I almost forgot it was Friday the 13th this last weekend until Mr. Snuggles and I, out for our usual walk to check the mail, were stopped by two of our neighbors. The ladies excitedly remarked how awesome it was for me to walk around with a black cat on Friday the 13th, pointing out that I was responsible for allowing my black cat to cross their path. “Well, then,” I snarkingly replied, “better be sure to give ’em a cuddle for good luck. Mr. Snuggles is a ladies’ cat!” I then added that black cats bring speedy marriages to single ladies. “REALLY?!” They giggled with joy, not about to believe me, but, hey, it’s a nice good luck charm, in’it? So they, never having heard about that legend before, and me always looking for an opportunity to tell a tall tale, indulged in the magic. Mr. Snuggles enjoyed the women’s attention like any mister on the prowl would. When I brought him home, his fur was thick with ladies’ perfume. That’s my little lover!
I’ve discovered that, stereotype or not, the black cat is not really associated with bad luck as has been believed. What can be believed is black cats inspire mystery and power, and their long association with Witches both historical and mythical is no coincidence. Black cats are the tiny ‘house panthers’ we invite into our homes, providing reminders of the great unknown — little shadows of the jungle beyond — and those eyes, those sharp claws, like sickle moons to poke the skin! I don’t know about you, but my black cat, no matter how cute he is, is still wild and fierce, the hunter that never goes to sleep. And I, his Witch, is a Daughter of Diana/Selena/Hecate, Isis/Bast/Hathor, and a host of many goddesses of the Moon, all of whom regard the cat as sacred representative of the Divine. Together, cat and Witch, no matter the color of our skin and fur, go very well together. But why specifically is the black cat most identified with the Witch?
How Black Cats & Witches Became a Perfect Pair
- Ancient gods took the forms of, and were occasionally personified by black cats, specifically the Egyptian Goddesses Bast and Isis. The Greco-Roman Goddess Diana Triformis and Tergemina — Selena/Luna (full moon, mother), Artemis/Diana (waxing moon, virgin), Hecate (dark moon, crone) — especially Diana often appeared in the form of a black cat. Black cats, being the representatives of the goddess, get spoiled by the priestesses.
- Associated with goddess Diana and many goddesses associated with the Moon, including a few gods who ruled the Sun, all cats became symbolic of fertility and women. The Daughters of Diana, her priestesses, dressed in black robes, some made from the skins/fur of black cats for their powerful association with the goddess.
- Black cats symbolic of magic and darkness after the goddess Diana, who later would be known as Queen of the Witches, when her cult went underground and eventually faded from history.
- Before the Dianic cult is dead in the north, Rome became Christian and soon anything having to do with the pagan gods must be done away with. The Black Cat, symbol and companion, often personification of the goddesses of fertility and magic, soon gained a bad reputation. No longer a symbol of life, the black cat became harbinger of bad luck and death.
- Domesticated and no longer revered as gods in fur coats, cats had a job: to get rid of vermin. This gave them the power to protect the homes of humans from parasites and disease-carrying rats. They also had another job: provide companionship to the lonely, becoming the favorites of the widows and elderly. Women especially loved their cats, so cats became known as “house cats” just as wives are “housewives.”
- Black cats were accused of being Witches because; they had black fur, they had strange sexual lives, they howled, they were scary, their growl was otherworldly, women kept them as pets, women talked to them.
- Black cats are thought to be Witches in animal form and are hunted down and destroyed by the thousands.
- Black cats are thought to be the personification of the Devil.
- Black cats hunted by gypsies and sorcerers for their magical properties. It was believed that they had psychic power and were the preferred form that demons and other spirits liked to possess when called upon to complete a task for a magician.
- People revered the Sun and Moon and considered them gods. Later the followers of lunar and solar divinities associated specific animals with them. The cat, particularly the black cat, represented the Moon. People domesticated cats not just because they were good at keeping vermin away, but they made great companions. Roman goddess Diana transformed into a black cat several times, becoming her priestesses’ favorite temple consort.
- The ancient Dianic Cult (possibly ones like it) spreads throughout the known world, going as far north as the British Isles. Goddesses from other cultures could be easily identified with the Virgin Diana. Her priestesses wear robes of black, black representing the color of the earth, womb, and the night sky. Black cats were revered for this holy association.
- Diana’s religion went against patriarchal rule because its chief leaders were women. The Daughters of Diana go underground and worship in secret.
