Witches’ Familiars and Other Longtime Superstitions about Black Cats
by Franny Syufy, Cats Expert
Black cats have played a major role for centuries in folklore, superstition, and mythology. Black cats in the middle ages were believed to be witches’ familiars, and some people even believed them to be witches incarnate. Many of these old superstitions about black cats exist to this day.
Explore the mythology and lore about black cats, witches, and other beliefs that carry on in the 21st century, especially around Halloween.
Black Cats and Luck
Depending on one’s area of the world (and the century one lived in), black cats portend either good or bad luck. Here are some examples, a couple of them quite involved, with some tongue-in-cheek asides.
- In Asia and the U.K., a black cat is considered lucky.
- In Yorkshire, England, it may be lucky to own a black cat, but it is unlucky have one cross your path.
- To dream of a black cat is lucky.
- On the other paw, seeing a black cat in your dream indicates that you are experiencing some fear in using your psychic abilities and believing in your intuition. I wonder who makes up these things?
- A funeral procession meeting up with a black cat is believed to forecast the death of another family member.
- In 16th century Italy, people believed that if someone was sick he would die if a black cat lay on his bed.
- In North America, it’s considered bad luck if a black cat crosses your path and good luck if a white cat crosses your path. In the U.K., switch the colors, I guess unless you live in Yorkshire.
- Finding a white hair on a black cat brings good luck. Don’t pluck it though, or your luck may turn bad.
- A strange black cat on a porch brings prosperity to the owner. (Scottish Lore)
- A black cat seen from behind portends a bad omen. (And a black cat seen from the front is a GOOD omen?)
- Ahhh…an explanation here: If a black cat walks towards you, it brings good fortune, but if it walks away, it takes the good luck with it.
- If a black cat crosses your path while you’re driving, turn your hat around backwards and mark an X on your windshield to prevent bad luck. Oh my, what if you aren’t wearing a hat? Or you’re not carrying a felt-tip pen or lipstick? Please, don’t try this one at home! (Or while you’re driving.)
Legend has it that a kitten born in May will be bad. With a face like that? Surely not.
More Lore about Black Cats
- Sixteenth-century Italians believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of an ill person, the person would soon die.
- In Colonial America, Scottish immigrants believed that a black cat entering a wake was bad luck, and could indicated the death of a family member.
- The Norse goddess Freyja drove a chariot pulled by a pair of black cats. Some versions of the tale claim they became swift black horses, possessed by the Devil. After serving Freya for 7 years, the cats were rewarded by being turned into witches, disguised as black cats.
- A Roman solder killed a black cat in Egypt, and was killed by an angry mob of locals.
- Appalachian folklore said that if you had a stye on the eyelid, rubbing the tail of a black cat on it would make the stye go away.
- If you find a single white hair on your otherwise-black cat, it’s a good omen. In England’s border countries and southern Scotland, a strange black cat on the front porch brings good fortune.
- Fisherman’s wives kept black cats while their husbands went away to sea. They believed that the black cats would prevent a disaster at sea. These black cats were considered so valuable that they were often stolen.
- Sailors, who allowed the cat on ship, believed if a cat was thrown overboard it was guaranteed to raise a storm and bring bad luck of all sorts.
- In Ireland, having your moonlit path crossed by a black cat was thought to foretell death in an epidemic.
- It is considered bad luck to pass a black cat after 9 pm
- To reverse the bad luck curse of a black cat crossing your path, first walk in a circle, then go backward across the spot where it happened and count to 13.
- In North America, it’s bad luck if a black cat crosses your path and good luck if a white cat crosses your path. In Britain and Ireland, it’s the opposite.
If a black cat walks towards you, it brings good fortune, but if it walks away, it takes the good luck with it.
- In 16th century Italy, people believed that if a black cat lay on the bed of a sick man, he would die. However, they also believed that a cat will not remain in the house where someone is about to die – if the family cat refused to stay indoors, this was a bad omen.
Black Cats as Witches’ Familiars
Salem Saberhagen – Talking black American Short Hair Breed cat (voice of Nick Bakay) that lived with Sabrina, a pretty blond teenage witch (Melissa Joan Hart) on the fantasy comedy SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH/ABC/1996-2003.
- It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves, according to Glenda Moore.
- Folklore has it that if a witch becomes human, her black cat will no longer reside in her house.
- Some believe that black cats are witches in disguise, or witches reborn.
