Any domestic cat with a majority of black fur — whether a speciﬁc breed or mixed — may be considered a black cat. Oﬃcially, the Cat Fanciers’ Association recognizes 22 breeds featuring solid black coats. Of these, only the Bombay is exclusively black. More commonly male, these shadowy felines often possess golden-colored eyes due to their high melanin content.
No wonder they’re typically depicted with glowing yellow eyes. Throw in an arched back, hackles raised, and you’ve got the iconic Halloween cat that pervades Western culture. Here, they’re thought to be the familiars of witches and favorites of Satan. But in other places and other stories, they garner a range of notoriety — not all nefarious.
Celtic legend tells of the Cat Sìth, a shapeshifting witch with the power to transform into a black cat, but only eight times. On the ninth change, the witch becomes trapped forever as a cat. This story likely inspired the myth that cats have nine lives.
In other tellings, the Cat Sìth isn’t a witch, but a fairy who takes the form of a large black cat with a white patch on its chest. A mischievous figure known for stealing the souls of the dead as they awaited burial, the Cat Sìth greatly influenced the rituals around Celtic funerals. To prevent a soul from being stolen, funeral- goers would play music and games, ask each other riddles, light warm ﬁres and, of course, leave catnip in all the rooms of a house, except for where the body of the deceased lay. Anything to keep the sly obsidian kitty distracted!
On Samhain, farmers would leave saucers of milk out for the Cat Sìth to curry favor with the fairy. Those who forgot or refused risked a curse on their cows. In another gruesome practice, which involved burning the bodies of cats over four days, participants sought to summon a demonic Cat Sìth called Big Ears, who would then grant a wish to all who took part in the ritual.
Sources suggest that the lore behind this fantastical creature may have been inspired by the Kellas cat. Once considered cryptids, Kellas cats are an interspecific hybrid of Scottish wildcats and domestic black cats that can grow up to three or four feet long. Named after the village of Kellas, these big cats achieved notoriety in the early 1980s when a series of specimens were caught and trapped by local gamekeepers. While none are reported in captivity, mounted specimens of the oversized black cat are on view at museums in Elgin and Aberdeen.
The belief that black cats signify misfortune is far from universal. In many places around the world, the presence of a midnight mouser represents luck and protection against evil.
In England, black cats bring joy and prosperity to newlyweds, foretelling long, happy marriages. They’re said to make fortuitous wedding gifts, should you tire of buying blenders or monogrammed linens. One jubilant account from The Morning Post in 1927 tells of a blessed bride-to-be who spotted a black cat on the steps of the church, at the hotel door, the hall, the reception, and just about everywhere else she went on her wedding day. In a 1926 photograph from The Daily Mail, the granddaughter of a famous cricketer prominently featured a black cat in her wedding photos as a guest of honor.
Look beyond the recently betrothed to the weary wives of English fishermen. Often, these women kept black cats at home as tokens of luck to ensure their husbands’ safe return from sea. Similarly, sailors also sought black cats to keep on board as a “ship’s cat“ for good fortune and protection against evil. This belief became so popular that the cost of black cats skyrocketed, making them a tre asured commodity at home as well as on the open seas.
French lore, too, shines an auspicious light on the black cat with the matagot, a spirit also known as a magician or money cat. The matagot can make its owner wealthy, but only if shown special courtesies. As the story goes, to capture your own matagot, you must tempt the creature with a delicious meal — a fresh, plump chicken is recommended — then carry it home without ever looking back. As long as the matagot receives the ﬁrst bite of every meal and a warm bed to sleep in, it will reward you with gold coins and good luck. Be warned, however, that any disrespect or mistreatment of this cat results in disaster for the owner.
Head east and the veneration of black cats continues unabated. In the Edo period of Japan, some superstitions state that black cats cure tuberculosis. Iconic fortune cats, or maneki neko, bring good luck and life successes, but black fortune cats also ward oﬀ demons, evil energy, and stalkers. Similar to English beliefs around black cats and happy marriages, a single woman in Japan can attract a number of suitors — the fine, attractive kind, no less — if she keeps a black cat.
Dive into comparative mythologies and you’ll discover a handful of cats, especially in connection to goddesses. Both beings disdain the authority of others. Both possess traits that contribute to their mystery and power — they’re aloof, discerning, charming. It’s a wonder any goddess ever chooses an animal other than the cat to accompany her or represent her spirit.
In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Bastet bears the head of a black cat. Daughter of Ra and Isis, sometimes called “the eye of the moon,“ she protected Lower Egypt and defended the king. She was also the goddess of pregnancy and childbirth, often depicted with kittens and widely regarded as a good mother.
Sometimes identified with Bastet, the Greek goddess Artemis was said to appear in the form of a cat. In some myths, Artemis saves the daughter of Agamemnon by turning her into Hecate, the goddess of the moon, magic, and witchcraft. Notably, Hecate kept a black cat as a pet and familiar, underscoring the black cat’s association with the occult. One story goes that Hecate’s black cat was originally a serving maid, cursed by Hera for her insolence and transformed into a black cat as punishment. After her transformation, she became an assistant or priestess to Hecate, residing in the underworld, casting spells, and practicing magic.
Many modern superstitions around black cats originate from the 13th century, when Pope Gregory IX decreed that all cats should be exterminated — especially black cats, since they were incarnations of Satan.
Sources suggest that early Christians maligned women and cats so thoroughly because they shared personality traits frowned upon by the church. Like the women accused of witchcraft, cat s favor indep endence and intelligence. They don’t fawn or simper over anyone; affection must be earned. Since impertinence wasn’t well-tolerated in either women or cats, it’s unsurprising that they became connected in the Christian lore around witchcraft.
Pope Gregory IX’s campaign against black cats had another, unforeseen eﬀect. With fewer cats, the vermin population grew out of control. Because vermin were the main carriers of the Black Plague, this uptick contributed to an estimated 50 million deaths — or 60 percent of Europe’s total population at the time. Far from being the incarnation of Satan, black cats could have saved millions of lives.
From the supernatural to the superstitious, from love and wealth to death and misfortune, black cats have beguiled the people of this world throughout history.
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