Black Cats and Feline Reputations

Most people in the United States have heard that if a black cat crosses your path, bad luck will follow. Most people who respond to such an event by saying something like “uh-oh” don’t follow up and blame the cat for the fact that a few days later they are, say, fired from their job or trip over the dog and sprain an ankle. But the notion persists, as do many other folk beliefs about cats-as-trouble. Most of these notions arose (in the West) during the late Middle Ages, persisting well into the seventeenth and even the eighteenth centuries. They come down to us today, happily, for the most part filtered by time and reason into paler, less scary versions. In fact, in England it is good luck if a black cat crosses your path. But Europeans in earlier times found plenty of reasons to be truly horrible to cats, especially black ones.

Black cats were not only nocturnal like all cats, skulking around in the dark as if guilty of something, and they were often indifferent to humans, even haughty, but also they had the misfortune of being black. For Europeans in early times, black was-simply-bad. It was associated with the underworld, with night (when bad things like werewolves were on the prowl), with the dark forests where dangerous spirits and crazy people bent on mayhem lurked. It was a scary world, where Satan himself was a constant threat. He and his dark minions practiced the black arts and were always looking to traduce innocent souls into evil.* The world, back in late medieval times, was also full of somewhat attenuated beliefs based on ancient times. Rome’s Diana the Huntress was associated with cats and later in her career morphed a little bit into Hecate, goddess of the underworld and given to dark doings. Also she was associated with the moon, that unreliable and protean body in the night sky. Cats were awarded these attributes.

Early on, the Catholic Church tried to dispel any such pagan notions, discouraging belief in the witchcraft that appears to have always been part of life in most preliterate societies. But late in the Middle Ages when universal satisfaction with the teachings and workings of the Church began to decay, scapegoats were needed. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX explained that black cats were satanic and suddenly the Christian world was overrun with witches and their “familiars,” which is to say the black cats that the witches sent forth to do harm to people. Indeed, witches often turned into black cats. And witches of course were agents of the devil. Thousands of people, mostly women, were burned at the stake along with their cats. Putative witches were typically tortured, and they readily admitted their guilt to stop the torture, even repeating various totally made-up incantations. Thus the virulence of witchcraft was proved, leading to a kind of mass hysteria in which yet more witches were put to the torch. Meanwhile, with such a bad rap, cats of all colors were persecuted.

In one common event, they were hung in bags that avid medieval sportsmen would attack with lances. Indeed, killing cats by one means or another was a highly popular pastime. In these exercises, there was no special emphasis on black cats-any cat would do. From this era comes the old saying “no room to swing a cat,” another sportsmen’s amusement. Possibly harking back to the Egyptian belief that cats were associated with fecundity, some medieval European farmers would bury a cat-alive- near each field they planted, to ensure the growth of the crops. In one macabre case, English archaeologists in the nineteenth century found the remains of thousands of cats buried by the adoring ancient Egyptians, and shipped them back to Albion to be ground up and used as fertilizer.

Mistreatment of cats in this era took many forms. As James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania describes it, On feast days as a symbolic means of driving out the Devil, cats, especially black ones, were captured, tortured, thrown onto bonfires, set alight and chased through the streets, impaled on spits and roasted alive, burned at the stake, plunged into boiling water, whipped to death, and hurled from the tops of tall buildings; and all, it seems, in an atmosphere of extreme festive merriment.

Europe was not alone in the world in its distaste for all that cats stood for. Evil cats were common features of some Oriental folklore. In Japan, huge vampire cats took the form of human females and sucked the blood and strength from unwitting men. The Japanese used to cut off cats’ tails, believing the tail to be the seat of their malevolence. On the other hand, cats were looked upon with great favor in many Japanese monasteries, where bobtail cats called temple cats or kimono cats were thought to exemplify much of the wisdom passed on by the Buddha. And today, the Japanese have given the world the manekineko or beckoning cat, which can be found in many Asian restaurants and homes in this country as well as Japan and the rest of Asia.

The ceramic figure, something like a children’s illustration, recalls a cat that legendarily stood at the entrance of a famous temple beckoning a feudal lord to come inside. A lightning bolt struck where the lord had been standing and thereafter the beckoning cat was taken to be an incarnation of the goddess of mercy. It is also said to be good for businesses, beckoning customers, and for happiness and harmony-a long way from the cat vampires of old. Today in the West the association of cats with witches is memorialized in Hallowe’en costumery and iconography wherein witches on broomsticks ride across the disc of the full moon, while cartoonish black cats with malevolently arched backs spit and hiss in the foreground. On the last day of October, diminutive witches with black pointy hats will now turn up on doorsteps cheerfully calling for tricks or treats. And, of course, at least 278 zillion people have read about Harry Potter whose witch-filled world is also populated by kneazles, catlike creatures with spots and big ears, that appear to be mostly benevolent. In Islamic countries, cats are and were much admired, especially since the prophet Mohammed was particularly fond-and respectful-of cats, once cutting off his sleeve rather than awakening the cat who was sleeping on it. On the other hand, most Muslims find dogs objectionable. Dogs are eaten in many Asian restaurants, but I know of no place where cats are part of the normal diet.