- Others believe black cats are witches familiars (beings that aid witches in performing their craft). Not all familiars were black cats though; some were cats of other colors, dogs, pigs, or other animals.
- For several centuries “witches” were rounded up, tried, and killed by burning or other violent methods; often their familiars were killed along with them.
Cats and Witches
- Traits associated with cats include cleverness, unpredictability, healing and witchcraft, since in ancient times it was believed that witches took the form of their cats at night.
- It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.
- A kitten born in May will be a witches cat.
- Some believe black cats are witches in disguise.
- Others believe black cats are witches familiars (beings that aid witches in performing their craft).
The Color Black
- Black is one of the three basic colors of cats which Franny Syufy would call “pure.” The other two are red and white. All other colors and color patterns of cats are a combination of any two or three of these basic colors.The differences are all a matter of genetics, a very complicated study of the genes which are carried down from cat-to-cat. Cats with a dominant black gene are often (but not always) pure black in appearance. A cat with two parents, both possessed of a dominant black gene, will almost always be pure black. However, if either of these cats has a recessive red gene, the child may also carry it, a fact which accounts for the fact that sometimes black cats appear “rusty” in the sun.
- While many recognized breeds have been around for years, or are the result of naturally occurring genetic mutations, the Bombay is a result of years of selective breeding in an effort to develop a black “Parlour Panther.” It is the only recognized cat breed whose only acceptable color is black.Although stunning as sleek, black show cats with mesmerizing copper eyes, the Bombay is easily adaptable as a pet who will play fetch, guard your house, or even venture out with you on a leash.
- In addition to the Bombay, listed above, The Cat Fanciers’ Association allows solid black as a color option in 21 other breeds. The color description is fairly standard for all those breeds: BLACK: dense coal black, sound from roots to tip of fur. Free from any tinge of rust on the tips. Nose leather: black. Paw pads: black or brown.
The exceptions are:
Oriental – EBONY: dense coal black. Free from any tinge of rust on tips or smoke undercoat. Nose leather: black. Paw pads: black or brown.
Sphynx – BLACK: black. One level tone from nose to tip of tail. Nose leather: black. Paw pads: black or brown.
Ragamuffin – Although black is not specifically mentioned, the standard allows for “any color, with or without white,” so technically speaking, an all-black Ragamuffin would be allowed under the breed standard.
Black Cats and Halloween
Why are Black Cats Associated with Halloween?
by Catherine Beyer
The connection between black cats and Halloween is complicated and frequently unclear. There are many claims made about connections, but many of them lack historical backing.
Witch flying on a broomstick with black cat, pumpkin and raven
During the European witch-craze, witches were widely believed to keep familiars, which were malevolent spirits or demons that disguised themselves in the shape of animals and often fed off the witch’s blood. Cats were certainly considered potential familiars. After all, everyone had them to help control vermin population. But there were plenty of other animal familiars as well, including dogs, ferrets, birds, spiders, goats, toads, and hares, all of which could easily be found in the vicinity of most suspected witches.
Nature of Cats
Cats do have some qualities that can make them creepy to suspicious people. They are relatively intelligent, but they are also not terribly social with humans, unlike dogs. They’re harder to train and more often live on their own. They are naturally nocturnal, and humans naturally view nighttime as a time of danger before the invention of electric light because humans have terrible night vision.
Papal Bull Against Cats
Two papal bulls are sometimes pointed to as evidence of official persecution of cats. The first is the Summis desiderantes affectibus decreed in 1484 by Innocent VIII. This is the document commonly used to mark the beginning of the European witch-craze. However, while the document accepts the reality of witchcraft and threatens lay people with excommunication if they do not cooperate with Inquisition investigations on the matter, it doesn’t mention cats.
The second document is another papal bull, Vox in Rama, theoretically released by Gregory IX around 1232. The problem with this document is there’s doubt as to whether it actually existed. The first reference to it is relatively modern, a good 500 years after the reign of Gregory IX.
The Color Black
In Christian cultures, white is generally a symbol of goodness and purity, and black is a symbol of danger, corruption and evil. Any sort of black animal therefore could be more suspect than animals of other colors.
Natural Superstitions about Black Cats
Many urban legends state that Europeans have a long history of folklore vilifying black cats. In fact, there’s a wide variety of folklore about black cats, of which some are positive and some are negative.
Cat Worship in Egypt
Egyptian goddess Sekhmet
It’s certainly true that cats were held in extremely high esteem in Egypt . However, there is absolutely no reason to think that things that happened thousands of miles away would color beliefs in northern Europe hundreds or thousands of years later. Some claim that the Church vilified cats to counteract their divine status in Egypt, but there’s no evidence of this, and it really reaches beyond common sense.
