A Familiar's Tale

Once upon a time (say, somewhere around 1520), a cat named Sathan lived in the town of Hatfield Peverel, England. Sathan was an old-fashioned English cat. In those days, back before the tabbies arrived in 1637, England had its own species of cat: a small white animal with grayish spots. By the end of the 17th century, English cats had vanished; they interbred with the tabbies and their unique colors disappeared. But this tale is set in the 16th century, 70 years before a tabby set paw on English soil, and so Sathan was a good old-fashioned English cat.

Sathan was born in the house of Mother Eve, an elderly Witch. Eve had a granddaughter named Elizabeth, and when her grandchild was twelve years old, Mother Eve sat her down and taught her the ways of Witches. As part of her training, Eve gave Elizabeth a familiar: Sathan, then a lively catling no more than a year old. Feed him milk and bread, the old woman told the girl, and place a basket of wool under your bed for him to sleep in. And whenever you have need of anything, put Sathan in your lap and pet him. Feed him a drop of your blood and whatever you ask for, he'll help you get.

Elizabeth took Sathan home with her and did as her grandmother bid. To her surprise, she found that the cat "talked." At first she couldn't understand him, for he spoke "in a strange hollow voice." But as the years passed, she found that she could make out words in her familiar's purrs and grumbles.

Sathan and Elizabeth lived together in peace for several years. When the girl became a young woman, however, she realized how poor she was, and how many things she didn't have. So one night Elizabeth held Sathan in her lap, fed him a drop of blood as Mother Eve had taught her, and asked him to bring her riches. What sort of riches? Sathan asked. "Sheep," Elizabeth replied. And the next morning there were eighteen black and white sheep in her field. No one knew where they'd come from, and her neighbors marveled at her good fortune. But soon the sheep pined away and died, and Elizabeth was no better off than before.

So Elizabeth fed Sathan again and asked for a rich husband. The cat said that Andrew Byles was a likely candidate. And indeed, the rich man was more than willing to become Elizabeth's lover -- but he never offered to marry the poor girl, even when she grew heavy with his child. Alone, destitute, and pregnant, Elizabeth turned to her only friend. She curled up with Sathan and wept, telling him of Andrew's broken promises, of her fears for what the future would bring an unwed mother. And Sathan licked the tears from her cheeks and whispered in her ear, telling her of an herb that would send her unborn babe back to the Summerlands. As for Andrew Byles. . . well, first his wealth trickled away and then he sickened and died. Elizabeth, knowing how she'd hated him, blamed herself for his death.

Sathan comforted her and told her he'd found her another husband, a man named Francis. Francis and Elizabeth became lovers, and once more Elizabeth became pregnant. But unlike Andrew, Francis was an honorable man. And so the two were wed, though the neighbors did cluck a bit when their daughter was born a mere three months after the marriage.

For fifteen years, Sathan, Francis, and Elizabeth lived together, though not very happily. The couple's first child died suddenly. One day, as the infant screamed and cried, Elizabeth became enraged and wished that Sathan would carry the child off. A short time later, the infant wasted away. And again, as with Andrew Byles, Elizabeth blamed herself for the death. Francis and Elizabeth got along poorly. "They lived not so quietly as she desyred, beinge stirred to much unquietnes and moved to swearing and cursinge."

Now, Elizabeth had a sister named Mother Waterhouse. Unlike Elizabeth, Mother Waterhouse had not been trained by her grandmother, Eve. She was a Christian, though one who scandalized her neighbors by saying her prayers in Latin -- like some foul Catholic! -- instead of in English as all good Protestants did. One afternoon Elizabeth asked her for a cake. In return, she said "she would give her a thing that she should be the better for so long as she lived."

A short time later, Elizabeth brought her the most precious thing she had: Sathan. She wrapped the grizzled old tom in her apron and carried him to her sister's house. There she carefully instructed her sister, as her grandmother had taught her years ago, to pray and feed Sathan a drop of her blood whenever she needed anything. Mother Waterhouse did as she was told, reciting the Pater Noster ("Our father who art in Heaven. . .") and feeding the cat a drop of her blood. Moreover, whenever one of her spells worked the way she wanted, she gave Sathan a chicken as a reward. "Which chicken he ate up clean. . . and she could find remaining neither bones nor feathers." Sathan might be an old cat, but he still had strong teeth and a healthy appetite!

We don't know what happened to Sathan in the end. He lived to the ripe old age of seventeen or eighteen, then quietly vanished one night. Perhaps he paused for a time in the Summerlands, waiting for his beloved Elizabeth to rejoin him.

And that she did, sooner than she should have. In 1566, Elizabeth and her sister were accused of Witchcraft, of bewitching several of their neighbors to death. Mother Waterhouse was hung. Elizabeth escaped with a year's imprisonment and a few days in the stocks.

Escaped the first time, that is. For once you were named a Witch, your neighbors blamed all their misfortunes on you, and so Witches who survived their first trial often found themselves up on charges again within a short while. Five years after Elizabeth got out of prison, one of her neighbors fell ill and she found herself before the courts again. The law demanded the death penalty for any Witch convicted a second time, but for some reason Elizabeth only received another year in jail. Six years after her release she was charged yet again. And this time, in 1579, she joined her patient Sathan in the Summerlands.

Sathan's tale comes from our earliest published account of a Witch trial, a pamphlet entitled "The examination and confession of certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex before the Quenes majesties Judges, the XXVI daye of July Anno 1566." Elizabeth's third and final trial is described in another pamphlet, "A Detection of damnable driftes, practized by three Witches arraigned at Chelmisforde in Essex, at the laste Assises there holden, which were executed in Aprill 1579." Excerpts from both of these pamphlets appear in Barbara Rosen's _Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618_.

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