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An Investigation into the History of Black Cats Being Unlucky

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Thursday is National Black Cat Day, which is aimed at correcting the centuries-long string of bad publicity that black cats have had to endure.

Here’s the thing, though: No one’s exactly sure of why the poor dears are considered unlucky in so much of Western culture. Some countries — Japan and parts of the U.K. — consider the black cat lucky. In Celtic mythology, there’s a fairy creature called the cat sìth that may be the root of the black cat’s connection with witchcraft: The people of the Scottish highlands believed it could steal the soul from a corpse’s body before it was properly claimed by the gods, and the idea of the fairy turning into a human may be where the idea of the black cat as a witch’s familiar originated.

Other people point to the Norse legend of Freya, the goddess of love and fertility, whose chariot was pulled by two black cats. Purportedly after serving Freya for seven years (a recurring number in luck/bad luck superstitions), the cats were rewarded for their service by being turned into witches.

Courtesy of Cyndi Flitton
Courtesy of Cyndi Flitton

It is possible to trace at least one historical cat-hater: Pope Gregory IX, whose 1232 AD papal bull Vox in Rama was the “first official church document that condemns the black cat as an incarnation of Satan.” Things got worse for black cats from there. Throughout the Dark Ages, there were several Christian holidays on which it was popular to burn cats in bonfires. These dates included Shrove Tuesday (the last Tuesday before Lent), the first Sunday of Lent, Easter Sunday and the Feast of Saint John (June 24). There was one royal exception, though: King Charles I of England (1600-1649) owned a black cat he loved dearly, which he considered good luck. When it died, he’s believed to have said “And so my good luck leaves me,” which ended up being true — he was arrested for treason the day after it died and eventually beheaded.

Cat-hating carried over with the Puritans into America, and the Salem Witch Trials cemented it as an everlasting part of witchcraft and cat lore. Fast forward a few hundred years, and black cats became a symbol of something else entirely: The labor movement, and in particular, anarchism.

Black was the traditional color of anarchists, for a number of reasons: It stands in direct opposition to the idea of the white flag (surrender), and it was a callback to the black flags of the pirates. It became a popular symbol during the French Revolution and gained its popularity as an anarchist symbol in the 1800s.

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From there, a particular kind of black cat — back arched, tail stiff — became the symbol of the anarcho-syndicalists, a branch of anarchists focused on labor rights and organizing. It was adopted by the labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, and designed by Ralph Chaplin. While giving testimony at a trial in 1918, Chaplin explained the inspiration behind the adoption of the symbol:

“[The black cat] was commonly used by the boys as representing the idea of sabotage. The idea being to frighten the employer by the mention of the name sabotage, or by putting a black cat somewhere around. You know if you saw a black cat go across your path you would think, if you were superstitious, you are going to have a little bad luck. The idea of sabotage is to use a little black cat on the boss.”

Interestingly, a 2000 study of over 300 cat owners showed that patients with dark-colored cats were up to four times more likely to suffer a moderate to severe allergy attack than those who owned light-colored cats. Researchers believe the darker-colored animals produced more of a specific allergen than their light-colored brethren, so … maybe the whole thing can be chalked up to a bunch of bad allergies?

Either way, the myth has persisted enough to keep black cats from being adopted as much as their buddies. (As much as 50 percent less!) So armed with your new knowledge, adopt away and rest easy knowing you’re doing your part to combat hundreds of years of nonsense superstition.