- Celtic version of Hecate (Diana’s crone form) known as Nicneven was worshiped when a multi-cultural intermixing of Celt, Goth, and Roman faiths were accepted. The Diana/Hecate cult survived “with considerable vigour” in Scotland until the 18th century, but was fading before the Medieval persecutions. Hecate/Nicneven could transform into creatures — a black cat come to visit could be the dark goddess come as a warning of death to come.
- After ancient pagan mystery cults fade into obscurity, and/or their followers wiped out by invading cultures, some evidence suggests that their healing and magical ways were passed down between women. The cures and spells were called Witchcraft by the Saxons who had a distaste for it, considering it treason and a sin. It wasn’t punishable by death until the 13th century.
- Women were accused of being Witches because; they had sex, they gave birth, they lived longer than men, they seemed to love animals — especially their cats — more than they did their husbands.
- Women are accused of being Witches mostly because they are women. They are said to take the forms of black cats nine times in their lifetime.
- Witches are thought to commune with the Devil who takes the form of a black cat.
- It was believed that every Witch was supposed to have a black cat present with them at all times. A spirit assumed the body of the black cat to perform the Witches’ tasks of maleficia against their neighbors.
The Witch & Black Cat Share the Same Fate
Both the Witch and the black cat have their origins in ancient religions where they were revered, later to be much maligned in folklore and superstition. They became symbols of evil after people let themselves be ruled by fear of the Devil. Women were most accused of Witchcraft, and black cats were usually accused to be their accomplices by the Church, an institution that adopted ritual and creed from solar and lunar theogonies where the fertility symbols of woman and cat were regarded as sacred (even though women were not often considered citizens in patriarchal cultures that worshiped multiple gods). The Church was zealous in its war against the traditions and customs left remaining that it could not assimilate into its theosophy. Any practices not officially sanctioned by the Church were so illegal, not only were they a sin, they were punishable by death like a treason against God. In the Medieval period, suspected witches and their black cats (including any other animals associated with them that had black fur) had to be tortured and destroyed because they were the last remaining icons of a dreaded past that could not completely be vanquished. Perhaps it was feared, more than the Devil, that a revival of the pagan faiths would lead people to discover links between the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Diana, and worse yet, realize that Christianity was the same in essentials as the religions of antiquity?!
If the Witch and her Black Cat shared the same fate at the stake, what future do they share today? Well, modern Witches love their animals, no matter what the color of their fur. Even though we are far removed from the persecution of the violent past, we now live in an age where the image of the Halloween witch and black cat are cartoons — cute or grotesque, few people are aware of the history behind the symbolism and just accept it as harmless fanfare. Are we honoring the women and cats who were sacrificed by dressing up in a mockery of them? Are we not perpetuating the centuries of degradation by continuing the custom of parading their homogenized image everywhere on Halloween? Or am I taking this all too seriously? I just don’t want to consider it a joke.
The Black Cat and Modern Witch Relationship: Are We True Familiars?
Go ahead and roll your eyes at me, but I am a modern-day Witch living with a black cat. We are familiars in the sense that we are like two peas occupying the same pod. We may be a walking stereotype together, but I didn’t plan it that way. Mr. Snuggles found me late one Midsummer’s Eve 2008 (I’m telling the truth) while I was on a walk around the block. I was very depressed that night, wishing for true love, and he came leaping out of the darkness with high-pitched cries of distress. No sooner did I turn to him, did he jump up on my leg and climb up into my arms with a heart racing so fierce, I thought he would burst. Needless to say, my rescuing him was also his rescuing of me! He had fallen out of a window and was lost, desperate to find home. I was feeling empty and lonely, desperate to find someone to love. Later I would save his life when he nearly died from an infection, and he would save mine when I nearly fell into a diabetic coma.
An animal familiar is not a spirit familiar. Even though there is a history of diabolical spirits conjured into the bodies of black cats, and into other animals, used by sorcerers to do their bidding, such an idea is not only frowned upon, it’s just not done today by Wiccans and other magicians. The modern Witch loves and takes great care of her animals. Animals are considered our equals on earth and even the ones we eat we believe should be treated well before we take them into our bodies. Each animal has within them power and abilities we do not possess, so when we do eat them, and wear their skins as covering, we engage their spirit, and their special qualities pass into us temporarily as a gift from the sacrificed animal. But don’t get the wrong idea about that, we do not sacrifice animals, we do, however, believe that some animals sacrifice themselves so we can survive. Animals have souls like we do and they can reincarnate just as well. We need to honor them as we honor all life.
