The Legend of the Black Cat

Despite an unlucky history, black cats make lucky charms for those who adopt them.

By Polina Olsen | Posted: Aug. 5, 2009, 3 a.m. EDT

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Black cat
Witches on broomsticks, bats, and especially black cats announce Halloween’s coming each year. Animal shelters cringe with tales of cruel pranks and even satanic rites. Some halt black cat adoptions; all say keep animals inside.

But legends about black cats vary by country. They bring love to British lasses and help German witches cast spells. And whether considered by the culture to be devil or angel, black cat stories stretch from antiquity to modern times.

Early stories may account for modern superstition. Some say Freya, the Norse love goddess, rewarded the two black cats who pulled her chariot by turning them into witches. In Greek mythology, Galenthias turns into a cat and becomes priestess to Hecate, goddess of the underworld.

By the Middle Ages, people believed the devil transformed into a black cat. As witches' animal helpers, or “familiars,” black cats enhanced magical rites. Thousands of cats died when, in 1233, Pope Gregory IX warned that the devil meets worshippers disguised as a black cat.

In Northern India, a chordewa is a witch who changes her soul into a black cat. When she visits the sick and licks their lips, they die. Even in Algonquin Indian legends in America, Pook-jin-skwess, a black cat witch, transforms into humans.
The Salem witchcraft trials included black cats. Mary Lacey saw one suck the body of Goody Carrier after she  hanged. When, in 1867, a Pennsylvania woman gave three drops of cat’s blood to a child with the croup, authorities accused her, too, of witchcraft.

But on the other hand, in ancient Egypt the cat goddess Bast favored black cats. The British, too, believe black cats bring good luck. Kept in a Yorkshire fisherman’s home, they are believed to ensure safe return from sea. If black cats wander aboard ship, good fortune comes with them. If chased away, good fortune leaves, the legend goes.

British proverbs show the black cat’s importance in love and health:

Black cat cross my path;
Good fortune bring to home and hearth;
When I am away from home;
Bring me luck wherever I roam.

It is considered good luck if a British bride sees a black cat on the way to the wedding. In Cornwall, passing a black cat's tail over the eyes cures soreness. In Wales, they are believed to prevent sickness:

A black cat, I’ve heard it said;
Can charm all ill away;
And keep the house wherein she dwells;
From fever’s deadly sway.

Black kitten
While today we don’t turn to black cats to provide healing for sore eyes or a safe landing, their magic brightens all who cross their path. Animal-behavior expert Temple Grandin discusses the charms of black cats in her book "Animals Make Us Human."

“A handful of studies show a relationship between fur color and behavior,” she writes. “Black cats are more social overall, whether it’s with other cats or humans.” Their laid-back manner makes them particularly good pets. 

If you’re adopting from a shelter, Grandin advises, look for a black cat.

Polina Olsen is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Ore. with her husband, Andy, her Tonkinese, Baba Ganoush, and her Somali, Koshka.

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Reader Comments

Keith    Los Angeles, CA

11/3/2015 3:29:02 AM

A few years ago, I took in a black stray. When I first encountered him on the street while walking my Basset hound, I assumed he belonged to a neighbor because he was so friendly. I remember him popping out of some bushes and came right up to us and started rubbing on my legs and against my dog. He even was friendly to my white male cat, who loved to go for walks with his big brother. Eventually, I learned that he was a stray (and intact, surprisingly, considering how friendly he was) and ended up bringing into my home. I originally intended to just get him fixed and find him a home as I already had a few cats of my own, but he ended up bonding with me and now, over three years later, Binx is still the friendliest and most social member of the entire gang and loves nothing more than to lay with me, either on my chest or nestled under my arm.

Trish    Southport, NC

10/31/2015 12:54:40 PM

I have a black female cat, she is very loving. She sits on our laps and sleeps with us. All my cats have been black. When I adopt a black I am always thanked by the shelter. They say most people don't want to adopt them.

Timothy    wellsville, OH

10/31/2015 7:42:57 AM

My female black cat is my only companion and she keeps me sane, although my neighbors think I am insane because I talk to her like a person and even ash her questions. When I whistle outside she always comes running and sleeps with me most of the time at night.

Carol    South Bend, IN

10/29/2015 1:39:03 PM

Enjoyed. I have a short haired and a long haired black cat. I love them.

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