Where Black Cats Got Their Bad Reputation & Why They Don't Deserve It

Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
Among all of the harmless things we as a culture associate with bad luck, the black cat stands out as both one of the most notorious and innocent. As is usually the case with longstanding superstitions, there's little rhyme or reason as to why the black cat has remained such a dark entity in public imagination.
Even if you're more of a dog person, you have to admit the black cat got dealt a rough hand (or paw).
For the most part, we have middle ages Europe to thank for our modern-day image of the black cat. It probably started when Pope Gregory IX called them the incarnation of Satan, but plenty of songs and legends in this era connected black cats with evil, too, whether as ingredients in spells, as familiars to witches, or as human witches in disguise. We probably don't need to tell you how witches — or women merely accused of witchcraft — were viewed back then, but suffice it to say that they weren't popular.
The belief that black cats were in consort with witches and other agents of evil followed them for centuries. Records from as late as the 17th century describe labourers in dangerous professions (such as miners and fishermen) encountering a black cat on their way to work and returning home out of fear. The sight of a black cat was enough to convince an adult to put their daily routine on hold.
So great and looming is the unlucky black cat in public imagination that we tend to overlook the points in history when black cats were viewed as good omens. Ancient Egyptians upheld cats of all shades as divine, while 19th century European communities believed it was a sign of luck if a black cat walked toward you (rather than past you). It seems as if, for every negative association there's a positive one — as if the black cat's origins as an object of superstition weren't murky enough.
Luckily, as fears of witches and the actual devil have faded from mainstream thought, so, too, has the widespread fear of black cats. Our feline friends have even overcome the modern-day myth that black cats and dogs in shelters are shunned by potential adopters. According to a 2013 report from the ASPCA, black animals may outnumber animals of other colours, but they're actually the most commonly adopted group, more than any other colour.
The next time a black cat crosses your path, make like a 19th century European and take it as a good sign — then double check its tags in case it's up for adoption.
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