I love cats, and have two of my own. (Head to my ‘about’ page for a cute picture). It’s been a while since I’ve shared my life with a black cat, but I find them especially beautiful. Of course there have been a lot of myths and legends surrounding black cats over the centuries, so I thought I’d do a quick bit of research and share some of these.
Did you know that black cats are witches in disguise? If you lived between the thirteenth and seventeenth century, in Europe or America, you might have grown up believing this. Witches were considered to be quite real, and one of their magic tricks was to change into other creatures, often including cats (black being the ‘bad’ colour), to slink about and spy on good people. Black cats could often be regarded as a witch’s ‘familiar’, which essentially meant a spirit or supernatural entity that would assist the witch in casting spells. In France in the 1300’s, a group of women were apparently accused of worshipping the devil in the form of a black cat. The nocturnal nature of cats would have fostered this idea, as night time was considered the time when bad things happen and all good people are tucked up in bed.
When America was colonised, a lot of these ideas were imported to North America. The infamous Salem witch trials indicated how strong were the superstitions people held, and black cats were again seen as aiding and abetting these nefarious practices.
Spooky stories about black cats were very common at one time in southern USA, such as ‘Black Cat’s Message’. The cat characters in these stories were supernatural, demonic entities. It was traditions like these that morphed into the inclusion of the black cat in today’s Hallowe’en celebrations.
The Norse goddess Freya drove a chariot pulled by two cats, black, blue or grey (though larger and scarier than your regular house panther.) In Celtic mythology, a black cat spirit called Sith had the habit of stealing the souls of the recently deceased. Also, there is a magical Icelandic cat called Jólakötturinn who eats lazy children at Christmas. Merry Christmas, I guess?
There are many general traditions concerning black cats. For example, in sixteenth century Italy, if a black cat lay on a person’s sick bed, it was believed that person was about to die. In Medieval France and Spain, they were considered to bring bad luck and curses. In medieval Germany, if a black cat crossed your path from left to right it was considered to bring bad luck. (The website where I found this did not mention what would happen if the cat crossed your path right to left.) The myth of cats stealing the breath of babies seems to have been first documented in eighteenth century England where there was an actual court case. In Ireland at one time it was believed that if a black cat crossed your path in the moonlight, then you were fated to die in an epidemic or plague. (So best watch out for black cats at night at the moment, then?)
Some superstitions involved cats on ships. One I came across claimed that if a black cat walked onto a ship and then off again, that ship would be fated to sink on its next voyage. However in Europe a black cat on a ship was considered to bring good luck, and if someone threw a ship’s cat overboard (why would they do this? I shudder to think!) the ship would have bad seas or possibly even sink.
Even in modern day America, some people still believe that if a black cat crosses your path it is bad luck, but if a white cat does it is good luck. Also it is believed that if you spot a black cat during a funeral procession (or a wake) someone else will soon die. If you see a black cat walking away from you, this is a bad omen. I have to admit I was rather flummoxed to discover that such superstitions were still held by people. It makes little sense to me.
However it is not all doom and gloom. In ancient Egypt cats were worshipped, and black cats represented the goddess Bastet, bringing good luck. The ancient Greek historian Deodorus of Sicily related a story where (approximately 60 to 56 BC) a Roman solder in Egypt killed a black cat and was in turn killed by an angry mob, and killing a cat at that time often resulted in a sentence of death.
In both Asia and UK owning a black cat is considered to bring good luck. In Japan a black cat will bring good luck in love. In Scotland seeing a black cat at your door is a sign of coming prosperity. In France a black cat is a harbinger of something magical happening in your life. Also, if a girl was to step on the tail of a cat she would be unlucky in love. Various cultures attribute good luck to the black cat, if you dream of one, see one approach, or even if you find a white hair on a black cat. In Renaissance era Britain, you needed to kiss the family cat when entering a home as a guest in order to ensure a good stay. And in rural Italy, hearing a cat sneeze will bring good luck.
You will face consequences for harming a cat in many traditions. One stated that if a farmer was to kill a cat, then his livestock and crops would die. And as already stated, don’t kill a black cat in ancient Egypt, and don’t throw any kind of cat off a ship, if you value your life. Essentially, don’t be mean to cats. They’re awesome, anyway.
Black cats have been used in more recent times as counter-cultural symbols of defiance to perceived unjust authority. The Black Panthers would be the most famous example of this, and the symbol has also been used by workers unions. I guess by embracing the thing seen as ‘dangerous’ or ‘bad’ one makes a statement of opposition to standard perceptions and accepted ways of doing things.
Thankfully in less superstitious times we can enjoy black cats, and all cats, for what they are. We welcome them into our homes and our lives to rule the roost and give us love, laughs, and comfort.
(Black) cats are cool!