Black cats feature in the mythology of many cultures, and superstitions about them are still familiar to most of us in modern times. They are a prime example of the contrariness of many of our superstitious beliefs; some swear they’re lucky, others see them as a sign of certain doom.
According to Norse legend, Freya, queen of the Valkyries and goddess of fertility, drove a chariot pulled by black cats that some sources suggest turned into horses possessed by the Devil. In the Middle Ages, black cats were often portrayed as the familiars of witches, which is likely to be the origin of the distrust with which they are regarded in America, where early Puritan settlers rejected anything associated with the Devil and witchcraft.
In the US it is still considered a bad sign if a black cat crosses your path, since it means you have been noticed by the Devil. In Germany the same rule applies if the cat is walking from right to left, but if it crosses from left to right then good fortune is coming your way. In Scotland the arrival of a black cat outside your home is a sign of coming prosperity, while in China black cats are regarded as harbingers of hunger and poverty. In Italy, if a black cat should rest on the bed of a sick person it is thought to signify the patient’s imminent death.
In England a black cat is still considered lucky if it walks towards you, though there are countless variations and reversals of the rule across the world, the origins of which have become blurred and blended by the passage of time. The sixteenth-century English author William Baldwin’s satirical work Beware the Cat put into print the belief, commonly held at the time of its publication in 1561, that cats were in fact witches disguised in animal form: ‘A Cat hath nine lives, that is to say, a witch may take on her a Cat’s body nine times.’
In Great Britain and Ireland though, it is considered lucky to own or see a black cat, particularly on important occasions such as weddings or at the start of a long journey. King Charles I was so convinced of his own black cat’s luck-bringing qualities that he had it guarded round the clock. When it eventually died he was reportedly devastated that his luck had run out . Coincidentally (or not!) the king was arrested by Cromwell’s troops the very next day and was beheaded two years later.
Extracted from Black Cats and Evil Eyes: A Book of Old-fashioned Superstitions by Chloe Rhodes, published by Michael O'Mara.