Knock at our door on Halloween prepared to be greeted by Bombalurina, Grizabella, Jennyanydots, the most Magical Mr. Mistoffelees, Mungojerrie, Old Deuternonomy, Macavity, Rumpleteazer, Rum Tum Tugger, Skimbleshanks, or – depending on our whim each year – any other Jellicle that prowled on and offstage during Andrew Lloyd Weber’s delightful musical Cats. No flimsy, disposable approximation for the Garey girls; we go all out with homesewn, faux fur costumes and artfully applied makeup to recreate our favorite characters, and with little prompting, my daughter treats our visitors to her Broadway-worthy version of “Memory.”
Accompanying Amanda is a veritable orchestra of angry, hostile and thoroughly disgusted musicians, their caterwauling emanating from a room deep within the house. Each has a distinct musical howl, yet they all have one thing in common – they are black cats from throughout our neighborhood, here to spend an evening in secure seclusion because October 31st is the most dangerous night of the year for their kind.
In a society driven by statistics, I am unable to provide an absolute number, but based on personal experience and reports from cat-fancying friends and acquaintances, there is a marked increase in the maiming, disappearance and even destruction of black cats this time of year. Coincidence? Perhaps. Occult rituals? Possibly, in some cultures so inclined. Cruelty? A definite probability. Stupidity, superstition and outright ignorance? Unfortunately, even in this age of enlightenment, a very real and horrible likelihood.
As a species, Felis domesticus once was held in highest esteem in Egypt, then considered the civilized world. In fact, the most commonly held superstition – the fear of a black cat crossing one’s path – is comparatively modern and antithetical to the honor and reverence shown toward felines when history records they were initially domesticated around 3000 B.C.
Europe during the Middle Ages was fraught with a dread of cats, particularly in England, and especially directed toward black felines. Distrust and fear were fed by their innate independence, stealth and nocturnal behavior, coupled with an inexplicable and sudden overpopulation in major cities. Strays were often fed by reclusive elderly ladies, and when witch hysteria struck Europe, and many of these homeless women were accused of espousing the dark arts, their cat companions (especially black ones) were deemed guilty of witchery by association.
One popular British feline urban legend illustrates the thinking of the day. In Lincolnshire in the 1560s, a man and his son were startled one moonless night when a small creature darted across their path into a crawl space. Casting stones into the opening, they saw an injured black cat scurry out and limp into the adjacent home of a woman suspected by the town of being a witch. Next day, the two encountered the woman, her face bruised, arm swathed in bandages. And she now walked with a limp. Rumors arose. Gossip ensued and from that day forward, all black cats in Lincolnshire were suspected of being witches in night-disguise.
Many societies in the late Middle Ages strove to drive cats into extinction. As the witch scare mounted to paranoia, many innocent women and their harmless pets were burned at the stake. A baby born with eyes too bright, a face too canny, a personality too precocious, was actually killed for fear that it hosted a spirit that would eventually become a witch by day, a black cat by night. In France, thousands of cats were burned monthly until King Louis XIII, in the 1630s, halted the shameful practice. Given the number of centuries in which black cats were slaughtered throughout Europe, it is surprising that the gene for the color black was not deleted from the species . . . Unless the cat does possess nine lives.
Of significant historical irony is that felines may well have saved humanity from extinction. Bubonic Plague, a disease spread by flea-riddled rats and also referred to as the Black Death, was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. The plague was thought to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe’s population, reducing the global census from an approximate 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400. The Great Plague of London of 1665-66 was the last major outbreak of Black Death in England, killed an estimated 100,000 people or 20% of London’s population. With no pharmaceutical cure or preventative available, it is now acknowledged that spread of the disease was halted by elimination of the vector source thanks to natural means – the predatory nature of starving, ordinary alley cats.
Still, superstitions persisted and, in time, crossed the pond to America. The notion of witches transforming themselves into black cats in order to prowl streets unobserved became a central belief in New England during the Salem witch hunts. Thus, an animal once looked on with Egyptian approbation became a creature dreaded, reviled, despised and maligned. Fortunately, once the idiocy of this practice was acknowledged, cats regained their rightful place in millions of American hearts, hearths and homes, yet their autumnal mystique continues to this day.
Next page: Warnings! Samhain, All Hallows’ Eve, and El Dia de Los Muertos – things you should know.