Black cats are pawsome! Just like any other cat, they get their gorgeous coloring from the genetics that control the amount of melanin going into each strand of hair. However, black cat myths exist that give them a bad ( and unwarranted) reputation. These myths have roots that go back into the ancient world.
From Warrior Princess to Sex Kitten
During the second dynasty of Ancient Egypt, Bast, the daughter of the Ancient Egyptian sun-god, Ra, first appeared in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. She was a fearsome protector with the body of a woman and the head of a wildcat. Bast was also known to have a gentler side that was playful and could bring healing. She was the goddess of the home, the domestic cat, fertility and was the patron of women.
Later in Ancient Egyptian history, Alexander the Great from Greece conquered Egypt and instituted the Ptolemies as the new rulers. The Ancient Egyptians were allowed to continue their own religious practices, but influence from the Greek religious practices began to mix in. Soon Bast was began taking on some attributes of the Greek goddess, Artemis (the Greek goddess of hunting and childbirth). She was now considered to be a moon goddess, the daughter or Isis and Osiris, and the sister of Horus. Her name was changed to Bastet and her image to that of a black house cat. The temple to Bastet, played host to Mardi Gras- style festivals complete with music and orgies.
After Rome conquered Egypt, the worship of Ancient Egyptian pantheon, including Bastet, came to an end. However, the Ancient Egyptians had a lasting effect on the pagan religions in other parts of Europe. Goddess that were related to fertility, magic, and healing began having feline companions. Some examples are:
- The Ancient Greeks adopted their own version of Bastet calling her Ailuros.
- Variations of a myth saying that the Greek goddess, Artemis, turned herself into a cat to escape Typhon (a powerful god of wind). This myth was also associated with Hecate (Greek goddess of death and witchcraft) and Diana (the Roman version of Artemis who took on traits of Hecate as well).
- One version of an Ancient Greek myth claims that Hera (the jealous Greek goddess of women and marriage) had punished a woman by turning her into a cat. Hecate took pity on her and made the cat her servant.
- Freya, the Norse goddess of fertility and magic used two giant blue cats to pull her chariot.
- Ceridwen, the Celtic goddess of the underworld and witchcraft, was often accompanied by white cats. These cats had the power to do her bidding on Earth.
The Clash of the Titans
When the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, Europe fell into turmoil. The once united kingdoms began to war against one another in a fight for power. There was only one common leader among them, the Roman Catholic Church. As Lord Acton put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Popes of the Middle Ages behaved less like the kind, gentle Popes of today and more like emperors. They found ways to eliminate anyone who disagreed with them. People were not even allowed to have the Bible translated into their native languages (though illegal copies were made).
The life of the common people of the Middle Ages was hard. They had to withstand constant warfare between countries and with the Muslims during the crusades. Then one of the results of the crusades was an open trade route with Asia. The trade was wonderful, but the Bubonic Plague that traveled to Europe in the early 1340’s from China was not.
Witches & Black Cat Myths
The Bubonic plague killed 20 million people, about a third of Europe’s population at the time. From the time a person contracted the plagued to the time they died was only about 1 week. Even the church could not stop the plague from spreading. People believed that it was an evil force such as vampires, werewolves, or witches were responsible for all of the death they were seeing around them. Understandably, they went on a hunt to rid themselves of the responsible parties.
Witches ended up being a main focus of the elimination efforts. Since ancient times, goddesses of magic and those that worshiped those goddesses (healers and witches) were known for keeping cats. In another coincidence, cats are active after dark, have “glowing” eyes in the dark and eat the blood of other creatures, just like bats, which are also associated with witches. It was believed that witches could turn into cats so they could spread their mischief at night without being identified.
Black cats are especially difficult to see in the dark. You didn’t want a black cat to cross your path because it could be a witch putting a curse on you. Also, they are associated with Bastet whose worshippers were known to have done sexual things that were disgusting to the Roman Catholic Church. Sexual acts such as these were believed to have been committed during the ceremony in which a witch gave her soul to Satan.
The Papal Inquisition actually began about 100 years before the plague began, but the plague caused the Inquisition to continue under secular authorities. Inquisitors could kill anyone they felt was a witch. All they needed was a confession and it didn’t matter how they got it. Sometimes people were tortured just to give the Inquisitors names of people to accuse. With that being the case, any woman who spent her time with cats was in trouble.
Black Cat Myths Today
The witch hunts didn’t technically stop until 1750. Even the US had the Salem Witch Trials where a cat was eventually blamed. Ideas about cats, witches, and evil had become ingrained in western culture. Those ideas still perpetuate into today’s society as seen in movies and on television. Every year animal shelters across the US have to hold back adoptions of black cats for the safety of the cats.
Have you ever met someone who believes black cat myths?
Sources & Digging Deeper
Bronze Figure of the Cat-Headed Goddess Bastet – British Museum