As superstitions go, fear of a black cat crossing one's path is of relatively recent origin. It is also entirely antithetical to the revered place held by the cat when it was first domesticated in Egypt around 3000 BC.
All cats, including black ones, were held in high esteem among the ancient Egyptians and protected by law from injury and death. So strong was cat idolatry that a pet's death was mourned by the entire family; and both rich and poor embalmed the bodies of their cats in exquisite fashion, wrapping them in fine linen and placing them in mummy cases made of precious materials such as bronze and even wood - a scarcity in timber-poor Egypt. Entire cat cemeteries have been unearthed by archaeologists, with mummified black cats commonplace.
Dread of cats, especially black cats, first arose in Europe in the Middle Ages, particularly in England. The cat's characteristic independence, willfulness, and stealth, coupled with its sudden overpopulation in major cities, contributed to its fall from grace. Alley cats were often fed by poor, lonely old ladies, and when witch hysteria struck Europe, and many of these homeless women were accused of practicing black magic, their cat companions (especially black ones) were deemed guilty of witchery by association.
One popular tale from British feline lore illustrates the thinking of the day. In Lincolnshire in the 1560s, a father and his son were frightened one moonless night when a small creature darted across their path into a crawl space. Hurling stones into the opening, they saw an injured black cat scurry out and limp into the adjacent home of a woman suspected by the town of being a witch. Next day, the father and son encountered the woman on the street. Her face was bruised, her arm bandaged. And she now walked with a limp
From that day on in Lincolnshire, all black cats were suspected of being witches in night disguise. The lore persisted. The notion of witches transforming themselves into black cats in order to prowl streets unobserved became a central belief in America during the Salem witch hunts. Thus, an animal once looked on with approbation became a creature dreaded and despised.
Many societies in the late Middle Ages attempted to drive cats into extinction. As the witch scare mounted to paranoia, many innocent women and their harmless pets were burned at the stake.
A baby born with eyes too bright, a face too canny, a personality too precocious, was sacrificed for fear that it was host to a spirit that would in time become a witch by day, a black cat by night. In France, thousands of cats were burned monthly until King Louis XIII, in the 1630s, halted the shameful practice. Given the number of centuries in which black cats were slaughtered throughout Europe, it is surprising that the gene for the colour black was not deleted from the species... unless the cat does possess nine lives.
Many people believe that a black cat brings good fortune and also, that anyone who finds the one perfect, pure white hair in an all-black cat and plucks it out without being scratched, will find great wealth and good luck in love.
In Britain, on the Yorkshire coast, wives of fishermen believe that their menfolk will return safely if a black cat is kept in the house.
A black cat in the audience on opening night portends a successful play.
In the south of France, black cats are referred to as "matagots" or "magician cats." According to local superstition, they bring good luck to owners who feed them well and treat them with the respect they deserve.
Black cats were once treated like royalty in the homes of English sailors, who believed that keeping them happy would ensure fair weather when they went to sea. They became so high-priced that few sailors could afford them! Black cats aren't bad luck everywhere. In the English Midlands, a black cat as a wedding present is thought to bring good luck to the bride.
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