“Thou Shalt not suffer a Cat to Live”: Why Pope Gregory IX’s Vox in Rama Implicated Cats in Devil Worship.

The Obscene Kiss, Wood engraving from the 1608 edition of the Compendium Maleficarum. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

 

The Vox in Rama

 On June 13, 1233, the Pope issued the Vox in Rama to King Henry of Germany. The bull began by bewailing the various woes that afflicted the church- the most recent being the satanic cult identified by Conrad of Marburg as flourishing in Northern Germany. The bull called upon the bishops of Mainz and Hildesheim to lend Conrad their full support in rooting out these witches. It also provided a remarkably full account of their Satanic rite. This description created an image that was to be used for all future depictions of witches’ sabbats- and one that established the cat as a creature of the devil.

The account began by describing the initiation of novices to the coven. Firstly, they are greeted by an abnormally large frog or toad, whose behind they must kiss and then a “man of fearful pallor” and thinness whose task was to suck out “every last remnant of faith in the Catholic Church” from their soul. The novice then feasted with the rest of the congregation, after which they assembled to pay homage to “a black cat” which emerged “ from a kind of statue which normally stands in the place where these meetings are held.”

 The whole coven was required to kiss the cat’s behind, and once they had done this, a wild sexual orgy occurred. Once the lights came back on, “from a dark corner, the figure of a man emerges.” This ‘man’ was Lucifer, who the whole company firmly believed to have been wronged by God. As was to be expected of a former angel “The upper part of his body from the hips upward shines as brightly as the sun.” However, his fall from grace was encapsulated by his lower body where “his skin is coarse and covered with fur like a cat.”

Figurine of the Goddess Bastet as a Cat, Egypt, 21st – 26th Dynasty (1081 – 525 B.C.). Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, these rites, with their orgies and obscenities seem to be deliberately far-fetched. However, amongst the warped fantasies were some bare facts from past beliefs which lent themselves to the dark image of witchcraft the church was attempting to conjure. For the worship of the cat had its basis in the pagan past. Not only did the Egyptian’s hold the cat sacred in the form of Bast, a warrior goddess associated with fertility and the moon, but so too did the Romans, for whom the cat was one of the symbols of the goddess of freedom, Liberta.

The cat had obtained a darker connotation through its association with Galinthias, who became a servant of Hecate, a Greek goddess of the underworld after she was turned into a cat by the goddess Hera. The Church had already accused the Waldenses of worshipping the devil in the form of a cat. Also, in 1182, to aid the church’s vendetta against the Cathars, the French theologian Alain de Lille falsely claimed that the sect took its name from the cat instead of the real source, the Greek katharoi or ‘pious ones’. Tying the cat to satanic worship was a natural progression- and one that would have dire consequences.