Thursday, November 1, 2007

Do Black Cats Cause Bad Luck?

What is superstition? According to The Little Oxford Dictionary, superstition is "belief in the existence or power of the supernatural; irrational fear of the unknown; a religion or practice based on such tendencies; widely held but wrong idea." Let us examine that definition in depth. First, there is "belief in the existence or power of the supernatural". This means that there is believed to be some force that can influence the events on the Earth. Second, there is "irrational fear of the unknown." This has been endemic to the human race since the early days when a cave man did not know if that cave was safe to enter or if he would be attacked by a bear. Third, "a religion or practice based on such tendencies." This is the belief that a charm or talisman, such as throwing salt or hanging a horseshoe over the doorway, can affect the aforementioned supernatural force. Finally, there is a "widely held but wrong idea." This is a belief that is believed only because everyone else believes. It may be wrong, it may be preposterous, but all the other people think it is right and you believe it too.

Some examples of common, everyday superstition include the belief that the number 13 is unlucky, that walking under a ladder will bring bad luck, and that a black cat crossing your path can affect your luck. Belief that black cats affect your luck goes far back in time. One king of England, Charles I, owned a black cat. His fear of losing it was so great that he had it guarded. The day after it fell ill and died, he was arrested (Radford 1949, 40). Black cats were often witches in disguise or witches' familiars (Potter 1983, 29). There were also many cat charms relating to ships and the sea. Fishermen's wives would keep a black cat at home to prevent disaster at sea, consequently the cats became very valuable and were often stolen. If a cat ran ahead of a sailor to the pier that would bring good luck, but if the cat crossed his path it means bad luck. For luck, cats were often kept on board ships. If a sailor was approached by the ship's cat it meant good luck, but if the cat only came halfway and went away again it meant bad luck. The worst possible cat-related act, guaranteed to raise a storm and bring bad luck of all sorts, was to throw the cat overboard (Radford 1949, 40). Cat superstitions were also common in medicine. Fur and blood drawn from various parts of the cat's anatomy cured everything from shingles to St. Anthony's Fire (Radford 1949, 40).

All of these superstitions today boil down to "Black cats cause bad luck." A cat crossing your path will adversely affect your luck. This can easily be verified or dis-proven with only a person, a cat, and a situation that can be affected by luck.

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