On the Prowl

Cat memes, photos and videos make up some of the most viewed content online today, which might make it hard to imagine black cats in particular were once viewed as the ultimate symbol of Halloween and superstition.

If you’re wondering how a sweet, furry kitty could be considered a devil in disguise, well… it’s been a very long evolution.

Some sources say it all began during the Black Plague, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, that spread across Europe between 1346 and 1353. At the time, there was no knowledge about the causes of plague. As a result, there were countless superstitions about it. Some Europeans blamed various groups, while others blamed animals, including cats. That may be the first association between the color black and cats being the cause of evil.

Long before the Black Plague, cats were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. They associated cats with the moon and Bast, the goddess of marriage.

Bast was associated with Artemis (Roman name Diana), the name that became widely known in the Middle Ages as Queen of Witches. The cat was identified with witchcraft in that they are considered favored animal companions of witches, sorcerers and fortune tellers; and with Goddess worship, which accounts for its frequent appearance as an emblem of Halloween.

Cats were “familiars,” meaning they were considered to be demons and performed the witches’ tasks of sorcery against their neighbors. A familiar, in Western demonology, is a small animal kept as a witch’s attendant, given to her by the devil or inherited from another witch.

During the European witchcraft trials of the 15th through 17th centuries, a suspected witch was searched for the ways by which she fed her familiar, and these, like the devil’s brand marks, were considered sure signs of her guilt. Cats that were a witch’s familiar usually were killed by being burned alive.

Though the black cat is associated with witchcraft, it is nevertheless considered good luck to own one in parts of Europe, England and the United States.

Cats are fertility charms — a cat buried in a field will ensure a bountiful crop. Cats also have many healing properties. A broth made from a black cat is said to cure consumption. In the 17th century, a whole cat boiled in oil was held to be good for dressing wounds. Illnesses could be transferred to cats, too, that were then driven from homes.

Cats’ eyes are supposed to be able to see ghosts. In Wicca, the cat is a favored companion or familiar, valued for its psychic sensitivity and assistance in magic and ritual.

But having one’s path crossed by a black cat is always bad luck. Superstitious belief in the cat’s magic powers has survived into the present day. Some people even go so far as to turn and retreat if they see a black cat crossing their path.

“I have always found cats to be particularly gifted at recognizing spirit energy and shifts of energy,” said Leona Carney of Alstead, a practicing witch who assists people in finding alignment and healing. “I once had a cat, named Athena of course, who would accompany me during my rituals. She was a comfort and a wonderful companion. And yes, she was black. The whole correlation between the color black and evil is amusing, considering that in my practice, black is the color of protection.”

Carney isn’t a fan of labels, but considered Athena to be her familiar that would “attend” her during rituals.

“She was a rescued cat who was very loving and devoted,” Carney said. “She certainly was not a demon in disguise.”