There are many myths and folk-tales from around the world where cats are said to bring good tidings or bad omens. Across Europe and the United States in particular, black cats have had the misfortune of being labelled as bad luck, and even minions of Satan…But where did this belief originate?
Irish and Scottish folklore speak of the Cat Sith (also called a cat sidhe or cait sithe) which translates to ‘Fairy Cat’ and is pronounced ”caught shee”. The Cat Sith is a large black cat with a white spot upon it’s chest. It’s said to haunt the Scottish highlands. This creature walks upright on it’s two hind legs, but can walk on all fours when spotted by a human. It can masquerade as a regular cat! The Celts feared the cat sith as they believed that it could steal the souls of the dead by passing over cadavers. If the cat sith walked over a corpse before a God had collected the soul, then it would be stolen. Because of this belief, bodies were watched 24 hours a day until the burial occurred. This type of wake was called the Feille Fadalach, meaning, “late wake”. Several steps would be taken in order to prevent the cat sith from stealing a soul, such as:
- Placing catnip in all the rooms of the house (excluding where the body was kept) in attempts to distract the cat sith
- Fires were not allowed in any rooms because the light and warmth may attract the cat sith
- Music was played to encourage the cat sith to dance. This would make it forget to steal the soul
- Social games were played in the hopes that the cat sith would join in and miss the opportunity to steal the person’s soul
In Ireland it was believed that the Cat Sith lived somewhere between the realms of the living and the dead. It would visit on Samhain in search of offerings. The offering of choice was a dish of milk. Should the cat sith visit a home to find that no offering was left, it would curse your livestock, and stop your cows from producing milk. Homes that provided milk to the cat sith were blessed with good luck. This story is thought to explain the origin of the Halloween saying ‘Trick or treat?’ The Cat Sith would either trick you or treat you based on whether an offering was provided.
There is some explanation as to how the cat sith tales came to be. The Scottish Highlands and countryside have a rare breed of feline called the Kellas cat. The Kellas is very illusive; however, in 1984 a deceased Kellas was found caught in a game-keepers trap. Since the Kellas is seldom seen, sightings could have created the cat sith stories. Kellas cats have a dark black coat and can grow up to four feet long. Though hard to find, this breed are known to be present in the Scottish countryside, and are occasionally spotted roaming near Fife and Aberdeen. Those who do not know of this breed often believe that they have spotted jaguars. Kellas cats are now being trapped and micro-chipped to be released back into the wild and tracked for research purposes.
Associations with Witchcraft
In the middle ages, Europeans thought that black cats were familiars. In Demonology, familiars are imps or spirits who take animal form and assist witches. They were believed to be gifts from the devil himself, or were inherited from one witch to another. Familiars were said to survive on the blood of their witch, sucking it from their fingers, moles, or warts. Because of this belief, women who were accused of witchcraft were searched for such marks on their bodies. British settlers took this belief with them and it became widely accepted as truthful across the USA. Another common belief of the time, was that black cats were witches who could shape shift into feline form; however, this was thought to only be possible eight times total. Witches who transformed into felines a ninth time were said to be unable to transform back. The saying that cats have nine lives is derived from this folklore. Women who were burnt at the stake as witches also had their cats thrown onto the fire; however, if their cat had any patches of white fur they would be spared, because it was believed to be a mark of a God, or even God’s presence. Throughout history, white has always been symbolic of purity, cleanliness, and holiness.
Unfortunately, the superstition surrounding black cats still remains across Europe and some of the the US, where a black cat crossing your path is said to be bad luck. During October you will often find that black cats appear on seasonal décor and are a popular costume choice for Halloween. Cat shelters and re-homing organisations report that black cats are two-thirds less likely to be adopted compared to other colours. The avoidance of adopting black cats is not only down to superstition, but also vanity. British newspapers The Guardian and The Telegraph reported in 2018, that black cats were viewed as undesirable because they are thought to not photograph well.
Fear not, it isn’t all doom for our black felines. There are many cultures in which cats, including black cats, are a sign of good luck. The Egyptian Goddess Bastet was depicted taking the form of a black cat. Felines were held in high esteem. Look out for future articles from me, discussing cats in other cultures. In the meantime, if you missed my article about the role of cats in ancient Egypt, you can find it here.
The Black cat/header image – https://unsplash.com/s/photos/black-cat
The Cat Sith – The Cat Sìth in “More English Fairy Tales” (1894)
The kellas Cat specimen – From the at the Aberdeen Zoological museum.
Cat and witch photograph – https://unsplash.com/s/photos/witch-and-cat
Halloween Balloon – https://unsplash.com/s/photos/halloween-decor