"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dogs And Cats–Innocence and Evil

Dogs are simple, loving, beautiful creatures.  As Milos Kundera said:

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace.

Tereza in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being says, reflecting on the death of her dog, Karenin:

"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only ...towards those who are at its mercy: animals."

In the Middle Ages cats were thought to be evil incarnations:

Cats were associated with witches, and were killed en masse in the middle of the 14th century during the time of the Black Death. Had this bias toward cats not existed, local rodent populations could have been kept down, lessening the spread of plague-infected fleas from host to host.

In the Renaissance, cats were often thought to be witches' familiars (for example, Greymalkin, the first witch's familiar in Macbeth's famous opening scene), and during festivities were sometimes burnt alive or thrown off tall buildings.

Because cats are by nature nocturnal, elusive, and independent, many ancient peoples associated them with dark and mysterious things. These included night, the moon, magic, and even death ... and such themes were a natural segue to align cats to demonism and evil powers.

In the illustration above a man rides a cat to a witches' Sabbath in a 15th-century illustration.

This belief has deep roots in the ancient world. The Israelites were very suspicious of cats and called them "demons of the desert," according to Isaiah. For the Chaldeans -- the Mesopotamian tribe which came to rule Babylon -- cats were to be shunned, referred to as "the accursed ones." In Iran, the Zoroastrians considered cats to be servants of the devil Ahriman.

The suspicion that cats were tied to evil powers was found as far away as the Malay Archipelago, where a demon known as a bajang, normally of deformed human shape, would sometimes assume the guise of a cat in order to gain access to villages, where it would eat fetuses and wreak havoc. In Japan and the Scottish Highlands, meanwhile, demonic cats were believed to steal the souls of the recently deceased and drag them to hell.

One of history’s earliest “evil cat” superstitions asserted that felines were vampires capable of robbing the breath of a sleeping child. The story may have stemmed from Hebrew tales of Adam’s hated first wife, the vampire Lilith. As the story goes, she took the form of a huge black cat named El Broosha. Her favorite prey: defenseless newborns.

Despite these rather serious reservations, 30 percent of American households own cats, close to 36 million of them.  Why anyone would prefer to harbor ‘the accursed ones’, ‘demons of the desert’ and witches consorts to what Kundera understood to be creatures of simple innocence is beyond me.

While there are exceptions to these characterizations – Cerberus was a three-headed, monstrous, and vicious dog who guarded the Gates of Hell. While the Greeks never said that the dog was evil – he might have simply been a good dog in bad employ – popular legend has it that he embodied the same frightening spirit as his master.

The Romans were much more evolved when it came to dogs, and they believed that they had the power to ward off evil.  Mosaics depicting dogs were installed in Roman villas to ward off evil spirits, and parts of dogs, especially the teeth, blood, and gallbladders were said to be potent talismans for warding off evil.

While there are some legends which portray cats as benign creatures, they are far outnumbered by those of evil portent.

One of my favorite movies is Gummo, a story of a trailer trash boy who lives in a small town in Ohio and makes money by rounding up cats and selling them by the pound to the local Chinese restaurant.

My mother never ate at Chinese restaurants because she knew that what was billed as chicken was cat.  The idea of eating one of the strays that hung around the dumpster behind Jimmy’s Smoke Shop was disgusting.

Now, the issue of Chinese food is complex and contradictory.  While the Chinese do us all a favor by cooking with cat (my mother had to agree that downtown New Brighton was a quieter place at night after Hong Fat’s opened up on Broad Street), they destroy thousands of innocently pure dogs every year to cook them up.  In fact, well-prepared dog meat is such a specialty in certain parts of China that supply cannot keep up with demand.

A Chinese exchange student lived with us for a year, and on a long walk along the C&O Canal one day, he pointed out the many birds, snakes, frogs, fish, and birds that are found there.  Pointing to each one of them he said, “That good to eat”.  When I asked him if Chinese people eat everything, for so it seemed, he replied. “If Chinese can catch, Chinese will eat”.

A friend of mine told me about his periodic nightmares that featured cats. They had glowing green eyes, he said, and always took a semi-human form, mainly female. I knew he was having marital troubles and suggested that he was conflating his dislike of cats with his bad feelings for his wife. Women and cats have always been linked, I reminded him.  Women are often described as feline, they have cat fights, and they try to scratch each other’s eyes out.  It is not surprising that my friend dreamt of evil cats.  I knew his wife, and I always felt edgy around her and was happy when I left. 

“No”, he said. “I am in the presence of pure evil.  No matter how bitchy Marlene can get, she doesn’t even come close to the cat woman in my dreams.”

My mother told me that cats always know the people who hate them, but rather than hide from them, they rub up against them, making furry passes under the dinner table. “It is their way of showing their power”, she said.  “They insinuate themselves into an unsuspecting family, sow evil among them, and then come after us. We are their enemies.”

Feral cats are a big problem in the UK, and current estimates put their number at well over a million and increasing geometrically.  Humane cat activists have proposed spay-and-release programs, while the more hard-minded have suggested that roaming cat hunters armed with small-bore rifles and paid by the cat would do the trick.  Spaying simply delays feral population decrease while residents continue to get scratched and bitten in record numbers.  Shoot-on-sight programs, however, are quick and effective. 

