The numerous folk beliefs about black cats, and cats (Felis catus) in general, are often contradictory. Superstitions surrounding black cats are almost certainly some of the most prevalent even today, along with the number thirteen and walking under a ladder.
Humans and cats have lived in close association for at least 3500 years, and probably considerably longer than that, as the interred remains of a human and a cat have been found buried together with various decorative artefacts in a 9500-year-old grave in Cyprus. By contrast, the earliest known graves of dogs and man are about 12,000 years old.
There is no evidence to suggest that the way society has viewed black cats is in any way related to them having different behavioural or personality characteristics as compared with other cat colours.
Bury the head of a black catt with a Jacobus or piece of gold in it and putt into the eies two black baenes. But it must be donne on a Tuesday night at twelve o’clock at night; and that time nine nights the piece of gold must be taken out and whatever you buy with it (always reserving some part of the money) you will have money brought to your pockets, perhaps the same piece of gold again. — Charm from Herefordshire
Although in England a black cat crossing a person’s path is generally considered to bring good luck, in much of the rest of Europe the opposite is true. A black cat walking into a house or a room has also been considered fortunate. The wives of fishermen in the area around Scarborough, in Yorkshire, kept black cats in their homes in the hope that its influence would keep their husbands safe while at sea.
Black cats have moved in very exalted circles. King Charles I thought so highly of his lucky black cat that he kept him under constant guard. On hearing that his cat had died, Charles is reported to have lamented “My luck is gone”. And so it transpired, as he was arrested by Parliamentarian forces the following day.
Yet I went into the house again. Killed the black cat, and here’s the brain. — Witches’ song from Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens (1609)
Although black cats are widely associated with witches, they were just one of the animals that appear as familiarsDemonic spirit who attends upon a witch, possessing magical powers that can be used for good or evil. Often taking the form of a small animal such as a cat. in confessions. In his Beware the Cat (1553), the author William Baldwin recounted the then commonly held belief that blacks cats were actually witches who had taken on the form of a cat: “A Cat hath nine lives, that is to say, a witch may take on her a Cat’s body nine times”.
Association with deities
Freya, the Norse queen of the Valkyries, was said to ride in a chariot pulled by black cats, which given how fiercely independent cats are known to be would have been a great accomplishment.
The mutilation or death of a black cat is the basis for several cures recorded in the 17th and 18th centuries, often involving blood taken from the cat’s cut-off ear or its tail and smeared on the affected body part: blood from the ear for St Anthony’s Fire – probably ergotism – and blood from the tail for shingles.
The trick bone of a black cat was believed to confer on its owner the power of invisibility, which seems a little curious given that the cat itself was not invisible. The spellVerbal charm to be spoken or chanted, sometimes a single magic word such as Abracadabra or the Renervate encountered in the fictional Harry Potter series of books. calls for a black cat to be decapitated and its body boiled in ashes and water until the flesh is removed from its bones. Sometimes the trick bone will rise to the top of the boiling liquid once all the flesh has gone, otherwise each bone must be tested in turn by placing it in the mouth and asking a helper “Do you see me?” When he or she answers “I don’t see you”, that is the trick bone. If no assistant is available then a mirror can be used as a substitute. As a cat’s skeleton contains about 240 bones,[a]The number can vary between 230 and 250, depending on factors such as the length of the tail. By way of comparison, humans have 206 bones in their skeleton. the procedure must have taken some time.
The taghairmScottish Celtic practice similar to necromancy, in which spirits or demons are conjured up to help achieve some end, or to foretell the future. of Scottish Celtic magic involved impaling black cats on spits and roasting them alive, in an effort to provoke the appearance of their master, the Devil. A deal could then be struck in which the Devil agreed to grant the wishes of the magicians in return for their stopping the ordeal.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black CatShort story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the 19 August 1843 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, a study of the psychology of guilt. “, a psychological study of guilt, the narrator has a black cat called Pluto. He is on good terms with the cat until he falls victim to alcoholism and kills both the cat and his wife, who has earlier reminded him that black cats are all witches in disguise. Poe himself had a black cat, of whom he wrote
The writer of this article is the owner of one of the most remarkable black cats in the world – and this is saying much; for it will be remembered that black cats are all of them witches.
The darkness of a cat’s fur is determined by the presence of a pigment called melanin, which also gives humans their dark skin colouration. Domestic cats have 38 chromosomes,[b]Humans have 46 chromosomes. of which one – chromosome E2 – carries the ASIP gene. It is a mutation of this gene, known as ASIP-Δ2,[c]Δ2 is the nomenclature used to indicate that the mutant gene has two fewer base pairs than the normal gene, i.e. they have been lost during DNA replication. which is responsible for producing black cats. The gene is recessive in domestic cats, although not in some big cats such as jaguars, so both parents of a black domestic cat must be carriers of ASIP-Δ2 even if neither of them is itself black.
Such investigations as have been carried out to determine whether black cats display any common personality or behavioural characteristics that mark them out from other cats have failed to find any significant differences. It thus seems that the portrayal of black cats in legend and folklore has nothing to do with the cats themselves.
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