“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice.” (Deng Xiaoping)
“All cats are grey in the dark.” (German proverb)
As Halloween approaches, so does National Black Cat Day (October 27th).
The timing is not coincidental, unfortunately. We all know that black cats are associated in many people’s mind with being bad luck or evil. Well, hard as it may be to believe, some cat shelters refuse to allow black cats to be adopted in the run-up to Halloween for fear that they’ll be used as ‘living ornaments’ for the festival or even become the victim of torture and sacrifice.
That black cats are now so synonymous with misfortune is a genuine surprise to me, because when I was growing up in Kent, England in the 1970s, both myself and other children at my school associated a black cat walking in your path to mean good luck. Now, it seems most people, even in the UK, associate black cats with bad luck.
I have no idea why precisely the change has come about. It may be through the influence of the USA, especially via horror films and the introduction of a very American and commercial Halloween here since the 1980s. Or, it may be an influence from mainland Europe – where, in many countries, black cats have traditionally been considered unlucky. However, this has happened, it’s a shame – especially for black cats!
So why are black cats thought to be unlucky? Well, it seems the root cause can be found in history and religion.
Everyone knows how cats were revered in Ancient Egypt – partly, it seems, because of their shining eyes, and partly because as chief mouse-catchers they were essential to that civilisation’s survival by keeping grain stores vermin-free. Cats were worshipped and the goddess of war was a woman with the head of a cat called Bastet. If you accidently killed a cat in ancient Egypt, you could be put to death! However, it seems the Egyptians believed the cat was inhabited with the spirit of their goddess, rather than being a god in itself, so they would often kill cats by breaking their necks before mummifying them. Clear evidence of this can be seen in the British Museum in London, where the Egyptian Gallery on the third floor shows X-rays of cat mummies with cleanly broken necks!
So many cats were mummified in Ancient Egypt – many millions – that shiploads of them were dug up and shipped back to Britain in the 19th century to be ground down and used as bone fertiliser on farmers’ fields.
Celtic, Pagan and pre-Christian cultures in Britain and Europe also revered cats – again, probably because of their bright shining eyes at night, but also because of their aura of mystery. Human beings have always naturally associated the colour black with bad, evil, negative and scary things (as it is representative of night) and white with good, godly, positive things (as white represents daylight). No amount of political correctness can undo this instinct which fed human culture – though white can also be associated with death (from white bones). Therefore, the black cat was victim of a bad luck double whammy – first as a cat, and second as black.
Early Christians were fearful and suspicious of anything worshipped by the Pagans who preceded them (though they were not averse to appropriating festivals which later became known as Christmas, Easter and Halloween), so automatically considered the cats connected to these Pagans as being suspect. Black cats were seen as nocturnal creatures of the occult, by both Pagans and Christians, and were often seen as the shape-shifting ‘familiars’ of witches – perhaps because back then, as now, very many more mature ladies lived alone with cats! Historical research has now shown the persecution of witches in The Middle Ages to be far more prevalent in mainland Europe than Britain, and so perhaps that is why black cats were until very recently considered good luck here. In mainland Europe, there are historical records of large-scale massacres of black cats on midsummer bonfires.
In the 20th century, the celebration of Halloween (originally the Ancient British festival called Samhain – which means “summer’s end”) has become a large and increasingly commercialised and Americanised festival in the UK and worldwide.
Interestingly, it was the Universal horror movies of the 1920s and 1930s, themselves very influenced by the dreadful deformities and injuries caused to men who had fought in the First World War, which led to so much of the dressing up in fancy dress as monsters, ghouls and witches. Films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Old Dark House - and, the biggest horror film of 1934, The Black Cat, starring the Hungarian Bela Lugosi (watch the movie “Ed Wood” to see what became of him) and the British actor Boris Karloff (born William Pratt) – helped create modern Halloween, complete with evil black cats. Many were directed by the British James Whale (the film “Gods and Monsters” outlines his life).
So, is there any truth to the perception of black cats being more aloof and less friendly than other cats? Well, not in my experience – 4 of the 10 cats we have had since I was 7 years old have been black (Nana, Fifi, Frodo, and now Bumble) and they have all been delightful moggies! Four more have been black and white (Tippy, Podge, Hobbes and Max). According to Cats Protection, it takes 13% longer to home a black or a black-and-white cat, and more black cats are taken in by shelters too. Reasons given include the old myth of black cats bringing bad luck and being evil, but more recently people have come to believe black cats do not photograph as well or look good in selfies – such is the vanity of humans! There are even online forums which show how to take good photos of black cats – by using cross-lighting, for example. Some people also claim black cats are harder to tell apart, and research tends to show people see black cats as ‘aloof’ and other cats such as ginger or tabby cats being seen as ‘warm and friendly’. I have to say that I have noticed no specific personality trait specifically amongst the black cats we have known – all those ten cats have had their own personalities and the fur colour has had no relevance.
So why do black cats exist at all? After all, cats evolved in the sandy landscapes of Asia, so surely tabby colouring would be most effective for all of them? Well, one theory is that a black coat would have promoted survival, and through natural selection, it seems eleven of the seventeen species of cat that exist have evolved black coats via a mutated gene. This recessive gene suppresses the tabby pattern.
Apparently, this gene also means black cats are also more resistant to disease than other cats, and some people even suggest black cats cannot get FIV (and AIDS-like syndrome for cats). The higher melatonin pigment content causes most black cats to have yellow eyes (all our black cats have had these).
Any cat whose fur is of a single colour is known as “solid” or “self”. A “solid black” cat can come in various shades: brownish-black, coal-black or grey-black, and a cat with black fur with white roots is known as “black smoke”.
Of course, there is no such thing as true black, so all black cats are, in reality, very dark brown – something that can be seen when a cat is lying in direct sunlight. This is known as “rusting” – but it is simply the sun showing the true fur colour really.
It’s such a shame that, these days, black cats seem to be doomed to remain unloved in cat shelters merely because of silly superstitions and unjustified prejudice – but the evidence suggests this is the case. That is why we need Black Cat Day on 27th October – an opportunity for all black cat lovers, including me, to post photos of our cats online. There is also a black cat appreciation day on 17th August.
My own Twitter account has a picture of me with our semi-longhaired black rescue cat Bumble (who’s just been put on a diet so who is wailing plaintively a great deal lately!)
I sincerely hope black cats can regain their previous status as bringers of good luck, at least in the UK, where that was the traditional belief – but the sheer commercial weight of the Hollywood horror movie machine would suggest this is unlikely.
Maybe we should all become more like sailors of old, who believed a black cat on board ship would bring good luck, or their wives who kept black cats at home, too, in order to protect their husbands at sea.
And who knows, maybe black cats do bring good luck. It’s said that when British monarch King Charles I’s treasured black cat died he lamented that his luck was gone. Sure enough, the very next day he was arrested for High Treason. He was beheaded in Whitehall, London in 1649.
So, as Halloween approaches – and Bonfire Night (November 5th) in Britain – it’s worth shouting the benefits of black cats, and how they can be as loving, amusing, funny and loyal as any other colour of cat. And if you know anyone considering adopting a cat, try encouraging them to be colour-blind – I bet most have no idea that a black cat is less likely to catch certain diseases.
I continually wince at how human beings are still in thrall to silly superstitions – (which also lead to the poaching and near-extinction of certain species) – so every Halloween I smile wryly at the following joke:
What did one ghost say to the other ghost?
Do you believe in people?
I think that, for me at least, the jury’s still out on that one!
You can catch up with Jem on his Twitter account: @ACatCalledDog