's got more vengeance to wreak. He turns on your stepmom, revealing who he is, reminding her what she did, and burns her to ashes, too. He spares your sister saying she was too young to know the harm she caused you. And then he asks your husband to slit him open.


After refusing, Mr. Rio reluctantly agrees to do the deed and when he does, out of your cat-son's skin steps your human son, a beautiful prince who proclaims, "I am the greatest magician who ever lived on earth!" And who are you to refute it?


Apparently the wondrous and violent events of the gathering do nothing to dampen the appetites of your father's guests, so the feasting and dancing continue for 8 days more, and your family is restored to health and happiness.


Lesson learned: when you give birth to a cat treat it as you would a child because that mofo can spit fire and he carries a grudge.


"The Black Cat" translated from the French by Neil Philip with Nicoletta Simborowski in The Cinderella Story: The Origins and Variations of the Story Known As 'Cinderella' (London: Penguin Books, 1989) p 122-136.


Original source: 'Le Chat Noir' in F. M. Luzel, Contes Populaires de Basse-Bretagne, vol. 3, Paris: Maisonneuve et Ch. Leclerc, 1887 (vol. 26 of Les Littératures populaires de toutes les nations). Told in Breton by Pierre Le Roux, baker in the village of Plouaret, December 1869.




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