Hello October! I took the last two Witchy Wednesdays off while I was in New York visiting the World Maker Faire, the Brooklyn Book Fair, my US editor, and all my favourite haunts (Madison Square Park, Central Park, Obscura, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hayden planetarium, Katz’s Deli, the Morgan Library, etc…) Now I’m back home, where it’s properly autumn, happily settled in a landscape that’s dotted with apple trees, pumpkin patches, turning leaves and wood smoke.
I adore all that comes with fall – cool, frosty mornings that beg for kitchen fires and hot porridge, the late harvest of root crops from the garden, the last burst of colour in the grasses and trees. Most especially, I love the traditions and tales that come with this time of year, legends that have been passed down through the ages that evoke the images of otherworldly beings all doing their best to reach through the veil of forgetting to touch our otherwise ordinary lives.
Many of these tales have changed over time, often to the point where we no longer remember their origins or understand their meaning. From now until November 1st we’ll be surrounded by candy corn, sheet-clad ghosts and shrieking cats. It’s the latter that I’m focussing on in today’s post, the glorious yet misunderstood black cat.
Over the course of the last twenty+ years, I’ve had the honour of caring for a handful of black cats. They’ve come into my life in different ways – two strays, one shelter cat, one barn cat, one via friends, and one from an elderly Polish woman in Chicago who’d taped a sign to her apartment door that read, “FREE CATS INSIDE.” When I’d visited the woman’s home with my little boy in tow, my son had immediately been drawn to a small black kitten that was curled up inside a cardboard box in the far corner of the kitchen.
“Does that one need a home?” I’d asked.
“You don’t want that one,” the woman had replied. “He’s wicked, he’s wild, he’s evil, he’s black.”
“Then that’s the one for me,” I’d said.
Every so often I’d see the woman around my neighbourhood and she’d stop me and ask, “how’s that cat?”
“Fine, lovely, wonderful,” I’d say with a smile.
“He’s gonna be bad one day,” she’d warn, wagging her finger at me. “You can’t bring him back…”
We named that sleek amazing feline “Rune,” and while he may have been agile and energetic, he was never evil or bad. He travelled with us from Chicago to Nova Scotia and lived a long happy life. From the day I brought him home until the day he was no more, I felt lucky to have crossed his path.
Why the fuss?
In some cultures black cats are seen as creatures that bring good luck rather than bad. In parts of Scotland, the appearance of a stray black cat on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity and good fortune to come. In Japan, black cats supposedly serve to attract suitors to their female owners.
Sadly, in many Western cultures, the black cat has long been associated with evil and bad luck, and to their detriment those associations have stuck. Historically they’ve been thought to be the Devil incarnate, the companions (or familiars) of witches, or the bearers of misfortune.
Perhaps the earliest vilification of black cats comes via the Vox in Rama, a papal bull issued by Pope Gregory IX around 1232. Because of the association of black cats with so-called heretics and followers of Satan, black cats were slaughtered in large numbers throughout Europe well into the 19th century. They were all but exterminated during the Black Death pandemic circa 1348, (which coincidentally may have worsened the spread of the disease because there were fewer cats around to kill the rodents that carried it.)
Witches are often depicted as being accompanied by an animal – an owl, a raven, a dog, a rabbit, a toad, and most commonly a black cat. This stems from folklore that says that witches have the ability to speak to animals and can thereby enlist them to do their bidding. The animal thus becomes a “familiar” to the witch and is privy to her craft. Often, the pets of women accused of witchcraft were put to death alongside their owners.
When witch hunting hysteria hit Europe in the mid 1500’s, every wandering homeless woman and the alley cats that followed her, were suspected of witchcraft. This tale from Lincolnshire takes the notion of the familiar a step further and places the cat in the realm of shape-shifting. It also aptly illustrates the thinking of the day.
A father and his son were frightened one moonless night when a small creature darted across their path into a crawl space. Hurling stones into the opening, they saw an injured black cat scurry out and limp into the adjacent home of a woman suspected by the town of being a witch. The next day, the father and son encountered the woman on the street. Her face was bruised, her arm bandaged, and she now walked with a limp. From that day on in Lincolnshire, all black cats were suspected of being witches in night disguise.” – from Cat Superstitions, kinrossfolds.com
Black coat syndrome.
While most of us would readily deny a belief in the superstitions surrounding black cats, the biases that went along with them have made a lasting impression within our culture. Black cats (and black dogs, for that matter) are statistically overlooked when it comes to pet adoption in animal shelters. Time and again, they’re the last of a litter to find a forever home. They’re also euthanized in greater numbers than cats of other colours. Some say it’s because they’re difficult to photograph, which causes them to come across as “less friendly” on web sites and such. Others believe it’s tied to the bad rap they’ve gotten in the past. Whatever the case, these wonderful felines are still being discriminated against in the 21st century, and that needs to change.
The controversy continues.
In 2013, when an animal shelter in the US ran a black cat adoption campaign during the month of October, people in the surrounding area got their knickers in a twist. The bold move on the centre’s part was considered outrageous since many animal shelters across the States have gone the opposite direction and banned the adoption of black cats during October. The reason for the ban is a faulty one, based on the belief that scads of Devil worshippers are looking to sacrifice black cats on Halloween. It’s an urban legend of course. The cats in question are more likely (and not by much) to fall prey to some nut who thinks it would be cool to have a black cat slinking around for a Halloween party. Come November 1st, they’ll decide they don’t want a long-term pet, and out goes kitty with the post-party trash.
Happily, there’s some hope for the future. An increasing number of animal shelters are declaring black cat adoption months throughout the year, (October included) with some even giving discounts to those who adopt black cats on a Friday the 13th. The next time you’re thinking of adopting a cat, I hope you’ll choose the wee black kitten in the back of the litter, or the sage ebony feline that’s been waiting far too long for a forever home. I promise, you’ll count yourself lucky, indeed.
She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly. – from Rilke’s, Black Cat