I opened the late-night talks space because it happens to be the most auspicious time to have interesting conversations. I always learn something at night in company of friends.
If you enjoy traveling to different countries and cultures, I do believe it is interesting to know in advance few musings about your destination. It happens that Italy, like many other European countries, is a cradle of beliefs and superstitions. 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. Everything, or person, or event could potentially bring us good luck, bad luck or all sort positive/negative effects.
Luckily, I was living with two Sicilian flatmates – Angelo and Teresa – who were more than happy to share their beliefs with me anytime something of valuable significance happens, and I enjoyed those moments like crazy.
What I could gather so far are the ones that were most important to my two friends: 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 aircrafts up until 2001 effectively skipped the letter F on seat rows, while numbers 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. One that I could actually live in person. 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: ”It isn’t so clear, so is it just because 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”
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.
The Black Cat superstition
Black cats have always retained importance, since ancient times. In Italy, unfortunately, the connotation attached to the feline is negative, 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.
The cults of the Black Cat
Gossips and legends surrounding 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.
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.
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).
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.
On this regard, it’s important to know that Sicily is an island that has had a wide range of culture and ethnicities influences and invasions.
So how come they let Christianism take this black cat tradition and twist into something so negative?
So I refused to go to sleep with a question mark on my face. I 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, 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…