A familiar is a magic-user’s spiritual helper manifest in animal form. For many, it takes on the appearance of a common household pet and many have reported the same spirit returning time as a household pet, moving from the body of the elder pet as it passes on, into the body of a younger pet who is brought into the household. These spirits do not always take the form or a pet, however. Medieval texts describe some familiars that were humanoid or even monstrous in appearance but in all cases, these were described as appearing as actual physical beings (though in some cases, not everyone could see them.) Most familiars, however, are very common and ordinary in appearance with common, ordinary names. Although bonded to the witch they serve, familiars have their own personalities, goals, and prejudices. In other words, they are by most accounts real, solid beings. Not thoughtforms or constructs. Or, if they originated as one of these, they have existed so long that they have developed into sentient beings in their own right.
Familiars have been described as demons or faeries depending on the time period, the attitude of the person doing the describing and their opinion of the magic-user they are talking about. On researching the subject deeper, it would seem that there are, indeed, different types of familiars.
On Contacting a Familiar
Older and primitive accounts of first contact with a familiar are pretty similar. Either the familiar first appears to the witch or magic-user while they are going about their daily business OR the familiar was gifted to them. The familiar comes to the witch. While a witch may make a request of the universe or a spirit guide to send her a familiar, the familiar comes when it comes- usually shortly after or as part of an initiation.
In some cases, the acquisition of the familiar marks the beginning of a person’s foray into magic: Perhaps a familiar appears to them in a time of need and offers his services to help the person overcome their trouble. Some historical references suggest actual conversations, though in modern times, these are usually dream or astral exchanges. In this case, the physical familiar will show up on the material plane a short time after initial contact.
Sometimes a familiar is gifted to a magic-user upon their introduction to the magical arts after the magic-user has formally made their interest known and begun their studies. The gift may come from a teacher or a parent or a spirit guide.
Most often a familiar comes to someone who is already involved in magic. They may ask their spirit guide or the Universe in general to send a familiar helper or the familiar may simply show up on their doorstep unannounced. There are also many cases when a familiar is inherited upon the death or incapacitation of a fellow magic-user. Familiars are often passed down through families or covens.
Among modern witches I have spoken to on the subject, the consensus seems to be that a familiar comes when it is least expected and perhaps most needed. There is nearly always something remarkable about their appearance, most people say they “came out of nowhere” and the event may be preceded or immediately followed by a dream message regarding the coming of the familiar.
Working with Familiars
Familiars are magic users’ helpers who exist in both the spirit and the material world. As such, they serve as a witch1‘s gatekeeper between worlds. A messenger and a guide. There are many ways for a familiar and a witch to work together toward a witch’s aims.
One way a witch and a familiar have traditionally worked together is “riding”. A witch, in a trance state, imprints her consciousness on the familiar creature and the familiar allows this. In this way, a witch can travel to places she might otherwise not be able to go, she can fly, she can climb, she can dig and she can watch and listen.
A witch may send a familiar to complete a task for her on either the physical or astral plane because familiars are both physical and astral creatures.
A familiar may act as a guide and guardian when a witch travels the astral plane.
A familiar guards a witch during magical work. It can guard her while she is in a trance or being ridden to protect her physically and also alert her to the presence of spirit beings and help to drive away those that may be harmful.
A familiar can help minimize the effect of spellwork on a witch. Sometimes, for example, a witch may draw certain energies into herself which may be overwhelming. A familiar animal can absorb some of these energies to “take the edge off” whole still keeping them available.
Care and Feeding of a Familiar
During the Middle Ages, witch hunters stripped suspects down and searched for a “witch’s teat”, a mole or an extra nipple somewhere on the body from which his or her familiar suckled and was sustained. Alternatively, a witch may have fed her familiar blood from sacrificed animals.
These days, most witches simply feed their familiars whatever physical food they need for their bodies to be healthy and may also burn a candle or some incense for the spirit periodically. Personally, I enjoy sitting in a Circle meditating with my familiar to feed both our spirits.
Most modern authors on the subjects of familiar spirit reject the physical aspect of these spirits at least partially, if not completely. Many modern practitioners believe that historical references of familiars as physical beings referred to either normal animals that were not familiars or spirit beings that may have allowed themselves to be seen in one shape or another or entirely make-believe evidence spouted by “witnesses” with a vendetta or suspect witches under torture willing to say anything to end their pain. Thus, according to this view, familiar spirits are simply helper spirits that have nothing whatsoever to do with physical animal companions. Other authors see a familiar animal as simply an animal with which a witch has developed a close, psychic bond. A more balanced approach describes a familiar as a type of spirit that has a very close affinity for an individual or more usually a family, that often inhabits the body of a household pet. The spirit can operate in purely spirit form between incarnations but is most useful in a material body where it can act as a bridge between realms.
Familiars in History and Folklore
Historian Emma Wilby believes that stories such as The Frog Prince, Puss in Boots and Rumpelstiltskin are about familiars.
In the 1600s, Prince Rupert of England and his companion dog Boye were an unstoppable force in the English Civil War. It was widely reported that Boye was a familiar animal.
Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Emma Wilby, 2006
The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition, Golden
The Witch Cult in Western Europe, Margaret Murray
Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer and Sprenger
The Witch’s Familiar: Spiritual Partnerships for Successful Magic by Raven Grimassi