I first came across this word not very long ago, and it was something that I’d never heard about before. So I thought I’d see what came up on Google, and then write a short article. Here’s what I found:
The Gaelic term Taigheirm means either an armoury, or the cry of a cat, depending on how the word is being pronounced. Both meanings are closely connected as the cries of tormented cats were also the weapons used to overwhelm the opposition that demons presented to human requests. But, the word is mostly given to an ancient magic rite in which cats were sacrificed. This mainly happened in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, although it is believed that the ceremony originated in more northerly climes, and was practised until about the end of the 18th Century.
The Taigheirm "celebrant" fasted during the ritual, and wore black garments, with the cats also having to be black. The ceremony began at midnight between a Friday and a Saturday. In the book by George C. Horst, entitled Deuteroscopie, published in 1830, he describes the rite as being a ritual in which cats were dedicated to devils. These poor unfortunate animals were tortured by being roasted over a slow fire which, as can be expected, caused them to howl. As soon as one cat died in such great agony another was immediately added to the fire because it was believed that if there were any pause between one dying and one being added then they would not be able to control hell. This ceremony lasted continuously for four days and nights, and even longer if the "celebrant" was able to sustain his physical ability to do so.
It is thought that the last Taigheirm ceremony was held on the Isle of Mull around the middle of the 17th Century. And it is said that the “celebrant” was Allan Maclean, together with his aide Lachlain Maclean (or Lachlain Oer as he’s sometimes known); with the pair being granted second sight. Horst describes what happened thus:
"The infernal spirits appeared, some in the early progress of the sacrifices in the shape of black cats. The first who appeared during the sacrifice, after they had cast a furious glance at the sacrifices, said—Lachlain Oer, that is, 'Injurer of Cats.' Allan, the chief operator, warned Lachlain, whatever he might see or hear, not to waver, but to keep the spit incessantly turning. At length the cat of monstrous size appeared; and after it had set up a horrible howl, said to Lachlain Oer, that if he did not cease before their largest brother came he would never see the face of God.
After some while demons, in the guise of black cats, started to appear and they would mingle their cries with those of the real cats. Eventually, a larger demon cat appeared that had a far more fearful aspect than the others. This particular apparition was an indication that the "celebrant" could now announce his requests, which would be granted to him and his family in perpetuity if he would stop the slaughter of the cats. He would normally ask for the gift of second sight, although he might also ask for, and receive, other things.
Apparently, during the ceremony that Horst describes, the older man was totally exhausted and passed out, but the younger man was still well-balanced enough to request wealth and prosperity. Both men received these things for the rest of their lives.
Reports have it that when he lay dying Allan told his friends that if he and Lachlain, who had predeceased him, had lived just a little while longer they would have driven Satan from his throne. The story also relates that when Allan’s funeral procession reached the churchyard the people present who actually did have second sight saw, some way off, Lachlain standing fully armed leading a group of black cats who gave off the stench of brimstone. On his tomb there is an effigy of Allan that is shown in complete armour.
There is also a story that, shortly before this, another Taigheirm was held during which Cameron of Lochiel was given a tiny silver shoe. Apparently, this shoe could be put on the foot of a new-born son of his family and it would bestow courage and bravery. However, due to a genetic defect inherited from his mother, who wasn’t a member of Cameron’s clan, the feet of one child were too big for the shoe to fit. The fact that this child wasn’t endowed with magical properties became clear in 1715 when, at the Battle of Sheriffmiur, during the Jacobite Rebellion, he ran away rather than face the enemy.
These Pagan Taigheirm rites probably came to Scotland from the most northerly Isles because the Western Isles were settled by people from Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. Such peoples still believed in magic, and the "old ways," until Christianity eventually reached them. Their climate was one of mists and cold weather, with the land being mostly rugged and barren. This was thought to be why the inhabitants naturally had second-sight.
In his writings Plutarch notes that the islands lying beyond Britain were an unknown land of myth and legend that in ancient times were thought of as being the northern edge of the Earth; and they were considered to be infamous for their supernatural visions. Eusebius also wrote that "… beyond Britannia lie many islands, of which several are filled with demons and evil spirits, who occasioned thunder, storms, torrents of rain, etc., and puzzled both the inhabitants and visitors with such delusive scenes as to bring them into confusion and anguish, and to injure both soul and body..." Plus, in his History of the English Church, the Venerable Bede agreed with those ideas, and wrote that the almost uninhabited Island of Lewis was a place where malevolent spirits and malicious apparitions met to practice their unholy ceremonies. It was also believed that the wicked souls of the dead were sent to these islands. The Faroe Islands were also thought to be populated by such spirits.
