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  • The Saint Who Became A Cat May 7, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has previously looked at St Christopher a dog-headed saint. But what about St Agatha who can turn into a cat?

    First a little background. Agatha was a martyr saint from Catania, Sicily whose five-day festival each year in early February remains one of the highlights of civic life in the city and whose climax comes when the priests pass among the people to let them kiss Agatha’s relics including her foot, her breasts and her veil.

    Collectors of curiosities may be interested to know that her breasts – removed by Roman torturers – can also be found in relic collections at Palermo and St Trophime…

    In Catania you would offend local sensibilities were you to suggest that Agatha could change into a cat – and believe Beachcombing when he says that you do not want to risk offending local sensibilities in this particular Sicilian city.

    However, Agatha had, in times gone by, an empire of followers who stretched up to the Atlantic coast to Britain – a stained glass window in Gloucester Cathedral. And down through France and into northern Spain where she was invoked to protect agricultural communities from lightning and hail-storms.

    It was only in the south of France that the connection between Agatha and the cat came up. Here legend had it that the saint would appear in the guise of a cat to women who had the impertinence to weave or wash on her day – 5 February, you have been warned.

    The delightful Violet Alford – who Beachcombing knows for her work on, of all things, English folkdancing – retells one of these feline hagiographies (178).

    A woman announced that she was going to begin washing, but her neighbour reminded her it was St. Agatha’s Day and that this work was forbidden… She began [nevertheless] her wash, and immediately ‘a sort of cat’ appeared at the chimney corner. This creature cried ‘Empty it, empty it’ every time the cauldron had to be emptied. The terrified woman ran to her wise neighbour. She was told to go to the window when it was time to empty the last cauldron, and to cry out ‘The cemetery is on fire!’ …the cat howled ‘To my little home!’ and fled. Back it came to inform the woman of the escape she had had. [she would have been burnt alive] And this time the teller said it was the Saint risen from her grave to punish the woman for not observing her day.

    There are many versions of this but the cemetery – an established detail – being the saint’s ‘little home’ worries Beachcombing because there is no reason for thinking that Agatha’s relics were in the local cemetery – not even a breast, damn it! Was this a kind of zombie-saint-cat then? Note too that the cat appears ‘at the chimney corner’.

    Any other examples of saints turning into animals? Beachcombing has, over the years, spent more time than is good for him reading the lives of saints and cannot think of a single case: though there are many, many episodes where saints interact with animals. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    And the reason for Agatha’s feline jinks? For once there is straightforward explanation. Agatha in the langue d’oc is Gato or ‘cat’. The disease of language…


    31 May 2011:Andy the Mad Monk writes in with an intriguing cat-saint story: ‘Your recent enquiry about saints which changed into animals brings to mind the curious case of the relics of Joan of Arc.  These highly venerated articles turned out to include mummified cat remains from the third century. Possibly another miracle?’ Thanks Andy!