Do black cats bring bad luck?
The black cat is a more ambiguous omen; there it is with a four-leaf clover on good luck cards but there it is again at Halloween, consorting with witches and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Is the black cat supposed to be lucky or not? Drawing on published sources and oral tradition, the dictionary’s entry for black cats reveals centuries of confusion as to whether Sooty is friend or foe. An 1866 source tells us that English sailors’ wives in Scarborough, Yorkshire, kept black cats to protect their husbands at sea, and one from 1907 describes how football teams took a black cat with them on to the pitch for luck. But in 1797, someone “saw three black cats last night so did not go to market today fearing some evil”; and a quote from 1890 — “Many a woman dislikes to encounter a black cat.” But a black cat can be both good and bad with a single turn, according to a 12-year-old British boy who is quoted in 1957, “The front of a black cat is lucky, the back unlucky.” Cats of all hues have excited the overactive human imagination ever since they first scratched our furniture. They’ve been gods and devils, and sometimes just a decent mouser. In Japan, tricoloured cats are lucky, while cats with multiple tails have demonic powers. In the West, the symbolic resonance of black cats has persisted far beyond the fear of witchcraft and devilish dabblings. In the US and Europe, black cats are unlucky due to a faintly lingering association with the devil. In Britain, black cats are lucky for exactly the same reason. Convoluted as it may seem, a brush with Beelzebub’s pet is lucky because you survived the ordeal without mishap.
Let’s ask not what black cats can do for us but what we can do for them. Whatever fortunes they may bestow upon us, black cats are not always so skilled at bringing good luck to themselves. Being nearly wiped out during the witch-burning frenzy of the middle ages is just one example, and there are dangers still in our more cat-tolerant age. Black cats are less visible and consequently more likely to be killed in accidents; they also find it harder to acquire new homes than their patchwork and stripy relatives.