My love for black cats started when I was a young child. My father would read Edgar Allan Poe to me at bedtime. One of my favorite short stories was “The Black Cat.” I remember dressing as a black cat at Halloween. Over the years I have had several black cats in my life: Arnold, Loki and now Drusilla. This time of year, images of black cats abound as people begin preparing for Halloween. Black cats are viewed as bad omens, evil, witches’ familiars.
In Scottish lore, fairy cats could take the shape of a witch. This could be done nine times. After that they had to remain in feline form. At Samhain (the day we call Halloween), milk would be left on the front steps for the Cait Sidhe. If they came and there was milk, the Cait Sidhe would leave a treat. If not, they would perform a trick. It was also believed a black cat coming to your home would bring wealth.
Cats were actually not worshipped as gods in ancient Egypt, however it was believed they had divine properties of Bastet. Bastet (or Bast) was the goddess of fertility, music, pleasure and domesticity. Isis was often depicted with two black cats. Cats were protected and the penalty for killing any cat was death.
In the United Kingdom, black cats kept aboard ships were considered lucky. If a black cat came aboard a ship and then left, the ship would sink. Sailor’s wives believed keeping a black cat would help husbands return safely. In Middle England, brides were given black cats as wedding gifts with the hope of bringing luck to the marriage.
Black cats in the home of a single Japanese woman would bring suitors. In general, black cats were viewed as good luck.
In Ancient Greece, Hera, Zeus’s wife, transformed one of her servants into a black cat before the birth of Hercules. This servant went on to serve Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, night, the moon and necromancy. Though often viewed as dark and evil, Hecate was not all bad. According to Hersiod, Hecate supported athletes, warriors and hunters. Her minions, the Furies, went after those who did evil.
It is unclear exactly when black cats, or cats in general, became associated with the devil. It goes back at least to the Middle Ages. So many cats were killed as agents of evil that during the Plague years, there were few cats to kill the rodents that carried the fleas that brought the plague. During the 16th Century, witch hysteria abounded. The concept of a companion now became a familiar. The thought that witches could transform into cats, mainly black cats, came to the New World. The devoutly religious Puritans in Massachusetts did not help the image of black cats, especially during the Salem witch trials.
So, what makes cats black? Is it being in league with the devil or their association with witches? No. Black cats are black due to genetics. The dominant fur pattern in cats is tabby. For a cat to be a solid black she must be recessive for the solid gene (non-agouti pattern) as well as have the genes for black color. If the agouti gene is not completely repressed, you may see faint tabby markings when a black cat is in bright sunlight.
Take some time this Halloween and learn more about the legends and lore of black cats. Read a little Poe and do not eat too much candy.