The idea that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck is a southern European and Irish superstition, exported to the Americas. The English, as noted earlier, consider such an event good luck, and here and there local superstitions suggest that the appearance of a black cat in the presence of a pregnant woman assures a healthy offspring. Cats, and especially black ones, seem to have enjoyed a remarkable power: to be (in one place or another or at one time or another) all things to all people. Even at the height of cat persecution, plenty of cats lived comfortably with families who valued them for their help in vermin control. Indeed, in some places in England, if someone killed your cat, he would be forced to provide you with a pile of grain as high as the cat was long.

I myself had a black cat for several years. I did not seek him out. Instead, two women in the office where I worked at the time thought it would be funny (I suppose) or somehow fitting for them to present me with a large carton at the end of one October day-it was a few days before Hallowe’en-in which there sat a lanky young black cat with a look in his eyes of what seemed low-level outrage. The carton itself was decorated with various kinds of feline graffiti. I was unable to think of a graceful, or even ungraceful, way to refuse this gift, but the thought of schlepping the elaborately decorated carton to Grand Central Terminal in New York City and boarding a crowded train for the hour’s ride to my town, then arriving at my door and trying to explain to my then wife how we had come to have a cat and then introducing the cat to our dog while our three young daughters enthusiastically mauled it… well, it was not an auspicious beginning.

I was aware that black cats had a reputation for bringing bad luck, but as a science editor I was not going to worry about such nonsense. We found it difficult for reasons I don’t recall to come up with a name for this interloper, so finally, in a burst of paternal authority (this was the late 1960s) and stunning imagination I unilaterally named him Cat. Science or no, I was tempted to look up a few superstitions about black cats and found, of course, that I should be careful about him crossing my path, and if he did the antidote was something like walking around the point where I had seen him twelve times, then heading off backwards in my original direction. I pronounced myself grateful for my exposure to science, thinking how time-consuming it would be for me to feel I needed the antidote, what with Cat strolling though the house day in and day out. Imagine the superstitious life: you would have hardly any time for anything else.

Anyway, I came to know Cat and to be very fond of him, admiring all the things about cats that all cat people admire, though if he ever caught a mouse and dispatched it (or a bird, for that matter), I was unaware of it. I did not consider this a failing-just Cat’s amiable and, I thought, admirable approach to life. He took things easy and stayed out of trouble. Like most people, I have experienced plenty of misfortunes, mostly minor ones, but it has never occurred to me to blame any of them on Cat, who was a really good guy. One day, in his late teens, with out having shown much by way of signs of aging, he simply stopped being alive.

I have since learned that nowadays it is not always easy to obtain a black cat from an animal shelter in the days near Halloween. This is because some of the good people who devote themselves to such places do not want to run the risk of someone taking a black cat off to some horrid altar and performing lethal satanic rituals with it. This, in the twenty-first century!

It is a sad commentary to think that such a precious and complicated organ as the human brain, capable of designing a laser, or a symphony, or a democratic constitution, or of divining the common molecular basis for all of life on this planet, can still be so foully and stupidly misused.

Not all superstitions about cats that persist today are malevolent, of course; most of them are positive and harmless, if a bit silly. Upon reflection, it does seem strange for an animal whose evolutionary history is so steadfastly catlike-you have to go back many millions of years to find a cat ancestor that doesn’t look and act unmistakably like a cat-to be assigned so variegated an array of meanings. The human propensity to imagine the supernatural or the anthropocentric and pin it on perfectly innocent animals is astonishing. Snakes have, as noted, gotten an especially bad rap (aside from the fact that some are poisonous) for conning Eve, and other offenses. Most American Indian cultures believe the presence of an owl, and especially the hooting of an owl, presages a death. Who doesn’t-deep down-believe that the bluebird brings happiness? Dogs have both suffered and been esteemed in their symbolic essences. Horses come off pretty well in this regard: malevolent horses are rarely seen in human folklore or in the tribunals of people of faith.

Cats and dogs are considered either contemptible or splendid in a kaleidoscope of ways and for a host of reasons. The Church of Rome, for example, found dogs to be despicable because of their licentiousness but also heroic for their loyalty. The Church held cats in some contempt (not only were they licentious but they were noisy about it) until a papal successor to Pope Gregory IX began raising them. Then attitudes toward cats slowly changed to mostly positive. Today, in the United States, more cats are pets than dogs.

We have been talking about cats as seen in the mirror that many people carry around, imagining that their own reflections project some truth about the rest of nature. These are what Michael Sims, the scholar of the remarkable tales of archy and mehitabel, calls “symbolic delusions.” It seems to me that all such notions-complimentary ones as well as utterly insulting ones, none of which has been solicited by cats themselves-are, if anything useful at all, a version of a Rorschach test, those ink blot examinations that humans use to try to figure out other humans. But this is a book about real cats, so the rest of it will endeavor to tell the story of cats largely from their own point of view, as best we can perceive that.