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Black Cats: Good Luck Charms or Bad Omens?

August 17th is Black Cat Appreciation Day. Let’s dispel some silly superstitions that haunt them.

by Charles Manning
Updated August 17, 2021
Black kitten on a porch
Kim Swain / Stocksy

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August 17 is Black Cat Appreciation Day and boy do they deserve it. Black cats are gorgeous and no saltier (or sweeter) than any other cat. And yet they take longer to get adopted, no thanks to the negative associations surround them like a toxic fog — they’re evil; they’re bad luck; they cavort with Satan! Sure, most superstitions in general are laughable. But, to be fair, not all superstitions surrounding black cats are bad: In some parts of the world, black cats are actually considered good luck. In others, it’s more circumstantial. Let’s break it down.

America: Bad Luck

Blame it on the Pilgrims. Those nutty isolationists came to America with a zeal for the Bible and heaps of ridiculous superstitions, including the belief that cats — particularly black cats — were witches’ familiars, witches in disguise, and/or the shape-shifting minions of the cloven-hoofed one himself. These days, we know (most of us) that the Pilgrims were batshit (hello, Salem witch trials), but the historical precedent they established for discriminating against cats continues in popular media today. Black cats are also inextricably linked to Halloween and found on all manner of decorations, often rearing up and hissing menacingly. Not exactly a warm and cuddly image. 

England: Bad Luck (mostly)

Given that the Pilgrims came from England, it should come as no surprise that negative associations with black cats dominated there as well. However, the idea that black cats were in league with the devil was hardly universal. In fact, English and Irish sailors considered black cats to be good luck and welcomed them aboard their ships as mousers. The wives of these sailors would sometimes even keep a black cat at home, believing they would help bring their husbands home safely. 

Interestingly, pirates appear to have had a somewhat more complex view of the relationship between cats and the sea. For them, a black cat walking toward you was bad luck, but one walking away from you was good luck — unless that cat was disembarking from a ship, in which case the whole thing was doomed to sink.

Scotland: Good and Bad Luck

England’s neighbor to the north also appears to have had a somewhat fraught relationship with black cats. Celtic folklore tells of a faerie creature called the Cat Sith — a large black cat with a white patch on its chest — who was said to stalk the Scottish Highlands and steal the souls of the dead by walking across their bodies before they had been properly buried. But a more modern Scottish superstition says that a black cat appearing on your doorstep is a sign of future prosperity. Let’s go with that one.

Wales: Good Luck

The associations probably aren’t all good — after all, you can’t be that close to the Brits and not be touched by at least some of their black cat bias — but there is a Welsh folkloric tradition that says black cats are good for keeping disease away from the home. 

Mainland Europe: Bad Luck

Let’s blame this one on a combination of Satanic hysteria and the rise of the bubonic plague. In the 14th century, the Black Death arrived in Europe from Asia and decimated the population. Unaware that the plague was transmitted by fleas and desperate for a scapegoat, many Europeans blamed cats, particularly black ones, saying they were sent by Satan to spread the disease.

The irony of this was that while cats could, indeed, host fleas, they were also an effective weapon against the rodents that the fleas liked best. So, when people started culling cats, they were just dooming themselves. Humans. The irony of Europeans associating cats with disease is made even richer when we consider that, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the genetic mutations that cause cats to have black coats may actually offer protection from certain diseases.  

Egypt: Good Luck

Long before Europeans started blaming all their woes on cats, the Ancient Egyptians were worshipping black cats like gods. Sort of. The goddess Bastet, daughter of Re, the sun god, was often depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a beautiful black cat. Bastet was believed to banish threats and evil spirits and protect the home from disease. As a result, black cats were often kept as pets.

In conclusion, black cats are neither good nor bad luck. Because even if luck did exist, cats — black or otherwise — certainly wouldn’t be responsible for it. Cats are responsible for the hair on your clothes and the bad smells coming from the litter box and that’s about it. So, if you have a black cat, give them a little extra love today, and if you don’t, consider adopting one — shelters are full of them and they are no less worthy of a home than their lighter-hewed brethren.

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Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.