Halloween Highlights Animal Superstitions!
By Cindy McGovern
Other than pumpkins, one of the most recognizable symbols of Halloween is the black cat with arched back and luminescent eyes. How did this arise, and what other superstitions are associated with our animal brethren?
Black Cats: A Familiar Superstition
In Greek mythology, a woman named Galenthia, or Galen, was turned into a cat and became a priestess at the temple of Hecate. During the 12th and 13th centuries, witches in Europe were often found with their “familiars,” usually black cats, and were said to turn themselves into cats.
The reputation of black cats in the United States seems to have started with the Pilgrims, who were Puritans and distrusted anything associated with witches and sorcery, including black cats. During the witch-burning era of the 17th century, witches’ cats were put into baskets and burned alongside their humans.
Some cultures, though, believe black cats bring good luck. This is traced to the Egyptian goddess Bast (or Bastet), the cat goddess. Egyptians believed they could gain favor from Bastet by keeping black cats. Sailors believed having a black cat aboard ship brought good luck, and the wives of sailors used to keep black cats to ensure their husbands’ safe return. In Britain today, a bride and groom who encounter a black cat on their wedding day are ensured a happy marriage.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has conducted studies to determine if black cats are less likely to be adopted than other cats because of superstitions. While the research does show significant number of black cats in shelters, it also reports a high number of black cat adoptions, leading some researchers to conclude that there may just be a lot of black cats. Some rescues, such as King Street Cats, have special adoption promotions for black cats, like “Back in Black” at other animal groups nationwide.
Some shelters see a surge in black cat adoptions shortly before Halloween, with many of these cats returned shortly thereafter, which seems to indicate that adopters wanted a living Halloween decoration. For that reason, some shelters won’t allow black cat adoptions in October. Any animal suffers real trauma from being dragged back and forth from a shelter to a strange new home and back again.
The Black Dog Syndrome
What about black dogs? Ancient folklore says the apparitions of black dogs were the unquiet ghosts of wicked souls. Other cultures associate dogs with the path to heaven—or hell. The ancient Greeks believed a three-headed dog named Cerberus guarded the entrance to Hades, ensuring that no one went in—or out—who wasn’t supposed to.
Winston Churchill battled serious bouts of depression, which he called “the black dog.” Some legends have black dogs appearing as an apparition or ghost and signify that Death is near. In The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the black dog is a creepy, spectral figure that haunts cemeteries and is a death omen. More recently, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a big black dog called the Grim stalks Harry.
These superstitions still resonate today and are known as the “Black Dog Syndrome.” Just as with cats, this belief can also lead to fewer adoptions from shelters. In addition to having dark fur, large size can make black dogs appear menacing. Another theory holds that their dark fur is hard to photograph for advertising purposes. Black dogs can get lost in dark kennels with shadowy corners and poor lighting, which again makes them seem dangerous. According to the ASPCA, big, black dogs—Labradors, shepherd mixes, pit bull mixes, and Rottweilers—are often the last adopted and make up the bulk of the dogs euthanized at shelters. There is no evidence that black dogs are any more aggressive than dogs of other colors; what matters is each dog’s disposition.
Other Animal Superstitions
Cats don’t really have nine lives. This resilient belief is most likely attributed to their strong survival skills—keen senses, speed, agility, sharp teeth, and claws—all of which help cats out of many dangerous situations.
Can your pet predict the weather? If a dog seeks a cozy spot or curls up in a corner, cold weather is coming. A cat sitting with his back to the fire is a sign that frost is on the way. (More likely, your pet just found the warmest spot in your home.)
What about earthquakes? The jury is still out; but rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes have reportedly left their homes and headed for safety several days before a destructive earthquake.
Carrying a rabbit’s foot won’t bring good luck to the bunny, but some think having one in your pocket will. One school of thought attributes this to the fact that rabbits are born with eyes open, while another suggests their fertility links them with growth and prosperity throughout life.
Frogs or toads won’t give you warts if you touch them, because warts are caused by a virus, not by amphibians. But frogs and toads are also associated with witches and were sometimes tossed into boiling cauldrons as part of the witch’s brew.
Yes, there are a few bat species that drink blood (most notably the vampire bat), but most are harmless. Sleeping cattle and horses are the usual victims of the vampire bat, and while bats don’t remove enough blood to harm their host, their bites can cause nasty infections and disease.
Birds have many common folk references, such as the dove of peace, the bluebird of happiness, and the stork who delivers babies. But not all references are positive; one old wives’ tale says that if a bird flies into your home, it foretells a death. As for birds who fly into or peck at windows, the Audubon Society says it’s because birds see their own reflection in the glass, or they think it’s another bird and will try to drive out the intruder.
This Halloween, remember your animal friends and the positive roles they play in our traditions.
Cindy McGovern is a volunteer at King Street Cats in Alexandria and lives in Springfield with two spoiled Siberian cats.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.aspca.org)
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (http://alexandriaanimals.org/)
Animal Welfare League of Arlington (https://www.awla.org/)
Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (http://audubonva.org/)
Dogs Deserve Better of Northern Virginia (http://ddbnova.org/)
Fairfax Pets on Wheels, Inc. (http://www.fpow.org/)
Friends of Homeless Animals (http://www.foha.org/)
Friends of Rabbits (http://www.friendsofrabbits.org/)
Healing Hearts Rescue Group (http://hharg.rescuegroups.org/)
Homeward Trails Animal Rescue (https://www.homewardtrails.org/about/#.WVp52XmWzxg)
Humane Society of Fairfax County (http://hsfc.org/)
King Street Cats (http://www.kingstreetcats.org/)
Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation (https://lostdogrescue.org/)
Lucky Dog Animal Rescue (https://www.luckydoganimalrescue.org/)
Rikki’s Refuge (http://rikkisrefuge.org/)