For centuries black cats have been associated with the mystical. Thought to be representatives of bad luck, power and death, they have been loved, hated and feared from the beginning of civilisation.
Around 3100BC, two of the most sacred deities in Ancient Egypt were the felines Bastet and Sekhmet. Cats themselves were central to Egyptian households, not only believed to be living incarnations of the goddess Bastet, but also to keep poisonous snakes away and protect the domicile from vermin. Entire families would mourn the death of their cat, commemorating its passing by shaving off their eyebrows and mummifying the animal’s body.
Pictured on the left is Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of the home, domesticity, women’s secrets, cats, fertility, and childbirth. On the right stands Sekhmet, one of the oldest Egyptian deities, depicted as a lioness to symbolise her position as a warrior goddess of Upper Egypt.
During the Medieval Period Europeans viewed cats with animosity, as influential writers like William Caxton (1422-1491) and Walter Map (1140-1210) condemned them as “the Devil’s descendants”. By asserting that the devil takes “the black cat” as his form “before his devotees”, Map cemented the animals malignant reputation, forever linking it to witches and the dark arts. Fears continued to deepen, at their trial in 1307 the Knights Templars were accused of practising witchcraft with their familiars, who took the form of black cats at meetings. In 1484 the situation came to a head when Pope Innocent declared that the “cat was the devil’s favourite animal and idol of all witches”, which led to the mass persecution of cats during the witch trials.
Above a medieval manuscript depicting a black cat hunting. Many linked cats to the devil through their predatory nature, comparing their slow hunt and torture of mice to that of the devil’s persecution of human souls in hell.
In Japanese culture the cat is seen as a symbol of good luck. The Maneki-Neko (the Beckoning Cat), a waving cat figurine, is used as a good luck talisman and is often displayed in shops and restaurants to bring prosperity to their owners. Many stories and folktales surround the origins of the Maneki’s. The most popular myth says that an owner of an impoverished shop took in a stray cat who, as a reward for the man’s charity, sat in front of the shop to beckon to customers. In contrast to European beliefs, the black Maneki-Neko cat is thought to ward off evil spirits and protect its owners homes.
Above A variety of Maneki-Neko figurines. Each different colour has a specific meaning: White is happiness and purity, Gold wealth and prosperity, Red for love, Green is good health, Black wards off evil and Calico is a combination of all of these and considered the luckiest
Superstitions continue to surround black cats, a few popular beliefs are:
- Dreaming about black cats means you will have good luck.
- Seeing a black cat in your dream indicates you are fearful; unable to use you psychic abilities or intuition.
- Funeral processions with a black cat forecast another family members death.
- Seeing a black cat from behind is a bad omen. If a black cat walks towards you it brings good fortune, so if it walks away, it takes good luck with it.
- If a black cat crosses your path while you’re driving, turn your hat around backward and mark an “X” on your windshield to prevent bad luck.
Unfortunately, as fears continue to run deep, black cats still face animosity in the US and some parts of the UK. Statistics show that dark cats are less likely to be adopted from shelters, more likely to suffer from abuse, and in greater danger on Halloween nights than their paler contemporaries.
Poe’s Black Cat (1843)
In The Black Cat, Poe capitalises on superstitions surrounding dark felines to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. The story follows an imprisoned madman who tells readers of his relationship with a “remarkably large and beautiful” black cat named Pluto. At the start of the novel ,the narrator gushes about how close he and Pluto were. But as the friendship sours the narrator lashes out, first maiming Pluto by cutting out his eye, then hanging him from a tree. From here, the narrator’s voice becomes a reflection of his guilt; he begins to see Pluto everywhere, even adopting another black cat who is also missing an eye. Readers are left unsure whether this new cat, who has a white gallows on his chest, actually exists or if he is a figment of the man’s imagination.
Pluto’s successor symbolises the narrator’s guilt, “leaving him no moment alone” as he tries to move on and forget about Pluto. Bizarrely, the cat perfectly resembles Pluto, making the narrator feel a constant “sense of shame”. Events climax when the narrator becomes “full of evil thoughts” and, in a mad rage, attempts to kill the cat. His wife tries to stop him, so he strikes her down, then calmly conceals her body in the basement wall.
Mysteriously, the cat then disappears along with the narrator’s guilt in a moment of catharsis which leaves his “future felicity as secured”. The next day policemen call to the house, completely deranging the narrator, who continuously taps the wall where he buried his wife in an act of utter self destruction. In a moment of horror, a cry is heard “at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman — a howl — a wailing shriek”. Readers are left on the edge of their seats, wondering if the narrator’s wife has returned from the dead to seek vengeance. But as the wall is torn down the avenger is revealed to be the cat, morbidly sitting atop the woman’s decaying corpse. Ironically, after spending hours hunting for the missing cat, the story ends with the narrator lamenting “I had walled the monster up within the tomb”.
The cats, which appear everytime the narrator commits despicable acts, can be viewed as a figures of guilt. Whether he is drinking, beating his wife, or abusing his animals, they bear silent witness to his sins. For example, when Pluto is absent, the narrator becomes completely detached from his humanity, sadistically delighting in causing pain to those close to him. However, as the second cat stalks the narrator he is a constant reminder of Pluto’s “agony and death”, marking a re-emergence of the narrator’s conscience.
Readers continue to dispute the meaning of Poe’s macabre story, suggesting that Pluto could represents a witch, a child, or even a black slave .The surrealist, supernatural tone of the tale leaves it open to interpretation. By touching on themes of witchcraft, alcoholism, domestic abuse, religion and self, the narrative taps into our deepest fears. Poe subtly calls our own understanding of events into question, hinting the cat may be malevolent after all, when the wife describes it as a “witch in disguise”.
Have a happy Halloween season and remember to keep your black cats inside!
For those interested here are some more myths and legends about black cats:
- Sixteenth-century Italians believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of an ill person, the person would soon die.
- In Colonial America, Scottish immigrants believed that a black cat entering a wake was bad luck, and could indicated the death of a family member.
- The Norse goddess Freyja drove a chariot pulled by a pair of black cats.
- A Roman soldier killed a black cat in Egypt, and was killed by an angry mob of locals.
- Appalachian folklore said that if you had a stye on the eyelid, rubbing the tail of a black cat on it would make the stye go away.
- If you find a single white hair on your otherwise-black cat, it’s a good omen.
- In England’s border countries and southern Scotland, a strange black cat on the front porch brings good fortune.