Ask almost any witch or pagan practicing the Craft today, and they will tell you about a familiar who’s graced their life and art. I know I’ve had the pleasure and the blessing of having them in my life. But what exactly is a familiar, anyway?
Back in the bad old days of the witch hunts, called the Burning Times, it was believed that familiars were evil spirits sent by the Devil to help a witch cast curses and perpetrate bad actions on the people around her. They were imps and tiny demons disguised as bats, cats, rats, mice, dogs or birds, and they were granted along with infernal powers when the witch sold her soul to the Adversary.
It was believed that these little devils in disguise helped the witch deliver curses, cast spells, and spread contagion and disease. They were workers of evil who helped the witch steal babies and use their fat as a grease that helped them fly on broomsticks every full moon.
Familiar spirits were fed with the blood of sacrificed infants or animals, and they were sometimes fed on the blood of the witch herself through a nipple in an unnatural place that was called a Witches’ Teat.
When witch hunters would apprehend some poor herbalist who’d had the bad fortune to be in a town where disease was spreading in those pre-antibiotic days, they would strip her naked and subject her to a violent search for Witches’ Teats and Witches’ Marks. These would usually be moles, freckles or pigmented spots that are a natural part of being a human who has skin.
The witch hunters would poke those spots with needles and pins, and if the witch showed no pain and if the pinprick failed to bleed, it would be proof positive of her guilt. Never mind that some witch hunters used needles on springs that retracted with the least pressure, like the fake knives used in stage combat. It was proof, and it was a death sentence.
Familiars weren’t really associated with the Craft or with witches until the 1500s, when the Burning Times really got going. King James VI, who was obsessed with hunting witches after he decided that he was the target of malevolent magic, wrote a book called Daemonologie, and this was the first time the word “familiar” was used.
It was based on the Latin word familiaris, or “household spirit”, which had more to do with protectors of the family and less with malevolent sorcery. Unfortunately, James’s ideas gained traction in those superstitious days. His idea that the Devil used animals to tempt women into witchcraft began to spread.
The familiar cropped up again in the hated book Malleus Maleficarum, or “The Hammer of the Witches,” written by champion murderers… er, witch hunters, German monks Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger.
This book was commissioned by the ironically-named Pope Innocent VIII as fuel for his inquisition against heresy and evil. The Malleus became the go-to book for Inquisitors, witch hunters and crazed state-sanctioned killers from these monks themselves all the way up to Cotton Mather, who was responsible for the witch convictions in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.
No less a worthy than Shakespeare, who was the voice of Elizabethan pop culture, got in on the act in his play Macbeth, where the Three Witches call upon their familiar animals, named Grimalkin (a cat), Harpier (an owl) and Paddock (a toad).
In England, from 1644 to 1647, there was even a man with the title “Witchfinder General.” This was Matthew Hopkins, and he developed the idea of the Witches’ Teat. He wrote a treatise called The Discovery Witches, where he went into detail about how to tell a Witches’ Teat from a hemmorhoid (which tells you how personal and invasive these body searches were).
He also described how a witch had described her numerous familiars by name, but only after he’d kept her awake with torture for four whole days. The names and descriptions she gave could only have come from the hallucinations of enforced sleeplessness: Holt, a white “kittling”; Famara, who was a legless spaniel; Vinegar Tom, who was a greyhound with the head of an ox; Sack and Sugar, who was a black rabbit; Newes, a polecat; and the non-animal-appearing imps Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown and Grizel Greedigut.
To Matthews the fantastical and improbable nature of these familiar spirits and their ludicrous names was proof of the demonic and not at all caused by his own depravity.
If a woman who was accused of being a witch had a pet, that poor animal would be dragged into the witch hunters’ jail, as well. A dog was hanged in Salem as a witch. Cats by the hundreds were burned to death in France.
The destruction of these innocent animals was the source of what might be considered the Goddess’s true justice – because the so-called God-fearing good people had killed those cats, who no longer were there to hut rats in cities and people’s homes, the Black Death was able to spread, and one-tenth of Europe perished.
Way to go, guys.
The Familiar Today
Nowadays, nobody really believes that witches feed demons from moles, or that the Devil is involved in the Craft. Most witches don’t even believe the Devil exists. In Wicca, there is no Hell. There is no Devil. There are no demons and no holy retribution for sins. And there certainly aren’t little demons disguised as animals who are sent to lead us astray.
So what is a familiar, then, to the modern-day witch?
A familiar is an animal who offers the witch companionship, moral support, and spiritual assistance by helping to direct energies and strengthen the witch’s connection to the natural world. We know our familiars when we see them – it’s a bit like falling in love.
