I’m a bit behind on this one, as Hallowe’en was Saturday, but today’s still closer to Hallowe’en than last Monday was so… Let’s call it good. As someone who has two mostly black cats, I find it interesting that they’re often considered bad luck. Our black (and white) kitties are the sweetest cats (if a little butthole-y sometimes, haha). So many people are predisposed against black cats though because they have such a negative history and negative connotations. If anything, now, I’m biased towards them.
There are twenty-two recognized breeds of cat that can have solid black cats. The only breed of cat that is always all black is the Bombay; created in the 1950s by mixing the black American shorthair and the sable Burmese, they were created to look like a mini panther. Slightly more male than female cats can be all black. Because of the high melanin in black cats, they generally have that golden yellow eye color. A lot of black cats are really just suppressed tabby cats; you can see the tabby in certain lights. Black cats with a white root are called “black smoke”, while black cats that look brown in the sun are said to “rust” in the sunlight.
To combat the negative history of black cats (which we’ll get to shortly), August 17 is “Black Cat Appreciation Day” and October 27 in Great Britain is “Black Cat Day”. These days are trying to get more people to not be afraid of black cats and to love them. In the United States in shelters, black cats have a lower adoption rate than other colors of cats. Social media pushes towards making black cats favorable are helping. Oddly, social media is also causing people to shy away from adopting black cats because they don’t photograph as well and therefore probably won’t become the next internet superstar cat.
Now to get to the history of black cats (and a little on cats generally). In Egypt, cats were revered. They could catch and kill cobras and other pests. A lot of cats were even honored with mummification. In Ancient Egypt there was even a cat goddess, Bast or Bastet. Bastet was a woman with the head of a cat (originally the head of a lion. Cats as pets were becoming popular and so her image changed around 1000 BCE). Egyptians believed they could gain Bastet’s favor by having black cats in their home. Cats were so revered that killing a cat was a capital offense.
The Norse liked cats as well. One of the names that the goddess Freya was known as was Mistress of the Cats. Her chariot was pulled by multiple pairs of large cats the color of night. With the spread of Christianity, though, other religions became bad and the things they believed were turned on their head. This is probably part of why cats became bad: the Egyptians and Norse liked them and Christianity couldn’t have that.
We’ll get to black cats’ association with witches shortly, but first, in some places black cats are considered good luck. In a lot of Britain black cats are good, and in Japan as well. One belief in England was that “a lady who owns a black cat will have many suitors” (1). In most of the UK, a black cat crossing your path is good. In Germany, if the cat crosses from right to left it is considered bad luck, but if they cross from left to right it’s good luck. In the English Midlands, a black cat is considered good luck to give to a bride on her wedding day.
In some of England, and much of Europe, black cats are unlucky. Essex was the first place in England to get cats, and they also had a lot of witchcraft. In England and Ireland, there is the story of the Cat Sith, a large black cat, possibly with a white spot on its chest. The Cat Sith is either a fairy disguised as a cat, or a witch in the form of a cat. The Cat Sith could “steal a dead person’s sould before [the] gods could claim it”.
By 1348, black cats were associated with the devil and were nearly exterminated. This was the time of the Black Death, believed to be caused by God’s wrath. People would try to “placate him by burning women accused of witchcraft” (2); black cats were guilty by association. With the killing of so many cats, it actually caused the rat population to explode, making the plague worse. In Kidwelly in southwest Wales, though, when people came to the town after the plague, the only living creature around was a black cat and so it became the town’s mascot.
Cats were associated with witches because “alley cats were often cared for and fed by the poor lonely old ladies … later accused of witchery” (3). Cats were then seen as these witches’ companions, which morphed into being their familiars. In 1560s Lincolnshire, another story goes, a father and son were out walking at night when a black cat crossed their path, and so they threw rocks at it causing the cat to run into a house. Unfortunately the house it ran into was that of a suspected witch. When the woman was seen the next day she had bruises like the cat would have had, and was limping. This helped lead to the belief that witches could turn into black cats at night. It was even said that you shouldn’t discuss anything family related or personal in front of a black cat in case it was a witch in disguise.
These beliefs helped feed into the Pilgrims paranoias related to the devil. They were afraid of anything devil related. Witches were brides of the devil or had signed a pact with him. Anything related to the witch was therefore bad as well. Black cats got caught up in this. In some cases anyone caught with a black cat could “be severely punished or even killed” (4). It didn’t help that the color black itself had negative connotations: black mass, black magic, etc.
Witches also were associated with black cats because of the cats’ natural ability to blend in at night as well as cats’ highly nocturnal nature. The way cats almost always land on their feet when they fall, and the reflective tapetum lucidum in their eyes, added to the strange behavior cats were known for. If we add to all this that the Pilgrims were in a new and unfamiliar place and were suspicious of the unusual anyway, this added up to a lot of cries of witchcraft and lots of negative associations for black cats.
King Charles I of England didn’t believe all this nonsense though. He was on the other side of the matter and believed black cats to be lucky. He owned a black cat and just loved it and believed it brought him good luck. When his cat died, Charles believed his luck was gone as well. Supposedly the next day Charles was arrested and charged with high treason; his luck had definitely run out.
Other people also didn’t think of black cats as bad. Sailors in search of a ship cat wanted a black cat because it would bring them good luck. Fisherman’s wives also wanted black cats because of this association with the sea, hoping the cat “would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea” (5). If a black cat walked onto a ship and then walked off again, though, the ship would sink on its next trip. In the 18th century, pirates believed that a black cat walking towards you was bad luck, but walking away from you was good luck. Many in the UK believed the opposite: that a cat was bringing you good luck and if it was walking away from you it was taking the luck away with it.
In Yorkshire it was believed that black cats were lucky to own, but unlucky if they just crossed your path. In Scotland a strange black cat appearing on your porch brought you prosperity. In Japan, “black manekineko (beckoning cats) are a wish for good health” (6).
In the 1880s, black became associated with anarchists and so a black cat in a fighting stance became an anarchist symbol. In the early 20th century, the International Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies, used a black cat as their symbol, playing off its negative history. If an employer the Wobblies had an issue with saw the black cat symbol, they knew it was bad luck for them.
In England, early 20th century football cartoons used black cats. When one young supporter kept a black kitten in his pocket throughout the 1937 finals, and Sunderland won, Sunderland adopted the cat as their nickname/mascot. In the early days of television, many channel thirteens used black cats as their mascots, as well, to play off the unlucky nature of their channel number.
There are positive cats, and specifically black cats, in popular culture though. There are Dick Whittington and Puss in Boots. There’s Felix the Cat, and Booboo Kitty from Laverne and Shirley. There was a black cat named Isis on an original episode of Star Trek. There are black cats in Edgar Allan Poe stories, Neil Gaiman stories; there’s a black cat character in a Marvel comic; there’s a Janet Jackson song. There are still negative connotations related to black cats, but I think the positives are slowly gaining on them. I, for one, love my black kitties and hate to think that people have silly superstitions about them.
1, 4, 5 – Black Cat