By Dr. Beth Leermakers
Every year, my neighbors display an enormous, inflatable black cat for Halloween. My dogs are terrified of that colossal cat, especially when it turns its head and glares at them. Spooky! Black cats are the most popular Halloween costume among elementary-aged children and college freshmen women.
Black cats are certainly a ubiquitous symbol of witchcraft. One of the first episodes of Netflix’ “The Worst Witch” (one of my guilty pleasures) features the pairing of the young student witches with their magical black cats. Mildred Hubble, who isn’t from a “witching family” and doesn’t believe she really belongs at Miss Cackle’s Academy, is the only girl to receive a tabby cat instead of a black one.
Why are black cats associated with Halloween and witchcraft? The ancient Egyptians held cats in high esteem and worshipped a cat goddess, represented as half woman, half feline. Starting in the Middle Ages, however, black cats became linked to witchcraft and evil. Because being one with nature is an important component of witchcraft, witches often had cats as companions. Since they are nocturnal creatures that roam the night, cats were considered supernatural servants to witches. The Celts believed that cats were actually people who were forced to return to this world after committing bad deeds.
Despite their bad reputation, black cats are considered by some cultures to be lucky. Here are a few fun, positive beliefs and facts:
Black cats can bring good luck. In Scotland, people believe that a black cat showing up on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity. In England and Ireland, it’s considered good luck when a black cat crosses your path.
Throughout history, cats have often sailed the high seas, controlling the shipboard mice population. British sailors believed that black cats brought good luck and promised a safe trip home. For pirates, a black cat could bring you bad luck (if she walked toward you) or good luck (if she walked away from you). If a cat boarded the ship and then jumped off, the ship was going to sink.
Black cats may help your love life. In some cultures, people believe that black cats can actually improve your love life. In Japan, single women who have a black cat are believed to attract more potential mates. In parts of Great Britain, a black cat is a desirable wedding gift because it bestows happiness and good luck on the blushing bride.
Black cats can resist disease. National Institutes of Health researchers have found that the genetic mutations that cause cats to have black coats may protect them from some diseases. Those mutations affect the same genes that protect people from HIV. Because cats suffer from many of the same diseases we do — including cancer, HIV and Alzheimer’s — researchers study cats to learn more about human diseases. By determining how cats have evolved to resist diseases, scientists may discover how to prevent those same diseases in people.
They can change color. When black cats have a tabby stripe gene and spend their days lounging in the sun, their fur can turn a rusty brown color. The sun’s rays break down the pigment in their fur to reveal the underlying tabby stripes. Perhaps Mildred Hubble’s cat is really a black cat with a penchant for sunbathing.