The rituals of the Taigheirm may also be associated with the Shamans of Northern Asia; with Shamanism probably being the first belief system that arose in pre-history. Cat sacrifices were made throughout Europe as they were thought to be an especially effective way of communicating with the powers of darkness. And it is also highly likely that the Taigheirm is closely linked to the incantation ceremonies in Old Norse, and Teutonic, i.e. the Troll and Elfin beliefs, where the acceptance of Trolls, who seem related to the cats of the Taigheirm, prevailed in Scandinavia, and also to the Scottish belief in faeries that ties in with the Scandinavian elves.
It was thought that cats had second sight; a belief that probably stemmed from their being able to see in the dark. In Scotland many believed that cats were able to artificially obtain such second sight by scratching out, and then eating, the eyeballs of corpses; after which, it was alleged that the first person the cat jumped over would become blind. Thus, should a cat enter a room where a corpse was laid out it had to be destroyed to not only avoid the danger of blindness, but also to avoid vampirism. The Scots greatly valued second sight, and some who not born with it became determined to get it one way or another. Therefore, as they thought it could be obtained from cats the occult Taigheirm rite came into existence.
Cats have been used in sacrifices in many countries, and many eras. In Medieval Europe they were killed as penitence for the plague, or they were cast into the Saint John’s Fire at the Summer Solstice. In France it was customary to put live cats into a large wicker-basket and throw onto the Mid-Summer’s Eve bonfire. In the Netherlands cats were always excluded from any room in which a family discussion was taking place because the Dutch believed that a cat would most certainly spread gossip to other people.
And, throughout history cats have often been connected with gods and goddesses. For example, in Ireland it was believed that the devil could take the form of a cat, and killing one could result in seventeen years bad luck. In German myths the carriage of Freyja, goddess of the afterlife, was pulled by cats. In Roman times the goddess Diana, goddess of the hunt, often took the form of a cat.
However, black cats have long been associated with witches, and many also believed that cats could sense the onset of death because they were able to smell the guide coming to take away the soul of the person about to die. In Europe cats were thought to also be able to shape-shift. Perhaps that’s why, in numerous cultures, it is thought to be a very bad omen if you see a cat, especially a black cat. Hence, here in the UK, I was brought up with the superstition that if a black cat crosses your path you have to cancel out the bad luck by indulging in another superstition. For my family that was to try and find a ladder and walk under it because walking under ladders is also considered to be bad luck. However, I think it depends on your own cultural inheritance as, in other places, a black cat crossing your path is considered to be lucky.
Meanwhile, in Japan it was considered unlucky to kill a cat because they had special powers, and to do so would be bad luck. In China many people believed that at night-time cats were able to see spirits, and to also be able to turn into demons.
There is, of course, the other side of the coin where cats are considered to be beneficial. Some of those beliefs are, for example, that kindly cat demons could reward those who treated them well with gold and treasure, and protect a home from fire. In Italy, anyone hearing a cat sneeze was a good omen. In Scotland an unknown black cat on your porch would bring prosperity. In the USA seeing a white cat at night is unlucky, yet dreaming of a white cat is lucky. In Ancient Egypt they believed that the rays of the sun were kept safe overnight in a cat’s eyes.
The author Merrily Harpur wrote an article for Fortean Times in which she wondered if the large black cats seen roaming around the UK, and with special reference to the Isle of Mull, might have more to do with those of the Taigheirm than those released when the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act came into force. Her article is called The Mull Panthers: The infernal big black cats haunting a remote Scottish island, and you can read it here:
The origins of the Taigheirm probably lay way back in pagan times when rituals, held during the hours of darkness, and devoted to subterranean gods, were believed to be able to bestow special gifts and benefits on the people participating in them. The rites were thought to have been held in underground places, for chthonic divinities. But, to save you having to reach for the dictionary, and as I wrote in a previous article, the word, "Chthonic," relates to the Underworld. As these ceremonies were dedicated to subterranean gods I can’t help wondering if they even have their roots in the folk memories of the Cro-Magnon people to whom caves were so important.