Black Cats: A History of Mysteries and Myths

Throughout history, black cats have been enigmatic creatures that have left a profound mark on human culture. From ancient times to the present, these dark-furred felines have been considered both bearers of good luck and bad luck, connected with magic and mystery. As I contemplated my first adoption, my mother begged me to avoid adopting a black cat with the same insistence as if I had decided to adopt a vampire. Beyond feline prejudices, this request spoke to the deep-rooted popular culture that still holds some sway over me because I’m so drawn to these topics. If you’re reading this article because you’re considering whether or not to adopt one and what lies behind this legend, you’re in the right place. To write this article, I took a journey through history, exploring the multiple facets of black cats as night guardians and bearers of myths. So, welcome to the ship of mystery

Black Cats in History

Black Cats in Antiquity

Many centuries ago, in ancient Egypt, cats were considered divine beings and protectors of the home. They were closely associated with the goddess Bastet, the Egyptian deity of the home, fertility, and protection. Bastet was often depicted with the head of a lion or a cat, and cats, especially black ones, were considered her messengers and guardians.

Figure of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, in the form of a black cat
The goddess Bastet in her black cat form

The adoration of cats in ancient Egypt was so profound that mistreatment or the killing of a cat, even accidentally, was punishable by death. The belief in the importance of cats, often depicted in black, persisted for centuries and was reflected in their art, religion, and daily life.

The Ancient Legend of the Scottish Cat Sith

The “Cat Sith” is a creature from Scottish Celtic mythology described as a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. The Cat Sith is considered a magical and often feared figure in Scottish Celtic tradition.

The legend of the Cat Sith revolves around its ability to steal the souls of the dead. It was believed that before the soul of a deceased person could be taken to the afterlife, the Cat Sith could claim it. Understandably, in the pre-internet era, people were quite concerned about protecting their deceased loved ones from unknown forces.

To prevent the visit of this creature, protective rituals were carried out. For instance, vigils were held at night where a loved one had died. In addition, offerings like dishes of milk were left to distract the Cat Sith and keep it busy. It was believed that this black cat, which enjoyed milk, would be attracted to these offerings and not focus on soul-stealing.

The Cat Sith was also associated with the festivities of Samhain, which later evolved into the celebration of Halloween. During this holiday, people often performed rituals to protect themselves from the Cat Sith and other supernatural creatures.

Despite its reputation as a menacing entity, the Cat Sith also had a more benevolent side in some legends. It was said that the Cat Sith could bless the homes where it was welcomed and offer protection to those who cared for it.

The myth of the Cat Sith has remained part of the rich tradition of Scottish Celtic mythology and adds a touch of mystery and wonder to Scotland’s cultural heritage.

The Cat Sith in More English Fairy Tales.
Representation of the Cat Sith in More English Fairy Tales
John D. Batten -, Jacobs, J., New York: G. P.

Superstitions and Black Cats in the Middle Ages

Black cats left their mark all over Europe, although in Scotland, they were associated with something very different from Egyptian cats. What these felines evoked in the Europe of the time was superstition and associated fear.

The Church had a significant role in this. In fact, there is even a legend that Pope Gregory IX, back in the 13th century, ordered the extermination of cats. It’s said that due to their close association with the Black Plague, another scary story but not for this blog. Beyond the myth of a story that seems not to have happened (it was a fake news of the time), the Catholic Church played a crucial role in transforming the image of black cats.

At a time when the Church had significant power over people’s daily lives, cats, which were considered nocturnal and mysterious animals, became victims of mass hysteria. Black cats were believed to be linked to witchcraft and the devil. Superstitions surrounding black cats began to spread, and it was believed that crossing paths with one of these felines would bring bad luck.

This negative perception of black cats was compounded by the belief that witches could transform into black cats. It was said that cats were witches’ accomplices and participated in witchcraft rituals. Consequently, black cats were pursued and often killed in the name of superstition and paranoia.

Speaking of witches and black cats, if there’s one thing most of us can agree on, it’s that our favorite one was Sabrina and her cat Salem.

Salem, the most famous black cat behind the scenes

Renaissance, Alchemy, Cats, and Magic

In a very short time, the world evolved into an era of knowledge and reason, the Renaissance, a golden age in which the perception of black cats began to change once again. This historical period, which extended roughly from the 14th century to the 17th century, was marked by a revival in the arts, culture, and the pursuit of knowledge.

During the Renaissance, many people were drawn to the idea that hidden knowledge and secrets could be unraveled. Black cats became companions to alchemists, astrologers, and those interested in the esoteric. It was believed that these mysterious cats, with their aura of mystery, had the ability to connect people with the supernatural and act as guardians of mystical gateways.

