The facts and folklore behind Black Cat superstitions
Black Cats weren’t always considered bad luck. In early Egyptian times, dating back as far as 3000 BC, the domesticated cat became a symbol of grace and poise and was praised for its ability to kill cobras and other vermin. The goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess. The cat goddess Bast was the deity representing protection, fertility, and motherhood. Some cats were so honored that they received the same mummification after death as their humans. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer living near Beni Hassan uncovered a large tomb filled with eighty thousand cat mummies, dating to 2000-1000 BC. In Egypt, killing a cat was considered a capital crime.
It wasn’t until the Middle-Ages when the European church began accusing people of witchcraft that cats began to fall out of favor in folklore and tradition. Cats – especially black ones – were accused of being witch’s familiars. Over in Scotland, people once believed in a fairy called the Cat Sith who took on the appearance of a giant black cat/ Cat Sith was believed to have the ability to steal a dead person’s soul before the gods could claim it. For this reason, the Scottish folks sat night and day with a dead body prior to its burial, to protect it from the Sith.
In the 1500s, there arose the belief that witches could shape-shift themselves into the form of Black Cats so they could roam freely about the country wrecking havoc and spying on people. There is an English folktale in which a father and son, traveling home late one night, saw a black cat cross their path. The son threw a stone at the creature, fearing it was a witch’s familiar, and the stone hit the cat in the left leg. The injured animal gave forth an unholy shriek and fled under the stoop of a house belonging to a woman long suspected of being a witch. The next morning, the father and son met the old woman at the local marketplace and saw that she was limping on her left leg. From that day, the people in that town were sure that the woman was an evil witch that prowled their town at night in the shape of a black cat, looking to do mischief against anyone who crossed her.
The belief that witch’s could turn themselves into Black Cats crossed the Atlantic with the first American settlers and was a firmly-held superstition in New England by the time of the Salem witch hunts. Black Cat stories also haunted the Southern United States. Many spooky Southern folktales like the Black Cat’s Message and Wait Until Emmet Comes feature supernatural black cats who are thought to be witches or demons in disguise. Pirates believed that a black cat moving toward them meant bad luck, and if a black cat walked onto a pirate ship and then walked off again, the ship would sink on its next voyage.
Not all cultures believe Black Cats are bad luck. In Japan, this superstition is flipped on its head; they believe a black cat is good luck and if owned by a single woman is supposed to bring her many suitors. In the English Midlands, a black cat given as a wedding present is thought to bring good luck to the bride. In Scotland, people now believe that a black cat’s arrival to the home signifies prosperity. In Germany, the direction a cat takes when crossing your path determines if it represents good luck or bad. If the black cat crosses from crosses from right to left it means bad luck, while a black cat that moves from left to right signals good things ahead. Fishermen in some cultures believe that it is good luck to have a black cat on board ship, and it is doubly lucky if they also have a black cat living in their home.