On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

The Dark History of Black Cats

Trio of black cats. Click for source.

Trio of black cats. Click for source.

During the Halloween season, we are bombarded with images of black cats on the heels of wart-nosed witches. Not only are black cats an essential part of Halloween decor and costuming, but they are present in almost all popular depictions of Halloween in film and television.

In many parts of the world, the black cat is a symbol of wealth and prosperity, but not so in the Anglo-American world.

As far back as the fourteenth century, the cat became closely associated with the Devil, in part due to its more-than-keen senses, silent walking, glowing eyes, and mysterious nature, all of which were seen as otherworldly. For a time, cats in general suffered at the hands of superstition, and thousands of cats were burned to death in England for allegedly being demons or witches’ familiars. This resulted in an increased rat population, which in turn led to the spread of the bubonic plague. After the plague tore through England, the role of cats as rodent control was acknowledged, and their reputation was mostly restored.

But for black cats, the association has lingered far into modern times. The black cat’s reputation has remained forever tarnished, probably because of its sleek shiny coat and the association of the color black with evil and demonic practices. The early American settlers took to accusing owners of black cats of witchcraft and sorcery, and black cats themselves were viewed as witch’s companions or spells conjured up to do ill deeds. This has led to the more modern superstition that black cats bring about general bad luck.

According to some myths, Halloween is the day of the year when the boundaries thin between our world and the next. Black cats, with their mystical association, become highly visible. Traditionally, the black cat was sought after as a semi-magical entity in order to aid in Halloween rituals — sometimes with cruel and unfortunate results.

While most modern Americans perpetuate the bad luck association for tradition’s sake and nothing more, some take the enigma surrounding the black cat very seriously. Many cat shelters refuse to adopt out black cats during the Halloween season. Cat owners are also often advised to keep their cats indoors for similar reasons.

While these rituals are few and far between, the fact remains that black cats are a misunderstood creature, especially as one of Halloween’s most visible representatives. And even where superstition is not a problem, it is a good idea, in general, to protect one’s cats by keeping them indoors and locked away. Cats are easily stressed by strangers and change, and hundreds of children roaming the night, asking for candy, dressed as ghouls and witches, certainly spells bad luck for them!

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