Cats are enigmatic animals and there is a touch of magic about them. For people in the past, the magic was real, and the traits and behaviors that amuse and puzzle the owners of today’s indulged pets were once seen as unearthly, often malign.
Myths and superstitions about cats, with countless variations, have had a wide currency and a long life, some lingering into modern times. Few countries do not have a tradition of an unlucky (or lucky) black cat.
Prowlers of the night—appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye—cats were long believed to be supernatural creatures that walked with ghosts and evil spirits. The association of cats, particularly black ones, with the forces of darkness was widespread throughout medieval times and lasted into the 18th century.
Many a harmless old woman who kept a cat for company was suspected of being a witch; it was believed that every witch had a “familiar”—a demon servant in the form of a small animal, perhaps a toad or a hare, or an owl, but often a cat.
Even more alarming, an animal could be a shape-shifting witch in disguise, so it was prudent to guard your tongue in the presence of a strange cat. In Europe, millions of cats suffered the same hideous fate as anyone accused of witchcraft, being subjected to trial by torture and burned alive if found guilty.
Lucky for Some
Superstitions about black—or in some cultures, white—cats as omens of either good or ill fortune are surprisingly persistent throughout much of the world. The beliefs are often contradictory, varying from one country or region to another, and can involve complicated conventions.
For example, just the way a person encounters a black cat can matter: whether it crosses someone’s path from right to left, or vice versa, may make all the difference between a good day and a bad one. And while being approached by the cat brings luck, fortune takes a turn for the worse if the cat talks off in the opposite direction.
For the superstitious, in some parts of Europe and in the United States black cats are unlucky. Many US rescue centers find it difficult to find them homes. In Britain, black cats are considered lucky, much in favor as a subject for wedding-day keepsakes such as beribboned charms or whimsical ornaments.
Japan is another country where black cats signify good luck, although here they take second place to the much-loved, multicolored icon Maneki Neko—the “beckoning” cat. Ceramic figurines of this cat, with its doll-like face and raised paw, fill souvenir shops and are commonly placed in doorways to welcome visitors.
According to legend, the original Maneki Neko was a temple cat that invited a passing feudal lord to come in and take shelter, thereby saving him from being caught in a violent storm.
Remarkable Magic Powers
There are numerous myths linking cats with the weather. It is said that a cat will raise a storm by clawing at the furniture, and can predict rain by sneezing or washing behind his ears. Some of these tales may have originated with sailors, who not only need to keep a constant eye on the weather but also have a long-held reputation for being highly superstitious.
Traditionally, seafarers kept a cat on board the ship for protection against the elements. Japanese mariners thought tortoiseshell cats worked best for giving advance warning of storms.
A cat shipmate could also turn into a liability unless treated with care. It was the custom never to speak the animal’s name, otherwise trouble was guaranteed. If the worst happened and the cat fell overboard, nothing short of gales and sinking could be expected to follow.
The popular saying that cats have nine lives has endured since at least the 16th century. In 1595, William Shakespeare certainly thought it familiar enough to use as one of Mercutio’s quips in Romeo and Juliet, and at that time the notion was given some credence.
Because of their quick reflexes and agility, twisting in midair to right themselves after a fall, cats do seem to have a remarkable ability to get themselves out of trouble. To earlier generations, this may well have seemed proof of unnatural powers that enabled a cat to begin a new life after a fatal accident.
Although for much of their domestic history cats have had an image problem, they have occasionally been regarded as protective spirits. This has not necessarily been to their advantage.
Across Europe, mummified bodies of cats have been found inside the fabric of old buildings, where they were walled up in the belief that this would deter rats; and in both Europe and Southeast Asia, cats were buried in fields to ensure good crops.
Less gruesomely, silkworm farmers in China once used cats, or magical pictures of cats, as guardians of the developing silk cocoons. In rice-growing areas, an old tradition was to carry a cat around in a basket for each household to sprinkle with water to encourage the rains.