Who Skinned the Black Cat? Online Botanica sells the Face of a Black Cat as Good Luck Curio
I want to know, since when was a black cat face used for good luck?
I don't quite remember how I stumbled upon this page the other day, all I know is that I did. I normally like to peruse Papa Jim's Botanica site because he carries stuff I don't carry. However, this is one item I won't be purchasing from him or anyone else, and I certainly won't be aspiring to carry it.
The website says "Black Cat Face. Place in your home or business for Good Luck, Protection From Evil."
"This product was added to our catalog on Thursday 24 February, 2011."
Now, I am all for the rare and hard to find curios and I will climb a mountain or mountains (literally) to get them. But a black cat face?
I don't even know where to begin with this one.
Well, I posted a link to it on my Facebook page and got a lot of responses, which is why I thought I would blog about it and do a little scientific examination of the evidence. And, being the scientist that I am, I have an inquiring mind and I want to know, who skinned the black cat?
Any research begins with a question. We want to find out something, so we research it. We form a hypothesis and develop a theory, collect our data and then methodically go about proving or disproving the hypothesis. The results may or may not support the hypothesis. Either way, if we can confirm one way or another it's good research, even if we don't confirm the initial hypothesis because at least we have accurate information about the issue at hand and draw a conclusion or conclusions based on facts. We end up with more information than we had in the beginning of the research so we add to a specific body of knowledge that everyone can draw from. Not only do we benefit the scientific community with new found knowledge, we also benefit society at large.
Research also begins with something the researcher is passionate about. When I saw this image and the accompanying advertisement, I was appalled. And I am not alone. Here are a couple of the comments that supported my initial reaction:
Sorcha Puridai Isn't there some law against that? It should be reported. If it originates from outside the country, it's illegal to import - or export if its inside. There should be a way to shut this down. More education is needed because there are superstitious and impressionable people out there who support this kind of trade ...
Fred Cislo Jr Okay that is just wrong! I would be pissed if somebody told me they bought that!
And there were more. but then, there was this post:
Willa Wylde im betting its not a cat face at all but a fox, you can buy them from various leather places like Tandy, i used to use them to make dream catches and such it even looks like the fox shape...just saying
It's always good to have different opinions about things. Sometimes we can't see the other side of Exu's hat because we can't stand on both sides of the street at one time. But, if we are open-minded and don't jump to conclusions, we can discover the truth based on the evidence at hand.
After reading Willa's comment, I questioned whether or not it was in fact a fox and not a cat. I am not convinced either way...yet.
Now I am writing an article about black cat sacrifice in Volume 2 of Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly so I don't want to repeat that here, but I do want to give a little contextual background for our informal study of this alleged black cat face. There is no doubt that the use of black cats in magick has a long history in Europe and in hoodoo. Cats played a large role in ancient Egyptian society, for example, as they were used for pest control and were deified (i.e. Bast, Mafdet). In fact, cats were afforded the same mummification and burial as people were. In ancient Greece, cats were revered and if one was found hurting or killing a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was death.
In New Orleans Voodoo, black cats have been the subject of controversial sacrifice in the past, particularly with regards to finding the one bone in the body that is all powerful.
Thanks to Robert Tallant and other writers who focused on specific excerpts of his mostly inaccurate and sensationalized account of New Orleans Voodoo, the urban legend of the black cat as THE sacrificial lamb of New Orleans Voodoo has become an undisputed historical fact. He even has a chapter in his book Voodoo in New Orleans called Skin a Black Cat with your Teeth. According to Tallant, “ Sacrifice and the drinking of blood were integral parts of all Voodoo ceremonies. Usually it was the blood of a kid that was used, but often it was that of a black cat”(Tallant, p. 15). The prevalence and inaccuracy of such accounts is something I discuss in the article in HCQ. One thing I have not been able to find, whether truth or fiction, is the use of a black cat face specifically, for good luck.
Now the black cat bone is another issue, and it is seemingly supported by local lore and in various blues songs such as the one I have in this post. The truth is, however, the use of black cats in sacrifice didn't start with New Orleans Voodoo or hoodoo. For example, here is a description of the gruesome black cat bone ritual found in the book of St. Cyprian (O Antigo Livro de São Cipriano: Capa de Aço) first published in 1849:
Do I have to say that a black cat bone, even the "one" alleged special bone will not make you invisible? Admittedly I have not tried it, but I would bet it just ain't so.
