On my wedding day, my mother handed me a good luck mascot in the form of a black cat – a tradition that originates to the Midlands. Mum, being from that part of the Country (well, Worcestershire to be precise – but it’s in the same region) has always held that particular custom close to her heart, after receiving one on her own wedding day…. Now, some of you may be exclaiming in horror – ‘a black cat on a wedding day – and given by the bride’s own mother!’ To many, a black cat does not symbolise good luck, quite the opposite in fact – it really depends on where in the World you come from….
Generally, in the UK, a black cat is seen as a good omen, there are many black moggies to be found answering to the name of ‘Lucky’….In Scotland, it is thought if a strange black cat arrives at the house, it will bring with it prosperity…. However, there are those who believe if a black cat crosses their path, this will bring bad luck; the same if one is walking towards them, where as a black puss walking away signals good fortune…. This possibly goes back to pirates in the 19th Century who held the same beliefs….
The connection with black cats and the sea is deep-rooted. Sailors always wanted their ship’s cats to be black as they were thought to bring good luck. A black kitty strolling on to a ship was good – but if it turned its back and walked off again, this meant the ship was going to sink…. Fishermen’s wives kept black cats, believing in doing so, they would keep their menfolk safe whilst at sea….
Most of Europe views the black cat as a sign of bad luck. However, in Germany it is believed if a black kitty passes from left to right, this is a bad omen but if it passes from right to left, there are favourable times ahead. French peasants once held the belief that if such a cat was released at a cross roads, where five roads intersected, the moggy would choose the road that led to treasure…. The South of France has a superstition that black cats are Magician cats ~ ‘Matagot’ ~ a spirit in the form of an animal. Tradition says a Magician cat must be lured with plump chicken and then be carried home without its new human owner looking back. If treated with respect in its new home, by being well fed with the first mouthful at every meal, the Matagot will reward with a gold coin each morning. So, if you happen to find yourself in the South of France and a black cat decides to grace you with its company, make sure it has plenty to eat and a cosy bed to sleep in and you never know, wealth and good fortune may come your way….
It is considered that if a black cat is in the audience on the opening night of a play, then the play will have a long and successful run…. In Japan it is said that if a lady owns a black cat she will find herself with many suitors – and if one crosses your path in Japan, this heralds good luck. Black cats are thought to be lucky throughout much of Asia….
In the USA, things are very different, black cats are deemed as being very unlucky. So much so, that American animal shelters sometimes have a difficult time finding new homes for such moggies. The myth still remains that they are evil. Some shelters even halt the adoption of them around Hallowe’en time in the fear they will be used as seasonal ‘props’ and then be left abandoned once again…. August 17th has become ‘Black Cat Appreciation Day’ in the States to attempt to raise the profile of and get rid of the bad image these poor, unfortunate mousers have undeservedly acquired….
So, where does this belief that black cats are unlucky and evil stem from? With their association to Hallowe’en and the witch, with her stereotypical familiar, it does appear we have to look back to times when the World was gripped in the fear of witchcraft….
The Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, literally. Bast (or Bastet) was the cat goddess. She represented protection, family, music, dance and joy. Originally she was portrayed as a lioness, fiercely protective and warlike; but over time, her image softened and she became seen more like a domestic cat, graceful, affectionate, playful, cunning…. Egyptian households believed by keeping a black cat they would gain favour with Bast….
In Norse Mythology, felines had their place ‘up there’ with the gods too….Freya was the goddess associated with beauty, love, sex and fertility. She wore a cloak of falcon feathers, kept a boar named Hildisvini at her side and she rode a chariot pulled by two magical black cats. Farmers would leave bowls of milk for these cats, to bring good fortune for the coming harvest. Freya was also the goddess of war, she represented death and the afterlife….and she practiced witchcraft….
During the Middle Ages, cats, especially black ones, fell out of favour. It is often thought all cats were hated during this time but that is untrue. They were still highly useful to have around as they caught mice and other vermin. The Church was especially fond of them, nuns and priests kept them as pets, presumably to catch rodents. In the 15th Century, Exeter Cathedral even had a cat on its payroll! Its salary was a penny a week. Still today a small cat door can be seen in the south tower of the cathedral…. A hermit was allowed 3 acres of land and a cow but the only companion seen as fitting for an anchoress, was a cat….
