Break out the bunting because today, August 17th, is officially Black Cat Appreciation Day - an annual celebration designed to champion the cause of black cats and dispel the many unhelpful myths and superstitions which have grown around these most beautiful and magical of creatures. Incredible as it may seem, black cats are still the object of considerable stigma. They have lower chances of adoption from rescue shelters compared to other colours of feline, are the frequent targets of attacks and cruelty and are considered by many to be unlucky, no matter how irrational that might sound. Many shelters have to suspend adoption of black cats around Halloween for fear they will be tortured or killed or else used as "living decorations" for the holiday and then swiftly abandoned.
This prejudice dates back to the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church promoted the belief that black cats were evil shape-shifters with the ability to change into human form to act as spies or couriers for witches and demons. During this period, anyone caught with a black cat faced being tried for witchcraft and was likely to be severely punished or even executed. Throughout Europe, black cats were burned in midsummer bonfires in large-scale massacres orchestrated by the Church. This utterly insane slaughter of innocent animals backfired badly on humanity however as it had the unintended effect of helping the spread of Bubonic Plague by increasing the rat population!
Black cats haven't always suffered bad press though. While belief in their supernatural powers has always been widespread, their influence was at one time deemed to be benevolent. The ancient belief in cats having nine lives was in fact preceded by an even older belief that black cats, specifically, were immortal and could not die. This belief may have had its origins in the fact that black cats generally live longer than other colours of feline, owing to the pigmentation of their fur being more resistant to infection. In Great Britain and Ireland, black cats have traditionally been a symbol of good luck. The 17th Century English monarch Charles I certainly believed so as upon the death of his treasured pet black cat he is said to have lamented that his luck was gone. True to his claim, he was arrested the very next day and charged with high treason. Sailors looking for a ship's cat would often want a black one because of the belief that they brought good luck, while fishermen's wives would keep black cats at home too in the hope they would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea.
Black cats were venerated in Ancient Egypt where one of the most powerful deities was the cat goddess known as Bast or Bastet. Egyptian households believed they could gain favour from Bastet by hosting black cats in their household. The Vatican's irrational fear of black cats most likely stems from the animal's former divine and exalted status. Anything which harked back to older pre-Christian pagan belief systems was deemed a threat to the Church's authority and was therefore demonised and denounced as the work of the devil. Black cats were therefore lumped in with ancient wisdom teachings, alternative medicine, herbology, divination, healing and hypnosis, all of which were branded as "dark arts" and stamped out with shocking brutality, though in truth these practices were merely driven underground and are thankfully enjoying a much-needed resurgence today. Ironically, the Church's denunciation of black cats has striking parallels with the story of Jesus - another figure who went from being viewed as a deity to suffering a sacrificial death because he was deemed to be a threat to the status quo.
My love of black cats is well known. My own black-coated feline familiar, Dillon, recently celebrated his 20th birthday and shows no sign of slowing down with age. I also own more than one black cat-themed Tarot deck. To me, the rich mythology in which black cats are steeped, and their association with esoteric, arcane knowledge, only serves to increase their sense of intrigue and appeal. The persecution and prejudice they have historically suffered makes them an archetypal symbol for the rights of the downtrodden, the rejected and the unfairly stigmatised. Like the old village "wise women" who were denounced as witches and burned at the stake for practising traditional medicine, black cats are a glorious symbol of the shining beauty of individuality. The same can be said to be true of indigenous shamans, the Knights Templar and the peace-loving medieval Cathars - all of whom were persecuted and butchered by the authorities for possessing ancient wisdom which was deemed a threat and for committing the cardinal sin of failing to conform to society's norms.
Black cats resonate with the marginalised and the rejected and have an archetypal appeal to anyone who's ever known what it's like to be an outsider on the fringes of society. Black Cat Appreciation Day provides a welcome opportunity to celebrate these beautiful, magical, seductive creatures but also to show our love for everyone and everything that dares to be different instead of blindly following the herd. At a time when there has never been a greater need for people to come together and embrace the beauty of unity through diversity, black cats - with their rich heritage of magical associations - provide a beacon of hope that we can all rise again, no matter what persecutions or tribulations we might have suffered in the past. Happy Black Cat Appreciation Day everyone!