The Bangladeshi paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was constituted to rid the society of drug dealers (“Feared Drug Kingpin Dead In Crossfire With RAB” was a common headline in Dhaka newspapers) and is the model suggested by many for cities with cat-infested streets.


The feral cat problem is in the rise again in Belfast. During the ‘troubles’ the cat population was kept under control by plinking by both Catholics and Protestants who wanted to keep their eyes sharp and their aim straight; but now that the peace accords have finally taken hold, feral cats are back.  The problem is that Northern Ireland has been largely demilitarized, and guns are at a premium, even plinkers. Poisoning is out because there are so many shanty Irish living in the slums of Belfast and Derry that the authorities fear that street urchins may eat the tasty poisoned morsels spread about by City Hall.

Father Sean M. O’Malley has been the principal spokesman for feral cat removal in Londonderry. Nothing but elimination of all cats is his goal.  He, like my friend, had visions of evil cats in his dreams; but unlike Bobby Lickens, he felt that God had given him a sign.  Cats were the feline incarnation of Satan, said God to Father O’Malley in a mild, instructive dream; and it was his Christian duty to eliminate them.

The parishioners at the Sacred Heart Church wondered why there were so many cat references and anecdotes in Father O’Malley’s homilies; and finally one of them reported the priest to the Archbishop.  “He’s frightening the wee ones”, she said to Monsignor Harris in his well-appointed chambers.  “Would you like to have a cuppa?”, asked the Archbishop, trying to put the parishioner at ease.  The faithful only came to him when they had a complaint about one of his clerical team, and the buggery scandal had worn him down.

“It’s about Father O’Malley”, she began. “And his stories about evil cats.”

Archbishop Harris smiled and put his arm around Mrs. Flaherty. “Now don’t you go worrying your pretty little head about that, Mrs. Flaherty”, he said. “I’ll give Father a good talking to.  Putting the fear of God into you is one thing; but not the fear of cats”.

The Archbishop knew that Father O’Malley was slowly going around the bend.  He had confided his dreams in confession one Saturday and then in much more detail after Sunday Mass; but the Archbishop only applauded his sincerity and commitment. “Yes, Patrick”, he said to the worried priest, “we must always be vigilant when it comes to the Devil.  You are doing good work, but might I suggest that you give Johnny Walker a bit of a rest?”.

If the truth be known, the Archbishop shared Father O’Malley’s concern about cats.  In fact he had immersed himself for a while in the many medieval texts about them. This is an excerpt from a Medieval historian which the Archbishop often quoted:

In the Middle Ages, cats were practicing supernatural powers and witchcraft. Most accused witches were older peasant women who lived alone, often keeping cats as pets for companionship. This guilt by association meant that roughly a million cats were burned at the stake, along with their owners, on suspicion of being witches.

In the early thirteenth century Pope Gregory IX (1145–1241) declared that a sect in southern France had been caught worshipping the devil. He claimed the devil had appeared in the form of a black cat. Cats became the official symbol of heresy (or religious beliefs not advocated by the church). Anyone who showed any compassion or feeling for a cat came under the church's suspicion. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Europe's cat population had been severely depleted. Only semi-wild cats survived in many areas.

He knew than that such ecclesiastical opprobrium could work wonders. If the medieval sanctions against cats could be reinstated, the cat population in Northern Ireland would be reduced to zero; and from there, who knew.  The Archbishop who had been a strong although quiet supporter of the IRA during the troubles still hated the British and although he never admitted it had ambivalent feelings about cats south of the border.  Let them work their evil ways, he privately admitted to himself, but let God’s cat jihad skip England.

Religious fervor is not unknown in the world of dogs.  Kunderites understand that pit bulls are setting back universal love if not deification of dogs.  It is easy to see God’s benign love in the golden lab, Karenin; but not in the tough ghetto dogs of America.  Kundera has been at the forefront of a movement to neuter all pit bulls.  In America neutering has become de rigeur among progressives and urban liberals, but has been resisted in the slums of Anacostia and inner-city Detroit.  Macho is the word on the street for young black males and for their pit bulls.

Kundera’s Target No. 2 is the Doberman.  A pit bull under the right circumstances can look kind of cute, but the long, lean Doberman is always scary; and Kunderites have gone house-to-house in neighborhoods which have been profiled as Doberman redoubts.

I have always hated cats.  They rub up against me just like my mother said.  I have dreamt of evil cat women and of being attacked by rabid feral cats; and I have felt their needle teeth bite into my flesh.  I block all Facebook posts with cat jokes, pictures of cats dressed up as cute girly girls, and cats lounging, lying, and curled up by the fire. I forbade any kitty stories when my children were growing up.

I have always loved dogs for all Kundera’s reasons and then some.  They tend to tie you down once the little chickadees have left the nest and the Airstream is parked outside, but I am still hoping to welcome one into my home.

I used to have birds – budgies and cockatiels – but that is another story altogether.




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