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Cats are known to be adorable yet haughty creatures with several superstitions and beliefs associated with them. This is especially true of black cats. It is around the time that Halloween is just round the corner that superstitions about black cats resurface.
Black cats are closely associated with witches, sorcery, and satanic rituals. Some believe them to be either familiars of witches, demons shaped as animals spying on humans, or even witches in disguise.
Although the image of the black cat was positive at some point in the past, ever since the era of witch hunts, a negative connotation has unfortunately stuck to black cats in many parts of the world.
The Origin Story
The belief that black cats cause bad luck and are bad omens can be traced back to medieval societies, when all animals with black features such as ravens and crows symbolized death and misfortune. These animals were subject to a deep-rooted fear amongst the people of those times. In fact, in 16th century Italy, if a black cat lay on someone’s sickbed, it signaled a certain impending death.
Black Cats, Witches, and the Devil
Superstitions about black cats developed about the time of witch hunts, which began in the early 13th century in Europe and continued till the time of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in the 17th century.
According to them, black cats were in fact witches in disguise. This superstition is said to have emerged when some folks saw a black cat going into a house that was presumed to be a witch’s abode. These rumors, along with the fear of black animals, led to people associating black cats with black magic. Sadly, they would burn the cats at the stake along with the alleged witches.
The superstition that black cats are incarnations of Satan became commonplace through the Middle Ages, when Pope Gregory XI wrote the document titled ‘Vox in Rama’ meaning ‘To Deal with the Topic of Devil Worship.’ In this work, he claimed that Satan often transformed into a black cat to walk the Earth.
Black Cats in Mythology
The superstitions associated with black cats being an omen of death can also be traced back to Ancient Greece and Greek mythology.
According to legends, the Greek goddess Hera, in her jealousy over her husband Zeus’s mistress, tried to hinder the birth of Hercules. Her plan was foiled by the interference of her servant Galinthias and in her anger Hera, turned Galinthias into a black cat as punishment for defying her authority. When sent to the underworld, the Greek goddess of death and witchcraft, Hecate, took pity on the newly turned black cat and took Galinthias under her wing as a priestess.
In Norse Mythology, the goddess of fertility and love, Freyja, was said to ride on a chariot pulled by two black cats. When pulling the chariot, these cats turned into black horses that were possessed by the Devil. As a reward for faithfully serving her, Freyja turned the cats into witches.
Meanwhile, in Ancient Egypt, black cats were seen as the representation of the Egyptian goddess of protection, justice, fertility and power, Bastet. The black cat was considered the most sacred as it resembled the cat-headed goddess Bastet. Because of this, they were considered the messengers of good fortune.
Are Black Cats Equivalent to Bad Luck?
In the modern world, black cats are still associated with death and other tragedies.
- In the United States, if a black cat is spotted during a funeral procession, people believe that another family member’s death is imminent.
- It is considered to be bad luck if a black cat crosses a person’s path or walks away from them. Conversely, a white cat crossing one’s path instead, is regarded to be a symbol of good luck.
- In Germany, black cats crossing your path could bring either bad luck or good luck depending on the direction in which the cat is walking. If it is from right to left, only bad fortune will follow. However, if it is in the opposite direction, it is an omen of good times ahead.If the person whose path the black cat crossed did not receive the curse of bad luck, it is believed that the person is being protected by Satan himself.
- The only way to reverse the bad luck that the black cat brings is to either let another person walk before you to transfer the bad luck to them or walk in a circle, go backwards in the same spot where the cat crossed paths and then count to thirteen.
- Rumor has it that witches could shape-shift into a black cat, a total of nine times in their lives. Interestingly, the association that black cats have with witchcraft is what resulted in the myth that cats have nine lives.
Black Cats in Folklore
Welsh folklore has several stories of black cats. It was a common belief that the form of a black cat was a favorite amongst transforming witches, who flew around bringing misfortune into the lives of those around them. They also predicted the weather with the help of these cats.
Cats had the ability to indicate the place the dead had gone to, and when a black cat left the house of the deceased right after they died, it meant that they had gone to the bad place. But if it was a white cat instead, they had gone to heaven.
In their time, pirates too had many superstitions related to black cats, both good and bad. It was bad luck for a black cat to be walking towards them and good luck for it to be walking away, but if it boarded the ship and then jumped off, the ship was bound to sink soon.
Black Cats and Good Luck Superstitions
The stigma behind black cats is not a world-wide one. In fact, since the time of ancient Egyptians, all cats, particularly black cats, were worshipped as sacred beings and held in the highest esteem. They symbolized protection, grace, and strength. Even today, in many parts of Asia as well as Europe, black cats are seen as a symbol of good luck, prosperity and happiness.
The Japanese believe spotting a black cat means that the person will be lucky in finding true love and single women with black cats are believed to find more suitors. In fact, some brides are gifted a black cat for their wedding since it is believed to bring good luck and happiness in marriage.
Sailors and fishermen in some parts of Europe starting on a voyage also consider a black cat a symbol of good luck and tended to take them along on the ship. Even the wives of these sailors and fishermen kept black cars as pets in the hopes that it would keep their husbands safe at sea and to ensure their safe return to land and back home. This belief evolved from the custom of taking cats along on the ship to hunt mice and also for companionship.
Dreaming about a black cat is considered a good omen in many cultures around the world. Black cats are a symbol of prosperity in Scotland. It’s considered to be a good omen when they appear on the doorways and porches of a person’s home and a sign that they would become financially affluent. English stage actors still believe that having a black cat in the audience on opening night means that the show would be a great success.
The French, being romantics, believe that it is a magical moment to see a black cat. They are called ‘matagots’ meaning ‘magician cats’. It is a local superstition that those who feed these black cats and treat them with respect are bestowed with good luck.
What’s the Reality for Black Cats?
The fear of black cats may be due to their nocturnal nature, with eyes glowing in the dark. This mysterious figure hunting for prey during the night, is enough to scare the daylights out of most people. Hence, their association with black magic and evil can be understood. Unfortunately, due to the bad reputation that some of the superstitions have brought them, these elegant felines are the last to be adopted and the first to be euthanized.
Pop-culture and media tend to reinforce the idea that black cats are, in fact, evil incarnate. Shows such as ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ portrays her familiar as a black cat, Salem, who was actually an evil sorcerer turned into a cat as punishment.
Edgar Allen Poe authored a short story called ‘the Black Cat’ which was a gruesome story of murder and retribution with a black cat at the background of all the misfortune.
Most animal shelters have to deal with the aftermath of these superstitions as they find it extremely hard to find good and loving homes for these innocent animals. During the Halloween season in particular, animal shelters do not keep black cats for adoption, for the fear that they would be unjustly used as mere props for the festivities.
It is evident that black cats are mysterious creatures, feared as well as revered across diverse cultures around the world. They may be harbinger of misfortune or heralds of good luck, but regardless of all the superstitions about them, at the end of the day, they are merely beautiful cats looking to be loved.