This belief presumes that large numbers of people in Europe had every aspect of their lives ruled by the Church, which is simply not true. There were all sorts of folklore that was not only separate from Christianity, but even ran counter to it.
Regardless of how black cats became associated with Halloween, the mere fact that it has become associated with Halloween is a reason for it to remain so. Seeing black cat decorations at Halloween reinforces the connection between black cats and Halloween.
As a comparison, consider the green-skinned witch often used in Halloween decorations. The first known depiction of a green-skinned witch was in The Wizard of Oz, a source that has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween. But, for whatever reason, we started making witches green in Halloween ornaments, and now it’s an accepted part of Halloween.
Cat Magic, Legends and Folklore
by Patti Wigington
Ever have the privilege of living with a cat? If you have, you know that they have a certain degree of unique magical energy. It’s not just our modern domesticated felines, though – people have seen cats as magical creatures for a long time. Let’s look at some of the magic, legends and folklore associated with cats throughout the ages.
Touch Not the Cat
In many societies and cultures, it was believed that a sure-fire way to bring misfortune into your life was to deliberately harm a cat. An old sailors’ tale cautions against throwing the ship’s cat overboard – the superstition said that this would practically guarantee stormy seas, rough wind, and possibly even a sinking, or at the very least, drownings. Of course, keeping cats on board had a practical purpose, as well – it kept the rat population down to a manageable level.
In some mountain communities, it is believed that if a farmer killed a cat, his cattle or livestock would sicken and die. In other areas, there’s a legend that cat-killing will bring about weak or dying crops.
The Egyptian goddess Bastet
In ancient Egypt, cats were regarded as sacred because of their association with the goddesses Bast and Sekhmet. To kill a cat was grounds for harsh punishment, according to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote, “Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him.”
In both France and Wales, there’s a legend that if a girl steps on a cat’s tail, she’ll be unlucky in love. If she’s engaged, it will get called off, and if she’s seeking a husband, she won’t find him for at least a year following her cat-tail-stepping transgression.
In Japan, the maneki-neko is a cat figurine who brings good luck into your home. Typically made of ceramic, the maneki-neko is also called the Beckoning Cat or Happy Cat. His upraised paw is a sign of welcome. It is believed that the raised paw draws money and fortune to your home, and the paw held next to the body helps keep it there. Maneki-neko is often found in feng shui.
Maneki-neko, the “beckoning cat,” is a Japanese figure who brings good luck to its owner
England’s King Charles once had a cat that he loved very much. According to legend, he assigned keepers to maintain the cat’s safety and comfort around the clock. However, once the cat fell ill and died, Charles’ luck ran out, and he was either arrested or died himself the day after his cat passed away, depending upon which version of the story you hear.
In Renaissance-era Great Britain, there was a custom that if you were a guest in a home, you should kiss the family cat upon your arrival to ensure a harmonious visit. Of course, if you’ve had a cat you know that a guest who fails to make nice with your feline could end up having a miserable stay.
There’s a story in rural parts of Italy that if a cat sneezes, everyone who hears it will be blessed with good fortune.
Cats and Metaphysics
Cats are believed to be able to predict the weather – if a cat spends the entire day looking out a window, it could mean rain is on the way.
In Colonial America, if your cat spent the day with her back to the fire, then it indicated a cold snap was coming in.
Sailors often used the behavior of ships’ cats to foretell weather events – sneezes meant a rain or a thunderstorm was imminent, and a cat who groomed its fur against the grain was predicting hail or snow and if it was frisky, the wind would soon blow.
Some people believe that cats can predict death. In Ireland, there’s a tale that a black cat crossing your path in the moonlight meant you’d fall victim to an epidemic or plague. Parts of Eastern Europe tell a folktale of a cat yowling in the night to warn of coming doom.
In many Neopagan traditions, practitioners report that cats frequently pass through magically designated areas, such as circles which have been cast, and seem to make themselves contentedly at home within the space. In fact, they often seem curious about magical activities, and cats will often lay themselves down in the middle of an altar or workspace, sometimes even falling asleep on top of a Book of Shadows.
Early Americans believed if a cat washes her face in front of several people, the first person she looks at will be the first to get married.
A strange black cat on your porch brings prosperity. – Scottish superstition
Photo by A. Jones
After dark all cats are leopards. — Zuni proverb