for the love of cats
Halloween is rapidly approaching and decorations including black cats abound. But how did black cats become associated with such a scary time of year? The fact is, from the times of the ancient Egyptians, cats have been revered in many cultures of the world and even given god-like status in some. In the British Isles, China and Japan, the black cats has been seen as positive symbols of prosperity, fertility and luck while in Europe they were associated with evil. So why such a disparity? As I mentioned in an earlier blog, cats began encountering humans in the Middle East and Egypt when humans developed graneries for the storage of excess grain to help carry them through times of low food production. The rise of graneries led to an increase in mice and rat populations in and around graneries. Cats found prey much easier to find around graneries and they flourished with far less effort than anywhere else because of that. Though humans had little to do with cats encrouching on human's domains, both found the natural interaction beneficial. In Egypt, the cat was elevated to godlike status both because of their ability to keep mice and rat populations controlled but also because the cat was associated with the goddess Bastet and symbolized female fertility. There was no descrimination by color back in those times.
In China, after cats migrated there with the help of traders, they were also accepted as symbols of good luck and prospertity. The Chinese also celebrated things like birth, marriage, family reunions and successful business deals by burning bamboo because of their unique popping sound as the bamboo split from the heat. When gunpowder was invented, it replaced bamboo as the prefered method of celebration. As a result, the Black Cat fireworks company became the oldest and most recognized distributor of fireworks around the world.
But during the rise of Christianity in Europe, the pegan symbols often associated with cats, became symbols of evil or devil worship because pegan rituals had no place in the Christian canon. This was further amplified by the belief that cats had unnatural abilities such as being able to land on its feet or the fact that cat's eyes glowed at night. In the middle ages, lonely and isolated women often kept cats as companions which only bolstered suspicions that they were evil and perhaps practiced witchcraft away from prying eyes. Cats were slaughtered by the millions during the period from 1200 through 1600 because of their association with witchcraft and some believe that this slaughter contributed greatly to the plague known as the Black Death in the 1300s. The decline in the cat population is thought to have led to an increase in mice and rats that carried the fleas responsible for the plague's spread. The superstition about cats and witchcraft followed settlers to the new world and culminated in the Salem witch trials of the 1600's when conviction for witchcraft was often handed down for nothing more that owning a black cat.
What started out in ancient times as a celtic ritual celebrating the passing of the dead from pergatory into heaven involved dressing up as the dead to ward off evil spirits. When Christianity became the dominant religion, the ritual was replaced with people going door to door carrying candles inside of hollowed out turnips as symbols of souls in pergatory. Over the centuries, independant rituals initiated by superstitions long ago lost to history combined to form the Halloween celebration we see today.