Most people in the community tend to use the word “familiar” for any household animal and pet. This is not to say that some of these animals couldn’t be considered a familiar. It seems that the whole idea has gotten misrepresented and/or misinformed over the years. There is so many meanings to the use of the title of “familiar” that it was hard to track down information. Especially in terms of what has become accepted and adapted within the pagan and Witch community verses the traditional ideas on the subject. There is so much information that relates to the christian theories of the middle ages and the days of the Witch trials. Whereas, “familiars” were “demons” or “Evil” spirits said to be given to Witches by the devil. These spirits took on various animal shapes (in some cases they were described just as non-human forms) that could be sent out to do a Witch’s bidding both magickally and mundanely.
The History in Witchcraft
Familiars, from the Latin “familiaris”, meaning a household servant, were mentioned even in the Bible, depending on which version you read. Remembering that most of the bible known today was rewritten out of its original meaning and /or to end certain practices of its time. In the book of Leviticus (20:27) there are references to the familiar and guardian spirits associated with various spiritual and magickal practitioners: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them”. We could get into where this came from and why, but that is a discussion that could not be covered in a post. Either way this statement has had a large impact on Witchcraft hysteria.
During the Witch hysteria of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the fascination with a Witch and familiars was mostly found in England and Scotland. Being mentioned in several trial records, especially those related to “The Witch-Finder General” Matthew Hopkins. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 made it a felony to “consult, convene with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose.” The Malleus Maleficarum, the main Witch inquisitor’s handbook of the time offered no instructions concerning familiars in the interrogation and trial of Witches. The book does acknowledge that an animal familiar “always works with the Witch in everything.” In the confession of Elizabeth Demdike during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 , it was said that her familiar’s name was Tibb. Tibb was a spirit who could take the shape of almost any animal he pleased, and in one piece of her confession he had taken the shape of a black cat. This familiar spirit wanted to aid Elizabeth in the cursing of three local individuals, but when she opposed, he knocked her into a ditch.
In the Salem Trials in 1692, accused John Bradsheet was charged for “inciting a dog to afflict.” The dog was tried and hanged as a Witch. Although there were not as many mentions of familiars in the American Witch trails we can see that over the centuries familiars have taken many forms depending on what was seen as “evil” at the time. These were the cat, mouse/rat, ferret, hare, bat, snake, frog/toad, dog or bird. As time went on and we stepped into the more modern views of the familiar we find that the well-known “King of the Witches”, Alexander Sanders, was reported to boast of the creation of a “spiritual baby”, who became one of his familiars.
In contemporary witchcraft, wicca, and other pagan traditions the “familiar” is viewed in an altogether different light. Whereas, a familiar can be any animal with which the individual feels an affinity toward. While these animals are no longer considered demons or even spirits anymore, they are treated in the same respect. Sadly, the consensus seems to also show they have even lost being a partner in one’s practice of magick. Many have adapted the term to mean an actual, living animal companion that they consider a “familiar”. Professing they have an emotional and psychic bond with a particular cat, dog, or whatever pet that have taken into their home. This is all well and good but denotes the traditional concept of the familiar and its potential and might be better suited to be called magickal or spiritual pets.
Another common thought along the “familiar” thread is that they are connected to the indigenous practice of animal spirits, known to many modern practitioners as the cringe-worthy use of the term Totem. Although, there are similarities in these concepts, they are completely different. The concept behind “Totem” animals is that they are an animal spirit that has chosen to guard a specific tribe or family and “usually” do not do any type of spiritual bidding for any particular human. Then there is the idea of animal spirit guides that have been chosen or given through ceremony. They can also come to you in a dream or in real life with a message or to teach you a valuable lesson. Shamans and medicine men of various tribal traditions have long honored the spirits of animals for their wisdom and assistance in spiritual and magickal workings and the mundane as well. Whereas with the Witch’s familiar, the animal is just the vessel for a spirit and will stay with the Witch for a certain time in order to help him or her magickally, to do his/her bidding, and then they may or may not leave. They can also be called upon or summoned into a Witch’s life as a “helper” for various things and workings.
Finding and Working with Familiars
One of the “better” books on the subject is Raven Grimassi’s “The Witch’s Familiar”. Where he discusses the history and methods on obtaining and working with familiars in a more traditional fashion. Although a modern approach, he utilizes the concepts of meditation, journeying, and ritual to achieve this goal. He explores the ideas of three different types of familiars: physical, astral, and spiritual in a way that no matter what your take is on the subject, he covers it in a modern practical way.
Whether or not you follow the ways Grimassi points out or your own, the bottom line is that familiars are magick users’ helpers who exist in both the spirit and the mundane. Depending on the Witch’s work, familiars can serve as gatekeeper, messenger and guide. There are many ways for a familiar and a Witch to work together. A Witch may send a familiar to complete a task or serve as guard during magickal work to protect and alert to the presence of spirits that may be harmful. The ways of employment are almost endless. Note that there can be a “price” in this, which is why there is a huge difference between a pet and familiar.
Also know that not everyone has, needs, or even wants a familiar. If you have an animal companion that you consider a “familiar” but doesn’t fit the traditional ideas of the familiar consider working on strengthening your psychic connection and making it a magickal pet. If an animal has appeared in your life unexpectedly, such as a stray cat that sticks around, it may have been drawn to you psychically and not a familiar. As with anything always be sure to rule out mundane reasons the animal has arrived. Do you leave food for them to eat? Is it that time of year? Remembering that many animals tend to scavenge during the spring and fall.
If you are still interested in the traditional concept of a familiar, the best way to is through summoning one into your life. Also note that this is completely different from summoning and binding spirits for workings that can be found in many other traditions. Familiars are about connecting with animals that are used and employed as vessels by spirits that are connected to you by other means. Those means are only privy between Witch and familiar.