When I was in the third grade, my class took a walk on a path near our school. I was the first in line, even ahead of the teacher, and it felt good to take the lead for once. That is, until a black cat ran across the path right in front of me. One of my schoolmates behind me yelled “Ooh, you have bad luck! You have bad luck!” As the entire class laughed at my predicament, I felt I had been cursed by this random occurrence.
The myth of the unlucky black cat was ingrained in my schoolmates’ minds, as it is in most people’s, but few of us question where it came from.
Many feel it can be traced back to the pilgrims, not long after they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The myth was wrapped up in the Christians’ fear of witchcraft, where black cats were considered a symbol of evil – part devil and part sorcery.
It’s not been widely reported that many black cats suffered the same fate as the many women wrongly accused of being witches, because it was believed that witches often transmuted themselves into black cats to avoid death.
The myth of the black cat is also linked to the Middle Ages. Fear of black cats caused many of them to be killed which tragically caused the bubonic plague to spread. With a shortage of cats, the rat population got incredibly out of hand.
Another fascinating factor that enhanced the myth was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” The short story, written in 1843, concerns a man who murders his wife and is haunted by a black cat named Pluto, who he had previously killed by hanging.
Several film and television adaptations have been made of the story, with one of the most notable produced by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karlov in 1934.
We’ve all seen movies with black cats mysteriously slinking through scenes. In many fantasy films, black cats have various supernatural powers and can often morph into humans. There have been so many examples of this kind of imagery that they have become part of the fabric of spooky celebrations.
The myth continued to grow through countless retellings of these tales, references in pop culture, and sayings passed down by folks from generation to generation. Much like the superstition that breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck, or that it’s unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, the unlucky black cat is a myth that has stuck.
In contrast, there are many cultures where black cats are seen as a symbol of good luck. The British, the Irish, the Scottish, and the Japanese all count the inclusion of a black cat in one’s life as a symbol of prosperity.
To cat lovers, black cats are beautiful creatures with shiny coats just as lovable as tabbies or white cats. To non-cat people, they can come across as eerie, shadowy creatures to be fearful of. It’s no wonder such a legacy of black cat bashing has built up over the centuries.
One part of the black cat legend that was not known to me when that cat crossed my path in the third grade was that for Germans black cats crossing your path from right to left is a bad omen, but from left to right is a good one. I can’t remember from what side the cat in question crossed in front of me, but I doubt it would’ve mattered. The myth is powerful enough without that detail.
I bet that there are more people that have good experiences with black cats than those that have a fear of them. But perhaps there is still a negative association which is the reason black cats (and black dogs) have the most difficult time getting adopted.
To this day there are a number of animal shelters that suspend the adoption of black cats because of the fear that they will be used in dangerous pranks or rituals. Many websites even warn owners to keep black cats inside during late October.
What should we gather from all this? I think that it is that the myth is an outdated and silly one, and that we should respect black cats whether they cross our paths or we cross theirs. It’s their world as much as it is ours, and our often violent ways have meant worse luck for them than us.
So let’s wish the best of luck to all black cats this Halloween season, especially the ones waiting to be adopted.