It’s rather curious how the reputation of the infamous black cat has evolved over centuries. It was once revered by the ancient Egyptians as a divine channel for the gods. Since the European Middle Ages, the black cat has been regarded as a witch’s familiar and a means through which curses could be cast upon unsuspecting folks.
And in modern lore, the black cat remains an omen of misfortune or even death. Today, we know this mysterious feline as the iconic “Halloween Cat,” but is there a candy corn kernel of truth to the black cat lore? And, how concerned should you be when one crosses your path?
A Quick History of Black Cat Superstition
Superstition about black cats being associated with the devil has its origin during the Medieval times (500 AD to 1500 AD) in parts of Europe. Historians indicate that Norman and Germanic people first spurred the idea that a black cat crossing your path brought bad luck. These peoples also believed that a sighting of a black cat was an omen that a death would soon occur. Fear about black cats quickly spread through villages leading to a mass culling of black cats. Ironically, this eradication of black cats, at this time in history, is thought to have led to the overpopulation of rodents, which enabled the Bubonic Plague to spread quickly and caused more than 25 million deaths over five years.
A European tale that likely contributed to the association between black cats and witches also tells of a man and his son who came across a black cat and who, for reasons unknown, began to toss rocks at. The injured cat ran into a woman’s house who was suspected of being a witch. The next day the woman appeared in the village, limping and bruised, leading people to suspect that the cat must be the woman in disguise.
Raven, Crows, and Cats--oh, My!
Much like ravens and crows in other lore, people also viewed black cats as a symbol of demise, death, or bad luck simply because of their dark fur. Sadly, mass killings of black cats spread across Europe as people tried to rid the streets of these bad omens and familiars of witches. Eventually, people came to believe that witches would use black cats to carry out evil deeds and communicate with the devil. Other myths claimed witches would transform into black cats as a way to hide their identity or to cast spells in secret.
When Europeans migrated to America, these black cat superstitions travelled along with them. The persecution of witches and cats continued throughout the Salem Witch Trials, which saw more than 200 people accused of witchcraft and 19 people hanged. Both witches and black cats were persecuted and killed together.
Black Cats as Icons of Protection and Good Fortune
As mentioned, the ancient Egyptians believed cats were connected with their gods. The goddess Bastet was known to be part cat, part woman, and a fierce warrior who defended the pharaoh. Egyptians believed Bastet would grant good fortune to those who housed cats. They also used cats to protect royal food stocks from rats and mice. There was a heavy penalty for killing a cat: Death. So great a love was held for cats that many Egyptian owners would mummify the dead cat, which would be mourned for a period of time as well. Additionally, it was a common practice for owners and their cats to be buried together.
In Japanese culture, Maneki Neko, or Lucky Cat, is often used as a charm to bring good luck and prosperity. It can often be seen inside businesses with one paw up waving in good fortune. It is also common for Japanese women to own a black cat with the belief it will bring exceptional suitors.
Don’t Fear Black Cats, Protect Them
Here we are in the Twenty-first Century and many people still feel the hair raise on their neck at the sight of a black cat-- even though they know those ancient superstitions have no validity.
It’s historical association with witches and any coincidental, suspicious events have led to black cats being the iconic “Halloween Cat,” depicted in costumes, decoration, and modern lore--from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King. Sadly, this Halloween popularity and the knowledge that these superstitions are silly at best, have not kept the black cat out of harm's way.
Black cats (and even black/white cats) have the highest risk of mistreatment compared to cats of other colors. Additionally, black cats are left homeless longer, needing more assistance to find loving families to adopt them.
Anyone who has ever owned a black cat knows that the colour of its fur doesn’t make a bit of difference in the cat’s personality or in the affection the cat brings. Like any other cat--and like the people of Egypt and Japan believe-- if given respect and loving attention, a black cat will bring its owner many years of joy and prosperity in the wellbeing that comes from owning a pet.
Animal Welfare League, NSW- Australia “Black Cat Stigma”
Ethos Veterinary “Where did Black Cats Get Their Bad Rep?”
Miller, Mary Ann (2011). "The Mystique Behind Black Cats". The Cat Site.com
Marty Becker, DVM (2012-10-26). "Are Black Cats in Greater Danger Around Halloween?". vetstreet.com. Retrieved 2018-11-04.