Today, it is difficult to imagine that black cats were once dreaded and persecuted. After all, some our favorite and most famous characters have been black cats, such as Felix the Cat, Snowball II of The Simpsons, and Sylvester the tuxedo kitty. However, the world sentiment about black cats has been mixed. Black cat superstition has been a real phenomenon throughout history, and this has led to many misguided notions about them, especially in Medieval Europe. Fortunately for the black cat, there have also been good black cat superstitions where people admire or even worship the feline.
Prehistoric Fear of Cats
Superstitions can be negative or positive, depending on the context. Although it’s speculation, the origin of black cat superstitions may stem from our prehistoric human ancestors. Early man had a big problem with cats. Many of them were much larger in size than they are now. Plus, they had voracious carnivorous appetites, even for humans. Because humans were not always at the top of the food chain, fear of cats was necessary for survival. If someone came into contact with a huge South American Smilodon – the saber toothed tiger – it was his fear that could help him to fight or run away.
This early fear of cats may have created a primal distrust of felines that most, but not all, of humankind has overcome as cats became smaller. Although nobody knows what color the Smilodon was, it was specifically black cats that became the primary target of negative superstitious beliefs.
Bad Black Cat Superstition
During the Middle Ages, bad black cat superstitions took hold. Some people assigned sinister qualities to black cats. Normans and Germanic people believed that, like the black raven, a black cat was a sign that a death would soon occur. They thought that if a black cat crosses your path it was bad luck. The fears about black cats spread throughout Europe over time and, sadly, mass killings of black cats took place. Although certain areas of Europe, such as places in the UK, had some positive black cat superstitions, the black feline was often misunderstood and mistreated.
Witches and Black Cats
The Middle Ages, also called the Dark Ages, in Europe, was a time of many superstitions that resulted from early spiritual beliefs and a lack of scientific understanding about nature. The persecution of people accused of being witches is a clear example. People believed that witches and black cats worked together. Supposedly, the devil sent the black cat to assist in the witch’s evil deeds. Additionally, witches were able to turn themselves into black cats so that they could slink around in the shadows casting spells on unsuspecting people.
Innocent women (and some men) and black cats were persecuted unjustly. It is estimated that hundreds of thousand of people accused of being witches were killed across Europe (Scienceblogs.com). Additionally, black cats were being eradicated, and this was one contributing factor – coupled with other major environmental catalysts – that caused the mouse population to grow out of control. The mice spread a disease called the Bubonic Plague, and more than 25 million people died over the course of 5 years (infoplease.com).
Fears Travel to America
Later, English Puritans took their black cat superstition with them to America. Still very enmeshed in some unfounded beliefs, Puritans detested anything that was associated with witches or the devil. Their persecution of witches and cats continued through the Salem witch trials (and elsewhere) of America. Horrifically, they even killed black cats on Shrove Tuesdays, before Lent.
As a result, the black cat superstition was cemented in American history, and many people used this to justify the mistreatment of black cats. Eventually, the Halloween black cat was created to the detriment of real cats across the country. Both witches and black cats are commonly used today to enhance the fear factor of Halloween. However, black cats were not always considered bad luck. In some places, they were even worshipped.
Egyptians Revered Black Cats
When cats were domesticated in the Middle East and Egypt thousands of years ago, the felines took on a very special meaning. The Egyptian cat was black. It provided a life-saving service and was revered for its ability to keep royal food stocks safe from rats, mice, and other critters. They even had a cat goddess, Bastet, who was part cat, part woman. She would grant good fortune for those who housed cats.
Cats in Egypt were seen as an embodiment of gods, and they were worshipped. Thus, it was illegal to kill a cat, even accidentally, and the penalty was death. Egyptians’ love and respect for their black cats were so strong, that owners would often mummify their cats after death. The families would mourn their cats’ deaths as if a family member had died. And often, owners and their cats would be buried together.
Good Luck Black Cats
There are other good black cat superstitions scattered throughout Europe. In England and other places, a black cat on a ship can be lucky. Pirates had mixed feelings about black cats. If the cat walked on and stayed on the ship, it was good luck. But if the cat walked on and then off again, the ship would sink. It was also good for the wives of fisherman out at sea to have black cats at home to provide good luck that would help the fisherman make a safe return home. Some cultures in Europe believed that if the black cat walked toward you it was bringing good luck, and if it walked away it was taking the luck away from you.
In Japan, they have positive superstitions about black cats and cats in general. They are symbols of good fortune and prosperity. The Maneki Neko cat statue sits inside almost all businesses with one paw up, waving in the good fortune. There are both white and black Maneki Nekos. Many young, single women in Japan own black cats, because they believe it will bring in many suitors.
Why Were Black Cats Persecuted in the Middle Ages?
What exactly is the origin of bad black cat superstition? As noted, during the Middle Ages and beyond, cats were hunted and eradicated because of beliefs, and those beliefs may have their roots in the fact that the black cat was worshipped in some places.
Many monotheistic religions were unaccepting of the polytheistic beliefs of other cultures and lands. Before Christianity became widespread, most people worshipped a pantheon of gods, some in the form of idols. However, once monotheism took hold, any deity not of God was considered to be of the devil. Thus, early Christians at one time believed Roman statues were embodied with evil spirits. Unfortunately, many of them went to great lengths to destroy Roman temples and their deity statues. According to The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Romans had a very high regard for cats and may have even revered them. It was the Romans who actually introduced the house cat to Britain. It is important to keep in mind that during a major part of history the Romans had close connections to Egypt and there was a sharing of cultures and ideas.
Egyptians were also polytheistic. They worshipped black cats and cat statue idols, and the worshippers believed gods dwelt within the cat. Is it possible that early Christianity made the association of the worship of black cats to worship of evil spirits, as in the case of Roman statues? And perhaps to the early church, if a black cat could contain a pagan god, then it could also contain a witch.
Black Cats Today
Even in our modern world some people fear the black cat. However, more people now understand that black cat superstition has no basis. Sadly, they still have a higher risk of mistreatment, especially around Halloween. If anyone has owned a black cat, they know that the color of its fur doesn’t make a difference in the personality or fortune the cat brings. If they respect it and give it lots of love and affection, it will bring them many years of good luck and joy.