In my past few Halloween posts, I wrote about the origin of ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ and the legend of ‘Jack-o-Lantern’. Today I will take another path down history lane. Let’s find out where the superstition about black cats being bad luck comes from, shall we?
Origins of Black Cat Superstitions
The connections between humans and cats can be traced back to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, most notably, ancient Egypt, where cats were considered divine symbols. Cats also made an appearance in Greek mythology, specifically Hecate, goddess of magic, sorcery, the moon, and witchcraft, was described as having a cat as both a pet and a familiar (a supernatural creature that assists a witch, according to European folklore).
Written records link black cats to the occult as far back as the 13th century when an official church document called “Vox in Rama” was issued by Pope Gregory IX on June 13, 1233. “In it, black cats were declared an incarnation of Satan,” says Layla Morgan Wilde, author of Black Cats Tell: True Tales And Inspiring Images. “The decree marked the beginning of the inquisition and church-sanctioned heretic and/or witch hunts. Initially, it was designed to squash the growing cult of Luciferians in Germany, but quickly spread across Europe.”
Cats and Witches Seen as Threats to Early Christian Church
In addition to their early association with Satan, cats became inextricably linked to witches in medieval Europe. According to Cerridwen Fallingstar, Wiccan priestess and author of Broth from the Cauldron: A Wisdom Journey through Everyday Magic, witches were the pre-Christian pagan practitioners of Europe.
Although the early Christian church in Europe coexisted with witches, as the church gained power, she says that they saw witches as their direct competition in gaining the hearts and minds of the people. That’s when the church began hunting, persecuting, torturing, and killing witches in vast numbers, she explains.
“Witches honored the natural world, having a deep respect for plants and animals,” says Fallingstar. “Affection between human and animal, therefore, began to be seen as ‘diabolical’, or devilish, and the old lady with her cats became seen as suspect.”
But it wasn’t only the connection they fabricated between witches, cats, and the devil that the early Christians feared: they also saw them both as threats. “Cats, like the women accused of witchcraft, tend to exhibit a healthy disrespect of authority,” she notes. “They don’t fawn, like dogs, upon even the unworthy. In the church, neither independent women nor independent animals were to be tolerated.”
At some point, the pairing of witches with cats narrowed to black cats, although Fallingstar says it’s not entirely clear why that happened. “The relationship between witches and black cats in particular is probably imaginary, but it is possible that black cats make better mousers since they cannot be seen at night and therefore have a hunting advantage,” she explains. “Witches do tend towards the practical.”
Eventually, the fear surrounding black cats and their association with witchcraft made its way across the Atlantic, courtesy of Puritan colonists, says Daniel Compora, associate professor of English language and literature at The University of Toledo. “The idea that witches could turn into their familiar likely evolved from those accused of witchcraft having cats as pets,” he explains.
Cats Blamed for Spreading the Plague
During the Middle Ages, it wasn’t uncommon for cats to be killed, given their association with evil, Compora says. Some people even went as far as blaming cats for spreading the Bubonic plague and used that as another reason to get rid of them. However, their ill-conceived plan backfired.
“In a particularly bizarre piece of irony, the killing of the cats helped fuel the spread of the plague,” Compora explains. “With the reduced number of cats to control the rodent population, the disease spread rapidly.”
Of course, those of you who know me, are also aware that I have a cat, Tjara, a beautiful 11-year-old Maine Coon cat. She’s gorgeous, proud, wonderful, occasionally cuddly, and very focused on me. And it happens, of course, that she’s pitch-black. And no, I’m definitely not a witch! (LOL)
After all that information now, let’s celebrate Halloween with some known ‘goosebumps’!
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I wish you and your families: