Black cats are one of the most common symbols of Halloween known around the world. They are often featured, along with witches, in Halloween films, imagery, and household decorations. Their status as a symbol of the holiday can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when black cats were first associated with witches and witchcraft.
Witchcraft in the Middle Ages
Many people in the Middle Ages believed that black cats served as witches’ familiars. Another common belief during this time period was that witches often transformed into black cats in order to spy on people and create chaos in communities. Still others believed that after a witch died, she would take the form of a black cat. In the 14th century, a group of women accused of witchcraft and Devil worship were thought to be worshipping an evil deity in the form of a cat.
These beliefs and superstitions persisted, and were expressed by the first settlers to cross the Atlantic Ocean and settle in New England. One group in particular, the Puritan Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, promoted these beliefs. As zealous Protestants, they were suspicious of any forms of witchcraft, paganism, Devil worship, and anything linked to these practices.
The Puritan Pilgrims believed that witches were capable of appearing in the form of black cats, and that the Devil often gifted black cats to witches to act as their familiars. These anti-witchcraft superstitions grew in strength throughout the 1500s and 1600s, and were partially responsible for the events of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 1693.
Black Cats and Halloween
Black cats are still linked to witches and witchcraft in popular culture, and featured as witches’ companions in Halloween decorations, though most negative connotations and fear surrounding this link has largely disappeared. After World War Two, when the Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating was established, decorations featuring black cats began to be thought of as good luck charms, as it was believed that their presence would frighten away other Halloween spirits.
However, because black cats still feature prominently in Halloween decorations, steps are taken each year to protect and de-stigmatize them. Each October, animal protection groups remind cat owners to keep black cats safely indoors on Halloween. Animal shelters often use October to increase awareness of the fact that black cats are adopted from shelters at lower rates than cats of other colors, potentially due to lingering superstition regarding black cats and witchcraft.
Folklore and Superstition
The Puritan Pilgrims weren’t the only group to spread superstition about black cats throughout history. Scottish immigrants to the colonies believed that if a black cat was seen at a wake, it indicated the upcoming death of a loved one. Italians in the 1500s believed that if a black cat jumped onto the bed of a person who was ill, it indicated that the person’s death was imminent.
In some cultures and time periods, black cats have also symbolized good fortune and luck. In Scotland, seeing an unfamiliar black cat on a front porch is said to be a sign of good fortune. Freya, the Norwegian goddess of fertility, love, and abundance, is often pictured riding a chariot pulled by two black cats.
In ancient Egypt cats of all colors were considered to be sacred. Cats in ancient Egyptian households wore jewelry, elaborate collars, had pierced ears, and were mummified in a formal mourning ceremony after death. Two of the primary goddesses of ancient Egyptians, Bast and Sekhmet, took the form of cats.