Cats can bring out strong feelings in people. It seems that you either love them or hate them. That may be why it’s not surprising that there have always been a lot of superstitions about cats. Compared to our trusted friend the dog, which is also our oldest domesticated partner, the cat is a relative newcomer to the human home. Dogs have been domesticated for 15,000-30,000 years (or more); but cats only found their way into human life about 9000 years ago. That means that farm animals like sheep and goats have been domesticated longer than cats. It’s theorized that cats only wandered into human settlements after we started raising and storing grain, which attracted rats and mice that provided easy prey for cats. Many people today, including cat lovers, still see wild characteristics in the domestic tabby.
Maybe it’s because cats are still a little bit wild that there are so many superstitions about them. Here are some beliefs and superstitions about cats through the ages.
Cats as Gods
Folklore and traditions about cats are widespread around the world which suggests that cats were known in many different cultures from early times. They probably weren’t domesticated just once. Instead, it seems likely that cats found their way into many human settlements and adapted to living with humans.
In Egypt, India, China, and in Norse mythology, cats enjoyed status as gods/goddesses. In Egypt, cats (“mau”) were considered sacred. In some religious activity there was worship of animals, including cats. The goddess Mafdet (the goddess of justice and execution) was depicted as having a lion head. The cat goddess Bast later replaced Mafdet and represented protection, motherhood, and fertility. Some cats in Egypt were mummified and there was even a cat cult https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_in_ancient_Egypt at one time. Author Terry Pratchett said, “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.”
In India and China, cats were fertility goddesses known Sastht and Li Chou, respectively. Among the Vikings, Freya was depicted as the cat goddess of love and beauty.
Cats with Demons and Witches
Christianity had a less favorable view of cats. The Hebrew story of Lilith (Adam’s first wife, before Eve) describes how she would take the form of a black cat and prey on newborn infants. This may be the source of the superstition that cats can steal a baby’s breath. It’s more likely that a cat was simply sniffing a baby’s breath or snuggling on a baby’s chest for warmth. If a cat was nearby when a baby became sick or died, the cat would be blamed.
During the Middle Ages, cats were associated with witches, perhaps because old women cared for stray cats. According to popular superstition at the time, witches would take the form of cats so they could roam the streets. Cats were also believed to be the “familiars” of witches. This meant that a witch could send the cat to do her bidding. During the witch hunts which raged from about 1300-1700, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Europe (mostly women), thousands of cats (and many dogs) were also killed because they were linked to witchcraft. Coincidentally, the rat population soared and Europe lost an estimated 30 to 60 percent of its population to the Black Plague. Even in Salem during the witch hysteria in 1692, a dog was hanged along with the accused “witches.”
Today many people are still fearful of crossing the path of a black cat. According to one source, this superstition dates back to the early Christians. Seeing Egyptians worshipping the black cat goddess Bast, they believed that black cats were demons and burned them. If a demon – or a black cat – crossed your path, it could separate you from God and your path to heaven.
Other beliefs about black cats include:
- Sailors liked to have black cats on board because they were believed to have protective powers. Sailors’ wives also liked to keep black cats to protect their husbands at sea.
- If you kill a black cat, your soul will be sacrificed to the devil.
- In Scotland, a strange black cat’s arrival to the home means prosperity.
- Black cats are often considered good luck in Britain and Japan.
- A woman who owns a black cat will have many suitors.
- In most parts of Europe, black cats are considered to be unlucky, but not in Great Britain where it is generally considered to be lucky.
- Pilgrims viewed black cats as part demon and sorcery.
Other cat superstitions
Other sources report the following old superstitions about cats:
- Finding one white hair on a black cat is considered to be good luck.
- Kittens born in May are believed to have special powers.
- If you put a cat in an empty cradle for newlyweds, they will soon have a baby.
- If a cat sneezes three times, someone will catch a cold.
- Cats have nine lives.
- Rubbing a cat’s tail on the eyelid will make a sty go away.
- If a cat is washing its ears a lot, it’s going to rain.
- A cat in a theater is good luck.
Today cats have become the most popular household pet in the United States, outnumbering dogs. Old superstitions about them are interesting but some of the negative beliefs have, thankfully, been cast aside. It’s probably not necessary to treat your cat like a goddess but you should remember the saying, “Dogs have owners; cats have staff.” Treat your cat accordingly.