As we draw closer to Halloween, more and more decorations appear, like toadstools after a rain. Often, these decorations incorporate witches and with witches come black cats. But why? And why, in America, are black cats considered unlucky? In this week’s Friday Folklore, we’ll take a closer look at this Halloween motif.
In ancient Ireland and Scotland, the Celts told stories about Cait Sidhe (also spelled Cat Sidhe or Cait Sith), which translates to “fairy cat”. The Cait Sidhe was supposedly as large as a dog and all black with a patch of white on its chest.
This description does bear some resemblance to the wild cats that still live in the Scottish Highlands, which may be the source of this legend1. It’s also roughly the description of my black kitty, Iggy! side eyes him
The Cait Sidhe was often seen as a malevolent creature. It was believed that it had the ability to steal the soul from the recently deceased, which gave rise to the custom of people keeping watch over a corpse until burial. During this watch, called a Late Wake, games were played or catnip left in other rooms as distractions. They also told riddles but did not answer them, because Cait Sidhe would stop to puzzle over them. Or, they would play music because Cait Sidhe would be compelled to dance2.
In some stories, the Cait Sidhe are actually witches who can take the form of a cat. But they can do so only nine times. After the ninth time, they must remain a cat forever.
In the MacGillivray Clan, there is a story of an ancestress named Anne who turned into a cat to frighten away Norse invaders and so protect her husband. But it was the ninth time she made the change, so could not change back. The gods, though, took pity on her and allowed her to return to her husband in human form during certain times of the year. In fact, the motto for this clan is “Touch not this cat”3.
During Samhain, the Celtic holiday that eventually became Halloween, a saucer of milk was left out. Cait Sidhe, upon visiting, would bless the home for leaving the treat. If the home did not leave a saucer for Cait Sidhe, the fairy cat would curse the household4.
Medieval Demon Cat
In Medieval Europe, cats became symbols of heresy and the devil because of its wild and willful nature5. Cats, in fact, were only tolerated because of their ability to catch mice.
Older women sometimes kept cats as companions. If these women were condemned for witchcraft, then their pets were believed to be familiars6 in animal form, acting as guides, guardians, and teachers. Therefore, they were burned alive with the accused7. During Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation, cats were burned alive as part of the celebrations.
Quite naturally, when people came to colonize the New World, they brought with them their stories and beliefs regarding cats.
In the US, particularly in the South, black cats are still taken for omens of bad luck.
However, in the UK, where a lot of this cat-burning-business started, a black cat crossing your path is now a sign of good fortune. And in Scotland, a strange black cat appearing on your front porch can bring prosperity. In some places, black cats are given as gifts to new brides8.
But back to the good ol’ USA.
It’s been a belief for a long time among shelters and humane societies that black cats take longer to adopt out. However, recent studies have suggested this isn’t the case9.
Whether it is or isn’t, some shelters note an upsurge of interest in black cats during October, with many being returned after Halloween. It’s possible that the cats were only used as part of the Halloween decorations10.
But this behavior isn’t the cause for concern among shelters. Some believe that black cats being adopted during this time of the year are destined for a Satanic ritual or for some form of abuse.
This belief is so strong that, despite a lack of the statistics to back it up, some shelters will not allow black cats to be adopted during the month of October11.
Pet Safety during Halloween
But even if you don’t think your black cat is going to be kidnapped by the weirdo down the street, or if your cat isn’t black, it’s still a good idea to watch over your pet at Halloween.
An increase of people and traffic around your home can spook a cat and cause him to run out of a constantly opening door or be accidentally hit by a car. There’s also a chance that a cat could get curious about candy and consume something toxic. And you really might have a creep hanging around, looking to steal your feline companion12.
My little Iggy isn’t allowed out of doors because he’s too young to be allowed to wander. However, we’re taking special care as we draw closer to All Hallow’s Eve.
1″Cait Sith & Cu Sith”, Myserious Britain & Ireland, http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/scotland/folklore/the-cait-sith-the-cu-sith.html
2″The Cait Sidhe”, Deborah MacGillivray, http://deborahmacgillivray.co.uk/scotlore_caitsidhe.htm
4″Cat Sidhe”, Living Liminally, http://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2012/10/cat-sidhe.html
5″Why Cats are Hated in Medieval Europe”, Medievalists.net, http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/02/why-cats-were-hated-in-medieval-europe/
6″The Familiar Spirit: Companion to Witches”, Carolyn Emerick, http://carolynemerick.hubpages.com/hub/witchesfamiliar
7″The History of Human-Animal Interaction-The Medieval Period”, Library Index, http://www.libraryindex.com/pages/2149/History-Human-Animal-Interaction-MEDIEVAL-PERIOD.html
8″Black Cats Folklore-Witches and Beliefs about Black Cats”, Franny Syufy, http://cats.about.com/od/catloreurbanlegends/a/blackcatlore.htm
9″Pet Talk: Black cat syndrome may be more myth than reality”, Monique Balas, http://www.oregonlive.com/pets/index.ssf/2013/10/pet_talk_black_cat_syndrome_ma.html
10″October: Black Cat Month”, Franny Syufy, http://cats.about.com/cs/catmanagement101/a/blackcatmonth.htm
11″Shelters ban black cat adoption on Halloween to prevent animal torture”, Kate Knibbs, http://factually.gizmodo.com/shelters-ban-black-cat-adoption-on-halloween-to-prevent-1652829811
12″Have a Safe Halloween with Your Cat”, Hill’s Pet, http://www.hillspet.com/cat-care/have-safe-halloween-with-cat-adt.html