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How Were Cats Viewed in Celtic Culture? History & Origin

Codee Chessher

By Codee Chessher

a black cat with white patch of hair on the chest

Most people associate cats with Egypt, but most other ancient cultures had their own unique beliefs about felines as well. For example, the Celts both feared cats as guardians of the underworld and thought they were a source of supernatural power that could be exploited.

Religious people feared cats and thought they had the power to steal souls, while occult practitioners would seek them out to gain magical power by skinning them for pelts or as sacrifices. Cats’ hypnotic eyes made such an impression on ancient Celts that some even said they were portals to another world.

In this article, we’ll dive into some more fascinating info about how the Celtic people viewed cats, as well as some folklore pertaining to our feline friends. Read below for the details. You may just never see your cat the same way.

The Cat Sith

Sometimes called the Cait Sith, the Cat Sith was a fairy in Celtic folklore that took the form of an all-black cat with a spot of white on the chest. Celtic peoples believed that as guardians of the underworld, they would steal the souls of the recently departed, but only right before burial. Clergy at the time claimed that cats were a sign that a devil was weaving trickery nearby, giving them a bad reputation.

Because most Celtic cats were large as a result of breeding with native wildcats, the Cat Sith was supposed to be as large as a dog and with a fearsome reputation. Some Celtic warriors even used them as an emblem to wear into battle!

Not all cats were considered evil in Celtic history. Cat Sith called Big Ears was believed to grant wishes if summoned with an occult ritual that involved burning cat corpses for four days straight. Still, other legends speak of lucky black cats that brought blessings. These are prevalent throughout Celtic, Scottish, and Irish folklore.

Naturally, Celts decided they had to stall and distract cats that were attracted to fresh cadavers to stop them from stealing the souls of their loved ones. They played games, lured cats away from bodies with catnip, and even posed difficult riddles to the cats. Because cats love warmth, the Celts also strictly forbade lighting fires near bodies to hopefully discourage them.

black cat lying on the ground
Image Credit: Sarah Biesinger, Shutterstock

Cats and Samhain

On Samhain, the holiday celebrating the end of the harvest season, Celts would leave a saucer of milk out for the Cat Sith. They thought this pleased the fairy, who would bless their cows with an ample milk supply. On the flip side, they believed that people who didn’t offer milk would have their cows’ udders dry up as retribution.

Cats and Witches

Like much of medieval Europe, the Celts associated cats with witches, and even owning one put people at risk of being called a witch. Another superstition believed that the Cat Sith could shapeshift between a cat and a human witch nine times.

According to this legend, a witch who turned into a cat for the ninth time would get trapped in that form for eternity. It also probably helped spread the folktale about cats having nine lives, though that goes all the way back to the Egyptians.

a black cat staring
Image Credit: ClaudiaWollesen, Pixabay

Where Did Celtic Cats Come From?

The Egyptians are believed to be the first civilization to domesticate cats, but some evidence suggests they could have come from Asia too. Regardless, when the Greeks first visited Egypt, they became smitten and stole three pairs to take back home. The first litters were sold to various European countries, including Celts who took them back home.


Celtic culture revered many animals, but the cat was most associated with black magic and death. We know now that this is silly, but it helped spawn mythological figures like the Cat Sith and even some superstitions around today.

Featured Image Credit: Mathew Swift, Shutterstock

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