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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Big Black Cats: Physical or Paranormal?

Many Fortean phenomena, from ghosts and UFOs to Bigfoot and other cryptids, revolve around witness accounts of strange sightings. In most cases, if the object seen is what the witness believes it is – an extraterrestrial spacecraft, the spirit of a dead human being, a huge hairy apeman – then it would be a truly earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting event. When it comes to the subject of “Big Cats in Britain”, however, that’s just not the case. The issue here is simply a known species that happens to be a few thousand miles from its normal habitat. For this reason, the whole subject of “out-of-place animals” is one that’s never really interested me that much. But last week I came across a couple of blog posts that made me look at the subject in a different light.

First there was The Big Cat Mystery from Kate Kelly's blog The Scribbling SeaSerpent. Amongst other things, Kate says: “There is another line of thought that they are creatures from the spirit world that pass across occasionally into ours; the rationale behind this theory being that the cats described by witnesses are so variable in appearance.” This is a really fascinating idea. Prior to the 20th century, there were frequent sightings of “phantom black dogs” in Britain, which were emphasised to have supernatural qualities. They were unnaturally large, they had glowing eyes, and they appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye. In more recent, more materialistic times, these black dogs seem to have been superseded by “black panthers” and “black pumas”, which witnesses describe as being flesh-and-blood creatures – although they may not be.

The second piece I saw last week – a similar idea approached from a different angle – was all about an ancient pagan ritual called the Taigheirm. This was the subject of a post by Nick Redfern on the Mysterious Universe blog, called Sacrifice and Supernatural Cats. Before I go into details, I’ll just try and squeeze in the painting on the left, which I saw on the Dark Classics blog a few days ago. It’s called “A Scene of Sorcery”, and it was painted by Domenicus van Wijnen around 1685. It’s a depiction of some kind of demonic ritual, although it’s not the Taigheirm, and it’s got a cat in it, although no-one seems especially interested in sacrificing it. But it’s a really spooky painting, all the same.

According to Nick’s Mysterious Universe post, the Taigheirm ritual had its roots in pagan times, but continued to be performed in remote parts of Scotland well into the 19th century. The ceremony involved the sacrificial roasting of domestic cats, with the aim of “coming into communication with the powers of darkness”. According to a supposed eyewitness account, “after a certain continuance of the sacrifice, infernal spirits appeared in the shape of black cats. There came continually more and more of these cats; and their howlings, mingled with those roasting on the spit, were terrific. Finally appeared a cat of a monstrous size, with dreadful menaces.”

Whether the “Big Black Cats” encountered in Britain today are likewise paranormal phenomena, or whether they have any physical reality, is a moot point. The same could be said, of course, about many other Fortean sightings... with one important difference. Ufologists, for example, have a tendency to burst into tears if you suggest UFOs may have a non-physical explanation. It simply isn’t as exciting as the idea of nuts-and-bolts extraterrestrial spacecraft. On the other hand, a ghostly creature from another realm of existence is far more exciting than a flesh-and-blood member of the genus Panthera, that just happens to find itself on the wrong continent!

For anyone who is interested in raw data on British Big Cat sightings, I helped to set up an online resource on the subject last summer: The CFZ Mystery Cat Database. This draws on a huge number of news reports collected over several years by Jon Downes and his colleagues, for which I've tried to produce a user-friendly interface. The result is only partly satisfactory – it seems to work with some browsers but not others. Also, the keyword assignment was done mechanically, rather than by a human – so it quite often throws up irrelevant results (or misses relevant ones). For what it’s worth, I also produced a short demonstration video on YouTube.

2 comments:

Kandinsky said...

Good morning Andrew.

I'm one of those who hold great doubts about the physical reality of these big cats and few doubts that people are seeing them.

There's no point in my going over population sizes or breeding territories as we've all thought of them or read about them before. One clincher for me is the lack of bodies and how that overlaps into the very British phenomena of the 'man walking his dog.'

Very few have remarked on this intriguing phenomena and there are no papers or books that I'm aware of. It relates to the amount of dead people, arms caches and hidden booty discovered by a man walking his dog. Buried or dumped, it's apparently a matter of time until 'man with dog' stumbles on human remains and it's raised my eyebrow and a smile for years now.

In the case of the big cats, their remains are as elusive as those of other mystery creatures, like bigfoot, and just as immune to natural disasters and disease.

I think it's part of the overall human experience to encounter apparitions and they've accompanied us throughout recorded history like a nonsensical circus 'oompah' band. On that point, I believe a lot of people have been truthful and accurate in describing black shugs, marine critters and ephemeral people. There seems to be an interwoven cultural reciprocity that's reflected in the differences over time. So when we read Gurney or Lang, we see reports have a different 'flavour' to 21st Century companions.



Andrew May said...

Thanks as ever for the thoughtful comments. One of the things about "big cats" is that, because they exist elsewhere in the world, we know exactly what sort of evidence to look for. As you say, that's more likely to be physical traces than actual sightings. Wild animals know how to stay out of human sight, but not how to vanish into thin air as soon as they die!