The black cat: Mystery, myth and symbolism


Good or evil – it depends on the culture

This neighbor cat makes regular passes through our yard. Above: a shot of her one night.

No other kind of cat, whether purebred or moggie, is more steeped in myth and mystery than the black cat. From the basic good luck-bad luck premise to elaborate symbolism associated with different countries, black cats have been a part of the cultural history of the world since the dawn of recorded time.

Without a doubt, the most common association is of witches and black cats as their familiars, along with frogs, birds and snakes. Pagan religions in Europe had witchcraft as their dominant belief and were associated with animals of nature, including cats.

As Christianity became more entrenched, 15th century witch hunts centered around older women who were more likely to live alone and keep cats for companionship. The women became a prime target for blame if some kind of a disaster struck a village, especially if they had a cat that was black, the color of magic and mystery. Stories abound of late night shapeshifting in which felines were injured while doing battle with superstitious humans. In daylight women who had been associated with the cats were found with like injuries.

The image of a witch being burned at the stake with her feline companion is etched into history, even into 17th century America. It was also thought that cats were sacrificed by witches during their rituals, but that is counter to the nature-friendly spirit of witchcraft.

It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate the mythology of the black cat versus cats in general. The image of the cat coiled into a circle like a serpent can move from the symbol of eternity to a vicious circle leading to the belief that black cats are sinister.

These black kittens are available for adoption from a local shelter. You know you want one of them! (Photo by Mary Johnson)

These black kittens are available for adoption from a local shelter. You know you want one of them! (Photo by Mary Johnson)

There’s also the image of The Devourer in which the cat and the serpent fight each other. As the celestial cat of the sun god Ra fought the darkness of night, the devourer took the form of a serpent. In contrast the serpent can also be a symbol of light and life; as the sun set, it took the form of a serpent ablaze and the cat then became darkness, death and chaos.  Devourers are neither male nor female although the “engulfing” aspect of the cat led it to emerge as a symbol for the darker side of femininity.

As such the black cat became one of the great devouring goddesses known for playing cat and mouse with the young fertility gods of spring. She would love them, castrate them and finally slay them.

Two black cats drew the chariot of the sun goddess Freya. Leading the Valkyries, she became known as the death goddess. In Germany, she was known as Hel and represented the destructiveness of winter.

As a vehicle of Hel, the black cat was considered by many as an omen of death. Many stories are told of phantom black cats seen by people on their deathbed or their relatives.

Not unlike Oscar, and more recently Ollie, who have made news by predicting the deaths of people in nursing homes, Germans and Italians believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of a sick person, their death was imminent.

Egyptians were known to idolize cats and treated them like royalty. A cemetery was found that contained thousands of mummies of black cats. To kill a cat was punishable by death. They saw the cat as a nocturnal creature that walked the shadows in great confidence with the fine ability to feel and sense the surroundings in the dark of night. Therefore it would be seen as an animal of the afterlife.

In Britain and Japan, a black cat crossing your path will bring good luck, but it’s considered bad luck in the U.S. and several European countries.

A Scottish superstition considers a black cat on your porch a sign of prosperity.  Latvian farmers believe black cats in their grain silos to be the spirit of Rungis, a god of harvests. In contrast, the Chinese believed black cats are the harbingers of famine and poverty.

In Finland, black cats were thought to carry the souls of the dead to the other world.

The Celts thought black cats were reincarnated beings able to see the future.

In India, it is believed that a reincarnated soul may be liberated by throwing a black cat into a fire.

In Bengali folklore, women could change their soul into a black cat and that any harm brought to the cat would be suffered by the women.

In Normandy, it was believed that if a black cat crossed your path in moonlight you would probably die in an epidemic.

In Russia, there’s the belief that if a black cat crosses a person’s path, that person should choose another direction to avoid the cat’s path or cross it holding a button (from your shirt or jacket). And then there’s the Russian Blue cat (blue being a dilute of black), said to be a favorite of Tsar Nicholas I; they’re supposed to bring good luck.

Black cats have also been used as advertising icons. My Sin perfume, Black Cat Fireworks, Black Cat Whiskey from Thailand all use the image in their logos. The Carreras Company, which manufactured cigarettes in England from the mid 1800s through the1950s, used a black cat as its logo and on its packaging. The company’s Black Cat Factory opened in 1928 with two 7-foot-high bronze cats guarding the main entrance and 10 black cats molded into the façade. The design of the building was inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the temple of Bubastis, the cat-headed goddess.

In his book Cat Sense, John Bradshaw says that in some places more than 80 percent of cats carry the black mutation, some may end up with striped coats rather than black. He says that black is commonest in Britain and Ireland, in Utrecht in the Netherlands, the the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and in a US cities such as Denton, Texas (which olds the recond at nearly 90 percent incorporation), as well as Vancouver and Morocco. He adds that possessing the black mutation “somehow makes the cat more friendly to people and/or other cats, thereby giving the cats that carry it an advantage in high-density living situations or in prolonged, unavoidable contact with people, such as onboard a ship.”

Politically, the black cat was associated with anarchism, and even today it is a symbol of the workers’ movement. In this instance the cat was depicted with an arched back with claws and bared teeth. Also called the wild cat or sabot cat, it suggests wildcat strikes and radical unionism.  This logo was designed by Ralph Chaplin, who was prominent in the Industrial Workers of the World. The union fought to organize women and people of color and for the 8-hour workday in the early 20th century and is active today focusing on the rights of low-wage service workers. In 2005, the IWW became the first American Labor Union to successfully organize a Starbucks coffee shop.

Today’s black cats lounge in our homes bearing names such as Onyx. Ebony, Blackie, Shadow and Charcoal. They are long disassociated from their mysterious past. However, shelter workers do admit that they may be the last to be adopted from a collection of kittens that includes calicos and tabbies. They’re also hesitant to adopt out black cats at Halloween. It’s more of gut feeling than a strict policy, they say.

An article here says that the image of black cats still suffers in this era of social media, simply because they do not photograph well and are harder to tell apart.

Years ago, I looked out my back door and saw a black cat crossing the yard. Intrigued, I called, “Kitty, kitty!” With a bright “meow!” she bounded over. Magnolia, as I called her since the Magnolia tree in the yard was in blossom, was a devoted companion for a dozen years.

No mystery there.

Click here for The Black Cat Appreciation Page on Facebook.

And we leave you with this beautiful tribute to black cats created by feline behaviorist extraordinaire Pam Johnson Bennett. It should have you running to your local shelter in a heartbeat!



About ExclusivelyCats
Sally Bahner is an expert in all aspects of cat care: Writer, consultant, speaker, instructor.

9 Responses to The black cat: Mystery, myth and symbolism

  1. Pingback: The Creative Cat - Don’t Leave Us Behind!

  2. piume fernandp. says:

    I’m in really curiosity on black cats. I collected some details on them. Thank u very much.

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