Curiosities & Oddities Italy Theories

Sicilians vs Superstitions: the Black Cat


Dear Reader,

If someone wanted to list (and I’m sure that someone has done it already) all superstitions present in different cultures, I can assure you the list would be very very long. Every thing, or person, or event could potentially bring us good luck, bad luck or all sort positive/negative effects.

Luckily, I have two Sicilian flatmates – Angelo and Teresa – who are more than happy to share their beliefs with me anytime something of valuable significance happens, and I enjoy those moments like crazy 🙂

So, until now these are the ones I listed as important (according to them): the song of the owl, the black cat crossing the street, the breaking of a mirror, passing under a ladder, scattering salt, number 17, letter F (Alitalia planes until 2001 actually skipped F, but 13 and 17 are still omitted), scratching oneself, touching anything that is metal when you hear an ambulance, avoiding talking to gypsies, being born on a Friday (if it’s on a 17th it’s even worse). By judging the serious expression on their faces, I can tell this is serious stuff.

The one that caused the biggest amusement so far is precisely the black cat superstition. It all happened on a rainy night…

Angelo and I met after work and decided to share pizza and beer. Dear reader, normally, Angelo drives like a crazy person, he doesn’t know what it is like to drive at 50 km/h, curves are meant for accelerating even more, just like accelerating towards pedestrians crossing at slow pace, and at traffic lights he speeds through slower cars and shouts at them if they don’t move fast enough, hilarious 🙂 But that night, Angelo slowed down, and stopped the car. Honestly, with all the racing and curving and shouting at other cars, I was mainly paying attention to our pizzas and beers, I didn’t want to spill the melted gorgonzola cheese and other sauces!

Me: “We are not home, why did you stop?”
Angelo: ”There’s a black cat, can’t you see it?” (serious)
Me: ”Oh ok! So you stop the car for a cat (appreciate it, of course) but you have no problem threatening pedestrians when you race towards them?!” (not so serious)
Angelo: ”You don’t understand, you stop whenever a black cat is crossing…” (serious and a bit annoyed)
Me: ”What if it was grey or orange?”
Angelo: ”Stana, it’s only with black cats, ok? I can’t stop for every animal that decides to cross the street, come on! It is bad luck when you see a black cat crossing the street” (definitely annoyed by the unnecessary  questioning)

Me: ”I’m not so clear, so is it the simple fact that the black cat is crossing the street? What if it was just standing on the sidewalk? Would that count too?” ( 🙂 )
Angelo: ”Stana… there is a black cat, a street, the cat is walking, so I just stop, ok?”
Me: ”Ok but you’re not telling me which element of the whole black cat situation will cause us bad luck! Is it because the cat is black? Or because it’s a cat? Or because the fact that he’s crossing the street and you being all distracted can provoke an accident? Actually this last option might be true!”
Angelo: ”… Enough. I respect black cats, ok?! It’s not so hard to get!”
Me: ”Well, you could have just said that at the beginning 🙂 It’s ok if you respect black cats, you know?”
Angelo: ”You would have kept asking anyway! I’m glad we are home now”

225px-Blackcat-Lilith

The pizzas were great, but the fact that Angelo didn’t tell me the whole story about black cats only made me more curious. So I digged in.
Black cats have always retained importance, since ancient times. In Italy unfortunately this feline’s connotation is not positive, in fact the AIDAA (Associazione Italiana difesa Animali e Ambiente) counts about sixty thousand dead black cats every year. In fact, this association established the Day of the Black Cat, on November 17th. 17 because it represents misfortune, and November because it’s the month where black cats deaths culminate.

Gossips and legends sourrounding black cats bad or good luck has very ancient roots and theories: pirates used to keep black cats on board of their ships because they were considered to be more adept at hunting mice; therefore, seeing a black cat on the street meant that pirates were nearby, who were considered evil companions of witches because of their black outfits and because they went out at night. Black cats, barely visible at night because of their color, would scare restive horses, riders who hurled violently to the ground.

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In Egypt, it was the exact opposite. Black cats were symbol of good luck and prosperity. The cult of black cats in Egypt actually comes from Greece. According to mythology, Io escaped gelous Hera (after finding out Io’s affair with Zeus), who turned her into a cow and forced her to roaming until she found solace in Egypt where she reassumed her human appearance and gave birth to her child, Epafo. Her traveling companion? A black cat (I wonder why a cat would follow a cow, but anyway). In Egypt she was renamed Isis, queen of under worlds, darkness and moon. Kind of like an Egyptian version of Greek Hecate.

