USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘black cats’
Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Black Cats in Moldova

“So, when I was in Greece, one of the people that I stayed with that worked at the hostel was from Moldova, which is apparently the coolest place in the world because it has the highest partying—alcohol consumption rate, per person, or something. So anyway, that’s beside the point. So anyways, we were walking around Athens, at, like six in the morning and he saw, like, a black cat cross his path, and he literally hissed at the black cat, spit over his left shoulder, and yelled out a sort of curse thing. And I asked ‘Why… why did you do that? It’s just a black cat.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s incredibly bad luck that it crossed our path,’ you know, ‘we’re going to have so much bad luck, but it’s okay. I took care of it. I did the curse.’ And I didn’t know what he said because it was in Moldovan.”

 

The informant learned of this version of the black cat superstition in 2012. The informant does not know why the specific elements of the hiss, spitting (over the left shoulder specifically), and the curse come into play, but she said that she learned it was all part of breaking the demonic curse put on you by the black cat running in front of you. The informant emphasized that she learned the order of the ritual is very important or “bad luck descend upon you.” She also found it interesting that people were still so into the ritual even in 2012, because she is skeptical of this type of belief.

The counter-curse to the demonic curse is surprisingly similar to a reaction that the cat supposedly doing the cursing may have. The hiss and curse mimic a cat’s hissing and meowing—they both come off as aggressive, animalistic behaviors. I’ve encountered spitting superstitions, but I have never encountered a reason for it (it might refer again to the cat’s hissing/spitting). It seems like in this case of contagious magic, you can reverse the process by repeating the curse (made by the cat) yourself.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Russian Superstition about Black Cats

Background: “I grew up in Lithuania, and in Lithuania, you have Poles and Lithuanians who are Catholic, Russians who are Russian Orthodox, and Jews. We were a Jewish family, and I was always told that Jews do not have superstitions. But all my friends were either Polish or Russians, and they had superstitions, and eventually, I felt like, ‘well, it’s safer to believe in it.’”

Black cat superstition:

“If you walk and a black cat crosses the road in front of you, you’re supposed to turn around over your left shoulder three times and spit over your left shoulder three times. And I would do that, just in case.

“There were four girls in my big apartment building who were the same age, and we would walk to school together. And if there was a black cat crossing the road in front of us, we would all start turning and spitting. In fact, that’s why I have this superstition. It didn’t come from my mother—my mother always said that we shouldn’t believe in that, even though she believed in cracked mirrors. But I started believing it because the other girls did it.

“I’m sure that belief is Russian because there is a Russian song about a black cat. It’s about a black cat who lives behind the corner, and everybody hates him because there is this saying that you would have bad luck if you meet a black cat. But the truth is that it’s only the black cat who constantly has bad luck. That’s what the song is about. And that was a very popular Russian song. It appeared in the 1970s, when I was a kid.”

Q. Why do you think that this superstition exists?

A. In some of the Russian fairytales, you have a witch, Baba Yaga, and she always has a black cat with her. So, it is an element from Russian fairytales. Perhaps that’s why, I don’t know.

Analysis: The custom of turning and spitting is interesting, especially because it must be done specifically over one’s left shoulder. The practice seems to be almost an attempt to reverse time, as if to undo the effects of the bad luck.

The informant mentions a song about a black cat (“Chernyj Kot”), which pokes fun at the superstition, laughingly conveying the message that people should not discriminate against black cats. (After all, cats cannot control the color of their fur!)

Transliterated lyrics to this song can be found here:

“Chernyj Kot.” Lyrics Time. www.lyricstime.com, 2002. Web. 26 April 2012. <http://www.lyricstime.com/aguzarova-zhanna-chernyj-kot-lyrics.html>.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Russian Superstitions: Black Cats and Broken Mirrors

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ah well, one of I think, you know international superstitious things is defiantly with the cats. But if it is here it is just bad luck. But in Russia it actually means bad luck or even maybe very horrible disease.  If the black cat crosses the street you must spit over your right shoulder three times, and then the left. So it kind of cuts the curse. Also, I know that it means a disease or death in like, your closest circle of relatives or friends if you look at the broken mirror.  So actually, even if the mirror just cracked it means that you have to pick it up and through it outside of your house without looking at that.  Because for example, in Germany broken mirror means seven years of bad luck, but in Russia it means that everything is going to extreme. It’s like disease? No! Dead people.”

