Written by Jeannie Swales
This rather mournful black cat has the tattered remains of a green silk shamrock on his back. Whether that’s someone’s idea of belt and braces (double good luck) or a safety mechanism (the lucky shamrock combatting the unlucky cat) very much depends on your superstitions.
The cat is a calendar, dating from 1934, and part of the collection of Scarborough folklorist William Clarke (1871-1945), an avid collector who amassed a huge collection of charms and amulets.
But the poor black cat seems to suffer with something of an identity crisis – is he lucky, or unlucky? There seems to be no definitive answer – one website I consulted told me that in North America, it’s bad luck if a black cat crosses your path, and good luck if a white one does – and the other way round in the UK, except, apparently, in Yorkshire, where it’s lucky to own a black cat, unlucky to have one cross your path. Confused? I certainly am.
From the same cat-crazy website: a black cat walking towards you brings luck, whilst one walking away from you takes good fortune with it (I found exactly the opposite claimed on a different website); in Italy, if a black cat lies on the bed of a sick person, they will die (the invalid, not the cat); and, most bizarrely – if a black cat crosses your path while you’re driving, you can prevent back luck by turning your hat backwards, and marking an X on your windscreen. I guess those of a superstitious bent might claim the road traffic accidents that this one must have caused as evidence that the ritual wasn’t being performed properly.
But in all the chaotic, confusing mythology that surrounds the black cat, one thing seems historically undeniable – its association with witches. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe, and parts of the States, were in the grip of witchcraft fever. Arthur Miller’s wonderful play The Crucible portrays the hysteria that could tear a community apart, and we still use the phrase ‘witch hunt’ today to describe the relentless hounding of an innocent person.
The witches, poor things, were often marginalised and lonely members of society who kept an animal for company; this translated in the mind of their persecutors into ‘familiars’ – a personal demon, or spirit in the form of an animal. A familiar might be a dog, a bird or even a toad – but the one that has survived in the popular imagination as the true mark of a witch is, of course, the black cat.
The black cat calendar is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork owned by the borough. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or (01723) 384510.