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The black cat is commonly a small domestic feline with fur that appears uniformly or mostly black. Not any particular breed of cat, they have been historically referred to as symbols of bad luck and portents of doom, destruction and generally not very nice things.
In much of the world the black cat is considered unlucky. This superstition is carried on from very ancient times. The most common belief is that if a black cat crosses your intended path, then bad luck will befall you. To reverse the curse of a black cat crossing your path, first walk in a circle, then go backward across the spot where it happened and count to 13, chanting a charm or line from the Bible.
However, black cats have many associations with good luck as well. It is said if you dream of a black cat, then you will have good luck and in some cultures brides were given black cats as mascots on their wedding day. In Scotland, if a black cat crosses your path it is meant to be a definite sign of good things to come, and likewise if a strange black cat stops on your porch it will bring prosperity to the household. The tail of a black cat was believed to cure a stye if it was stroked over the afflicted eye and perhaps not so lucky for the cats, a stew made from black cats would theoretically cure consumption1.
Black cat, cross my path - good fortune bring to home and hearth. When I am away from home, bring me luck wherever I roam
- Old English Charm
Black Cats in Every Culture
One of the earliest associations of black cats with bad luck perhaps comes from ancient Babylonian and Hebrew mythologies. These myths compare the black cat, coiled in a circle as it dozes on the hearth, to a serpent. The serpent in most cultures was considered a purveyor of evils and misfortune.
The Celts thought black cats were reincarnated beings who were able to divine the future and the Normans believed that if a black cat crossed your path in the moonlight, you would die in an epidemic. During the Middle Ages the Germans believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of a sick person it meant death was approaching and in Finland, black cats were thought to carry the souls of the dead to the other world.
In China, the presence of a black cat was believed to foretell sickness and poverty while in India, a reincarnated soul could be liberated by throwing a black cat into a furnace. One Bengali folktale had it that some women could change their soul into a black cat and that any harm brought to the cat would be suffered by the women.
Black Cats and Witches
Cats are often believed to be the familiars2 of witches, because of their purported supernatural abilities and black cats, because of their ability to remain unseen in dark places or at night, were considered especially desirable partners for witches. Black cats were sometimes thought to be the Devil himself, and on Easter and Shrove Tuesday during the Middle Ages, black cats were routinely hunted down and burned. A witch that had a black cat was therefore said to be in league with the Devil!
In witch trials, ownership of a cat was taken as evidence of witchcraft. Cats, believed to be evil in their own right, were often punished as well as humans during these trials, often burned at the stake with their owners. There are also accounts of townspeople harming a black cat and then later finding wounds on a village woman (usually a suspected witch) that matched the cat's injuries.
The black cat was adopted as a Wiccan symbol in the 1930s and both historically and in modern times, those who practice witchcraft often kept black cats as pets. Many a witch, both real or costumed, at Halloween will also be accompanied by their black cat, riding alongside on a broomstick.
Has a Black Cat Crossed Your Path?
Black Cats can be found in many places. Here are some examples: