Thursday, October 27, 2011

Black Cats

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm ready to let go of the whole idea that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck. I encounter black cats on my walks all over the place here in Portland, and I'm really beginning to feel foolish crossing the street or turning around and going all the way around the block to avoid them.

It's time.

So I went on a search-and-find-out-the-real-story quest. Here's what I discovered.

There was a time - albeit a while ago in 3000 BC in ancient Egypt - when all cats were held in high esteem and protected by law from injury and death. A cat's death was mourned by entire families who embalmed the bodies of their pets, wrapping them in fine linen and placing them in mummy cases made of precious materials like bronze and wood - a scare commodity.

The first documented demonization of black cats came about  during the Middle Ages in Europe. Cats in general have always been survivors, and back then they quickly overpopulated major cities. It also helped that they were probably fed by poor, lonely old ladies. I'm sure there were lonely old men in the mix, but they aren't mentioned in my source for some reason.

When witch hysteria hit Europe, many of these homeless women were accused of practicing black magic, their cat companions (especially black ones) were also found guilty by association. In Lincolnshire in the 1560s, a tale tells of a father and his son who were frightened one moonless night when a black cat darted across their path and into a crawl space. Hurling stones into the opening, they saw the cat scurry out and limp into the adjacent home of a woman suspected by the town of being a witch. The next day the father and son were supposed to have seen the same woman on the street - her face was bruised, her arm bandaged and she walked with a limp. From that day on in Lincolnshire, all black cats were suspected of being witches in night disguise. The notion traveled with colonists across the pond. The belief that witches transformed themselves into black cats in order to prowl streets unobserved was especially potent in America during the Salem witch hunts.

Many societies in the late Middle Ages attempted to drive black cats into extinction. As the witch scare mounted to paranoia, many innocent women and their harmless pets were burned at the stake.  In France, thousands of cats were burned monthly until King Louis XIII halted the practice in the 1630s.

On the other hand, there were some, more enlightened societies that believed quite the opposite of the black cat. Many believed that a black cat brought good fortune and also, anyone who found the one perfect pure white hair in an all-black cat and plucked it out without being scratched, would find great wealth and good luck in love. In Britain, on the Yorkshire coast, wives of fishermen believed that their menfolk would return safely if a black cat was kept in the house, and English sailors believed that keeping black cats aboard their vessels content, would ensure fair weather when they went to sea.

Today a black cat in the audience on opening night portends a successful play. In the south of France, black cats are referred to as "matagots" or "magician cats." According to local superstition, they bring good luck to owners who feed them well and treat them with the respect. In the English Midlands, a black cat as a wedding present is thought to bring good luck to the bride.

I now feel as if a historically huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

Black Cats • 8" x 8" watercolor framed to 12" x 12" • $200

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