Halloween: What's the Stigma?
Last updated 11/9/2023 at 2:27pm
Note: If you have black cats, as I do, do not let them out during the Halloween season. Unfortunately, too many people still believe black cats are either evil, or bad luck. Among the more reprehensible Halloween traditions are torturing or killing black cats.
Black cats still carry the stigma of evil and bad luck and are the least likely to get adopted from a shelter. So how did all this baggage get placed on sweet black kitties?
Witches and Cats in the Shadows
Though black cats were worshipped in Ancient Egypt, with mythological footholds all over the world, their direct connection to Halloween began around 2,000 years ago, among the Celtic Tribes based around Ireland. Druidic culture was pagan and often matrilineal, involving a pantheon of gods and animalistic spirits, witches, or “wise ones,” who acted as healers, tribal leaders, and sages. Many festivals and ceremonies took place at night, giving a certain allure to those nocturnal animals who thrived in the dark, especially the black cat, ever elusive in the shadows.
Some Celtic traditions believed that those who played with dark magic would be turned into cats, pitting cats and witches on two sides of a moral divide. On Samhain, the autumnal celebration in which the veils between this realm and the next are opened, revelers would wear costumes made of animal skins and heads, invoking their gods and banishing away dark forces. This tradition would continue into contemporary usage. But soon women would be considered as dangerous as the feline shadow totems, and both would be lumped into the same pyre of superstition.
The all-new, all-male Holy Trinity didn’t have space for a woman, let alone a powerful, capable, and, incidentally, often single tribal leader. The Church easily made medicine women into hags and harpies, and linked any traditions outside of papal canon to devil worship. The witches found themselves inheriting black cats; now it was believed that the witches could shift into feline form, or that the cats were their familiars – demon guides given to them by the devil.
By the Middle Ages, the church had assimilated Samhain, transferring its key practices to All Saints’ Day on November 1. As the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, spread by infected rats, those women who were once revered as healers, and the cats who hunted such vermin, were castigated as the cause. Such devastating death could only be traced to the devil, his harlot priestesses, and their pitch-black, shadowy feline companions. Even with Samhain cut out officially, its practices never died, and the night before All Saints’ Day, with all its enduring bonfires, costumes, and parties, became All Hallow’s Eve – Halloween.
The New World and Spooky Season
The drip-drip Puritans didn’t believe in saints, so All Saints Day stayed in the old country when they arrived in the New World. And so the tradition continued: Who better to blame for a poor harvest or bad luck in the colonies than a certain kind of woman? Witches were easy targets: women had no legal rights and couldn’t own property, putting those without a husband or father to “claim” them at the top of the heap. The stigma extended now to black women, thought to practice an exotic form of fortune-telling. As ever, the vexing, intractable, unknowable black cat symbolized all that could not be controlled or contained in these noncompliant women.
Black cats would hold their dark majesty in folktales and spooky stories often shared at autumn festivals. Ghost stories and “play parties” abound during these colonial harvest festivals. But the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 19th century brought a resurgence of All Saints’ traditions, including “souling” – in which poor townspeople would knock on the doors of the wealthy and take money to pray for their beloved dead – which would later feed into the trick-or-treat tradition. Unbound from puritanical constriction, more post-pagan traditions could abound, and by the turn of the century, Halloween had been secularized into a community-oriented celebration. By the ’60s, the old traditions had to become kitsch, camp, and publicly accessible, so the revenant spirits, scary witches, and devil-delivered black cats were renewed and repopularized.