Come Halloween, we see the the iconography of this celebrated, and sometimes hated, time. Skulls, bats, wolves and other creatures of the night along with ghosts and demons feature prominently. Two others are truly iconic as well: the witch and the black cat.
Halloween can be seen as a celebration of life in which we embrace the “scary stuff” that symbolizes death. We make it small. We make it transient. We celebrate being alive in a time of danger all around us. Get some candles, pumpkin pie, and candy; enjoy.
But what of the witch and the black cat? Why are these tied together and have so much fable attached?
Witches, to middle and dark ages Christians, were the enemy. This runs deep, but essentially witches were one face of non-Christians, pagans, and therefore bad. As we know, cats are great company. In those times and places, they were also a low maintenance companion that could easily feed itself. One can imagine many a “pagan” home blessed with the presence of one or a few cats keeping the vermin at bay and providing simple companionship and life lessons to growing children.
But non-Christian religions had different practices and traditions. To Christian leaders, it would be important to denigrate them as a tool to facilitate an us (Christians) versus them (non Christians) mindset. While this was only partially successful, it did lead to representing female “pagan” leaders and healers as witches. And of course witches had cats. Cats were considered an evil animal in any case, but now they were bound together.
Why black cats?
Cats are cats. Each one is just trying to make a living, and any home cat is a peaceful and loving creature regardless of color. Even feral ones are just cats, regardless of color. Be they black, ginger, white, gray, or any mix of colors and patterns, they don’t care. Are you friendly? Will you steal my lunch? Swat me if I get too close? Can we play? Can we snuggle? These are the things that matter. We humans could learn a thing or two.
But we have a history that goes way back. We are weak, and without weapons we are easily preyed upon by most predators. Living in the open or in simple shelters, we feared the dark. We have very poor night vision. Creatures like snakes, wolves, and large cats have a serious advantage. We were very vulnerable. For thousands of generations, two eyes in the darkness reflecting moonlight or campfire light, meant we were on the menu. The sight created justifiable fear. Fear driving us to run away or kill = survive to reproduce. This fear, and several others, are memories coded in our DNA. Eyes peering out of the blackness can trigger fear, even terror, where no risk or danger exists.
If you see a black cat in low light, you see two eyes peering out of the darkness. There is no face. Ancient genetic memory is stirred. And in more primitive times, this would have made the case for fearing the black cat, a fear easily leveraged by people with an anti-pagan agenda.
In these more enlightened times, we understand this. Black cats are as awesome and wonderful as any other. Yet cultural traditions live on. Halloween equals having silhouette images of witches, owls, cats, bats, and many other interesting beings. There are still people out there whose minds are in the 11th century as far as cat perceptions go. We cannot eliminate this iconography. But we can educate. Tell stories of our black cats, tuxedo cats, predominantly black calicos, and others. Those two eyes peering at you framed in pure black have no malice, no evil, just curiousity. They belong to a cat that is just trying to survive in a sometimes harsh world and has a great capacity for affection and friendship.
By the way…
If you let your cat out or if your furry Houdini is prone to escape, especially if it is a black cat, don’t. Do whatever it takes to keep it inside before and during Halloween. As mentioned, there are some people whose cat views are still in the 11th century. There are others who may be poorly socialized or are incapable of empathy who see this time as an excuse to do cats harm, even think it gains them bragging rights.
We humans and cats began our relationship thousands of years ago. This relationship has been a mixed blessing for them, yet always good for us. If you want a cat (or another cat), consider a black cat. Too often, they don’t get the love they deserve, never have. When you see those eyes peering at you in the darkness lit up in faint light, remember you are only on the menu for pets and scritches in exchange for purrs and soft furry cuddles.
All images in this post are free use, no attribution required.
Curious cat (at top): Our own Curious cat, the CPO (Chief Purring Officer) of One Spoiled Kitty, formerly of Craig Street Cats
Cat looking at you and witch hat cat clip art: https://openclipart.org/
Girl with cats: https://openclipart.org/detail/288454/halloween-card-3 This is a vintage (1910, thus public domain) Halloween card.
Cat with paw on arm at computer: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-cat-holding-persons-arm-1049764/ by Ruca Souza