by Soojin Um
Black cats. The very name conjures up scary omens of ill fortune and superstition. They are accused of everything from stealing souls to the embodiment of witchcraft. It’s unfortunate because these cats are, well, just cats. They are born with a gene that suppresses tabby patterns, resulting in a solid color, and it’s just genetic happenstance that sometimes the solid color is black. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop people from fearing them. However, not all people feared black cats. In fact, some cultures see them as bringers of good luck. How can opinions differ so drastically? It seems for cats, as in Hollywood, it’s all about who you know.
The stigma goes back all the way to the Middle Ages. During that time, people were gripped with the fear of the devil. Because of the nocturnal nature of cats, they were seen as unsavory and mysterious. What kind of creatures come out at night? Those in league with the devil, that’s who. If they’re black cats? Even worse! It didn’t take long to be associated with witches and witchcraft. Cats were killed outright, and anyone who associated with cats were tried and often put to death. This belief even crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies, brought over by the Puritans. Those pesky Puritans. No wonder England kicked them out. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, they weren’t persecuted because of their dislike of cats, but maybe that should’ve been the reason. Speaking of England…
The British Isles traditionally have been in a bit of a quandary over black cats. Scotland and Ireland have a legend of the Cat Sith. George Lucas should be sued by both countries. Anyway, the cat sith was supposed to be a creature that could steal the soul of a person before God (or “the gods”) could claim it. So a watch was typically placed to keep black cats away from the body before it could be buried. The watch would be kept day and night, which was called the Late Wake, or simply Wake. Today, a wake is typically a prayer vigil by family and friends for the deceased, a ceremony before the actual funeral. The original purpose of the wake, however, was a little more sinister.
So that was Scotland and Ireland. What about England? Interestingly enough, black cats have enjoyed a reputation of good luck in England. It is not clear as to why, but black cats are seen as bearers of good fortune. It may have started from sailors who often had cats on board ships to fend off rats from the food stores. That even led to black cats being kept by wives of sailors to ensure a safe journey of their husbands. Black cats aren’t just loved in England. Japan has had a long history of black cats and good fortune. People in southern France used to believe (and some still do) that black cats can lead them to treasure. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Black cats are enjoying a level of respect and love that should have been given to them centuries ago. People have finally learned (for the most part) that a cat’s color has no bearing on whether they are good or evil, and lucky or unlucky. While today’s attitudes may have changed for the better, and certain cultures have always seen them favorably, there is probably no doubt that these cats would just prefer to be treated like just another cat.
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