The cultural meaning and symbolism of a black cat
Black cats, like bats, ravens, and crows, have been burdened by the stigma brought on by old superstitions, myths, and legends, and the feline’s negative reputation can be traced to the Middle Ages, wherein “one of the popes had declared that black cats were a reincarnation of Satan,” says Jamison Ritter, museum curator at the Cat Fanciers’ Association Foundation’s Feline Historical Museum in Ohio.
The pope was Gregory IX, and the declaration appeared in his 1233 papal bull, “Vox in Rama.” The notion was reinforced by Pope Innocent VIII’s 1484 papal bull, “Summis Desiderantes Affectibus,” in which black cats are mentioned as witches’ familiars or witches themselves—an idea that made its way to the Americas in the 16th or 17th century during the Salem witch trials. Given the belief that black cats were an ally of witches and the devil, it makes sense why some people believe that crossing a black cat’s path—or any such encounter with the creature—might spell bad news.
While the black cat might have been regarded as a creature of ill omen in many Western cultures, they’re considered harbingers of good luck by others. For example, “in Scotland, black cats are considered good luck,” says Ritter. Cats are also considered auspicious in Japan. Consider, she says, the maneki-neko (or beckoning cat), the cat figure with a raised paw that welcomes visitors in shops, restaurants, and cafes. While usually white in color, it can also come in black, which is said to ward off evil. According to celebrity psychic and spiritual celebrity psychic and spiritual expert Inbaal Honingman, the Greeks, Romans, and Russians also revered cats for their “noble, hygienic demeanor” and their company.
It’s also well known that cats of all colors were revered in ancient Egypt too—so much so that Egyptian deities were made in the likeness of our feline friends, says Ritter. The Egyptian cat goddess Bastet and the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet were believed to share certain qualities with the animal, including the duality of their nature—graceful and tender yet fiercely independent, and therefore at times unpredictable.
The symbolism and spiritual meaning of a black cat
All to say, “every culture has a different perception of something,” says Ritter—and few creatures have been invested with such contradictory meanings across cultures as the black cat. If there is a common thread to pull at, it might be the midnight-colored feline’s enigmatic nature. “The black cat symbolizes mystery and secrecy,” says Honingman. “To those fearful of mysteries, the black cat may represent evil, but lovers of mysteries, magic, and the arts love that aspect of cat symbolism.” Adding to their mystique, “cats have a spiritual and energetic awareness beyond our physical realm,” says intuitive expert and animal communicator Shifra Nerenberg, to which Honingman agrees: “A cat of the color black, specifically, can slip in and out of the shadows unnoticed and has the added spiritual gift therefore, of a walker between the worlds.”
Indeed, there is a mysterious air about cats, regardless of their color, that is enough to confound humans, earning them the reputation of being individualistic, aloof, and, perhaps among some people, spooky. Nerenberg argues that reputation is unearned. “I think that the idea that cats are elusive, aloof, or uninterested is a myth in that cats won’t be as obedient or loving as dogs,” she says. “There is no standard cat; they all have their own personalities and ways of connecting with us.” Cats are just like us—they display a range of personalities and quirks, both infuriating and amusing.
What most cats do have are boundaries, says Nerenberg. As such, “cats in general are wonderful symbols and signs of independence and maintaining good boundaries,” she says. “They will let you know when there is something that you are doing that they don’t want to be done, and so we can learn a lot from our feline friends about how to maintain those healthy boundaries for ourselves.” She adds, “cats also have such a wonderful way of being able to navigate the world and always landing on their feet, and so there’s a sense of balance as well as signs of knowing your place in relationship to the world.” Honingman echoes, “cats are reflective, intuitive, and balanced, and so spiritually are said to invoke these qualities in those who come across them.”
Uncovering myths about black cats
It’s important to keep in mind that black cats are no different from any other feline—and if you are lucky to own a feline companion, you’re probably privy to the health benefits of owning a cat, regardless of the color of their fur. “Whether they are black or white, orange or tortie, or any other variation, cats are cats,” says Nerenberg. “They’re beautiful, wonderful, loving, unique creatures like all animals are, and it’s only because of these stereotypes and superstitions that black cats especially have such a bad rap.”
