Who’s afraid of the black cat? The origins of superstition and its spread throughout the world

The idea that black cats bring bad luck when they cross our path dates back centuries between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age, when they were associated with witchcraft and sometimes considered incarnations of the witches themselves. Today superstitions are widespread throughout the Western world and some animal rights associations have promoted specific campaigns to fight them. Not all over the world, but the black cat is considered an ominous omen and in some countries it is thought even that it brings good luck.

The origins of the fear of black cats

Fear of black cats began to spread in middle Ages, when the fear of witchcraft increased, which between the 15th and 18th centuries gave rise to a real witch hunt. Black cats were considered animals in the service of witchesif not real witches who had taken on feline appearance thanks to their magical powers. The belief probably stemmed from the fact that black was a symbol of death and mourning.

A black cat (credits- DrL)

However, the theory, which circulates on numerous web pages and has even appeared in some newspapers, according to which in 1232 Pope Gregory IX ordered the extermination of black cats: there is no source attesting to the news (the pope mentioned the black cat in the bull Vox in Ramabut made no mention of extermination).

The spread of the black cat superstition

Fear of black cats developed in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries; it later reached the rest of Europe and, through European colonization, the other continents. Since then the superstition has spread to all Western cultures and in the nineteenth century its diffusion increased due to a horror story of Edgar Allan Poeproperly titled The black Catwhich told the story of a feline who had a murder discovered and the murderer sentenced to death.
Today black cats, being “scary” animals, are also frequently used in Halloween decorations.

Illustration of Poe's story

The meaning and symbolism of the black cat

Black cats were not always considered bad luck. In ancient Egypt they were considered divine animals and there even existed a goddess, Bastetdepicted with the female body and the face of a black feline.

Depiction of Bastet (credits- Gunawan Kartapranata)

In the last decades of the nineteenth century the black cat became one of the symbols ofanarcho-syndicalism, the sector of the anarchist movement committed to the defense of workers’ rights. The animal, according to the creator of the symbol Ralph Chaplin, represented the sabotage that the workers would carry out against the bosses who exploited them.

The black cat in an anarchist poster from 1915

Even today in some cultures, like that Japanese, black cats are considered auspicious animals. In the Anglo-Saxon world, however, the attitude is ambiguous: on some occasions, for example if they walk towards someone, black cats are considered a favorable omen; in other cases they are believed to bring bad luck.

Black cats today between fears and mass culture

Black cats are rather common pets and in some cases they are popular characters of comics and cartoons. Just think of Sylvester the Cat or Luna, the talking feline from Sailor Moon. Furthermore, children’s songs are popular in Italy I wanted a black catpresented at the Zecchino d’Oro in 1969.

Superstition, however, has not disappeared and causes various consequences on felines. According to some research, cats with black fur have fewer opportunities to be adopted from a family compared to their “companions” of other colors, due both to superstitions and to the fact that they are considered less photogenic (the data on this matter are, however, subject to discussion). What is certain is that in some countries animal rights associations have introduced special measures black cat days to fight superstitions: in the UK on 25 October, in the US on 17 August.

Of course superstition, like all beliefs of this type, it has no basis: a black cat brings neither luck nor bad luck, it is simply a feline with dark-colored fur!