Witches' Familiars

As a cat lover, I often jest that my favourite part of Halloween is the visibility of feline-themed goods. But, why are black cats associated with Halloween and what are the implications for contemporary human-animal relations?

Traditional Superstition

Black cats have traditionally been represented as witches' familiars. A familiar was a role assigned to an animal in a working partnership with a witch. This is interesting for 2 reasons. The first being that a cat found near the scene of mischief was a less obvious and more ambiguous cause - emphasizing the boundary between human and other animals. But, the idea of witches' familiars clearly attributed agency in the form of magical powers to an animal in a similar way to a witch. During the Middle Ages, black cats were treated with suspicion for their aloof nature which was sure to represent wicked goals so anyone found with a cat was presumed to be a witch. But, the meaning to animals varies according to time and place so black cats are often now considered to be lucky in the UK. It seems that prejudice has shifted away from the cat and towards stigmatisation of their caregiver.

Contemporary Stigma

Despite the lack of evidence to suggest that animal lovers are different to those who are not, the stereotypical representation of a 'cat lady' as a woman who relates to cats instead of friends, tends to distort the everyday realities of pet-keeping. For example, in the television series The Simpsons, Eleanor Abernathy is a single, middle-aged woman who finds solace in her close bond with cats. But, the claim that pets may act as a substitute for relations with other humans trivializes meaningful relationships with pets. In fact, in most cases, feline friends complement those of the human variety. Pets can offer something different. They stick by us and don’t judge us. Yet, in other ways, we are reminded that these relationships are compromised by the dependency placed on us as ‘owners’. So, we shouldn’t be ashamed of treating our pets as kin and the emotional intimacy which underpins the time spent together. The implications of laughing off our anxiety when our pets are ill, the grief from their death or celebrating their birthdays, is neglecting the fact that we are are making an identity choice by relating to pets and acknowledging them as individuals.