You know the old saying, it’s bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. But why do we say that? There’s nothing inherently unlucky about black cats, so what led to their spooky reputation?
Black cats in the ancient world
Long before black cats were feared, they were actually revered as deities by many ancient cultures. Most famously, the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet was often depicted as a black cat or a woman with the head of a black cat. Ancient Celtic and Japanese societies also associated black cats with good luck.
But even in the ancient past, cats were already associated with witches. Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of crossroads, magic, and witchcraft, had a pet cat. At that time, neither witches nor cats were considered evil. Evidence has shown that humankind has kept cats as pets for at least the past 9500 years! To the ancient Greeks, sorcery, magic, and pet cats were all parts of everyday life.
“Vox in Rama” and the birth of the black cat superstition
All the love black cats got from the ancients would end up giving them some bad luck of their own once Christianity took hold in Europe. In the church’s efforts to convert people, all pagan practices and everything associated with them were quickly demonized, and this included their reverence for cats. But things really took a turn for the worse on June 13, 1233, when Pope Gregory IX issued the papal bull “Vox in Rama.”
By the 1200s, the church was hunting down "heretics" across Europe, and during Pope Gregory’s reign, a cult in Germany was giving them particular problems. In an attempt to encourage German nobles to support a local high-ranking priest in his persecution of the supposed Satan-worshippers, Gregory described their bizarre, heretical rituals in detail.
According to “Vox in Rama,” part of the initiation rites for a new member involved kissing the behind of a black cat. The devil they worshiped was also apparently half-man, half-cat, with the skin of his lower body described as “coarse and covered with fur like a cat.”
“Vox in Rama” launched a wave of suspicion and fear about black cats. Any one of them that walked by could be the devil in disguise, or in cahoots with a witch, or both! So to the average medieval person, if a black cat crossed their path, it probably meant they were on their way to do something evil.
Although the German cult of Gregory IX’s time faded away, the black cat superstition remained. In the 1300s, as the Black Death ravaged Europe, black cats were accused of being the ones who spread the plague and were, sadly, killed en masse. Ironically, because the cats weren’t there to hunt rats, the plague spread even faster. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII built off of Gregory IX in his “Summis Desiderantes Affectibus,” a treatise on witchcraft that called cats “the devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.”
The black cat superstition today
It seems that the vocal support of two popes was all the black cat superstition needed to carry it through the centuries. Even during the Age of Reason as people began to put aside superstitions and belief in witchcraft, black cats remained at the sides of witches, wizards, and other supposed evil-doers. It seems that black cats went from a genuine threat to a metaphorical shorthand for nefarious behavior. Just think of how many horror stories involve a suspicious black cat.
Even today, the black cat superstition still has a hold on us. You don’t need to look farther than Halloween decorations to see that. Research has even shown that black cats have a harder time getting adopted from shelters than other cats.
So this Black Cat Appreciation Day, show your local black cats some love! Just because historical rumor hasn’t been on their side doesn’t mean you can’t be!
Featured photo: Niki Vas / Unsplash