Is the Stygian feline a messenger of ill fortune? Actually it depends upon where you live. The stigma that has shadowed the black cat goes back to medieval times when Pope Gregory IX declared that the devil appears to his subjects in the form of a black cat resulting in thousands of cats being slaughtered out of fear. Yet in a sense of ironic justice one could also point to the Black Death that plagued Europe was the result of Europe's attitude towards felines. Since cats were considered outcasts and shunned, the rat population had no obstacle in spreading the plague which then ran rampant killing multitudes. Perhaps there is a moral lesson here, cats just might have the final say.
The Puritans didn't help foster any kind will either to black cats. Black cats were considered familiars to witches and were burned with their mistresses. Just think, that crazy old cat lady down the road would have been put to the fire for her affection for her feline friends. Since then the black cat has carried the reputation of ill will and bad fortune if one crosses your path, unless you live in Britain where if a black cat crosses your path then good fortune will follow as relayed in this folk poem:
Good fortune bring to home and hearth;
When I am away from home;
Bring me luck wherever I roam."
King Charles I owned a black cat that he favored so much that he had a 24 hour guard held over it. When the feline died King Charles I exclaimed his good fortune was over and he was arrested the next day and the rest is history. In Scotland a black cat found on your front porch brings about prosperity and fishermen's wives kept black cats to keep their husbands from harm when they were out at sea. These cats were considered very precious and often stolen possibly by other fishermen's wives for their good omen. In Ancient Egypt the feline goddess Bast had a preference for the inky feline and of course cats were held in high esteem and it was actually an executionable offense to harm one. There have been thousands of feline mummies discovered in tombs and burial chambers in Egypt, obviously the cat enjoyed prominence and by their aloof behavior one may conclude that they have not forgotten it and wish to remind us of it.
In advertising the black cat has enjoyed some prominence as well. Black Cat Cigarettes and Black Cat Fireworks are among several products that have the feline as their spokesperson. The black cat seems to symbolize what is "cool", mysterious, sexual and sensuous. Mysticism and magic have always been great advertising vehicles and the black cat seems to be intertwined with arcane symbolism that hints at a sense of power and independence. There is also the Halloween references of course where millions of Greeting Cards, wrapping paper and candies bear its image to conjure the otherworldly. If the black cat had an agent, the cat would be literally a fat wealthy cat.
In literature the black cat has had some notable renown. The author Neil Gaiman has Morpheus the Dream Lord appear as a black cat leading the feline minions of the world to dream the world back to when cats actually ruled and man served them. In another story from the Graphic Novel Collection "Creatures of the Night", Neil Gaiman's story "The Price" beautifully illustrated by Michael Zulli (my personal fav Sandman artist) tells of a stray black cat that appears on the author's front porch one day and stays. The narrator tells of how the cat begins to gets wounds and scars that worsen by the day until he stays up one night to find out that the stray black has been defending the narrator's home from the devil himself.
But if any one story taps into the psyche surrounding the four footed shadow it would be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat." The narrator suffers from addiction to drink and envies the bond between the cat and his wife. The cat, named Pluto, is abhorred by the narrator for its affections and is repulsed to the point of derangement of the feline mystical spell that seems to develop between his wife and the animal. In a fit he cuts out one of its eyes with a pen knife and while in a maniac frenzy he attempts to kill the cat with an ax but instead his wife suffers the blow. To obscure his deed he walls up the corpse in the cellar and when the police come to investigate the feline's wailing is heard from behind the edifice, for he had unwittingly walled up the cat with his slain wife. Remember the moral lesson from the Black Plague?
Creatures of the Night by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
Masters of Horror: Stuart Gordon's The Black Cat