Black cats, beyond doubt, have been the victim of some truly terrible publicity over the years. Whoever their agent is, he or she just isn’t getting the job done. Black cats are no more or less malevolent than any other creature on God’s gray earth, yet they’ve been considered symbolic of bad luck, witchcraft, and just outright evil for centuries now, despite being beautiful, frequently adorable, animals. Every Halloween, the stereotype is perpetuated, with people buying two- and-three-dimensional representations of black cats at their local party supply stores and displaying them throughout their homes, with the implied message that these animals are to be mistrusted. It wasn’t always so. In the days of Ancient Egypt black cats were revered, but by the Middle Ages in Europe, they were reviled. What went wrong here? The YouTube documentary series Today I Found Out, as hosted by the charmingly named Simon Whistler, decided to investigate. All is revealed in an episode entitled “Why Black Cats Are Considered Bad Luck.”
As Whistler reveals, the black cat’s reputation started going to shit when anti-witch hysteria began spreading throughout Medieval Europe. Cats (including black ones) were the favorite pets of “poor, lonely old ladies.” (The witches of yesteryear are the crazy cat ladies of today.) Back in the day, however, those eccentric oldsters were sometimes accused of practicing witchcraft, and their pets were guilty by association.
Things really got bad for black cats in the 1560s, the victims of what would now be called an urban legend. A popular story held that a father and son in Lincolnshire, England, saw a black cat crossing their paths and threw rocks at it. The injured animal took shelter in the home of a suspected witch, and that selfsame “witch” was seen hobbling the next day. The takeaway here should have been “watch out for fathers and sons bearing rocks,” but the people of Lincolnshire learned another lesson: Witches can morph into black cats at night. Good one, Lincolnshire. It was all downhill for black cats from there. It seems doubtful that their image can be rehabilitated now.