Unfortunately, old superstitions die hard—and these myths may in part have influenced “black cat bias,” a phenomenon in which black cats are viewed more negatively than other felines. Take, for instance, one 2020 study that suggested that the negative associations with black cats were more prevalent among highly superstitious individuals.
The good news is that people who are aware of the stigma against black cats have come a long way in helping clear their name, including Nerenberg, who works with nonprofit rescue group Binx’s Home for Black Cats and cat cafe and metaphysical store House of Black Cat Magic in North Carolina. She was happy to report that since opening the House of Black Cat Magic, more than 60 black cats have been adopted.
The spiritual meaning and significance of seeing a black cat
If you see a black cat, “it is a message from the universe,” says Honigman, particularly if it’s an extraordinary occurrence and it keeps presenting itself in your everyday life. It might signify progress in relation to your home life or divine femininity—themes that relate to the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet—“like a new home or an impending pregnancy,” says Honingman. Alternatively, it could be a sign to break old behavior patterns to move forward in a specific situation. After all, Bastet was a shape-shifter, she says, which black cats have come to be known as, too.
“Whenever you cross a black, you can see them as a sign of growth opportunities,” says Nerenberg. She explains, “We all have room for growth, and as black cats are slowly outgrowing their stereotypes they’re a good example of how we can do that for ourselves, too.”
If a black cat slinks into your dreams, they are often there to convey an important message. “They’re messages, especially from spiritual realms, to impart lessons,” Nerenberg says, and since each dream is unique to the individual, she underscores the importance of understanding exactly what that message means for your unique circumstance and just as importantly, paying attention to how you felt about it. “Sometimes, those feelings and sensations are more of the message than the imagery in the dream itself,” she explains.
In any case, psychic and creator of Physic Reading Expert Christine Wallace says that any creature—whether furred, feathered, or scaled—is a blessing. “You would not want to kill a firefly, a ladybug, or a butterfly because they are gifted from the heavens,” she says. “If any of these creatures or animals are drawn to you, this is a very good sign,” adding, “if a black cat comes to play with you, it’s a blessing and [an indication that] good fortune will come.”
What to do when you see a black cat
Seeing a black cat can be very polarizing—and depending on how you view black cats, it can be a terrifying or reassuring experience. “In many cultures, it is customary to spit over your shoulder to counter the evil eye of seeing a black cat cross your path,” says Honigman. “The association of the color black with evil very likely stems from the very primal fear of the dark, but to many others, a black cat crossing your path is a sign that good luck is on its way, and that prosperity is near.” The meaning we ascribe to black cats is often less about the animals themselves and more about our perception of them—a notion that applies to all creatures, whether it’s a cardinal or a humble praying mantis.
“Just like the number 13, which is seen as unlucky in Christianity but lucky in Judaism, or plate smashing which invites good luck in Greece, but a smashed mirror is considered bad luck to the Romans, similarly, the black cat is considered both a harbinger of fortune and, alternatively, misfortune, considering where you are,” says Honigman, reminding us all of the importance of perspective. “Like most things in life, superstition is largely a matter of geography.”
Considering this, when you spot a black cat, “I highly encourage you to say hello, bend down, and offer your hand in front of their nose to sniff,” says Nerenberg. Whether they welcome the encounter or they run away, this can be a wonderful way to get acquainted with the cat for what it is—“beautiful living beings that are incredible, magical, and add so much joy to our lives,” she says.
Frequently asked questions
Is a black cat good luck?
Some cultures, like in Japan and Scotland, believe that a black cat is a symbol of good luck.
What does it mean when a black cat visits you?
When a black cat visits you, some might regard it as a bad omen, while others might regard it as good luck, depending on a person’s beliefs and perceptions about the creature.
What do cats symbolize spiritually?
Cats, particularly black cats, are rich in symbolism and contradictory meaning, but the feline is typically thought to be reflective, intuitive, and balanced, and they can invoke these qualities in those who come across them.
- Jones, Haylie D, and Christian L Hart. “Black Cat Bias: Prevalence and Predictors.” Psychological reports vol. 123,4 (2020): 1198-1206. doi:10.1177/0033294119844982
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