(Investigator 22, 1992 January)


A black cat crossing your path is perhaps the world’s most famous symbol of bad luck. Perhaps this is because "black" is reminiscent of the powers of darkness.

In the Middle Ages witches and evil spirits were thought to appear in the guise of black cats. For this reason black cats were often burned alive on bonfires – as also were alleged witches. It was believed that witches could turn into cats only nine times because cats had nine lives!

In Britain an opposing belief has been popular and black cats are thought to bring good luck! Cat bodies were sometimes plastered into walls of houses to keep evil at bay – and it’s the white cats which embody the devil! Winston Churchill often liked to stroke black cats to which some superstitious people attribute the good luck which gave victory in World War II. Theatres sometimes keep black cats around to counteract decline of audiences. But care is taken so that the cat doesn’t run onto the stage during performances since that would bring bad luck.

In Scotland there was until 1800 a ceremony called Taigheirin which procured clairvoyant powers by burning black cats to death.

Striped tabby cats and grey cats are generally considered lucky especially if one wanders into your home and decides to stay.

Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as gods and a cat was spiritual head of Bubastis (now Tell Basta) a town east of the Nile Delta. Temples were erected to cats and sacrifices offered to them. "Bast" the cat goddess had the face of a cat or lion.

When a household cat died the family and servants would shave their eyebrows and go into mourning. Cats were mummified and many cat cemeteries existed. The death of a temple cat brought mourning to whole cities! Anyone who killed a cat received the death penalty! There was an alleged incident of a Persian king capturing an Egyptian town by having his soldiers carry cats in battle. The Egyptians didn’t resist since they didn’t want to hurt the cats!

The Romans considered cats sacred to the goddess Diana and the ancient Persians feared black cats. In Scandinavia the fertility god, Freyya, supposedly travelled in a chariot pulled by cats. In West Africa Negroes think that when a person dies his soul will enter cat. The Japanese used to believe in vampire cars identified by their having two tails!

Some people see cats as weather forecasters! A sneezing cat means rain and if it sits with its back to the fire it means a storm is near. A change in weather is indicated if a cat sharpens its claws against the legs of the table. Indonesians try to make it rain by pouring water onto cats. Western sailors often wanted cats on board for good luck. If the ship was becalmed they would try to raise a wind by putting the cat on deck under a pot!

The eyes of cats are often likened to the moon because the pupils change from narrow slits to luminous globes.

Cats have also been used for healing. Inflamed eyelids, toothaches, warts and rheumatism used to be treated by stroking a cat’s tail over the sore area!

Cats were first tamed in Egypt over 4000 years ago and in Europe about 1000 years ago.

Someone wrote: "A superstition is a belief, usually born of fear, which is contrary to reason and cannot be proved by experience."

Superstitious people follow their rituals because they believe it influences their surroundings to their advantage and in this way they calm their fears and insecurities.