In “The Black Cat,” the narrator’s wife makes frequent comments about some of the superstitions associated with black cats, such as the fact that they are supposed to be witches in disguise. We will look at the history of such superstitions, which may shed light on the tale itself.
Many of the deleterious stereotypes regarding black cats arose in the Middle Ages, a time of entrenched religious power and concomitant superstition and persecution of perceived evildoers. The Romans and Egyptians worshiped a pantheon of gods, many in the form of idols, and the cat was seen as part of that tradition that Christianity needed to rout out to maintain and expand its power. Thus, the association of the cat—the black cat—with paganism became commonplace. Normans and Germanic peoples saw a black cat as an omen of imminent death, and a black cat crossing one’s path was bad luck. In Scotland, it was commonly believed that there was a fairy called the Cat Sith that had the appearance of a large black cat and could steal a dead person’s soul before the gods claimed it.
Black cats were strongly associated with witches. The devil apparently sent black cats to assist witches, and witches could turn themselves into black cats so they would not be detected. Black cats could also be the familiars of witches. Sadly, both "witches" and black cats were killed in high numbers due to these fears. According to American Folklore, some of the roots of these superstitions can be explained as follows: “There is an English folktale in which a father and son, traveling home late one night, saw a black cat cross their path. The son threw a stone at the creature, fearing it was a witch’s familiar, and the stone hit the cat in the left leg. The injured animal gave forth an unholy shriek and fled under the stoop of a house belonging to a woman long suspected of being a witch. The next morning, the father and son met the old woman at the local marketplace and saw that she was limping on her left leg. From that day, the people in that town were sure that the woman was an evil witch that prowled their town at night in the shape of a black cat, looking to do mischief against anyone who crossed her.”
These fears and superstitions traveled to America with the European peopling of the Atlantic seaboard. Black cats and witches were still associated with each other, and both were still targeted and killed. With Halloween’s co-opting of the black cat as an emblem of terror, the stereotypes found more fuel and have endured to the present day.
Not all societies have negative associations with black cats, however. In some places in the world, it is considered good luck for a black cat to greet you at your door, for a black cat to enter your home, and for you to encounter three black cats in succession. In Japan, a single woman who owns a black cat with have good luck and many suitors; in Scotland nowadays, a black cat arriving at a home signals prosperity.