During the Halloween season, black cats can be seen as spooky Halloween costumes and scary decorations. Black cats are most commonly associated with witches, as we see in television shows and movies like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Hocus Pocus. There is also the well-known superstition that it is bad luck for a black cat to cross your path. Yet considering a black cat is just a cat, how did black cats become associated with witches and become bad luck? It turns out the tradition began as early as the twelfth century in Western Europe.
In the Ancient Western world, black cats, and cats in general, were considered lucky or a good omen and were not looked upon with fear or malice. In Ancient Egypt they kept black cats as pets and worshiped the goddess Bastet of truth and prosperity, who was often depicted with the head of a black cat. In Ancient Rome, cats were respected and associated with liberty and divinity and so the cat was the only animal allowed to walk freely around their temples. However, this view didn’t last forever.
The demonization of black cats is said to begin as early as the twelfth century. Vox in Rama is said to be the first official church document demonizing black cats, as well as heresy (Engels 183, Kors and Peters 115). Black cats are called “master,” kissed, and worshipped, similar to the charges against the Templars (Kors and Peters 116). The charges against the Templars in the early 1300s, which mentions black cats, were similar to the later accusations against witches. Templars were charged with “kiss[ing] the cat on its hindquarters” (Barber 181). This was illicit, which is what witches were deemed later. They “worshiped a huge cat” which was heresy (Barber 181). Witches were later tried for heresy as well. Finally, “cat came on behalf of the devil” linking black cats to Satan (Barber 183). The Charges against the Templars and Vox in Rama demonized black cats in the twelfth century.
Necromancy and sorcery, otherwise known as witchcraft, involved black cats as well. Necromancers would “eviscerate a black cat born in March, cut out its heart and eyes, and insert a heliotrope seed in place of each eye and two such seeds in the mouth, while saying a conjuration of invisibility” (Kieckhefer 60-61). Then the necromancer will plant it and water it with blood and water, then a plant will grow that makes seeds that would turn the necromancer invisible (Kieckhefer 61). There were also recipes to create madness that use cat body parts as well as some other animals (Kieckhefer 75). Cat skin was also used to summon demons (Kieckhefer 100). In some cases, a black cat was seen as “the devil himself” (Engels 157). When witches would gather at their Sabbaths, black cats would appear to partake in the illicit festivities. It was even “thought that the devil borrowed his black robe from a cat” (Engels 157). This witch paranoia caused the mass murder of black cats in Europe, and they are “almost impossible to find in Western Europe today” (Engels 165). Black cats developed a bad reputation due to witchcraft.
Today, the evil black cats were marked with still effects them. Black cats are less likely to be adopted than their other colored friends. Black cats have some of the lowest adoption rates and the highest euthanasia rates out of all furry felines. Some shelters don’t allow people to adopt black cats close to Halloween due to fear that they may be abused, used as costume accessories, or otherwise harmed because of the superstition. So, the next time you see a black cat remember that they were once good luck and the negative light they have been cast in has nothing to do with these sleek, cute, and curious creatures themselves.
Barber, Malcom. “The Charges.” The Trial of the Templars, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 178–192.
Engels, Donald W. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. N.p.: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century. N.p.: Pennsylvania State U, 2012. Print.
Kors, Alan Charles., and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. N.p.: U of Pennsylvania, 2001. Print.
Levack, Brian P. The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe. N.p.: Routledge, 2016. Print.