In an ode to the mysterious power of the black cat and its Scorpio sage and national treasure, Margaret Atwood writes:
“In the pewter mornings, the cat, a black fur sausage with yellow Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries to get onto my head. It’s his way of telling whether or not I’m dead. If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am He’ll think of something.”
More omen than an animal, in myth and collective consciousness, the black cat maintains a position of suspicion alongside Friday the 13th, sidewalk cracks, broken mirrors and tails-up pennies.
On Friday, Oct. 27, we recognize the power of these felines on National Black Cat Day, an opportunity “for feline fans to show off their love for the oft-maligned, but always iconic animal.”
Where does the black cat’s association with witches, devil worship, bad luck, death and All Hallow’s Eve stem from?
We’ve got the cat by the tail and tale.
Read on to learn more.
From polytheistic royalty to Christian persecution
Our long, sacred and sordid history with cats goes back millennia.
Ancient Egyptians regarded cats as the embodiment of the deity Bastet. Goddess of protection and motherhood, Bastet is oft depicted with the head of a cat, and because of her veneration, killing a cat was an offense punishable by death.
Ancient Greeks associated cats with Hecate, the goddess of the crossroads and a handmaid of the underworld whose domains included the moon, magic, necromancy and wilderness.
Hecate was thought to keep a cat as both a pet and a familiar, securing the link between the occult, the feminine and the feline.
On a practical note, black cats were favored in the days of yore as mousers, as they could go unseen at night on account of their fur and, thus, made for better hunters.
Bonafide hell cats
As noted on History.com, the specific indictment of black cats can be traced to the 13th century and Pope Gregory IX’s “Vox in Rama,” a document wherein the inquisition-happy clergyman proclaimed black cats to be a Satanic incarnation and commanded, commandment style: “Thou shalt not suffer a cat to live!”
As the church gained power and the inquisition gained momentum, witches came under fire (literally) alongside their feline accomplices.
As Cerridwen Fallingstar, Wiccan priestess and author of “Broth From the Cauldron,” explains, “Cats, like the women accused of witchcraft, tend to exhibit a healthy disrespect of authority. They don’t fawn, like dogs … In the church, neither independent women, nor independent animals, were to be tolerated.”
The correlation between dangerous women and black cats begets the superstition that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck. These animals came to be seen as emissaries, carrying out the will and wickedness of the witches they served.
The dangerous correlation between cats and witches continued in colonial America. As explained by the site National Today, “As the Pilgrims established their occupancy on the east coast of the country, they maintained a strict suspicion of anything remotely tied to the perils of witchcraft. The black cat served as a symbol of the supposed evils and Satanic sympathies of witches, and as a result, those found harboring black cats would receive harsh punishments; some would even be sentenced to death.”
Edgar Allen Poe and Pluto the black cat
Goth daddy Edgar Allan Poe further solidified the reputation of bad luck/black cat with the 1843 publication of his short story “The Black Cat.”
In the gruesome tale, an unnamed alcoholic pet owner murders his black cat, deftly named Pluto, a nod to the king of the dead. The cat killing then becomes the gateway drug to the narrator’s murder of his wife.
The symbol of an agitated black cat with its back arched, teeth bared and claws out has long been associated with the international labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known colloquially as Wobblies.
Called the “Sabo-Tabby,” a play on sabotage, the image was meant to inspire direct action at the point of production.
As labor folklorist Archie Green maintains: “The black cat is an old symbol for malignant and sinister purposes, foul deeds, bad luck, and witchcraft with countless superstitious connections. Wobblies extended the black-cat figure visually to striking on the job, direct action, and sabotage.”
Organizations like the radical environmental advocacy group Earth First! adopted versions of the Sabo-Tabby for their own purposes, including as cover art for the aptly named, “The Black Cat Sabotage Handbook.”
While the image endures and is widely adopted, the IWW explains, “It is more a mascot and a symbol of general collective working-class militancy than anything else.”
Fighting the powers that be then, now and forever.
The future is meow
Blessedly, the demonization of black cats has lessened as of late with movies like “Hocus Pocus” and series like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” showcasing the appeal of shadow cats.
According to a 2022 survey of American cat owners, conducted by OnePoll and ACANA® pet food, only 21% believe that black cats bring bad luck, while twice as many (41%) associate them with good luck.
Yet, the centuries of stigma continue to pose a threat to black cat survival.
According to PETA, black cats experience lower rates of adoption and higher rates of euthanizing than other breeds. (Do your part to educate yourself and others — adopt if you’re able and stand with hand in paw in solidarity.)
As Astrid Bly of California Psychics reminds us, “While old superstition has created the view that black cats are bad omens and that they are a negative spiritual symbol, the opposite view is slowly starting to become preeminent. Their truer, more positive spiritual meanings are becoming increasingly well-known. Though their precise significance depends on location and culture, black cats are thought to be harbingers of luck in many places across the world, associated with romantic success, increased wealth, and personal safety.
“These days, seeing a black cat may just be the Universe’s way of saying that it has your back!”
Astrologer Reda Wigle researches and irreverently reports back on planetary configurations and their effect on each zodiac sign. Her horoscopes integrate history, poetry, pop culture and personal experience. She is also an accomplished writer who has profiled a variety of artists and performers, as well as extensively chronicled her experiences while traveling. Among the many intriguing topics she has tackled are cemetery etiquette, her love for dive bars, Cuban Airbnbs, a “girls guide” to strip clubs and the “weirdest” foods available abroad.
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