Interviewer: “Why do you think people in Russia are so superstitious?”

Informant: “Well of course, all those superstitious ideas come from pagan times, you know? And Russia was influenced by so many countries because at one point we had Vikings, we had Mongols ruling the country for almost… 12 and 13th century for more than 100 years. So all those influences I would say, they created… I don’t know. Maybe people were scared? And of course in Russia the weather conditions are pretty tough too. You know, living situations was always tough. So maybe people wanted to feel more protected or find reason of like why something bad happen to them.”

Analysis:

I agree with my informant’s analysis of Russian culture and superstition.  Life in Russia has historically been very difficult, due to both political and environmental reasons.  I believe that it is a basic human desire to try to make sense of your world, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned during the interview, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people turn to superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.  I do not know why the superstition of black cats and broken mirrors appear in other cultures besides Russia.  The notion that a broken mirror is unlucky sounds logical, because broken objects have lost their use.  There is another related superstition in Russian culture that says giving someone a gift that is broken is unlucky as well.  Superstitions are a major aspect to Russian culture, and these beliefs are still present in the way people live today.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Annotation: The black cat superstition is also mentioned at this website, which also lists other Russian superstitions.
http://www.aerotranslate.com/russian-culture/russian-superstitions-in-everyday-life.html

 

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Superstitions – luck

Morgan’s family is very superstitious and she shared with me some of the superstitions she grew up with (more here).

In her family, black cats are considered good luck. She said, “We always keep a black cat in our house. Whenever we don’t have one, (for whatever reason), Dad’s job or something will tank. Usually it’s financial luck.”

This would seem contrary to the tradition in American (and must of Western) society that sees black cats as bad omens. Historically, they were associated with witchcraft and black magic, and although contemporary American society does not see this kind of paranoia (and there is less of a stigma associated with witchcraft in general thanks to a renewed interest in practices like Wicca and homeopathic medicine), the negative connotations about black cats persist. Animal shelters report lower adoption rates for black cats and some will even cease adoptions of them around Halloween for fear that the cats might be abused.

For as much negativity as there seems to be surrounding black cats in Wester folklore, there seems to be an equal amount of positive folklore that supports Morgan’s family’s tradition. In several European cultures, black cats are considered very good luck, and even- as Morgan said- symbols of prosperity. In England and Scotland, the superstition is that a black can can bring good fortune and that a woman living with a black cat will have many suitors, and sailors believed it was lucky to keep a cat on board (if nothing else, having the cat around to catch mice certainly improved their fortune). Additionally, the ancient Egyptian revered black cats, whom they believed to have a connection to the goddess Bastet. It was recognized that cats helped protect the food stores from rats and to kill or injure a cat was considered criminal.

There is even a historical anecdote that says King Charles I of England owned a black cat that he believed brought him good fortune. When the cat died, he mourned the loss of his good luck and was soon after arrested for treason and eventually executed.

The King Charles story and other feline folklore can be found here: http://www.petside.com/article/black-cat-myths.

Morgan also said that peacock feathers are considered very bad luck. “My father’s ex-wife once brought home a vase full of peacock feathers, and the pipes burst throughout the entire apartment.”

This is a fairly common Western belief, although its origin is indeterminate. There is speculation that the distinctive markings on the peacock’s feathers represent a kind of “evil eye.” In my research, I also found it suggested that this superstition was created to discourage the hunting and eating of peacocks. I think the answer lies somewhere in between, and while the peacock feathers are not an “evil-eye” per se, the killing of a peacock might bring bad fortune on those associated with it, even someone who just purchased its feathers. This is just my own interpretation, borrowing a little of the spirit of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Information and a little history of peacock myths can be found here: http://www.khandro.net/animal_bird_peacock.htm.

[geolocation]