Witches Coursing Across a Full Moon on Broomsticks & the Inevitable Black Cat Are Icons of Halloween

Halloween and Cats

When we think of Halloween there are a myriad of images that come to mind. Witches coursing across a full moon on a broomstick; vampires looking for a throaty feast and pumpkins carved with caricatures that either scare or bring a smile to your face. There’re Werewolves, ghouls and goblins that lurk in shadows just beyond the light. All topped off with the ancient practice of dressing in costume and painting our faces. So, how did the aristocratic cat become involved in such pagan ritual? I’m sure if you asked her, she would deny any responsibility for a willing association.

Cats have been associated with myth since they first came in from the cold to live with people around 5000 years ago. The mystery of their exquisite senses, such as their eyes, exceptional hunting instincts, independence and seeming aloofness have all contributed to the various myths that have originated in different cultures throughout history. Early Egyptians regaled then as gods and the Medieval Church burned them alive, believing they were the embodiment of Satan. They were thought of as ‘familiars’ of witches, that is, close companions who looked out and guarded a witch. Both a symbol of good luck and bad, depending which culture you might be visiting, cat behavior evokes the extremes of human nature.

So, is it any wonder that cats, especially black cats, should be an important icon of Halloween?

Halloween is a celebration of born in pagan mythology. It was believed that, the ‘souls of the dead’ would rise from their graves to visit the living during the Celtic festival ‘Samhain’.

Halloween’s ghosts, goblins, cemetery effluvium, witches, black cats, bats, haunted houses, frightful skeletons, devils and scary stories originated from the Samhain festival (pronounced SOW-ehn) meaning “summer’s end”. It was celebrated by the Celtic people from Ireland to make themselves ready for the coming winter. During the festival of Samhain, the ‘souls of the dead’ visited the homes of the Celts and on the Eve of Samhain tricks were played on humans in the vanishing sunlight that forebode winters shorter days. Supposedly, there were ghosts, goblins, black cats and witches flying about because the barriers between the natural and supernatural were broken during Samhain. The dead kept the secrets of the future and people would consult with them, asking for guidance.

The Festival of Samhain influenced the Christian celebration called “All Saint’s Day”, also called “All Hallow’s”. All Hallow’s was celebrated on November 1st and established in 700-800 AD by the Catholic Church. The night before “All Hallow’s” (October 31st) was called “All Hallow’s Eve”. The name was eventually shortened to All Hallow’en and then just Halloween.

Early American settlers from England brought rituals, superstitions and beliefs in ghosts and witches with them to the U.S. In the 1800’s, immigrants from U.K. came to the U.S. and brought their Halloween traditions with them. Germans brought their witchcraft stories and Haitian and Africans brought the voodoo beliefs about black cats, fire and witchcraft. The holiday was gradually made into a non-religious holiday in the U.S. by the late 19th century.

Today Halloween has evolved from the souls of the dead visiting homes to “Trick-or-Treaters” dressing in costumes as ghosts, witches, black cats and demons and pleading for candy… or an evil prank may be played on the non-sharing victim.

Some Black Cat Superstitions:

  • Depending where you come from, a black cat crossing your path can mean good luck… or bad luck.
  • There is a Medieval belief that black cats are witches in disguise, or witch familiars, creatures that aid in witchcraft.
  • Fishermen’s wives would keep black cats to protect their husbands while at sea.
  • When a sailor walked on the pier, a cat going ahead of him was good luck. If the cat crossed his path, his luck would be bad.
  • Cats were kept on ships for good luck.
  • If the ship’s cat approached a sailor, good luck would follow. If the cat approached but then diverted away, bad luck was to fall upon him.
  • A cat thrown overboard was an omen for a storm and very bad luck.
  • A black cat sneezing near a bride was a precursor for a happy marriage.
  • The Druids thought black cats were humans being punished for evil deeds.
  • Finally, some believed black cats could fly on broomsticks. Obviously, none of them had seen a witch, yet. The truth is that cats, black or otherwise, are not supernatural and bring no special luck… unless they choose to live with you. Being loving and loyal creatures, her choice would make you very lucky.

October 16th is National Feral Cat Day

Everyone has seen them. In alley ways, at the back of restaurants, often scurrying, low to the ground, at dusk or dawn. In rural areas they may inhabit barns or hedgerows on the edge of a yard. Some 70 million feral cats roam the edge of society in the U.S. alone. Human sensitivities suggest that they live a difficult life buffeted by the forces of nature in a continual and all consuming search for nourishment, safety and shelter. It’s not a life that most people would choose to live. But then, in today’s societies most people have lost the tools to truly survive in the wild without social structures to provide for them. Cats accept their fate without complaint, but, face a complication exasperated by their feral life. Wild cats are cats who are not, and have never been domesticated. They live in environments that exert natural procreation and population controls. These controls don’t exist in feral cat environments. The result is a feral cat population that has literally exploded. This boom in the numbers of feral cats causes problems for both feral cats and people:

  • For the cats there are problems surrounding the basic cat instincts of territoriality, hunting habits, their solitary nature, and mating and sexuality urges.
  • For people feral cats can have a negative impact on environments in which cats are new members. Reduction in the numbers of rats and other rodents might be welcome, but the impact on birds, squirrels and other welcome creatures that frequent your backyard might not be appreciated.
    The feral cat situation is a problem best solved by the intervention of human ingenuity. There are those who advocate a draconian/medieval response by tracking down and killing feral cats. Fortunately, such a solution is not favored by most who have a respect for life in all its forms. What is needed is an approach which anyone can embrace. Trap-Neuter-Release programs are just such an approach. Feral cats are captured, neutered and then released back into the environment they came from. Then voila!! Populations reduce naturally and the mating rituals are eliminated which leaves the cat to live a more stress-free life. What is required for the success of TNR programs is for people to participate. Participation is easy because it doesn’t require a compromise of ethical values. It does take time and effort. But, even the effort can be made easier when implemented by a neighborhood of friends or it could become a classroom project for students.

In celebration of our homeless cat friends National Feral Cat Day has been designated as October 16th. The following is borrowed from Alley Cat Allies, an organization that is dedicated to relieving the problems associated with feral cat populations. A visit to their site is a good start to becoming aware of not only the problems of feral cats, but how each of us can contribute to its solution.

“On October 16th, National Feral Cat Day (NFCD), Alley Cat Allies will launch a campaign to change the policies that kill feral cats and kittens. This year, along with newly developed materials to help you introduce the public to feral cats, we begin shedding light on the archaic and entrenched animal control systems throughout our country-systems that do not protect the lives of stray and feral cats.

Our message is edgier than in the past because the time has come to stir people up, to help public officials discover the facts about cats, and to begin changing animal control policies.

Alley Cat Allies implores you to take action: talk to your public officials, ask questions, engage residents to question animal control policies, and discuss how animal control practices are hurting or helping cats in your area.

Bringing the facts to the public’s attention is our charge for 2007 NFCD.”