Among superstitions, one of the oldest and most enduring is that crossing paths with a black cat will bring on bad luck. The dark-colored felines have also been folded into modern Halloween symbols, giving them the (unearned) reputation of being spooky.
But how and where did the association between black cats and bad luck begin? Here’s what is known about the connection between Halloween and black cats, including the lasting impact of this superstition that remains today.
Origins of Black Cat Superstitions
The connections between humans and cats can be traced back to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, most notably, ancient Egypt, where cats were considered divine symbols. Cats also made an appearance in Greek mythology, specifically Hecate, goddess of magic, sorcery, the moon and witchcraft, was described as having a cat as both a pet and a familiar (a supernatural creature that assists a witch, according to European folklore).
Written records link black cats to the occult as far back as the 13th century when an official church document called “Vox in Rama” was issued by Pope Gregory IX on June 13, 1233. “In it, black cats were declared an incarnation of Satan,” says Layla Morgan Wilde, author of Black Cats Tell: True Tales And Inspiring Images. “The decree marked the beginning of the inquisition and church-sanctioned heretic and/or witch hunts. Initially it was designed to squash the growing cult of Luciferians in Germany, but quickly spread across Europe.”
Cats and Witches Seen as Threats to Early Christian Church
In addition to their early association with Satan, cats also became inextricably linked to witches in medieval Europe. According to Cerridwen Fallingstar, Wiccan priestess and author of Broth from the Cauldron: A Wisdom Journey through Everyday Magic, witches were the pre-Christian pagan practitioners of Europe.
Although the early Christian church in Europe coexisted with witches, as the church gained power, she says that they saw witches as their direct competition in gaining the hearts and minds of the people. That’s when the church began hunting, persecuting, torturing and killing witches in vast numbers, she explains.
“Witches honored the natural world, having deep respect for plants and animals,” says Fallingstar. “Affection between human and animal therefore began to be seen as ‘diabolical’, or devilish, and the old lady with her cats became seen as suspect.”
But it wasn’t only the connection they fabricated between witches, cats, and the devil that the early Christians feared: they also saw them both as threats. “Cats, like the women accused of witchcraft, tend to exhibit a healthy disrespect of authority,” she notes. “They don’t fawn, like dogs, upon even the unworthy. In the church, neither independent women, nor independent animals, were to be tolerated.”
At some point, the pairing of witches with cats narrowed to black cats, although Fallingstar says that it’s not entirely clear why that happened. “The relationship between witches and black cats in particular is probably imaginary, but it is possible that black cats make better mousers, since they cannot be seen at night and therefore have a hunting advantage,” she explains. “Witches do tend towards the practical.”
Eventually, the fear surrounding black cats and their association with witchcraft made its way across the Atlantic, courtesy of Puritan colonists, says Daniel Compora, associate professor of English language and literature at The University of Toledo. “The idea that witches could turn into their familiar likely evolved from those accused of witchcraft having cats as pets,” he explains.
Cats Blamed for Spreading the Plague
During the Middle Ages, it wasn’t uncommon for cats to be killed, given their association with evil, Compora says. Some people even went as far as blaming cats for spreading the Bubonic plague, and used that as another reason to get rid of them. However, their ill-conceived plan backfired.
“In a particularly bizarre piece of irony, the killing of the cats helped fuel the spread of the plague,” Compora explains. “With the reduced number of cats to control the rodent population, the disease spread rapidly.”
Origins of Black Cat Crossing Your Path Superstition
Given the belief in medieval Europe that the devil and witches were capable of taking the form of black cats, it makes sense that the superstition surrounding crossing their paths developed, says Phoebe Millerwhite, a folklorist and artist. “Therefore, a black cat crossing your path might very well be on a mission from a witch,” she notes. “Just as easily, it could be the devil in disguise—and no one wants to cross paths with the devil. This explains why a black cat crossing your path is considered a bad omen.”
This notion continued into the Renaissance, says Fallingstar, when a black cat crossing your path might have indicated that a witch had sent her familiar to do you harm. “Many fearful peasants of the day might have hurried to the nearest church and paid for a priest to bless them and rid them of any curse that might have been laid by the cat,” she says. “As this was a source of income for the church, such fears would have likely been encouraged.”
But the idea that black cats are bad luck isn’t universal, according to Compora. In fact, some cultures believe that black cats bring good luck.
“Their resemblance to the cat-goddess Bastet led them to be honored in ancient Egypt,” he explains. “In other countries, such as Scotland and Japan, they have been known to represent prosperity. Apparently, whether a black cat is viewed as a benevolent creature or an evil supernatural force is entirely based on whichever lore one is likely to embrace.”