Along with the witch in flight and grinning and jack-o-lantern, the black cat in full arched-back fright mode is among THE iconic symbols of Halloween. Even to this day, who doesn’t feel a little charge when a black cat streaks across one’s path, especially on Halloween? Cats have been variously worshiped or reviled throughout human history, but they have almost always been seen as magical and otherworldly.
Contrary to popular opinion, cats were domesticated in Mesopotamia even earlier than in Egypt, at least 14,000 years ago, and wild cats lived among humans as long ago as 100,000 years. So cats have been weaving their dual spell of mystery and practicality for as long as there have been modern humans.
The Egyptians domesticated cats to keep their storehouses free of rodents at least 4,000 years ago, but they also worshiped a cat-headed goddess named Bastet (or “Pasht”) and fashioned statues, jewelry, and household items in her feline honor. As extensions of the beloved Bastet, cats were so revered in ancient Egypt that it was illegal to export them, and killing a cat was punishable by death. When a family cat died, householders shaved off their eyebrows as an expression of deep mourning.
In Greek mythology, Hecate was the goddess of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, crossroads — certainly fitting for Halloween — and her priestess was a woman who had been transformed into a cat. (Interesting piece of trivia: the Roman equivalent of Hecate was called Trivia.) The cat was also sacred to Freya, Norse goddess of beauty, love, marriage, and the dead. When Freya came to claim the dead for her own, she charged through the firmament in a chariot drawn by cats.
Then it gets real Halloweeny. The Celts and their priest class, the Druids, believed cats were transformed evil humans. At the Samhain bonfires of November 1, cats were often tossed into the flames. Ultimately, what made cats great hunters and cullers of the rodent population — stealth, speed, freakish agility, being nocturnal and coolly independent — also brought suspicion upon them.
Then came the association with witches. Cats became seen as the ultimate witches’ familiar, lurking about gathering intel, magnifying the witches’ powers, even lending a bone or two to potions and spells. Cats came to be further demonized when the Church began co-opting or vilifying pagan customs and symbols in their ongoing conversion efforts throughout medieval Europe. Witches were a threat to the power of the Church, so the Church said that the witches’ power came from Satan. Samhain got co-opted into All Saints Day, cats were simply killed in huge numbers. 12th century pope Gregory IX declared the cat to be a “Diabolical Creature.” In Ypres, Belgium, a parade is still held in May to commemorate a tradition from the Middle Ages where cats were thrown from the belfry tower of the Cloth Hall to the town square below. Cats were burned by the dozens in France, burning cats were chased down the street for sport – people thought it was hilarious to torture the stealthy little Satanic creeps.
Many have argued that the death of so many cats allowed the rodent populations to thrive, and that the fleas these vermin carried brought about the Bubonic Plague of 1348. There seems little doubt that a decrease in the cat population would result in an increase in the number of mice and rats, and there was such a decrease in the number of cats prior to 1348. Desmond Morris writes, “Because the cat was seen as evil, all kinds of frightening powers were attributed to it by the writers of the day. Its teeth were said to be venomous, its flesh poisonous, its hair lethal (causing suffocation if a few were accidentally swallowed), and its breath infectious, destroying human lungs and causing consumption,” and further states, “As late as 1658 Edward Topsel, in his serious work on natural history, [wrote] `the familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats, which is an argument that this beast is dangerous to soul and body.”
In this environment, a fondness for cats became suspicious in and of itself. Elderly women who cared for cats were especially susceptible to punishment for witchcraft on those grounds. Finally, why black cats? No one knows, exactly, other than the obvious that black is the color of night and mystery. But one theory holds that since cats are nocturnal, they tend to be seen at night. And at night, especially from a distance, all cats look black. Regardless, the black cat embodies all the mystery, otherworldliness, and deep cultural history of Halloween.
More Halloween Reading:
by Edna Barth [HMH Books for Young Readers]