When did black cats become bad luck?

Picture of a black cat with what looks like a twisted head
Picture of a black cat with what looks like a twisted head. Photo in public domain.
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It is probable that black cat became bad luck during the Middle Ages thanks to Christianity. The fear that all black cats are agents of the devil led to the common superstition which has survived to the present day namely that if a black cat crosses your path, it will bring you bad luck. The superstition is that the devil has passed in front of you and therefore has been close to you but done you no harm. So, the connection with bad luck is a connection with the devil. Perhaps the fact that the black cat did you no harm was due to good luck! You can see how confusing superstition becomes.

Medieval cat butt licking
Bestiary, England 15th century (København, Kongelige Bibliotek, GkS 1633 4º, fol. 28v)

The black cat has been singled out and has played a special role in folklore. Black cats were severely persecuted by the Christian church. It is said that all cats were considered wicked in the Middle Ages by the church but black cats were singled out because they believed they were the devil. In mediaeval France the Prince of Darkness would borrow the coat of the black cat when he wanted to torment his victims. Saint Dominique, preached that the devil was a black cat. And in Cornelius Agrippa’s book Occult Philosophy (1651) he describes how to raise cat demons. He writes “Coriander, smallage, henbane and hemlock be made a fume, spirits will presently come together.”

The church organised annual burning-cats-alive ceremonies on the day of the Feast of St John. Black cats were sought out to be burnt alive.

Writing in 1727, Moncrif remarked: “it is true that the colour black does much harm to cats among vulgar minds; it augments the fire of their eyes: this is enough for them to be thought sorcerers at the least.”

Humankind’s superstitious mind is very confused about cats in general and black cats in particular. Africa is in the grip of ancient superstitions about black cats or cats with any coat type but black is the main recipient of human superstition.

Folklore states that a cat roaming a graveyard is looking for a soul to possess. A cat sitting on a tombstone means that the deceased belongs to the devil. And two cats fighting in a cemetery represent the devil and an angel fighting over the soul of the dead.

Although black cats can be associated with good luck as well as bad today. There was a time on the planet when black cats were incredibly rare. The black coat occurred because of a genetic mutation which transformed the standard tabby coat of the domesticated North African wildcat to black. The first recorded mention of black cats was in Greece and Phoenicia in 500 BC according to my research. Carthaginian traders transported these black cats far and wide and introduced them to foreign places.

In ancient Egypt, rare black cats became associated with the goddess Isis; the goddess of the earth’s fertility and all things living. The goddess wore a black coat symbolising night. At that time the night was considered to be calming and gentle. A time for love. It was not a time for sinister and demonic goings-on. Black cats became regarded as the reincarnation of Isis and revered sacred animals.

Black cats became a good luck charm on sea voyages. They invoked Isis’ goodwill and protection on the voyage. Images of cats were carved for the ship’s prow. As recently as the 20th century it was considered to be bad luck to sail without a ship’s cat. And a ship’s cat was mandatory on British royal naval vessels until 1975.

An old English folk poem goes as follows:

A black cat I’ve heard it said,
Can charm all heal away
And keep the house wherein she dwells
From fever’s deadly sway.

My observation of the association of black cats with good and bad luck is that the picture is unclear because a black cat can be regarded as good luck but in general it is the opposite. And we can blame Christianity for that cruel superstition which appears to have converted the black cat’s association with the devil into bad luck today.

SOME MORE ON BLACK CATS:

1 thought on “When did black cats become bad luck?”

  1. Although there was a lot of pejudicial nonsense against cats in the medieval centuries, I’ve heard that due the the black death pandemics of the 14th century, spread by infected fleas on rats, this turned around as cats became valued as rat-killers. The folktale of Dick Whittington and his cat, which I believe dates from the reign of Richard II or the late 14th century, has the contrary message of Cats as good-luck not bad. You would probably know better than I if this change in attitude actually occurred, or if this is a mis-reading of history.

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