Buried skulls & mummified cats

horse-skull

Photo: irisharchaeology.ie

Hello again.

Thought I’d share with you this article from the Irish Archaeology website, about the horse skulls found beneath the excavated remains of houses built in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries.

I was aware of the practice of placing such items in buildings to ward off evil spirits, though I hadn’t known before that these horses’ heads were also used to improve the acoustics! Reading this piece reminded me of the mummified cat – known by locals as “the extremely dead cat” – kept at Keswick Museum & Art Gallery in Cumbria. It was found in the rafters of St Cuthbert’s church near Penrith in 1842.

Cats often get a bad rap in folklore terms – and I have a somewhat jaundiced view myself, being allergic to the little critters – and their association with witches hasn’t helped. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, in 1677 on Queen Elizabeth’s Day (an old festival that used to be held every November 17th to commemorate Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558) the effigy of “a most costly pope” was burned on a bonfire, “his belly filled with live cats which squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”.

Still, black cats are often seen as lucky, though not always for the cat itself, as various bits of it – head, tail, ears – used to be removed, and used in cures for eye-ache, styes, and shingles.

For more on the Keswick cat, and related apotropaic magic such as witch bottles, have a look at this excellent post from Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore.

Dessicated cat from Keswick Museum

The Keswick cat

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