A belief passed down to me from my Menominee father is that our ancestors can come back to us in the form of animals. The short life span of animals explains why they can only be with us for only a little while. The animal/ancestor temporarily lives with us to look after us and give us the comfort we needed that they could not give us because either they were dead before they got to know us, or because they didn’t give it to us while they were alive. The Great Spirit allows this to happen in order for their souls to make amends, and for us to find peace when we feel most alone and sad.
The 21st century animal familiar is not a spirit at all but an animal who forms a psychic bond with a human being. The animal chooses whether or not they want to have this very close relationship with us. Not all animals are so interested because they are average creatures who are more into doing the things their species like to do. An animal familiar shows more than average intelligence and feels more at home with human beings than with other animals. They are rare individuals with unique abilities that set them apart, or even above, members of their own species.
The modern Witch cannot will or “call” an animal familiar, it comes of its own will and appears unexpectedly in one’s life. It may even disappear out of our lives unexpectedly as well. Furthermore, the animal may seem to reappear or be reincarnate in our lives again in the form of another animal that closely resembles it years later. The last four cats in my life have all been black cats that all look the same. Friends think this is particularly weird! But I do not visit the local shelter to pick a cat, nor do I adopt one based on the color of their fur, and I don’t deliberately choose one that looks exactly like the cat I had before. I let the cat decide if they like me or not before I bring it home. My cats are not slaves to me. I don’t keep them like pets, I pretty much treat them like “people” in fur bodies.
Familiars are not pets. I don’t believe animals should be pets either. But I’m not above it all to rule out all the mundane reasons why my cat found me when he did and why we bonded so well. But (go ahead and roll your eyes again, laugh, too) I’ll take one step further and tell you that the relationship I share with my black cat is a true love as real and special as a romantic one. I consider Mr. Snuggles like my child, but he’s also my companion, my little lover who is constantly at my side. I wasn’t sure he would be a magical assistant until he decided to participate in ritual. He does not always want to get involved, but when he does, it amazes me. When he began to do this, I improvised rituals to include him and it enhanced the experience and my awareness. Psychically we have lent each other our consciousness.
It may sound crazy, but I’m not out to change anyone’s mind, or impress upon anyone that what I have with Mr. Snuggles is real or not. We are simply a Witch and a Black Cat in love, and our relationship works whether or not you choose to believe in it. No matter! I listen to Mr. Snuggles and watch his responses. His senses are sharper than mine and he tells me things with his body language and infinite tones of “meow” about what is going on around us. Sometimes I feel very clumsy compared to him. He’s smarter than me, I swear. I could keep you up all night talking about him.
So, What’s Up with Black Cats & Witches?!
A few last-minute quick facts as to why this image is so common:
- More black cats survive in a litter more than do cats of any other fur color. This may be due to a stronger immune system, or the color may help them hide from predators.
- Black tomcats are more successful hunters because they blend better in the shadows. There may even be more black toms because there are more black cat survivors in a litter. Maybe they’re the toughest, too.
- The fear that black cats will be abused keeps them from getting adopted, especially around Halloween. But statistics show that it’s not only black cats, it is ALL cats in general who get abused EVERYDAY for no reason. Adopt a black cat because they are more common than you think and end their shelter time because they will be there longer than the rest of the strays.
- The Black cat is a symbol of anarchism used by Industrial Workers of the World to warn employers that they better back off from messing with their employees.
- Black cats were they symbol for not just revolutionaries, but Bohemians in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century. Witches, too, have notoriously hung out with the counterculture crowd, so it’s no wonder having a black cat around further pushes the point that all things related to the black cat are cool, daddy-O!
- Long after the devilish stigma, Hollywood turned the image of the Witch and Black Cat into both a horror and cartoon icon, further implanting, along with literature, the idea that all witches have black cats. From this idea spread many stories about all kinds of fantasy witches and their faithful black cats, so popular that even today’s Wiccans think they’re cool.
- A pop culture over-saturation of gothic and swords-and-sorcery fantasy sexy witches with their black cat familiars adds more fuel to the fire of imagination about the stereotype. Even though it can be annoyingly trite, Witches young and old today are still attracted to this fairy tale imagery and can’t resist using these images as their avatars online.
As usual, I have gotten overly prolific about this subject material, so I’ll have to break it up into two parts. Coming next: Black Cat Power, Part Two: All the Luck!
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Celtic Researches by John Davies, pub. about 1630.
Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, pub. by John Murray, London, 1833.
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The Once and Future Goddess: A Sweeping Visual Chronicle of the Sacred Female and Her Reemergence in the Cult by Elinor W. Gadon, pub. by HarperOne (November 29, 1989)