In a lot of the modern Western world, black cats are commonly seen as harbingers of bad luck or instruments of dark magic. You know the old superstition. If a black cat crosses your path, you’re due for some misfortune or maybe even death. But how did it come to be that these animals, which are all but harmless to humans in a physical sense, are so feared and avoided by such a large sect of the Western population? Have you ever thought about where this superstition came from?
In fact, black cats have not always been considered bad luck, but have actually been revered and worshipped by past civilizations. British sailors used to welcome cats onto their vessels to hunt vermin, and they believed that black cats in particular were good omens that would ensure a safe voyage. And, with the rise of modern pagan practices such as wicca, black cats are becoming increasingly popular these days as household pets.
So, when did this smear campaign against black cats begin? Why do people these days still break into a Usain Bolt-esque sprint to avoid having a black cat cross their path? Let’s take a dive into the collective consciousness of the past and see how the perception of cats in religion and superstition has changed through the ages.
Black Cats in Ancient Egypt
Before black cats were ever considered unlucky or demonic, they were revered as incarnations of a goddess. In ancient Egypt, they were considered representations of the goddess Bastet, protector of women and households. Bastet was also the champion of women’s secrets, fertility, childbirth, and cats. Mainly worshipped in Bubastis in Lower Egypt, Bastet was originally depicted as a lioness, but eventually evolved into a woman with the head of a black cat to represent her gentler characteristics.
Bastet was revered and adored by all members of Egyptian society. Men prayed to Bastet for the protection of their daughters, wives, and mothers. Women saw Bastet as their protector and provider. And in exchange for Bastet’s patronage, members of Egyptian society treated cats, especially black cats, with deep respect and care.
Having cats around may have played a practical role in ancient Egypt as well. A large part of the Egyptian economy subsisted on grains. Cats don’t eat grains (in fact, they don’t eat anything but meat), but they do eat the rodents that threaten grain crops. So, keeping cats around one’s farm helped farmers keep their crops rodent-free.
The Egyptians viewed the goddess Bastet as being a loving mother, but also a vicious avenger, and no Egyptian dared to test her by harming a cat. In fact, this very reverence lost them the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC. Cambyses II of Persia, king of the Achaemenid Empire at the time, understood that the Egyptians would rather die than harm a cat. So, when they were approaching the battle, he told his troops to paint pictures of black cats on their shields. With the Egyptians afraid to use their weapons at the risk of offending Bastet, the Achaemenids easily forced the Egyptians to surrender.
Bastet was one of the most popular goddesses in ancient Egypt up until the time when the native Egyptian rulers were replaced by Greeks (like Cleopatra) during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Greeks, however, often equated Bastet to their goddess Artemis, and were said to have respected cats for their utility as natural pest control, even if they didn’t share the same affinity for them that the Egyptians had.
So, when did things go bad for the black cat’s image? If they were so beloved back then, why are people so terrified of them now?
The Vatican Versus Cats
If you look at most things that people commonly associate with the devil, you can probably trace that association back to the Catholic Church. Witches, goats, and upside-down pentagrams can all thank the Catholic Church for their associations with Satan worship. And if you guessed that black cats also got their bad reputation from the Catholic Church, you’d be absolutely correct.
In 1233 AD, Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull called the Vox in Rama. The bull wasn’t necessarily meant to damage the reputation of black cats, but more so to call for an inquisition against Luciferianism in Germany. Based on reports from Konrad von Marburg, heresy was running wild in Germany at the time, and he requested that the pope issue a decree to have it stopped.
In his letters, von Marburg described the rituals of these so-called Satanic cults. Pope Gregory IX then replayed these descriptions in his papal bull, saying, “a black cat descends backwards, with its tail erect. First the novice, then the master, then each one of the order who are worthy and perfect, kiss the cat on its buttocks.” This black cat was purported to be an incarnation of the devil, and thus, we have the beginning of the Catholic Church’s association between black cats and Satan.
Earlier in the Catholic Church’s inquisition against pagan religions, women practicing magic were painted as witches who carried out the devil’s work. Thus, after the Vox in Rama, black cats and witches became closely tied in the minds of European Catholics, and the image of the witch with her pet black cat was born. Fast-forwarding to the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, simply owning a black cat was enough to have a woman declared a witch and executed.
From Pope Gregory IX’s decree, fear towards cats, especially black ones, spread throughout Europe. And while the Vox in Rama never explicitly told people throughout Europe to kill cats, that was the inevitable result. People began executing cats at large in an effort to rid their territories of the influence of Satan, burning them and even hurling them off of bell towers. Apparently, the tradition of throwing cats off a bell tower is still preserved to this day in a bizarre holiday known as “Cats Wednesday” celebrated in Ypres, Belgium. While for centuries the holiday involved throwing live cats to their death, today, the holiday is celebrated using stuffed cats, which is more humane, but certainly still fairly chilling.
As the population of Europe in the Middle Ages was largely Catholic, many people partook in this practice of killing cats to purge their society of the devil’s influence. As a result, a large portion of the cat population of Europe was killed off during this time, so much so that cats almost became extinct in certain parts of Europe around the 14th century. And, since cats are a natural control to the overspreading of vermin populations, certain historians attribute this cat-killing to the explosion of a rat population that may have directly led to the spread of the Black Death.
Did Pope Gregory IX’s Vox in Rama directly lead to the Black Death that killed one-third of Europe’s population? It’s hard to say for sure. However, the idea that widespread cat murder allowed for an increase in rat population which led to easier transmission of the disease is not that far-fetched. If that is in fact the case, it would seem like Karma hasn’t fallen asleep on the job.
Should You Be Afraid Of Black Cats?
In short, the superstition surrounding black cats is most likely just that: a superstition. Similar to the associations that people have with pagan religion and goats and upside-down pentacles, black cats are the victims of a smear campaign carried out by the Catholic Church in past ages. Cats should be loved and respected, even if they may come off as cold or uninterested at times, and black cats deserve that love just as much as any other type of cat.
In the words of American comedian Groucho Marx, “A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” That’s all.