The belief in the connection between black cats and hidden knowledge influenced the literature, art, and philosophy of the time. In the works of the Renaissance era, black cats were often depicted in mysterious settings, symbolizing the pursuit of knowledge and the exploration of the unknown.

The black cat in Renaissance alchemy
The black cat in Renaissance alchemy

Black Cats in Japan’s Tokugawa Period

In ancient Japan, black cats held a prominent place in the culture and beliefs of Japanese society, especially during the Edo period, which spanned from the 17th century to the 19th century. The duality of beliefs surrounding black cats added a layer of mystery and fascination to their role in daily life.

Cats in general were considered guardians of homes in Japan. They were believed to have the ability to ward off evil spirits and negative energies, providing protection to the inhabitants of the house. This belief encouraged the practice of keeping cats in Japanese homes, as they were seen as beings capable of safeguarding the family from negative influences. Here is considered to be the origin of the famous Maneki Neko. It depicts a cat with a raised paw, inviting prosperity and good luck.

At the same time, there was a contrasting superstition related to black cats. The belief that crossing paths with a black cat would bring bad luck was common in Japanese culture. It was believed that if a black cat crossed your path, it could be an omen of misfortune. This duality of beliefs reflects a rich tradition where black cats were considered both bearers of good luck and possible harbingers of misfortune, depending on circumstances and people’s perspectives.

Black cat in Ukiyo-e style
Illustration of a black cat in the Ukiyo-e style of the Edo period. Author and period unknown

Superstitions and Black Cats in Spain

Returning to Spain, superstitions related to black cats have been a significant part of popular tradition over the centuries. Even today, these beliefs are very much alive, though we look at them differently.

Black Cats as Harbingers of Bad Luck

One of the most deeply rooted superstitions in Spain is the belief that if a black cat crosses your path, it is an omen of bad luck. This superstition is similar to what is found in many other cultures and has its roots in the Middle Ages when cats, especially those with dark fur, were seen as demonic creatures.

The belief that the passing of a black cat will bring bad luck has persisted in some regions of Spain, especially in rural areas, where popular traditions are stronger. It was not uncommon for someone who had seen a black cat to perform a purification ritual, such as spitting three times or making the sign of the cross.

Cats at an audition for a Poe recording
One of my favorite images of black cats. An audition for Poe

The Night and the Black Cat

Another superstition related to black cats in Spain is that their presence was a bad omen during the night. It was believed that black cats were nocturnal creatures associated with the mysterious and the unknown. In the darkness of the night, it was thought that these felines transformed into beings with supernatural powers.

The connection between black cats and the night was also evident in the idea that they were companions of witches. It was believed that, during the night, witches could transform into black cats to carry out their magical tricks.

Black Cats in the United States

In the United States, much like in many other parts of the world, black cats have been entangled in a mix of myths, superstitions, and beliefs throughout history. During the colonial era, the arrival of cats in America was linked to the belief that they were protectors of barns and crops as they helped keep rodent pests at bay.

However, as time progressed, superstitions surrounding black cats, particularly in the 19th century, emerged. During this period, the belief that a black cat crossing your path brought bad luck became popular. This relates to the age-old association of black cats with witchcraft and black magic. In some cases, they were even believed to be witches in disguise.

Halloween Greetings. Circa 1920

The association between black cats and the Halloween celebration in the United States is notable. During Halloween, these cats are linked to the traditional image of witches and are often featured in decorations and costumes for the holiday.

Over time, however, many people have left these superstitions behind and learned to appreciate black cats for what they are: adorable and affectionate pets. Although negative beliefs persist in some circles, the majority of people in the United States value black cats positively and consider them loyal companions.

In American popular culture, black cats have also reclaimed their magical and mysterious image, but in a more playful context. They often appear in movies, TV shows, and fantasy storybooks where they play charismatic and charming roles.

In summary, the history of black cats in the United States is similar to that of many other parts of the world. They have transitioned from being considered bearers of bad luck to being loved and appreciated for their unique nature. Superstitions surrounding them have largely faded, and black cats are part of the rich tapestry of culture and mythology in the United States.

The Resurgence of Magic

Close-up of a black cat

As we explore the history of black cats, from ancient times to the present, it is evident that their presence has been steeped in superstition and mystery. Throughout the centuries, these felines have been both feared and adored, and their connection to magic and the unexplainable has endured.

Science has debunked much of the superstitions, but the magic surrounding these cats remains an important part of their charm. The unique beauty and mystery they bring to people’s lives make them special beings, regardless of popular beliefs.

Their connection to superstition, belief, and esotericism adds an extra charm to living with these adorable felines. Every cat, whether black or of any other color, is unique and special in its own way.

Arsenio Coto
Arsenio Coto
Growth specialist, feline rookie. I write to learn and provide answers to the hundreds of questions I've had since Noa đŸ± became a part of my life.

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