So, to say all cats were viewed as evil in the Middle Ages is incorrect; it is a myth. It could hardly be true when those giving up their lives for solitude and prayer allowed a feline presence. However, as much as members of the Church appeared to love their kitties, it could be said it was also the Church that was responsible for the bad reputation the cat, particularly the black cat, was to gain….
Muslims in Mediaeval times were very fond of cats (and of course, many still are). There are accounts that say Prophet Muhammed especially liked cats, he treated them well; perhaps it was their cleanliness he found appealing. Middle Eastern street cats were often looked after by charities…. One European pilgrim, on returning home from his travels in the Middle East, remarked that the difference between Christians and Muslims was that ‘Christians like dogs and Muslims like cats’….
Christians in the Middle Ages thought all animals were made by God to serve and be ruled by humans. Dogs showed obedience and complied. Cats, on the other hand, even when domesticated, kept their independence and wilful ways…. Edward, Duke of York, said the cat had the spirit of the Devil in it….
Writers began to portray cats in a bad light; they compared the way they caught their prey and tormented it to the way the Devil catches souls. William Caxton wrote: ‘the devil playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous’….
It became widely believed that the Devil could manifest as a black cat. Christianity saw things very much in black and white. White representing goodness and purity; black, evil, danger and corruption. Black cats became associated with witches and heretics. Heretical religious groups, such as the Cathars and Waldensians were accused by the Catholic Church of worshipping cats….
1022 saw the first burning at the stake of the Cathars in France, when heretical Canons of Orleans perished upon the orders of the King. At the time there was no law to say heretics were to be executed in this way – was it that Robert the Pious was influenced by the Germanic custom of burning witches at the stake? Whatever his reasons, this became the form of execution for the so-called ‘heresy crimes’ of the Cathars….
Emperor Frederick II sanctioned the practice in anti-heresy laws in 1224 and 1232 but only when the Church authorities demanded the extreme sentence. It was believed that heresy was contagious, rather like leprosy or the Plague – many thought the only way to be rid of the disease was through ‘cleansing’ with fire. It was also the Christian belief that reducing to ashes would condemn to eternal damnation, depriving bodily resurrection on Judgement Day….
Burning witches at the stake was a method of execution used across Europe and the UK (no witches were burnt in the English colonies of North America). It was commonly believed both in Europe, the UK and Salem, USA, that witches shape-shifted into the form of black cats in order to roam the streets unobserved…. The streets were dangerous places at night, no lighting meant darkness provided cover for all kinds of villains and evils….Cats, being nocturnal and their ability to see in the dark, made them the obvious choice for a witch’s familiar….
A Lincolnshire folktale from the 1560s, tells that a father and son were travelling on a moonless night; suddenly, a black cat ran across their path. Fearing bad luck, they started to hurl rocks at it. Terrified and injured, the cat fled to the house of an old woman who had recently been accused of witchcraft. The next day the father and son saw the old woman, she was bruised and limping…. Well, you can imagine the conclusions they drew….
Old women in Mediaeval times often cared for street cats. As the witchcraft hysteria took hold, it was so often that these were the women accused. In Europe there was a large scale massacre of black cats, many of them burnt…. Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484, declared the cat was the Devil’s favourite animal and the idol of all witches….
Whether these deep seated superstitions have any truth in them, I really don’t know…. Charles I obviously believed in the powers of the cat; when his beloved puss died, he claimed his luck would run out. It certainly did, the next day he was charged with high treason….
Throughout history, the black cat has had an extremely raw deal, considering their only crimes are being nocturnal and they take pleasure from torturing their prey….the same as any other cat does…. Once a year or so, I get to make a fuss of a ‘Matagot’ in the South of France. He is gentle, loving, playful and affectionate, he’s right up there with the best of feline kind; just like the other two black cats I have had the privilege of sharing my life with in the past – and yes! One of them was called Lucky….