During the 17th century, a cat boiled in oil was believed to be excellent for dressing wounds (Russell, 1972). While the mental picture of this is reprehensible, there may have been some (unknown at the time) scientific merit to this, if it was a black cat that was used.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health discovered the gene mutations associated with a black coat in three types of black cats: the domestic cat, jaguar and South American jaguarundi. Apparently, the mutations affect a gene in the same family as one that causes a resistance to HIV in humans. "There is a mutation in humans that knocks this gene out and causes complete resistance to HIV," O'Brien said. So it may be that the same gene responsible for a black coat may also provide resistance to diseases. You can read the whole article here.
In hoodoo and in New Orleans Voodoo, black cats are associated with good luck and have been advertised as such since the late 1930s. They are particularly good luck in sports and games of chance. The tail of a black cat when pointing upward was considered lucky, and if you stroke a cat's tail nine times before playing cards, it is said to give you a winning edge in card games.
There are many references to the various mystical attributes of black cats from numerous cultures - some positive and some negative. Most "superstitions" about black cats are positive, up until the Middle Ages, that is.
I was born and raised in New Orleans and lived there over thirty years, and I never heard of using the face of a black cat for good luck or anything else. That doesn't mean it never was, just that I never heard of it anecdotally. Even the folks I knew who practiced the darker arts never used the skin of black cats. And try as I might, I can't find reference to the use of a black cat face specifically as a good luck curio in any of the folkloric or anthropological literature. I searched the entire database of literature available through the American Anthropological Association, as well as the library at Walden University, through which I have access to hundreds of academic journals. Nothing...not even a hint. If anyone knows of a reference, please post it in the comments section because I would really love to know if I missed something.
However, my question, who skinned the black cat? is jumping the gun. I have to first prove there is indeed a black cat face on Papa Jim's website.
Research Question: Is Papa Jim's Botanica really selling a skinned black cat face on their website?
Or, is it the face of a fox? Let's examine the evidence, beginning with the obvious. Papa Jim's Botanica states: "BLACK CAT FACE... Place in your home or business for good luck, protection from evil."
Of course, you can't believe everything you read or see, so let's check out the photos and and see if we can differentiate the alleged black cat face from a black fox face.
The first aspect of the images to compare is the shape of the faces. I found a couple of photos of black fox faces and compared them against the black cat face found on Papa Jim's Botanica website. To do this, I used Photoshop to remove the backgrounds of both photos and placed them side by side for comparison. And to be completely fair, I am aware of the variations of pelts and there are some fox faces that appear more rounded than pointed, so I did a side by side comparison of those as well.
Next, I took the individual photos and superimposed them on top of each other, taking care to size them to equal sizes without distorting the ratio. Note that in the images, I made the cat face image into a colored graphic in order to clearly see any similarities or differences in the overall shape of the faces.
Sample 1: Cat face superimposed on fox face
Next, I examined the details of the photos, starting with the noses. The alleged cat face appears to have a smaller nose than the fox face, which appears to be a bit square. In addition, in both of the fox photos, the snouts are narrower than the alleged black cat photo, although the fox face with a rounded nose is not as elongated.
Another detail I noticed is the fur. The fur on the fox appears a bit coarser than the fur on the alleged black cat. And the ears...it looks as if the ears of the alleged black cat face are smaller and more centrally located than the fox ears, which appear to be larger and laying to the sides.
So far, it's not looking good.
That said, my observations are extremely limited in both the photos and the lack of an ability to hold and feel both specimens firsthand. Further, it is difficult to see the details of either picture clearly.
Even if it is not a real black cat, shouldn't the consumer be told? Why would they say it is a black cat if it is not? It's not like they are asking hundreds of dollars for it. Is it worth selling a black cat face for $22.00?
What do you think?
I have chosen not to link to the site because I am already giving them free advertising as the subject of this blog post. No doubt, some freak will read this and want to buy it. That is on them, not me. If you want to see the ad, just google the words "black cat face" and it will come right up (unfortunately).
My first cat was a black cat named Moses. He was so sweet and I really miss him even though it has been over thirty years since he has passed. I can't imagine someone skinning a black cat and saving the face to sell on a website for good luck. That just can't be good karma.
Black Cat Ju Ju at Creole Moon
Tallant, R. (1946). Voodoo in New Orleans
California Folklore Society (1964). Western Folklore, Vol 23.