You can’t tell someone how to do it or what it feels like, but you know it when it happens to you. It can be when you look into the eyes of an animal who has crossed your path, and the eyes that look back are filled with more wisdom and awareness than most animals’… and that’s saying something, because most animals are filled with a native wisdom that we can only hope to achieve.
A familiar forms bonds with a witch on a very deep, spiritual level. They are always there, eager to support us in spellwork, to attend us during divination, and to be present during ritual. They are unconditional love, an expression of the very love that the Goddess and the God have for their children.
Some people say that you can cast a spell to call a familiar spirit, but in my work, I’ve never seen a spell like that work. They come to us on their own, and in their own ways. In my case, my first true familiar was a stray kitten that my mother found underneath her car one morning while I was away during my freshman year at college.
She brought this skinny little tabby inside, and that kitten had an attitude and intellect beyond any other cat we’d ever had. Mom named her Sheba, and she hoped that she would bond with her; instead, as soon as I came home for the summer, Sheba became my constant companion. Any time I would light a candle for spellwork, or if I would pray, or if I would take my Tarot deck out to do a reading, she would know.
She would come from wherever she’d gone in the house – in the unlikely event that she wasn’t already hanging out with me – and she’d get involved. She would rub her face against my Tarot deck. She would sit beside the spread and tap certain cards with her paws, and every time she did that, the card she indicated held the hint to the meaning of the whole reading.
Sheba had one litter of kittens, and her daughter went on to become a powerful familiar in her own right. When I struck out on my own, Sheba came with me to the first apartment I ever had by myself.
That apartment was on the top floor of an old farmhouse, and one night a dark spirit came to call – and Sheba put herself between it and me, leaping onto me to hiss into what should have been its face but was just blackness.
The spirit fled, and I never saw it again. As soon as it was gone, Sheba settled down beside me on the bed, washed her face and went to sleep. Her work was done.
Familiars, you see, protect us from the darker elements of the spiritual world just as surely as they help connect us to the light. They are our special touchstones with all things natural and pure, and they give us strength to cast magick that might otherwise be too tiring for our human selves to do alone.
There is something very special about the bond that a witch forms with her familiar spirit, and it’s that the bond survives death. I was in the hospital with pneumonia the night that Sheba died, but I felt her jump up onto the bed with me. I knew, even though I had not been told, that my familiar had passed out of her physical existence.
Her spirit came back to tell me that I would be all right, and that she wasn’t really gone, and with the promise that she would return. It was deeply comforting.
The comfort became even deeper when I encountered a stray cat at my best friend’s home. He’s a beautiful boy, with markings and eyes very similar to Sheba’s in many ways. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was special.
Since he came to live with me, I’ve come to realize that he more than resembles Sheba – he was Sheba. Familiars reincarnate to return to the witches in their lives. So it is with Coonlet (named after the fact that he’s a Maine coon mixed breed cat).
He involves himself with my rituals. He takes a marked interest in my Tarot readings. He knows when I’m unhappy, or when I’m sick, or when my psychic batteries have been drained, and he does everything he can to help me feel better again.
I’ve been very fortunate to have had many familiars over the years. I almost always have had two at any given time. While I had Sheba, I also had Brigid; Brigid died young, and not long afterward she returned to me as Pearl. Sheba died and returned as Coonlet. Pearl died, and I’m waiting for her return. In the meantime, a new spirit has stepped up to fill the second post, and now I have Pickles, who partners with Coonlet in support of my magickal life.
Familiars are very helpful in raising spiritual energy within a Circle. They are psychically attuned to the witch and to the magickal world, and as such, they form a remarkable bridge between the Seen and the Unseen. They can assist with scrying and other forms of divination, as my familiars help me with my Tarot readings. They can detect negative energy and protect against negative entities, as in the story I just told. If one doesn’t like a person you’ve encountered, take heed – that person is probably bad news on some level, either because of the kind of person he or she is, or because of the energies that cling to the person from the work that he or she does.
Familiars are found in your home, and as such, they’re in the province of the Goddess. The God is in command of the wild creatures, and that is where a witch encounters spirit animals and totems. All three categories of animal energy are very important, but they mustn’t be confused for one another.
A spirit animal is just that – spirit – and is rarely encountered in the flesh. A totem is a symbol of the power that a particular animal is known for, and the wild energy that animals of that type can bring into a witch’s life. They are powerful parts of shamanism and other magickal practices, but they are separate from familiars.
Having a familiar is a very special, comforting thing. It is love made real, connection to spirit made flesh and fur, and the companionship of the Goddess writ small. They are your constant ally, your best friend, your most loyal confidant, and your best magickal partner.
Listen to your familiar and they won’t lead you astray.