Most people in the United States have heard that if a black cat crosses your path, bad luck will follow. Most people who respond to such an event by saying something like “uh-oh” don’t follow up and blame the cat for the fact that a few days later they are, say, fired from their job or trip over the dog and sprain an ankle. But the notion persists, as do many other folk beliefs about cats-as-trouble. Most of these notions arose (in the West) during the late Middle Ages, persisting well into the seventeenth and even the eighteenth centuries. They come down to us today, happily, for the most part filtered by time and reason into paler, less scary versions. In fact, in England it is good luck if a black cat your path. But Europeans in earlier times found plenty of reasons to be truly horrible to cats, especially black ones.
Black cats were not only nocturnal like all cats, skulking around in the dark as if guilty of something, and they were often indifferent to humans, even haughty, but also they had the misfortune of being black. For Europeans in early times, black was-simply-bad. It was associated with the underworld, with night (when bad things like werewolves were on the prowl), with the dark forests where dangerous spirits and crazy people bent on mayhem lurked. It was a scary world, where maine coon kittens for sale near me Satan himself was a constant threat. He and his dark minions practiced the black arts and were always looking to traduce innocent souls into evil.* The world, back in late medieval times, was also full of somewhat attenuated beliefs based on ancient times. Rome’s Diana the Huntress was associated with cats and later in her career morphed a little bit into Hecate, goddess of the underworld and given to dark doings. Also she was associated with the moon, that unreliable and protean body in the night sky. Cats were awarded these attributes.
Early on, the Catholic Church tried to dispel any such pagan notions, discouraging belief in the witchcraft that appears to have always been part of life in most preliterate societies. But late in the Middle Ages when universal satisfaction with the teachings and workings of the Church began to decay, scapegoats were needed. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX explained that black cats were satanic and suddenly the Christian world was overrun with witches and their “familiars,” which is to say the black cats that the witches sent forth to do harm to people. Indeed, witches often turned into black cats. And witches of course were agents of the devil. Thousands of people, mostly women, were burned at the stake along with their cats. Putative witches were typically tortured, and they readily admitted their guilt to stop the torture, even repeating various totally made-up incantations. Thus the virulence of witchcraft was proved, leading to a kind of mass hysteria in which yet more witches were put to the torch. Meanwhile, with such a bad rap, cats of all colors were persecuted.
In one common event, they were hung in bags that avid medieval sportsmen would attack with lances. Indeed, killing cats by one means or another was a highly popular pastime. In these exercises, there was no special emphasis on black cats-any cat would do. From this era comes the old saying “no room to swing a cat,” another sportsmen’s amusement. Possibly harking back to the Egyptian belief that cats were associated with fecundity, some medieval European farmers would bury a cat-alive- near each field they planted, to ensure the growth of the crops. In one macabre case, English archaeologists in the nineteenth century found the remains of thousands of cats buried by the adoring ancient Egyptians, and shipped them back to Albion to be ground up and used as fertilizer.
Mistreatment of cats in this era took many forms. As James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania describes it, On feast days as a symbolic means of driving out the Devil, cats, especially black ones, were captured, tortured, thrown onto bonfires, set alight and chased through the streets, impaled on spits and roasted alive, burned at the stake, plunged into boiling water, whipped to death, and hurled from the tops of tall buildings; and all, it seems, in an atmosphere of extreme festive merriment.
Europe was not alone in the world in its distaste for all that cats stood for. Evil cats were common features of some Oriental folklore. In Japan, huge vampire cats took the form of human females and sucked the blood and strength from unwitting men. The Japanese used to cut off cats’ tails, believing the tail to be the seat of their malevolence. On the other hand, cats were looked upon with great favor in many Japanese monasteries, where bobtail cats called temple cats or kimono cats were thought to exemplify much of the wisdom passed on by the Buddha. And today, the Japanese have given the world the manekineko or beckoning cat, which can be found in many Asian restaurants and homes in this country as well as Japan and the rest of Asia.