As we get closer to Halloween, there are thoughts of witches, goblins, black cats and things that go bump in the night. It's a time when children wear costumes, walk with vigilant parents, while trick or treating throughout neighbourhoods.
And where are the family pets on October 31st? Hopefully all tucked in nicely inside the home, safe from escaping into the darkness. Loud noises make dogs bark, shake nervously, run to their guardians to feel safe. Cats, "'fraidy" cats, hide under beds, may run from the safe hold of their human family out the door or hide in non-obvious places outdoors. Black cats, the colour of choice, may unknowingly face a demonic demise from satanic groups. Since Halloween is at the end of the month, I was curious why black cats were associated with witches, evil and this kind of celebration. Have you had this curiosity, too?
During the Medieval period (476 AD - 1500 AD), the Christian church set about to destroy paganism, animal worship, and all other non-Christian beliefs.[i] So obsessed with the rooting out of beliefs and and teachings that were not of the Church, life became dangerous for both individuals and groups, not to mention, cats. Also, a common belief of the time was that the devil had the capability of transforming into human and animal forms, thereby being servants and agents of evil. Although many animals were lumped into this category, cats were deemed the worst of all.
People of the Middle Ages (Medieval period), were highly superstitious and suspicious of things which could not be explained in the basest form such as the natural behavioural differences between cats and dogs. Where dogs were loving and obedient to humans, cats were more independent, stand-offish, active at night and made horrible mating sounds. As a result, people of the time assumed that cats had supernatural powers and were engaged in witchcraft. What seemed unnatural was thought to violate the biblical belief that "humans should have dominion over animals."[ii] During the Middle Ages, there was no separation of church and state; the church ruled. It was a critical moment in the myth of evil cats when "Pope Gregory IX (1145-1241) declared that a sect in southern France had been caught worshiping the devil. He claimed the devil had appeared in the form of a black cat. Cats became the official symbol of heresy (or religious beliefs not advocated by the Church). Anyone who who showed any compassion or feelings for a cat came under the Church's suspicion. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Europe's cat population had been severely depleted. Only semi-wild cats survived in many areas."[iii]
Notably, women who became labelled as witches during that time were burned to death. Black cats were known as "familiars" to these women. When a witch was burned, often her cat who was "guilty by association", was placed in a basket and burned with her. Both were considered evil.
For another three centuries, cats continued to be slaughtered for religious reasons. Queen Elizabeth I (Protestant) who ruled Britain during the 1500s had cats burned alive during her coronation. When the Protestant Reformation took hold in Europe, the practice of Catholicism was declining. Now, the abhorrence of cats became non-denominational. "England's Witchcraft Act of 1563, associated the keeping of cats with 'wickedness', led to the executions of many more cats and their owners.[iv] Black cats, associated with evil, are thought to be the bringers of bad luck.
So how are black cats and witches connected to our North American Halloween? When the Puritan Pilgrims from England came to establish American colonies in the early 1600s, they imported with them staunch religious beliefs. Highly distrusting of anything associated with witches such as black cats, they went as far as the burning of black cats on Shrove Tuesday to protect their homes from fire."[v] When the persecution of witches slowed in the colonies, black cats had now become mythologized along with witches.
Some say Halloween is evolved from its ancient Celtic origin of Samhain (pronounced Sow-win) when people would celebrate the changing of the season between fall and winter by lighting bonfires and wearing costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. Some of the Samhain traditions were incorporated into the November 1st honouring of all saints and martyrs declared by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. The night before was known as All Hallows' Eve which has become the Halloween known to us today.
But let's get back to our black cat. What about it? Somehow over time, the association of bad luck and superstition towards black cats became embedded in the North American psyche. Not to the extreme to which history bears but nonetheless, statistics show that black cats are the most likely to be the last to be adopted from shelters. This overhanging stigma sadly leaves many black kitties last to get their forever home. Somehow black cats are seen as least desirable. Some shelters report a surge of black cat adoption on the rise shortly before Halloween only to have them returned a few days after with the excuse that "He or she just didn't work out." Perhaps a live decoration in the window was the purpose. If you have the good thought about adopting a cat soon, won't you consider a black or black and white cat and help debunk the myth?
i Retrieved http://www.libraryindex.com/pages/2149/History-Human-Animal-Interaction-MEDIEVAL-PERIOD.htmal October 1, 2016
ii Ibid, October 1, 2016
iii Ibid, October 1, 2016
iv Ibid, October 1 1016
v Ibid, October 1, 2016
Reana Selody Joubert
Pondering, mulling, musing with pen in hand about animals or people, sometimes family or sometimes wild. Oh, and news & events, too.
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