One of the oldest and most enduring superstitions is that crossing paths with a black cat will bring bad luck. The dark-colored felines have also been included into traditional Halloween symbols, giving them the (undeserved) spooky reputation.
But how did the connection between black cats and bad luck originate, and where did it come from? Here’s what we know about the association between Halloween and black cats, as well as the long-term impact of this superstition.
Human-cat relationships may be traced all the way back to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, including ancient Egypt, where cats were idolized as divine symbols. Cats were also referenced in Greek mythology, with Hecate, the goddess of magic, sorcery, the moon, and witchcraft, possessing a cat as both a pet and a familiar (a supernatural creature that assists a witch, according to European folklore).
Black cats have been linked to the occult since the 13th century, when Pope Gregory IX released an official church document called “Vox in Rama” on June 13, 1233. According to Layla Morgan Wilde, author of Black Cats Tell: True Tales And Inspiring Images, “in it, black cats were proclaimed an incarnation of Satan.” “The inquisition and church-sanctioned heretic and/or witch hunts came up with this decision. It was originally intended to suppress the developing Luciferian cult in Germany, but it immediately expanded across Europe.”
Cats became closely tied to witches in medieval Europe, in addition to their early association with Satan. Witches were Europe’s pre-Christian pagan practitioners, according to Cerridwen Fallingstar, Wiccan priestess and author of Broth from the Cauldron: A Wisdom Journey through Everyday Magic.
Although the early Christian church in Europe coexisted with witches, she claims that as the church gained strength, witches became a direct competitor in capturing people’s hearts and minds. She adds that that’s when the church began pursuing, persecuting, torturing and punishing witches in huge numbers.
“Witches had a strong regard for plants and animals, and they valued the natural world,” adds Fallingstar. “Connection between humans and animals started to be seen as ‘diabolical,’ or demonic, and the old woman with her cats was suspected.”
The early Christians dreaded witches, cats, and the devil for more than just the connection they imagined between them: they also considered them as a danger. “Cats, like females accused of witchcraft, have a healthy disdain for authority,” she observes. “They don’t fawn, like dogs, upon even the unworthy”. Independent ladies and independent animals were not accepted in the church.”
Origins of Black Cat Crossing Your Path Superstition
Given medieval Europe’s belief that the devil and witches might take the image of black cats, it’s not surprising that superstition developed around crossing their paths, says Phoebe Millerwhite, a folklorist and artist. “A black cat crossing your path, however, may very well be on a witch’s mission,” she adds. “It might as easily be the devil in disguise—and no one wants to interact with the devil.” This helps to explain why a black cat crossing your path is considered to be a bad omen.”
According to Fallingstar, this belief continued throughout the Renaissance, when a black cat crossing your path would mean that a witch had sent her familiar to harm you. “Many terrified peasants of the time could have rushed to the local church and paid for a priest to bless them and cleanse them of any curse that the cat might have lain,” she claims. “Such anxieties would have likely been promoted because this was a source of cash for the church.”
According to Compora, though, the belief that black cats bring ill luck isn’t general. In fact, black cats are said to bring good luck in several civilizations.
“They were adored in ancient Egypt because of their similarity to the cat-goddess Bastet,” he explains. “They have historically been associated with success in other countries, such as Scotland and Japan. Whether a black cat is considered as a good creature or an evil supernatural entity appears to be totally dependent on whatever lore one prefers.”