History of Black Cats and Crows of Halloween

It is October and Fall has slowly and silently crept in on chilly breezes and frosty nights.  Stealthily, inch by inch and degree by degree, Mother Nature has lowered the temperature and darkened the nights.  Dusk descends quickly at this time of year and people scurry home from school and work, wary to be caught outside in the gathering gloom. Their imaginations run wild: And some of the most popular images – besides skeletons, witches, and ghosts – are cats and crows.  But why?  What made them so popular – and so dreaded – at Halloween?  let’s dive right in and find out!

First, we must study various cultures and their beliefs.  Cats were actually a symbol of the divine, worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as reincarnations of the Goddess Bastet, a powerful protector.  Their images were carved on walls temples and obelisks.  They were admired, honored, and adored.  Entire cities were erected in honor of cat deities, believing they protected the citizens from scary scorpions and slithering snakes.  However, everything started to change as Christianity took hold around the world.  Roman Emperor Theodosius I made the decree in 391 CE that all pagan worship was to be banned.  Cats were no longer worshipped thereafter, but at least they were liked and tolerated.  Slowly they became basic household pets throughout Egypt and Europe.

Further abroad in Ireland, the ancient Celts had their own magical cat.  They believed in a spirit called “Cat Sith” or “Fairy Cat.”  This spirit was said to take the form of a large black cat with a white patch on its chest.  They believed that if you left a saucer of milk out for Cat Sith, you would receive good luck, whereas if you did not, Cat Sith would send bad luck to your home.  

Two other legends about Cat Sith also come from the nearby lochs of Scotland, where it was believed that Cat Sith could steal souls from those who had passed.  The Scots believed that they must watch over bodies awaiting burial so that Cat Sith would not steal the souls before they were greeted by the gods and taken to the afterlife.  Night watchers would make loud noises to scare away Cat Sith and they would not light a fire so that Cat Sith would not be tempted to creep near to warm his body.

A second Scottish legend states that witches can turn into cats and they can do so eight times.  If a witch switches into a cat a ninth time, she stays a cat forever.  This legend is probably where the belief originated that cats have nine lives. 

So, now we see a connection between cats, witches, and tall tales.  

And just as the ancient Celt festival of Samhain eventually turned into Halloween based on the declaration of a pope, so did a pope turn the simple cat into a scary devil.   In 1233, Pope Gregory IX and Pope Innocent VIII wrote that cats were associated with devils and witches and should be banned.

And if that weren’t enough, a belief spread that any woman who was seen with a cat must be a witch because it was rumored that cats carried the spirit of witches.  Both cats and women accused of being witches met terrible ends.  And due to the decline in the cat population from these actions, the rat population grew.  Fleas on the rats quickly spread diseases like the Black Plague.  But instead of blaming the plague on fleas and rodents, people blamed the witches.  If only people had kept cats around, history might have turned out quite differently!

Well, soon these European citizens crossed the ocean and settled in America – and they brought their beliefs with them – including those of black cats and witches – which culminated in the famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693.  Thankfully, after these unfounded trials and accusations, the belief in witches and evil black cats declined and slowly dissolved into the mists of time. 

Then around the time of World War II in the 1940’s, the black cat’s fate turned once again and they were depicted in images of Halloween – but this time as symbols of good luck!  Why?  Well, trick-or-treating had become popular and it was believed that a black cat by your door protected you against the arrival of evil spirits – just like the ancient Egyptian cat goddess and protectress Bastet!

Luckily, cats are adored as funny and rambunctious house pets today.  They are the rulers of the household – as anyone who has a cat will attest – and they keep the home free of spiders and bugs, reptiles and birds.  They also cause a lot of mischief and merriment, unrolling toilet paper rolls, swatting items off desktops, and banging their dinner bowls in indignation if you are too late or too slow with their meals. 

So, how did crows and ravens become associated with Halloween?  Well, that’s a bit more complicated.

Crows and ravens – known as corvids – are, by nature, intelligent scavengers and often dine on the carcasses of animals.  This activity has been recorded by man through the centuries and put into myth, legend, artwork, and text.

Archeologists have found cave paintings from 15,000 years ago in France and Spain depicting crows sitting on posts next to graveyards.  Their meaning is unclear.  Are they waiting for dinner or are they waiting to take the departed spirits to the afterlife?  Either way, they are sitting in a spooky graveyard.

In Germany, it was believed that ravens could locate the souls of the departed, while the Welsh believed that a single crow signaled that death was near.  The Welsh also believed that sorcerers and witches turned into ravens and flew away, thus avoiding capture.

All these beliefs about crows and death, sorcerers and witches, were swirling in Europe when the Black Plaque struck between 1347-1352.  Plague doctors started wearing masks shaped like long crow’s beaks. They stuffed these masks with herbs to try to ward off the disease while treating patients.  People saw these scary crow masks and soon associated crows with illness and death.

And with all customs and beliefs, they made their way across continents.  Soon these myths and legends took hold in America and spread through villages and mountain hamlets.  Based on these old myths, people in America’s Appalachian Mountains started to predict the future based on the number of crows they saw: single or small numbers of crows meant health, wealth, or good luck, while larger numbers meant illness or death was near.  

The American Poet Edgar Allen Poe wrote a famous poem in 1845 called “The Raven” and a line in the poem calls the crow “a thing of evil” and seems to foretell a miserable and heartbroken life ahead for the main character.  Once again, the crow was portrayed as an evil and gloomy omen.

However, I would suggest that crows and ravens are actually very intelligent birds and creative problem solvers.  They can watch a man or creature crack a nut, dig a hole, open a can, or do some other activity and learn to do it himself.  They can recognize people and faces and can form attachments – or aversions – to specific individuals.  Additionally, they are nature’s creative “clean-up crew,” eating scraps of meat, rodents, and waste, thus eliminating harmful fleas, germs, and diseases from the environment.  

What do you think about cats and crows?  Has this history changed your mind about them?  If so, in what way?  Do you have a pet cat or do you have crows in your neighborhood?

I think cats and crows are a wonderful part of our ecosystem and have an important role to play not just in Halloween tales but in real life by keeping us safe from disease-carrying rodents and fleas.