Black cats don’t really bring bad luck, but the superstition is centuries old. In Europe, the fear of black cats dates back to at least the 12th century. In 1170, a religious sect called the Waldenses appeared. They believed that people could commune directly with God without the aid of a priest – which naturally angered the Catholic Church. Not only did the Catholic Church declare the Waldenses to be heretics, it also accused them of worshipping the Devil in the form of a black cat. Two other sects, the Cathars and the Knights Templar were also accused of devil-worship and incorporating black cats in their rituals.
St. Dominic (1170-1121), the founder of the Dominican Order, and his followers declared the black cat to be an incarnation of the Devil. Consequently, owning a black cat marked someone as a witch or heretic. Gregory IX, who was Pope from 1227 to 1241, dispatched papal inquisitors to track down heretics. In 1233, he issued a papal bull, the “Vox in Rama,” that proclaimed the black cat to be an instrument of Satan. The “Vox in Rama” also described a ritual in which novices would swear their allegiance to Satan during which the participants would kiss a black cat on the buttocks.
Several centuries later, Europeans who believed in the connection between black cats and demons and evil magic brought their superstitions with them when they colonized North America. During the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, at least one of the defendants claimed to have seen the Devil’s feline familiars. Belief in witchcraft persisted up through the 20th century in some areas.
Interestingly, one English king, Charles I (1600-1649), had a black cat that he believed brought him good luck. He loved it very much, and when it died, he supposedly said, “And so my good luck leaves me.” Not long afterwards, he was accused of treason, tried and beheaded.
On cats and magic
Cats, regardless of color, have been associated with the supernatural for millennia. The ancient Egyptians famously worshipped them. A cat’s looks and behavior likely prompted their association with the supernatural. A cat’s eyes can reflect light, so they glow in the dark, and that glow seemed to be evidence of supernatural powers. The ancient Norse, for example, believed that a cat’s eyes served as a link to the fairy world. People who stared into a cat’s eyes would see visions of that world – but the fair folk on the other side would be spying on the viewer.
Cats are stealthy and agile, and a black cat’s fur enables it to blend in with the shadows, so it can seem to suddenly appear or disappear. Cats are also largely nocturnal, and people believed that nighttime was the time when evil spirits and other supernatural beings were most active. Since cats kept the same hours, they were believed to have supernatural powers, too.
Black cats in other cultures
People in the Scottish Highlands greatly feared a creature called the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe, which was usually described as a feline fairy that resembled a big black cat with a white patch on its chest. Some stories described the cat sith as a witch that could turn into a cat nine times. The cat sith was said to be able to steal the souls of the recently deceased, which it did by simply walking over the corpse before it was buried.
Not everybody considers black cats to be bringers of bad luck or evil, though. In some countries, such as Japan, black cats bring good luck. Japanese women believe a black cat can make them lucky in love; seeing one means they will have many suitors. Some people in Scotland believe that a black cat unexpectedly turning up on one’s door step meant that the homeowner would one day be rich.
In Northern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, fishermen’s wives would actually look for black cats. If they saw one, it would mean their husband would safely return from sea. Similarly, sailors believed that their ship’s cats brought good luck, and they believed that black cats were the luckiest of all.
People in France believed in a type of magical black cat called a “matagot.” While usually malicious, it could bring someone prosperity under the right conditions. A person wanting a matagot’s help had to lure the cat with a chicken and then put the cat in a box to carry home. They could not look back while taking the cat home. The matagot always had to be given the first bite at every meal; in exchange, it would give its owner a gold coin every morning.