Black Cats: Reclaiming the Sacred Feline
Halloween and the season of black cats is a good time to examine our misplaced beliefs and return our relationship with cats to a sacred sphere.
It’s that time of year again. Black cats adorn Halloween cards, trend on Instagram feeds, and embellish kid-created art.
And, in my house, two plead for food daily at 4 am (and every two hours after that). Perhaps due to my October birthday or my unrelenting love of anything magical, the majority of my feline roommates have been black coated.
A Legacy of Black Cat P.R. Problems
As a child, I was warned—very seriously—that the family kitty should not go outside at night during October. “People do hurtful things to black cats this time of year,” my mother warned.
While there is no data supporting rampant black cat abuse on Halloween, the concern appears online every year, likely a remnant of age-old folklore about the supposed wickedness of their kind. My Scottish ancestors likely stoked this fear, spreading the story of the Cait Sith, a supernatural highland cat who would take souls from any corpses awaiting burial. (Not technically related to the Star Wars Sith, although it’s worth pondering a parallel.) Generations of Europeans starting in the Middle Ages associated black cats with everything from plagues to occult powers to mischievous shapeshifting.
Modernity has not been kind to black cats either: Edgar Allen Poe did a massive disservice in his 1843 The Black Cat. The story’s narrator—in drunken, paranoid fits—abuses a black cat, eventually hanging it. In typical Poe style, the fluffy one gets its revenge, but alas, even that does not redeem the poor cat’s image. And the popular 1942 film Cat People linked cats to devil-worship and va-va-voom sexy bombshells. Myriad fear-inducing and trouble-making portrayals of black cats launched their image onto fireworks and anarchist symbols, as well as symbols of bad luck. Of course, that darn Satanic Panic of the 1980s didn’t help their reputations either.
Unlucky Black Cats
Characterizing a specific color cat as “unlucky” or “evil” is problematic. On the flip side, our well-meaning Instagram memes linking black cats to our modern Wicca and Pagan spiritual paths projects attributions onto our cat companions that may not represent their own personalities or truths.
For those of us devouring books on how to be anti-racist and what we can do about racial injustice, it may be tempting to raise questions about any parallels between humans and felines right about now. English professor Philip Nel beat us to this inquiry in Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books. In his book, Nel reveals Dr. Seuss based the Cat character on a black female elevator operator wearing white gloves who he glimpsed in his publisher’s building (now known to be named Annie Williams). Seuss then borrowed heavily from blackface performance styles for the Cat’s behavior.
In the 60+ years since its publishing, The Cat in the Hat has sold over 10 million copies. It revolutionized the way kids learned to read, replacing boring Dick and Jane primers. But according to Nel, it also did lasting damage—its racialized origins perpetuated racist tropes in children’s literature. In fact, a study of diversity―or rather lack of diversity―within Dr. Seuss’s books revealed that in addition to the Cat in the Hat, many of his other books “feature animal or non-human characters that transmit Orientalist, anti-black, or White supremacist messaging through allegories and symbolism.”
Whether prompted by medical ignorance, spiritual intolerance, pop culture profit-generating, sexism, or racism, sadly, humanity has not always been kind to cats.
Reclaiming the Sacred Black Cat
In contrast, Ancient Egyptians believed each cat held a bit of divine energy and thus were to be cherished and protected. Taking a cue from this perspective, honoring cats―of all colors―requires us to treat our relationship with them as sacred. We must resist symbolism that is not fair to them. And we must avoid saying or doing things that disparage or disrespect them, instead reclaiming their right to be seen as embodiments of the divine.
- Let our cat companions be themselves: Each animal on this planet is a unique being worthy of our reverence and respect. “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men,” states writer, poet, and social activist Alice Walker in her forward to Marjorie Speigel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. Our relationships with other species are complex. Take time to contemplate where you might be denying an animal its own traits in favor of projecting yours.
- Be aware of how cat terms are used: Rethink phrases that imply violence to cats. For starters, let’s stop saying “Oops, I let the cat out of the bag!” (WTF is a cat trapped in a bag?) Ditto for “curiosity killed the cat.” (For more animal-inclusive language, read “Faux Paws: Common Sayings Animal Lovers Should Avoid.”)
- Enough “cat butt” memes: While cats often display their backsides to show us they aren’t a threat, this doesn’t mean we should take the liberty of proliferating cat butt jokes or pics on our social feeds. (Or dropping likes on images that show cats in other disparaging ways.)
- Question how cats (and other animals) are used symbolically in human stories: While I’m not suggesting we redact animals from our narratives, I do believe we should question what their presence means. Is a usage respectful to the species or the individual being? (Admittedly, as far as we can discern without their input.) Is the animal being used in a way that supports an -ism? Studies have shown correlations exist between how we treat other species with how we treat other people. When we start to ensure we extend compassion to non-human beings, we often treat the humans around us better, too.
- Support cat lives: Those Scottish ancestors of mine likely left out a saucer of milk for Cait Sith on Samhain in hopes of receiving its blessing (and to ward off a cursing of their cows running dry). Thanks to veterinary science, we now know milk is a bad idea for any cat, yet the intention can be salvaged. As we approach Halloween, consider what you can do to help improve cat lives beyond your home. Get involved with Black Cat Holistic Rescue or donate pet food to your local shelter.
Want to understand what your cat is communicating to you? Read “Is Your Feline Sending Divine Signs?”