The Dark History of Black Cat Superstition

By: Bambi Turner  | 
Black cats are thought to bring bad luck, but in truth, there's nothing to fear when a black cat walks by. MorganLeFaye/Getty Images

Everyone knows that when a black cat crosses your path bad luck is sure to follow. But how did black cats get such a dark reputation? The black cat superstition has roots deep in history, intertwining with ancient religions, medieval witch hunts and modern-day misconceptions.


Ancient Beginnings: Cats in Egypt and Paganism

In ancient Egypt, cats, regardless of their color, were revered. Killing a cat, whether intentionally or not, often led to a swift death sentence. Fast forward a few centuries, and the rise of Christianity in Europe began to challenge and eventually overshadow pagan customs.

Pagan symbolism, such as the Roman goddess Diana and cats, became targets. The cat, often linked to witchcraft, paganism and goddesses, began its descent from revered creature to a symbol of evil.


The Middle Ages: Black Cats and the Devil's Kin

The Middle Ages were a particularly grim period for black cats. In 1233 C.E., Pope Gregory IX, representing the Catholic Church, proclaimed that the black cat wasn't merely a bad omen, but an incarnation of the devil.

This declaration led to horrifying acts where devout Christians, in a misguided attempt to showcase their piety, would gather black cats to be burned alive during village festivals.


By the 14th century, the black cat population in certain European regions was alarmingly low, impacting the rodent population and indirectly contributing to the spread of plagues.

Witches and Familiars: The Salem Witch Trials

As centuries passed, the association between black felines and witches solidified in European folklore. Some superstitions claimed that black cats were witches in disguise, while others believed that a black cat could transform into a witch after serving as a witch's familiar for seven years.

By the time the Salem witch trials rolled around in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, merely owning a black cat could be grounds for execution [source: Associated Press].


Modern Misconceptions of Bad Luck

Even today, the black cat superstition persists –– and tragically, it's the black cats that suffer the most. According to the ASPCA, black cats are admitted to shelters and rescues more than cats of any other color. While these spooky kitties make up the majority of cats in the facilities, they also account for a large number being adopted.

But with so many of these beautiful creatures given up to shelters, more do end up euthanized in the long run. While we can't say for sure, the black cat superstitions and bad luck could potentially play a role in why so many of them land in shelters. And come on –– we know now that there's nothing to fear when a black cat appears, right?



Lots More Information

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  • Associated Press. "Salem may Pardon Accused Witches of 1692." Nov. 1, 2004. (Oct. 15, 2014).
  • Blake, Yolanda. "The Truth About Black Cats." Aug. 21, 2020 (Oct. 27, 2021.)
  • Colorado State University. "For Black Cats, Superstition ain't the Way, Colorado State University Study Finds." Oct. 24, 2014. (Oct. 15, 2014).
  • Waddell, Terrie. "Cultural Expressions of Evil and Wickedness: Wrath, Sex, Crime." Rodopi. 2003.
  • Webster, Richard. "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions." Llewellyn Worldwide. 2012.