Black Cat Folklore: Exploring the Enduring Mythology

Jack-O-Lantern. Dorann Weber / Getty Images

Black cats have played a major role in folklore, superstition, and mythology for centuries. In the middle ages, they were believed to be witches' incarnate or witches' familiar, the latter of which is an animal-shaped spirit or demon thought to serve a witch or magician as a spy and companion. Strangely, many of these old superstitions still exist to this day. Around Halloween, the mythology and lore around black cats are especially prominent. 

Black Cat Folklore

Depending on the location and century in which one lived, black cats either symbolized good or bad luck. For instance, in 16th-century Italy, people believed that if someone was sick, he or she would die if a black cat lay on his bed. Today, in Asia and the U.K., a black cat is considered lucky. In Yorkshire, England, it may be lucky to own a black cat, but it is unlucky to have one cross your path. Completely opposite of that, it's considered bad luck if a black cat crosses your path, and good luck if a white cat crosses your path if you live in North America.

There are many beliefs about black cats that exist around the world today:

  • To dream of a black cat is lucky.
  • Seeing a black cat in your dream indicates that you are experiencing some fear in using your psychic abilities and believing in your intuition.
  • A funeral procession with a black cat is believed to forecast the death of another family member.
  • Finding a white hair on a black cat brings good luck.
  • A strange black cat on a porch brings prosperity to the owner.
  • A black cat seen from behind portrays a bad omen. If a black cat walks towards you, it brings good fortune; if it walks away, it takes the good luck with it.
  • If a black cat crosses your path while you're driving, turn your hat around backward and mark an "X" on your windshield to prevent bad luck.

Why are Black Cats Associated with Bad Luck?

Black Cats and Religious Beginnings

Black cats have long been associated with witches and witchcraft, and they're still used today as costumes and in decor and party themes during Halloween. This trend is so embedded in modern society that we've forgotten its ancient beginnings.

For instance, the religious year of Pagans starts and ends with Samhain. This is also the beginning of the Celtic new year, according to Patti Wigington, a Pagan and Wiccan Expert. Samhain is a time for honoring the ancestors who came before us, as well.

Another religious beginning of Halloween is how the Catholics celebrated the first of November as The Solemnity of All Saints. This led to October 31 being designated All Hallows' Eve since the saints celebrated on November 1st were considered hallowed.

Black Cats and Witches

It was largely believed that the black cat became affiliated with evil in the Middle Ages. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were thought to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Folklore even offers that if a witch becomes human, her black cat will no longer reside in her house.

Beliefs that black cats were witches in disguise, or witches reborn also dominated. Others believed black cats were witches' familiars, but not all of them were black cats. Rather, some were cats of other colors, or other animals entirely—dogs, pigs, goats and more.

There are even more extreme pieces of history tied to mythology. For several centuries, "witches" were rounded up, tied, and killed by burning or other violent methods. Often, their familiars were killed along with them.

illustration of folklore about black cats
Illustration: Hugo Lin. © The Spruce, 2018