Black cats have been featured in mythologies and superstitions of many nations for centuries. In most of Western history, the black cat has long been considered a symbol of bad luck, an evil omen of sorts. It’s even worse if a cat walks across the path of a person – in many folklores, this is a sign of death and a great misfortune. On the other side of the globe, all cats – including the black ones – were so loved, people actually worshiped them. In ancient Egypt, cats were linked to the Goddess Bastet, a gentle warrior and protector of people’s homes. Today, in Japan and some parts of Britain, black cats are still considered good luck.
So, which is it? Are black cats really omens of bad luck, or are they signs of good fortune?
Black Cat, Bad Luck Superstition
Where does the “black cat, bad luck” superstition come from? Unsurprisingly, it all started in the Middle Ages and continued throughout the Early Modern period, during the awful witch-hunt period. Witchcraft – and anything resembling witchcraft – was punishable during the “witch purge” in Early Modern Europe and Colonial North America. People would accuse others (usually women) of witchcraft, labeling them witches (even if they knew nothing about the practice) and torturing and executing them as a result. Anything and anyone thought to have connections to witchcraft and witches, including black cats who have been suspected of being the familiars of witches, would also be destroyed and executed. Some folks believed that witches could actually transform into black cats and back, while others believed that witches would reincarnate into black cats after their death.
Later, when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, anything deemed “suspicious” or being a part of sorcery, Satan and demons, would be severely punished, sometimes even murdered. The mass-hysteria was so great that anyone caught with a black cat would be tortured or killed! Indeed, black cats were feared and persecuted as much as the human “witches” themselves.
But why were cats linked to witchcraft and sorcery in the first place? While there is no clear answer to this question, it’s obvious it comes down to their color and the fact they’re nocturnal animals. Unknown and mysterious, the black color has long been associated with fear, evil and death. People hated black cats so much they burned them regularly! Cat burning, whether black or not (it didn’t seem to matter that much), was a form of – brace yourselves – entertainment in France before the 1800s. In this horrendous act, people would gather dozens of cats, put them in a net, raise them high into the air above a bonfire, burning them in the process. According to Norman Davies, a British-Polish historian, people would scream with laughter while the poor cats – howling in pain – would get singed and roasted.
Thankfully, the black cat hate was confined “only” to medieval Europe and America. Most of Britain and Ireland, as well as Egypt, China and Japan have always been the places where black cats were welcome and loved. In fact, some even worshipped them.
Black Cat, Good Luck Superstition
In Ancient Egypt, all cats – including the black ones – were held in the highest esteem. They were considered sacred, beautiful and powerful. The goddess Bastet, who was originally depicted as a lioness because of her fierce, warlike protectiveness of her people, later softened and became associated with domestic cats. In other words, Bastet remained powerful and protective but also gained in gentleness, affection and playfulness. Many people believed that having one or several black cats in the home would draw goodwill from the Goddess. But besides having a religious purpose, all cats in Ancient Egypt also had a very practical purpose as well. Mice, rats and snakes were a real issue in Ancient Egypt, and the presence of felines helped control the pests. Because of this, cats were perceived to have protective abilities – just like the Goddess Bastet. Needless to say, the Ancient Egyptians loved their cats (they still do today!). In fact, at the time, there were strong penalties for hurting or killing a cat – the exact opposite of the medieval Europe and America!
The British have always held black cats in high regard too (most of the time at least). Irish and English sailors in the 17th all throughout 20th centuries, believed that black cats brought all kinds of luck. For example, it was believed that a black cat aboard ensures a safe journey, so black kitties often lived on the ship, helping protect its stores against pests and vermin. It was also believed that if a random black cat walks onto a ship and stays, the ship will travel safely, but if it walks off it, the ship would sink on its next trip. Because they were associated with good luck, many sailors’ families also held black cats at home, believing their presence there would assure their husbands, brothers and fathers’ safe return from the sea. And in the English Midlands, gifting a black cat to the newlyweds was believed to bring good fortune and happiness for years to come.
Interestingly, pirates of the 18th century believed that if a black cat walks to you, you will experience misfortune, and if it walks away from you, you will have good luck. But in the U.K. in general, it was (still is in some places) believed that if a black cat walks towards someone, they will have good fortune, and if the cat walks away, it takes that fortune with it. In Scottish culture, there is an interesting black cat superstition as well – if a black cat comes at someone’s home, it’s a sign of good luck and prosperity.
In Japanese and Chinese culture, the beckoning cat, or Maneki Neko, is a symbol of good luck. The cat’s raised paw is a welcoming gesture, an invite of sorts. There are many legends about the origin of the waving cat, but the most popular one is the legend of Gotoku temple. In the 17th century, there was a poor monk in Tokyo whose life was very difficult. Still, the monk would share his small meal each day with his cat called Tama. One day, Lord Nakaota went out wanting to hunt, but got caught in a sudden storm which forced him to seek shelter under a tree near the Gotoku temple. There, he saw a cat (Tama, the monk’s pet) raise one paw as if waiving him to come to the temple. Surprised at the curious sight, he left his cover, heading for the temple, when a lightning bolt destroyed the tree he had used as a shelter. The legend continues that the Lord Nakota was so grateful his life was saved, he became the patron of the temple. When Tama the cat diet, they buried him in the graveyard for cats and in the temple its statue was made to honor him. And thus, Maneki Neko was born.
While we’d like to think of ourselves as more evolved these days, we still can’t seem to escape various little superstitions, including those about black cats. Here are some of the common beliefs about black colored felines that exist around the globe today
- A random black cat coming to your porch or house is a sign of prosperity
- If a black cat walks towards you, you’ll have good luck
- If you have a dream about a black cat, you’ll have good fortune in the near future
- A black cat in the audience (theater) helps a play and signifies a prosperous run
- A black cat wlking to a funeral procession foretells the death of a family member
- A black cat crossing your path signifies struggles and bad luck
- If a black cat comes to you but quickly walks away, it takes good luck with it
- Seeing a black cat from behind is a bad omen.
Folklore, myths and superstitions vary from continent to continent, country to country. While some nations believed (and unfortunately some still do) that black cats were the harbingers of misfortune, others believed they brought good luck and prosperity. In some myths, the nature of a black cat and its presence was/is even dependent on context. For example, while sailors believed that a black cat on board signified safe travel, they also believed that if a random black cat came on board by itself it, the ship would sink on the next trip! Similarly, many people believe that if a black cat crosses your path, you’ll experience struggles, but if it changes direction and walks towards you, you’ll experience good fortune.
The conclusion? It’s all relative and (most likely) has no grounds in reality. Black cats are just that – cats with dark fur, nothing more, nothing less. Of course, if you like certain myths and superstitions and find them fun, nothing is stopping you from believing in them. Our advice? If superstitions are your cup of tea, choose to believe that black cats are the harbingers of prosperity, fortune and love. Believe in the positive and –who knows – maybe they really will help bring those things into your life.