Witches Familiars: What is a Familiar Spirit? From Past to Present
Have you heard the term witch’s familiar? Some call them devils or demons. Others call their pets their familiars. Here we take a journey to the past to define the origins of the familiar spirit PLUS learn of the common animals associated with witchcraft including wolves, cats, and hares. And you might find your definition is far from the original meaning.
What is a Familiar Spirit?
Modern witches refer to their household pets as their “familiars”, but the concept of a familiar originally meant something different. So, what is a familiar spirit if not a witch’s magical pet? A familiar spirit, according to historical Witch Trial documents, refers to a spirit that aided the witch in her magical workings. The documents say the devil gave familiars to witches. In exchange, the witch made a pact with the familiar. The pact would define what the witch would do for the familiar spirit in exchange for the familiar spirit’s help. These familiar spirits could take nearly any form they’d like including different animals and human likenesses. According to Doreen Valiente, a familiar spirit in centuries past is now akin to the modern spirit guide. And yet, modern traditional witches might disagree.
What Does a Witch’s Familiar Actually Do?
A witch’s familiar or familiar spirit is believed to be her “aid” in her magical endeavors, spells, and rituals. A familiar will go before the witch and gather data to bring back to her. Inevitably providing her with a psychic ability through the familiar’s eyes and ears. The familiar spirit might also carry out actual magical work for the witch, making her spell manifest in reality…perhaps having that individual who owes her some money write her the check and mail it. Or drawing that ex-lover back into her good graces. Familiars will also guard and protect a witch, should she ask for it.
Many modern traditional witches claim familiars are different from spirit guides in that they require energy in return for their services. And that a witch enters a contract or pact with a familiar spirit. A little quid pro quo, you see. I’ll give you this, if you give me that. And in this concept, we see the origins of the witch’s teat or witch’s mark from the times of the witch hunts. Witch hunters like Matthew Hopkins believed witches carried a third nipple or some sort of mark that was proof he or she was a witch. This is where the witch “suckled” her familiar spirits. Basically giving the familiar blood or of his/her energy to feed it so that it would do his or her bidding.
Ghosts and Male Spirits as Familiars
There were many kinds of familiar spirits recorded in the Witch Trial documents, and many were animal in form, but there were also a lot of ghosts or the dead who aided the accused. For example, Besse Dunlop of Lynn, an accused witch in Scotland, confessed to having a familiar spirit by the name Thomas Reid. She claimed he was a deceased soldier from the area who came to her while she walked near a castle’s ruins one day. He told her he would help bring her good fortune in return for her aid in clearing up some of his unfinished business. In addition, he took her to Elfhame (elf land), where she met the Queen and was promised fortunes.
In the Pendle Witch Trials, the accused witches were forced to confess and all confessed to having familiar spirits. Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, confessed to having a familiar spirit named Fancy, of whom showed himself to her as a man when he manifested in her home in the Pendle forest. We can only assume that he either looked or dressed “fancy”. The other Pendle witches claimed familiars but theirs appeared in the form of black dogs.
Witch’s Familiars in Animal Form
The Witch’s Hare
Possibly one of the lesser known of the familiars is the hare. A hare is a large type of rabbit prominent in Europe and parts of North America. There are numerous stories that tell of women shapeshifting into hares to steal things from their neighbors. Or to escape from danger. A Pendle Witch’s familiar named Tibb frequently appeared in hare form. No doubt hares are linked to witchcraft because of their sanctity to ancient goddesses (Eostre, Artemis, Hecate, and Holda, to name a few). When the Church sought to convert pagans, they had to make the old beliefs look evil – hence turning sacred animals into “witches familiars” a.k.a. evil spirits.
The Witch’s Black Cat
The black cat is the most well-known of the witch’s familiars. Ancient people worshiped cats and modern people love them. The ancient Egyptians domesticated the cat, linked to the goddess Bast. And therefore held in high regard. Over the centuries, archaeologists have discovered thousands of mummified cats in Egypt. In old Norse culture, two large cats guarded the goddess Freya. In the confession of Elizabeth Demdike in the Pendle Witch Trials, she confessed her familiar’s name was Tibb. Tibb was a familiar spirit who took the form of many animals, and in one part of her confession, Tibb appeared to her as a black cat.
Witches and Dogs
In many old tales and myths, hounds guard the gates to the afterlife. Think hellhounds and Cerberus, the Greek Hound of Hades. In Ireland and England, ghostly black dogs roam ley lines and haunt cemeteries. Alizon Device of the Pendle Witch Trials confessed to having a familiar who took the form of a black hound who lamed a man after she requested it of him. As did James Device and Elizabeth Demdike. Then in 1645, Helen Clark claimed to have met the devil who had taken the form of a black dog.
Hounds of the Gods
Hounds protect multiple deities, including Hecate the goddess of witches. Some gods appear as dogs—the egyptian gods Anubis and Wepwawet, for example, and Xolotl the Aztec god of death. The legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, suckled at a she-wolf’s breasts as babies. Two large hounds flank the Celtic Germanic goddess Nehalennia at the altar. Dogs have long been tied to the crossroads between life and death, as are witches.
Listen to our podcast on Familiar Spirits here:
The Wolf and Witchcraft
In addition to the likely suspects, there were other animals that were witches familiars during the Dark Ages. Wolves and witches appear in European tales and Witch Trials together. In Switzerland and Estonia, witches were accused of shapeshifting into wolves. A man named Hans stood trial in Livonia, after being accused of black magic and lycanthropy. He confessed that a “man in black” had given him a wolf hide and the ability to shapeshift.
The Gods and Guardians
In addition to lycanthropy, witches rode giant wolves in Swiss Witch Trials. And/or were guarded by these great beasts. Wolves are sacred to the gods Odin, Apollo, Artemis, Leto, Mars, The Morrigan, Skadi and Lycaon.
The Witch’s Butterfly
It’s no wonder witches love butterflies so much! We have a long history with these beautiful, winged creatures. In the Middle Ages, people believed butterflies stole milk and butter. That’s how they got their name. Witches also stole milk and butter. So the butterfly became a familiar. Following this belief, it was also thought witches’ souls took flight in the form of a butterfly.
Any type of weird or unlikely creature was accused of being a familiar. Some of the lesser known include frogs, foxes, goats, toads, lizards, blackbirds, weasels, snakes, pigs and flies. A witch’s familiar was not always in the form of an animal…the familiar spirit also frequently took the form of a human being or even an “imp” or type of fairy.
Witches’ Familiars OR Magical Pets?
There are modern pagans who believe in animal spirits as guides and guardians. There are those who call themselves modern witches who have “familiars”, but these aren’t spirits as they were in the past. They’re cute, fluffy household pets: cats, dogs, birds, etc. Modern witches call these household pets their familiars, but they might be better suited to be called magical pets. For a modern witch to lay claim to a familiar spirit, the animal must have made a pact with the witch. The animal familiar is actually not an animal, per se, but a spirit who takes the form of an animal.
Are Spirit Guides the Same Thing?
Familiars are different from animal spirit guides, though they are all thrown into the same proverbial pot. Totem animals are an animal that guards a specific tribe, family, or lineage and are used as a symbol to the family or tribe. Often the word “totem” is a closed-tradition term and should be used by those who are of indigenous descent. An animal spirit guide may come to you in a dream or in real life to teach you a valuable lesson. The familiar will stay with the witch for a certain time to help him/her out magically and then they may leave. According to Doreen Valiente, the spirit guides of today were the familiars of the past. They could possibly be the same thing…it all depends on how you look at it.