Why Are Black Cats Symbols Of Halloween?
There are lots of things we do at halloween that on reflection can seem a little bit quirky. There’s the carving of ghoulish faces into vegetables, dressing up as creatures from our darkest nightmares, and the small question of… err… what exactly are we celebrating again? (Obviously I don’t let these questions hold me back from eating all of the halloween candy!).
But one of the most baffling things about halloween is the association with cats, and black cats in particular. How did our kitties get embroiled in this most spooky of holidays? Are they really up to no good, mixed up in the dark arts in some way? Or is it just a case of mistaken identity?
To find out, we first need to go back about 4000 years…
ANCIENT EGYPT: THE GOLDEN AGE OF CATS
The ancient Egyptians believed that all of nature was controlled by a collective of gods and goddesses, each with their own sphere of influence and particular job to do, like making sure the sun got across the sky each day.
On Earth, these gods and goddesses were represented by their very own animal forms such as hippos, crocodiles, lions, herons, and – you guessed it – cats. But because because cats were generally easier to keep around the house than the lions and crocodiles of the other gods, they exploded in popularity. And so did the gods and goddesses they were associated with.
Chief among them was Bastet, the warrior and fertility goddess, whose cult of cat-worshipping followers grew and whose festive day became the biggest, most raucous parade in the Ancient Egyptian calendar. In his eyewitness account of the festival, Herodotus noted: “more wine is drunk at that single festival than in al the rest of the year besides.” Cats and wine? It’s not hard to see why it was a hit!
This special association with the gods afforded cats a pretty special place in Egyptian society. They became revered in a similar way to cows in India today, kept as beloved pets in homes, and were considered powerful and protective beings. People would carry ‘magic knives’ made of ivory with cats engraved on them which were supposed to guard against accidents, illness, nightmares and poisonous snakes.
But cats were also considered a protected species, and causing the death of one – even if it was an accident – was a crime punishable by death. As a result, anyone who came across a dead cat would run immediately in terror from the scene, desperate to avoid being accused of its untimely demise.
It’s not hard to see how for outsiders, these powerful beings (who you could stumble upon in the wrong circumstances and end up condemned to death), might have seemed pretty unsettling. In about 50BC, a Roman soldier was actually foolish enough to kill a cat whilst stationed in Egypt. High-ranking Roman officials were sent to the king to beg for his life to be spared, but to no avail – the soldier in question ended up being lynched by an angry mob.
And so, the seeds of the ‘scary / bad luck / powerful’ cat were sown…
MEDIEVAL PERIOD: THE GIANT CAT DEVIL
In the centuries that followed, cats retained their association with the gods and goddesses, and were worshipped by the members of several fertility cults. But by the middle ages, their fortunes were about to change.
High ranking members of the medieval Church were on a mission to crack down on the pagan traditions that still persisted across Europe and beyond. Like modern politicians, they knew that all good spin starts with a grain of truth, so they based their campaign on the fact that the members of these groups seemed to really like cats…
…and they created a rumour that these groups were actually worshipping the Devil in the form of a giant, monstrous, black cat.
Of course, under pains of torture, those accused would often confirm these beliefs to be true. The torture angle also probably explains the increasingly fantastical stories that sprung up around this time, for instance that the members of these groups would have ceremonies in which they would kiss the giant cat-devil on the bottom – which frankly is so darkly funny it feels like something from an episode of Blackadder!
RENAISSANCE PERIOD: THE WITCH’S SIDEKICK
Perhaps because it was such a striking image, the vision of the giant devil cat stuck around. In the following centuries, as the general fear of pagans became replaced with a fervent paranoia about witches, the devil cat transmogrified into a flying devil cat, which would transport witches (and wizards, as in the picture above) to their gatherings. A sort of furry precursor to the good old broomstick, I guess!
And from there, the folklore around witches and cats pretty much spiralled out of control, with cats being accused of being witches in disguise, or witches’ assistants.
Their case wasn’t helped by a general sense of heeby-jeebies around cats’ eyes, which had been believed since Ancient Egyptian times to change shape with the phases of the moon and sun. Add to that their ghoulish glow at night (which people thought was created by their eyes storing light from the day) and you can see why – in a pre-electric age – cats at nighttime were considered demonic and spooky. Black cats, in particular, because all that could be seen of them were their eyes.
And that’s how we ended up with cats – and black cats in particular – as symbols at halloween.
Sadly, cats have had to put up with some pretty rubbish treatment because of all of this folklore. If you’re at all concerned you can check out this article (5 Tips to Keep Your Cats Safe At Halloween) about how to keep your cat safe at halloween.
Thankfully, though, I’m happy that on the whole we’ve gone back to the good old ancient Egyptian model of worshipping our kitties. I especially loved reading that in an ancient Egyptian family, when a pet cat died, the entire family would go into mourning as if a human member of the family had died, and shave their eyebrows as a mark of respect. Isn’t that touching?
I hope you have a wonderful halloween with your cats and enjoy all of the best of this fun holiday.
The main source for this post was: Domestication and history of the cat by James A. Serpell, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour (3rd edition), ed. D.C. Turner and P. Bateson. Published by Cambridge University Press. © Cambridge University Press 2014.