by John Morgan
Cats are mysterious and elusive creatures to understand under the best of circumstances, but when they are covered in black fur, those characteristics go up exponentially – especially to us superstitious prone two-legged mammals.
For those of you that have ever shared your home with a cat – owning seems out of the question – it is easy to interpret a feline’s behavior with being astute, clever, resourceful, independent, and a bit mystical. A cat’s gaze can appear to convey a wide range of emotions, and, at times, it can even be unsettling. It is almost as if cats have a wisdom or awareness of things beyond our senses or comprehension.
Throughout history, cats have shared a love/hate relationship with their human counterparts. In ancient Egypt, the cat headed goddess Bastet was worshiped. Some cats were even mummified. Egyptians made the connection between cats controlling the threat of disease carried by rats; therefore, by helping to reduce the rat population, cats escalated its own status as a revered ancient Egyptian symbol. Romans considered the cat sacred and they were linked to the moon goddess Diana. They associated cats as guardians of homes and as symbols of domestic goodness (something that baffles us since our three cats welcome anyone into the house and they are seldom up to any good).
We have to admit it also gets a bit confusing and unsettling when we attempt to untangle superstition, history, folklore, and urban legend when it comes to understanding cats connection to Halloween. As with many of the other Halloween symbols, the origins of the cat as an iconic figure for the holiday can be traced back the Samhain celebrations of the Druids and Celts. This was considered a time when the veil between the spirit and living worlds dissolved. Great bonfires were built on the tops of hills to ward off evil spirits and to honor the souls of people who had died in the past year. It is also here that things go sour for our four-legged furry companions.
The Celts are said to believe that cats were evil and the guardians of the Underworld – as such, they must be sacrificed! Other accounts, state the Celtic people thought cats were reincarnated souls who were able to see the future. After two thousand years things can get a bit bedeviled to sort out; however, what is clear is that negative beliefs towards cats kept building as their bonfire flames pierced the night sky.
While bats and owls were drawn to the bonfires associated with Samhain and later All Hallows’ Eve ceremonies, cats were unwillingly thrown into the bonfires by a fearful populace – a practice that continued for hundreds of years.
One thing is for certain, while the dog may be man’s best friend, the cat has been linked as a witches favorite “familiar” (term for lesser demon). Just as witches are strongly associated with times of transition, black cats were also linked to these same transitional portals – ritualistic times when the curtain between life and death, shadow and light, were at its thinnest. Folklore abounds with accounts of witch’s transitioning into cats and vice versa. During the days of witch hunting, single women seen in the company of cats were frequently considered witches and dealt with most severely, cavorting with a black cat removed any doubt. Many cultures connect the color black with the unknown and with an absorbing quality that conceals ones true intent.
Just as it is difficult to pin down a cat, it is equally difficult to condense and understand the history of the black cats association with Halloween. Unfortunately, cats remain the target of evil intent. Whether caused by those practicing the black arts, pranksters who focus their cruel action on cats, or individuals who adopt or steal cats to incorporate them into their “living” Halloween decorations, the toll on cats is quite real and it is not just limited to black cats. Even today, emotions and superstitions about cats persists. Animal shelters and feline adoption programs frequently will not allow black cats to be adopted from late September until early November, and additional screening and protective measure for all cats go into effect in the days just prior to Halloween.
Such malice is impossible for most of us to understand. In fact, as we put the finishing touches on this post, our 17-year-old cat, Helen (short for “Hell-on-wheels” – because as a kitten she would race all over the house), is going to the vet where they will likely confirm she is in the last stages with her bout against cancer. All we can say is that in her 17 laps around the sun, she has brought immense joy to our family and enriched our lives beyond our ability to express. Although it is easy to describe her behavior as being humanlike in so many ways, ultimately she remains a cat and that in itself is wonderment enough. We wish her safe journey into the undiscovered country and we hope that the Egyptians were correct and that cats are truly immortal.