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Living With Animals: Black Cats

Considering who is likely reading my column it’s safe to assume none of us here think black cats are unlucky or evil — but how did they get that rap? Researchers of such things point to ancient Greek lore: Zeus’ wife Hera magicked a servant named Galinthias into a black cat as punishment over some godly drama (there certainly was plenty of drama on Mount Olympus!). In her new form, Galinthias went to work for Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and death. Guilt by association, all black cats thus became evil.

During the Middle Ages, much of Europe believed that witches would shapeshift into black cats, and that witches’ black cat “familiars” assisted in the so-called black arts. In a grim example of unintended consequences, these fears led to mass killings of black cats which in turn led to mass explosion of rats which led to the increased spread of the Black Death (plague, transmitted by a bacterium which travels on rats) which led to more fear of witches’ casting fatal spells which led to more mass killings of more black cats. We know the Black Death killed 20 million Europeans, roughly one-third of the continent’s population of the time, but there are no estimates of how many black cats were killed in the backwards attempt to stop it.

In a world which celebrates Felix the Cat (silent film era cartoon black cat currently enjoying renewed popularity) and Snowball (Lisa Simpsons’ feline BFF), it appears that black cats (at least of the two-dimensional variety) have experienced a makeover in public perception. True enough, but not entirely new. The Ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet, a black cat from the neck up and woman from the neck down, granted good fortune to those who housed cats. Both solid black and solid white cat statues (Maneki Neko) have for centuries and still today sit outside many Japanese businesses with one paw up welcoming good fortune. Want some good luck? Come down and adopt a black cat today!

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