Halloween. It’s our favorite time of the year. Witches and warlocks. Mummies and zombies. Spiders and skeletons. During the 13 Days of Halloween, we’ll be taking a look at the spooky cliches that you can find everywhere from your Instagram feed to your local Walgreens. Today, the black cat gets some love.
The origins of the domestic cat have been the subject of much debate, as has been the case with most domesticated animals including agricultural examples. However, recent studies have shed some light on their past. In particular, a 2017 study conducted by Claudio Ottoni indicated that two strains of cats played key roles in domestication. That said, all domestic cats share a common ancestor — Felis silvestris lybica, aka the North African/Southwest Asian wildcat. According to a genetic analysis using ancient DNA, the process of domestication took place in the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic period that saw the emergence of most modern day domesticated animals. The process was sped up in ancient Egypt and from that point forward, there was no looking back. The DNA trail indicates that cats spread around the world the same way many diseases did – on board trade ships.
Historically, cultures have viewed the black cat in different ways. There’s no consensus whether it’s good or bad omen. For example, in some parts of the British Isles, the black cat was believed to be a positive harbinger.
Cath ddu, mi glywais dd’wedyd,
A fedr swyno hefyd,
A chadw’r teulu lle mae’n byw
O afael pob rhyw glefyd.
A black cat, I’ve heard it said,
Can charm all ill away,
And keep the house wherein she dwells
From fever’s deadly sway.
- Welsh Folklore Rhyme 1897
On the other hand, neighboring Scottish and Gaelic traditions differed, often personified black cats as malevolent forces. According to Scottish mythology, a soul-stealing creature that wandered the Highlands. As a result, ceremonies called the Feill Fadalach (Late Wake) were performed around the clock to keep the Cat Sìth away from a corpse before burial.
And even then, the Scottish view of black cats was subject to circumstantial shifts. According to Wikipedia, during the festival that traditionally marked the ending of the harvest season, “It was believed that a Cat Sìth would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out for it to drink, and those houses that did not let out a saucer of milk would be cursed into having all of their cows’ milk dry.”
In more recent times, Western cultures tend to take a wary view of black cats.
The dark, uniform coat characteristic of black cats stems from a combination of genes. The black color is coded by a browning gene B that produces black eumelanin. This so called browning gene has two recessive variants that code for chocolate color (b) and cinnamon (b1). However, the cat’s solid color is attributed to a recessive gene that eliminates the M on the forehead of tabby cats. (The vast majority of solid color cats are rabbits.)
Interestingly, because of eumelanin’s fragility, if black cats lay out in the sun for extended periods, their coat begins to take on a rusty appearance.