How Black Cats Became a Part of Halloween
A Part of Modern Halloween Tradition
Like other holidays, Halloween has symbols associated with it. These symbols help to shape our view of the holiday. When we think of Halloween we think of the colors black and orange. Images of carved pumpkins or Jack-O-Lanterns, bats, witches, black cats and other scary creatures come to mind. But how did these symbols come to be a part of Halloween?
Today, black cats are as much a part of the Halloween tradition as pumpkins and witches. However, black cats have not always been associated with Halloween. In fact, from ancient times to almost the present black cats don't seem to have been connected with Halloween and the their association with Halloween appears to be a relatively recent and mostly American contribution.
Do you believe that a black cat crossing in front of you will bring bad luck?
Victims of Circumstance
Cats are nocturnal animals and this preference for prowling at night certainly doesn't hurt their chances of becoming a fixture for a nighttime holiday. In addition, being all black enables black cats to blend in with the darkness leaving only the eerie glow of their eyes visible - another plus for the inclusion of black cats as icons for a scary, night time holiday.
From very ancient times to the present, cats have been kept by humans as pets. But, unlike dogs, which have long had the reputation of being man's best friend, individuals and cultures have tended to either love or hate cats.
Cats' habit of sneaking around and silently stalking their prey has caused many people to dislike or be suspicious of cats.
These factors have led some people and cultures to associate black cats to associate black cats with bad luck or even a sign of an evil presence.
Scary Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns
King Charles I and His Black Cat
While Americans have a superstition about bad luck resulting from a black cat crossing one's path, other cultures have looked upon black cats as bringing good luck.
There is the story about King Charles I (1600-1649) of England and his black cat which he adored.
When the King's cat suddenly became ill and died his good luck seemed to die with it as King Charles himself attested.
Given the King's political blunders, inept rule and numerous enemies it is probably safe to say that his luck would have run out whether or not the cat had lived or died, but the coincidence of the cat's death and his arrest (and subsequent beheading) were sufficient for King Charles, and others, to attribute his misfortune to the loss of the cat which had seemed to have previously brought him good luck.
While this is not the reason for black cats becoming a spooky Halloween symbol, the king's misfortunes following the death of his cat did help to reinforce the idea among some people that black cats and misfortune were related.
Black Cats' Linked to Witchcraft and Sorcery
The color black itself, in most Western cultures, has many negative connotations.
Many people are scared of the dark, black is associated with death and funerals, a negative action is a black mark on one's reputation, black arts are a synonym for sorcery, etc.
In addition to their color, black cats also suffer from their supposed association with witches.
In times past some elements in the Christian Church associated the ancient Celtic and other pagan religious practices with evil and devil worship. Witchcraft fell into this category and periodically the Church would persecute those suspected of witchcraft. Some myths held that witches could take the form of black cats while others held that black cats assisted witches.
Polishing The Cat's Image
Myths Linking Black Cats to Ancient Celtic Festival of Samhain
While the fall festival of Samhain, which was celebrated by the ancient Celts of Ireland and is the ancestor of our present day Halloween, did not involve sorcery or devil worship, many have come to associate it with these things.
Samhain did involve a belief that this date, which marked the changing of the season from summer to fall, was a time when the natural barrier between our world and the spirit world was temporarily lifted allowing spirits of the dead to return.
Once back in the world it was feared that the spirits of the dead would enter the bodies of people and animals and, for some reason, a myth came about which claimed that returning spirits were attracted to black cats.
Black Cats Assumed to e Evil Simply Because of Their Color
Given these and other facts concerning black cats it is easy to see how they came to be associated with Halloween.
However, down through the centuries, these connections were scattered and not widely held until they were brought to America.
Like Halloween itself, which didn't develop into a major holiday until after it came to America, neither did the connection between black cats and witches really develop until the Puritans came to America.
While deeply religious, the Puritans who settled in the New England colonies saw the devil and evil everywhere.
Because of their association with witches, black cats were also looked upon as evil and as agents of the devil. This evil connection, in the minds of the Puritans, between black cats and witches led to black cats not being tolerated, let alone kept, in the colony.
Unlike the poor women who were wrongly accused of witchcraft in seventeenth century Salem, Massachusetts and neighboring colonies, who were at least given a trial before being executed, the poor black cats didn't even rate a trial.
Legacy of the Puritans
While the Puritans were but one of many groups who settled this nation, their imprint on American culture has been significant.
Included in the puritanism that rubbed off on the culture was their suspicion of black cats. Despite the numerous cat lovers and owners (including owners of black cats) in this nation, there is still a strong link in many people's minds between black cats and witches.
It is not that people believe in evil witches roaming the countryside any more but when they hear the word witch the image that comes to most people's minds is still that of an ugly crone dressed in black and accompanied by a sinister looking black cat.
Modern Marketers Have Solidified Link Between Black Cats and Witches
However, while the Puritans may have been responsible for making the link between black cats and witches, it was the rise of Halloween as a holiday that shoved the idea of witches and black cats into the forefront of every one's mind.
Halloween is a holiday built in part around the ancient idea of a night when the barriers between our world and the spirit world are lifted allowing spirits to return and roam freely. In the past the idea of invisible spirits roaming the world may have instilled sufficient magic into the night for our more superstitious rural ancestors. But today's more sophisticated urban dwellers need something more concrete and marketers have obliged by pulling in evil and scary physical characters from our past.
Witches, goblins, skeletons, misty ghosts and, of course, scary black cats. Just as kindly old Saint Nicholas morphed from a bishop giving little gifts to good children on his feast day into a fat, jolly Santa Claus dressed in red and flying around the world dispensing toys from his huge sack to children on Christmas, so too, have black cats gone from being creatures who have occasionally been linked with witches in myths of the past to major players in our modern Halloween traditions.
© 2007 Chuck Nugent