Well, folks, it’s that time of year. Carved up pumpkin faces blink out from your neighborhood doorsteps, the local thrift and costume stores are mobbed with Halloween shoppers, and chances are you’ve already seen more than a few witch-with-cat lawn ornaments.
It is the time of the black cat.
Let me be honest – I already tried to write this post once before. Black cat superstitions are an interesting topic any time of year, particularly for a monster blog. But I am an unabashed cat lover – barely shy of Debbie-level – and the first time I tried to research this, the results were so depressing that I had to stop. People have committed some awful atrocities against black cats in the name of religion or superstition.
So be warned: this post discusses animal abuse.
But let’s start with happier times – as, indeed, the history of cat domestication begins on a lighter note. Scientists estimate that wildcats were first domesticated about ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Nearby, in ancient Egypt, cats were so well-loved that it was once a capital offense to kill one. Some Egyptian cat owners had their furry companions mummified and buried alongside them.
And cats shared that positive reputation across many cultures. Egypt’s cat goddess, Bastet, stands alongside China’s farm guardian Li Shou, Poland’s helpful but mischievous black cat god Ovinnik, and a Mochica – an early American civilization – shapeshifting cat god. Oh, and the Norse goddess Freyja drove a chariot led by two enormous cats. Talk about riding in style!
That’s just to name a few. So where did cats – specifically black cats – get such a bad rap?
… Yeah. Pretty much just Europe.
The cultural significance of black cats varies around the world. In most Western countries, it’s considered bad luck when a black cat crosses your path. The superstitions could be so grave that it was interpreted as a premonition of disease or death – the ultimate way to cut off your path.
But in the UK and Japan, it’s good luck to bump into a black cat. (Admittedly, the Cat Sìth of Celtic folklore was a bit of a mixed bag.) In Germany, a passing black cat’s direction can change your luck – a cat going from right to left is bad luck, but one going the opposite way portends good fortune.
Sailors were particularly fond of cats, too. Ships often kept cats to hunt stowaway mice, and it was bad luck if a cat went overboard – you see, they would use the magic they stored in their tails to summon storms as vengeance. (Naturally.) Even sailor’s wives, stuck on dry land, would sometimes keep black cats indoors due to the superstition that it would bring their husbands home safely.
So where did it all go wrong for these cute little furballs?
In the mid-13th century, Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull called the Vox in Rama. This document is the first known record of the Church associating black cats with Satan. Greggo’s agents conducted an inquisition in Germany, where people “confessed” (under threat of death and torture) to worshipping the devil and an evil black cat. During their satanic rituals, they reported, a statue of a cat would come to life and a half-cat devil would appear.
It’s a pretty odd story. Why would the Church decide to persecute cats and cat owners? Presumably inquisitors could get their victims to admit to just about anything, so why that? Maybe there was some grain of truth in the confessions – maybe the Church wanted to demonize pagan animal worship, and so they associated it with the devil. Maybe devout believers thought they were the same thing. Regardless of the reasoning, Gregory IX’s Papal Inquisition saw cats – and a disproportionate number of black cats – killed alongside human victims.
Violence against black cats continued in western Europe through the 1800s. That’s six centuries. Some came from the Church and its inquisitions, some from superstitious mobs. Some even came in misguided attempts to preserve public health – the police in Berne, Switzerland, killed over eight hundred cats in 1809 because of a rabies outbreak.
Unlike the health panic, the most well-known of these cat purges are tied into attacks on humans. Witch hunts spread through fifteenth-century Europe like a cancer, taking many innocent human lives. The American colonies followed suit with the infamous Salem witch trials. In both cases, witch hunters killed many black cats along with their owners.
There were several reasons for the association between black cats and witches. Superstition dictated that witches kept magical familiars, or even that they could transform into cats. Some claimed that a witch could transform into a cat nine times before becoming trapped in feline form – possibly the origin of the myth that cats have nine lives.
Black cats in particular came under fire. There were mythical stories that when a black cat was injured, the same injuries would appear on a witch – either because the witch had shapeshifted or because they were magically linked.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to see how this kind of association could be faked. Many innocent outcasts who happened to own cats were identified as witches and executed along with their equally innocent cats.
Well, you could just as well ask why evil exists in the human heart. In many of these instances, cruelty to these animals is coupled with violence against human beings. It’s a related but different kind of evil. Most of us are fortunate enough that we’ve never had to fathom what it means to take a human life – a being with intelligence and empathy comparable to our own. Sometimes innocent, sometimes helpless, but someone who we could understand or relate to, if we took the time to try. To kill a person in that situation is certainly monstrous.
To kill another animal is no less heinous. They don’t understand our rules of engagement – the witch tied to the stake understands what’s happening. The cat tied up next to her knows nothing but terror. Maybe all that’s left of a human in those moments would be the animal instincts of fear and terror. Maybe not – and maybe it would be a blessing to have the animal’s ignorance. I don’t like to think about it. Either situation would be terrible, and it is without question monstrous to put an innocent being in that place.
Like so many of these blog posts – in this story, it turns out that we are the monsters. Humans. Mobs who let their terror whip them into a frenzy. Those who, out of their irrational fear that others might hurt them, would hurt others first.
Well, maybe I’m not just writing about Halloween, now.
I’ll end with this: the perception that black cats are still, today, less likely to be adopted than other pets. That’s not precisely true: they are not less likely to be adopted, statistically speaking. However, if you look at the intake rates, you’ll see that there are many more black pets in shelters than animals of other colors. Maybe this means they’re more likely to be abandoned – but that’s a hunch which I don’t have data to support. What is supported is that black cats are euthanized at the highest rates.
So… love a black kitty, huh? Let’s do a little to reverse that monstrous track record of ours.
And have a happy Halloween, from me and my happy, healthy little black cat! It that makes me a witch, well… then boo.