Goddess Bast Seated AZ-SB392

As the underworlds were dark, silent, rich in gems and minerals, it was only obvious that Isis soon became symbol of good luck and prosperity, and the black cat the perfect association. In Egypt it was believed that families who owned a black cat suffered less from diseases, probably because cats would hunt down mice, rats, scorpions and snakes. The black cat is still respected nowadays in rural regions where the laws of nature, alternation of day and night and the seasons cycle still have much significance in people’s daily life. In Crete for example, the black cat would be considered as a protector of sleeping time because is dark and its luminous eyes would stand out in the dark, watching over while people sleep (in Crete the black cat is associated to Artemis though, not Io/Isis, but let’s leave that for a post entirely dedicated to Greek Myths).

Black-Cat-black-cats-29172566-450-338

But as soon as Christianism came in the picture, most pagan cults were either eliminated or turned according to Christian beliefs. Most gods became demons (evil creatures), and Isis was one of them; so if the black cat was her friend, then it will no longer be sacred and protected, but instead became diabolic, vicious and dangerous. Seeing a black cat would immediately bring one’s mind to witches, devil, and disasters, so naturally avoided or killed.
It’s important to keep in mind on this regard that Sicily is the island with the most varied culture and ethnicities background. First of all, the Greeks, and particularly, Hades and Persephone (King and Queen of the Underworld).
So let’s back for a moment, if Sicily is the region with such history baggage, how come they let Christianism take this black cat tradition and twist into something so negative?

So curious Stanito, who refused to go to sleep with a question mark on her face, couldn’t help but bugging poor Angelo again, as he was the only Sicilian available nearby.
Too bad he was already asleep in his room.

P.S.: I kept bugging him few days later and his response to my findings was “Mmm not too sure, all I know is that according to a superstition black cats bring bad luck. I don’t really believe that but if I’m driving, I don’t want bad luck, you know?”. Not satisfied with the answer, so I will ask other Sicilians…

14 comments

  1. Y es en ocasiones como esta en las que me surgen dudas tales como: ¿No tienen cierto parecido la superstición con la religión? Creer en algo solo porque te mencionaron el por qué creer, temiendo el que te pase algo si no sigues las indicaciones o si cometes una falta, pero todo está bien si respetas lo que te piden… Pero aun así sin saber porque… Me gustan los cambios que has hecho en la estructura, ahora provocas interés en informarse y buscar, pero aun puedes conseguir muchas cosas más si sigues así ¡Gracias por escribir! (¿Mejor que la frase sacada de una película?)

    1. Muchas gracias Francisco (la última vez pensé que NH era B. y luego Mario).
      Creo que la relación que haces es más que justificada: cuánta gente conoces que cree literalmente todo lo que le enseñan o leen en textos sagrados sin la más mínima capacidad de análisis o de cuestionar? Seguramente son muchas esas personas.
      Le comenté a Angelo sobre mi research y lo tomó de muy buena forma, lo que me hace pensar que él es de los que sí están dispuestos a aprender y escuchar. Eso no cambia que si ve un gato negro por instinto se detendrá 🙂 but that’s another story.
      Mario una vez me comentó algo sobre un gesto que hacen los militares que parece ser de rigor, pero buscando buscando, se descubrió que el origen de tal gesto (no recuerdo bien cual era) era sumamente estúpido! Aún así, la gente nunca lo cuestiona y sigue haciéndolo, te das cuenta?
      Me alegro que te guste la nueva estructura del blog 🙂

  2. As someone born on November 17th and on a Monday (being born on a Monday is bad luck according to the Russians) I can say that you don’t just stop. The version I heard is that you can’t follow the road which a black cat crossed, so you’d have to look for other roads. Usually that is what I do (it is just fun especially if I get to go off-road). Of course a more boring thing to do is wait for someone else to pass there before you or spit three times behind the left shoulder after you pass.

    You might also find it interesting, that people in Russia have a designation for other color cats too. A red cat crossing your road would bring you money, a white cat – love. The best is a three colored cat, which comes for greatest of luck ever (although that one is more of a sailors superstition that my great grandpa told me)

    1. Dear Alice,
      first of all nice to meet you, and second thank you for your enlightening comment, I had no idea! It’s so interesting, the fact that Russions have a more amplified tradition, love how they include red and white cats 🙂
      I wonder how much time will it take you if more than one black cat crosses yoir path then…

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