Bret Gaunt reveals another curiosity from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:
Cats have played an important role in the everyday life of humans: as companions and for hunting vermin, as well as being both revered as gods, and reviled as demons. One of the most recent acquisitions at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is the naturally mummified remains of a cat. This cat, however, is not from the deserts of ancient Egypt, but from here in cold and rainy Buxton! Unlike the cats of ancient Egypt which were worshipped as gods and carefully mummified to be placed in tombs, the presence of the Buxton cat reveals something far more sinister.
Over a hundred naturally mummified cats hidden in buildings are known from across the UK, though more will have existed but been disposed of because their significance was not realised, and possibly many more remain to be found. What all of these cats have in common is that they were hidden in secret cavities within buildings and used in a form of folk magic to repel evil spirits. The majority are positioned as if they are hunting or attacking, with some even having mummied mice or rats in their mouths.
Naturally mummified cats are found sealed into walls, under floors near doorways, sometimes in a roof space, and occasionally in cavities within a chimney – liminal spaces that were believed to be subject to the intrusion of malevolent forces. The cat from Buxton was found during renovation work at the site of the old post office at the Quadrant. Workmen disturbed part of the ceiling in one room and the cat fell out onto the unsuspecting men.
The majority of the cats from the UK seem to have been hidden in buildings during the period of the witch trials in the 16th to 17th centuries, though the practice did continue in some parts of the country well into the 19th and early part of the 20th century; in the case of the Buxton cat this would seem to be the case as the Quadrant was built in the 1850s.
Folklore regards cats with special powers, such as having sixth sense and possessing nine lives, as well as their ability to see in the dark. Cats are also very territorial and will protect their homes from threats and are prolific hunters. But cats also have an ambivalent character where they were regarded in the past as being the familiars of witches, and having associations with the devil.
An important clue to the nature of the cats is the secrecy involved in hiding them, and secrecy is often a key feature in magical practices; they are hidden from view in parts of the house where evil spirits or witches could gain access. Other items are often found sealed into houses, most commonly shoes, but also horse skulls and bottles, the latter often containing urine and nails and commonly known as Witch Bottles and which have a known role in averting the powers of evil.
The Buxton moggy is now safely on display in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery, protecting the museum from the forces of darkness! You can plan your visit here.