jump to navigation

Black Cats: Unlucky for Some May 3, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Modern , trackback

Beachcombing’s mother has flown in from the Dominions to visit her grandchildren and generally cause confusion – arguments over restaurant bills, dietary controversies and black cats…

On the last point Beachcombing has to admit though that his mater has a point, one worth sharing with a wider audience.

It would hardly be worth worrying about the question of why black cats are unlucky: after all, black is taken, in the western tradition – the Indo-European tradition? – as being an evil colour. No wonder that black cats then are associated with witches and the devil. Memories here of cat organs and cat throwing competitions…

But there is a teaser that is less easily answered. Why are black cats unlucky everywhere except – it seems – the UK and Ireland? (Are they unlucky everywhere else or is this just a fiction put about by various online sources? Beachcombing ran into a few references to Japan appreciating black cats.)

Go to Germany, Italy, Spain, and interestingly the US and the black cat is Beelzebub’s moggie. Apparently cat shelters in the US refuse to allow adoptions of black cats around Halloween for fear that they will be tortured by creative  adolescents brought up on Hollywood horror schlock. Certainly the belief stateside is that that black cat out back in your yard by the sunbrella will bring you nothing but bad luck.

So why the British-Irish exception? Beachcombing has gone running to his books on folklore and the annals of the Folklore Society determined to prove his mother wrong but has found nothing that is even vaguely convincing.

One common explanation is that black cats are hated in countries where the witch craze took off in the early modern period: Switzerland, Germany… But if England was relatively unscathed by the old-women drowners, black-cat loving Scotland was a hot-bed of witching, while black-cat hating Italy killed relatively few sabbat-goers… Then it is necessary to explain as well why countries like India where Christian witches were never sought are hostile to black cats.

Another explanation is equally unconvincing, namely the notion that Dick Whittington’s black cat, which, at least in some versions of the story brought Dick good luck, is the root of the British enthusiasm for black felines.

This tale is surely, however, proof of black-cat love in the British Isles rather than its origin? It would certainly be interesting to see how old the earliest version of the story is.

So what is the explanation? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

The best that Beachcombing can offer is the possibility that black generally has a different folklore value in Britain and Ireland.

There are, after all, superstitions that first-footers (the first to arrive at the house at New Year) need to have black hair.

There is the superstition too – though it must be a modern creation – of chimney sweeps being lucky at a wedding.

There are the black painted faces of the lucky Morris dancers.

Could this list be extended?

Perhaps through some act of cultural miswiring the early or medieval inhabitants of Britain and Ireland convinced themselves that black was a good colour and this survived into modern times. Are we even dealing – the last chance saloon for the truly desperate – with a Celtic convention?

Beachcombing admits that it is all fairly weak, but it has to be better than witches or Dick.

For more on black cats see now Pirates and Black Cats.

***

18 May 2011: Gabi from Germany linked to a German-language site that makes some claims for the Celts.  Thanks Gabi!!