More than 2,000 years ago, in the area we know now as Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, Druid priests capitalized upon such fears by nurturing the belief that evil spirits were responsible for bringing about the advent of cold weather and shorter hours of daylight. To placate the spirits, the priests initiated a festival honoring Samhain, the lord of the dead. The festival was on Oct. 31, the day before the beginning of the Celtic new year.
This “new year’s eve” celebration gradually grew to ominous proportions. The priests ordered the people to extinguish all hearth fires and to gather around huge bonfires on hilltops. The fires were intended to frighten away the evil spirits and to honor the souls of people who had died during the past year. Religious rituals performed around the bonfires were followed by processions back into the villages, where embers from the large fires were used to reignite the hearth fires in each home.
The notion then developed that the souls of sinful persons, as well as all other evil spirits, were at large in the community during that night. To discourage these mysterious entities from acts of retribution, sacrifices were thrown into the bonfires. At first, the sacrifices were domesticated animals. Horses were popular because they were believed to be sacred to the Sun God, who needed attention because he was punishing the people by giving them fewer hours of daylight.
Black cats were a favorite sacrifice because they were thought to be evil spirits transformed into animals.1
Sacrificing cats began in medieval times, when the Church decreed that felines were friends of the devil. With their darting eyes and sinister-looking coats the color of death, black cats became known as witches’ mascots. They also were known as “familiars,” through which witches could communicate with the spiritual world.2