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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 27, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 9
Black Cats, Werewolves and Witches: Halloween Symbols Unmasked

By Amy Cowles

Black cats are hallmarks of the playfully spooky modern celebration of Halloween. But they weren't always associated with wholesome autumn fright. Black cats and other creepy creatures were once seen as harbingers of death and disaster, according to Walter Stephens, author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief.

Stephens, the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies and vice chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins, is frequently in demand this time of year as media scribes seek some scholarly expertise for their annual Halloween stories. The public, it seems, is eager for the information; due to the response to the original edition of his book, it was published in paperback this month by University of Chicago Press.

Black cats and other creatures were believed to be witches' companions, Stephens says, or, worse yet, witches who had disguised themselves as animals to inflict pain and suffering surreptitiously. In the 15th century, he says, witches were widely believed to be the cause of all the bad things that happened to good people. Faced each day with a hard life in which tragedy was the norm, people needed to blame someone other than God. Accused witches became popular culprits.

How did a witch, usually a woman, allegedly wreak havoc on the unsuspecting? By masquerading as a screech owl, black cat or werewolf, according to the writing of the day as researched by Stephens. Today's Halloween costumes can be seen as a benign manifestation of this centuries-old popular belief in witches' maleficent shape shifting, he says.

"Disguise makes a person ghostlike, and ghosts can go where living people cannot," says Stephens, who also is director of Villa Spelman, Johns Hopkins' Center for Italian Studies in Florence, Italy.

In Italy, Stephens says, peasant mythology of the time evidently held that witches transformed themselves into cats to kill babies in their cradles. When there wasn't any sign of injury to a deceased child, it was often theorized that the child had been attacked by a cat — the wounds they make are small, and demons could make them heal instantly, it was believed. Similar tales were told of witches who became wolves to attack older children and adults outdoors.

The companionship of witches and cats was also a commonplace element of English witchcraft theory. The English witch's "familiar," the domesticated demon who carried out her evil deeds, could be incarnated as a small animal. The companionship between a marginal person and her pet was often interpreted by believers in witchcraft as a relationship between human and demonic enemies of God.

"Even today, the Halloween witch has one inseparable companion: her black cat," Stephens says. "For North American children conditioned by relentless commercial culture, a hissing black cat with arched back is a primary symbol of Halloween."


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