The Familiar Spirit: Companion to Witches

Updated on June 6, 2018
CarolynEmerick profile image

Carolyn Emerick writes about the history, myth, and folklore of Northwestern Europe.

Familiar and other sinister spirits riding with the witch, on a vintage Halloween postcard.
Familiar and other sinister spirits riding with the witch, on a vintage Halloween postcard. | Source

What Is a familiar?

The “familiar spirit” is a common motif found in both folklore and witch trial records of the witch hunt era.

The term is said to be derived from the Latin famulus, which means servant, due to the familiar’s role of serving the witch to whom it was attached.

Familiars served as an attendant to the witch, providing such functions as protection and guidance, to teach the witch magical and healing arts, or in the case of bad witches, to do their bidding engaging in sinister deeds.

In popular media today, the familiar is almost always represented as an animal, and usually the black cat. Film and television programs often portray the familiar as a corporeal animal, more akin to a pet or companion, who aids the witch in their magic.

However, the familiar found in folklore and witch trial records often existed very much in the spirit realm, hence the name “familiar spirit.”

Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite | Source
Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, circa 1921
Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, circa 1921 | Source

In his encyclopedia on the witch hunt era (see link above), William E. Burns insists that familiars were never real animals, but always strictly a spirit.

But, folklorist Katharine Briggs disagrees. In her book, “Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats,” Briggs explains the type of elderly person that was often accused of witchcraft often lived alone with his or her pets. Due to the loneliness of a solitary old age, this type of person would no doubt dote on their animals more than what was common in society during that period.

In her own encyclopedia on fairies and spirits (linked below), Carol Rose says that simply having a pet in the home of an accused witch, in some cases, could be considered proof of their guilt.

Whether spirit or corporeal, the familiar was not always an animal. Other times the spirit took the shape of a human, or was even known to be the ghost of a deceased person who now resided in Fairy Land. (In British folklore, there is a mingling of ghosts, fairies, fairy land, and the realm of the dead). The deceased might have been someone known to the witch, or it might well have been a complete stranger.

Familiar spirits could also be fairies, or other folkloric creatures such as the hobgoblin, who were in the service of the witch that they served.

Black cat in a witch's hat, vintage illustration.
Black cat in a witch's hat, vintage illustration. | Source
Reminiscent of a women with her familiar interacting with a fairy. Illustration by Jennie Harbour.
Reminiscent of a women with her familiar interacting with a fairy. Illustration by Jennie Harbour. | Source

Where Were They Found?

Though familiars were common in many areas, they were not universally known in all regions. They are found with high frequency in the folklore of England, Scotland, and the Basque region of Spain.

Familiars most often took the shape of animals in England and Basque, but in Scotland familiars could appear as either human or animal and usually with a strong connection to the fairy realm.

The types of animals that familiars appeared as were usually creatures that would be commonly known to peasants.

So, we see familiar spirits taking the shape of domestic animals such as dogs and cats frequently.

But, they also appeared as animals that were present in the landscape. The toad is one such common manifestation.

 “Moonlit Dreams” by Gabriel Ferrier
“Moonlit Dreams” by Gabriel Ferrier | Source
A witch with an owl familiar from a vintage Halloween postcard.
A witch with an owl familiar from a vintage Halloween postcard. | Source

Familiars appeared as toads in England and Scotland, but in Basque the toad is the most common form of familiar, and much folklore developed around this motif. Basque toad familiars were typically described as wearing clothes. They retained a place of honor in the witch’s household, and were thought to be especially powerful.

In this way, there seems to be some overlap in traditions of the domestic spirit. The domestic spirit is commonly remembered today as the house elf, or brownie, but could take many forms in old European folklore (more to come on this topic soon!).

We see the Basque toad familiar being propitiated with food offerings in the same way that domestic spirits were often given offerings of food in return for the services that they provided.

England developed a very rich tradition of the familiar spirit in their folklore and witch trial records. English familiars could appear as the aforementioned animals, but also as ferrets, weasels, rodents, rabbits, or insects.

The spirit might be passed down from parent to child in a family of witches, or it was often reported to be gifted to the witch by a power powerful spirit in the otherworld.

Journeying to the Celtic Otherworld.  Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's The Violet Fairy Book
Journeying to the Celtic Otherworld. Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's The Violet Fairy Book | Source

Familiars as Demons

Because fairy lore was so aggressively demonized by the Church, fairies became equated with demons. Thus, the folkloric rulers of the fairies were often conflated with the devil, or seen to be in league with him.

Therefore, we see some witches receiving their familiars from the fairy king or queen, and others from the devil himself. For this reason, familiar spirits were often equated with demons by witch hunters.

Carol Rose says that “in Wales, familiars are mostly demons who are usually invisible” (Rose, 113). This tradition of invisible demonic familiars appears to be unique to Wales, and may be a result of prodding by witch interrogators rather than any real folkloric belief.

The Witching Hour by R.A. Stone, 1926
The Witching Hour by R.A. Stone, 1926

Possible Shamanic Connections

It is my opinion that animal familiars may serve a similar function in folk belief that we see entities such as spirit animals, power animals, totems, spirit guides, and so forth, fill in other cultures.

In fact, the modern conception of a spirit guide is quite similar to a guardian angel, and Carol Rose makes the analogy of an attendant familiar spirit with the role of a guardian angel in her encyclopedia.

There are many scholars today who have developed a very strong case for the theory that a minority of accused witches may have been engaging in ancient shamanic practices carried over from the pre-Christian era.

This does not apply to all, or even most, of the accused, as we know that witch interrogators would elicit confessions with the use of torture and tell the victim precisely what to confess. However, there are some anomalies.

Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite | Source

For example, Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg has studied the Benandanti, or “good walkers,” a group of accused witches from the Friuli region of Italy.

The region of Fruili had its own dialect that was distinct from the other Italian dialects, which protected them from the witch trials for a very long time, as there were no inquisitors who could speak their language.

When they eventually got around to interrogating them, the inquisitors were astounded by what the Banandanti confessed to—because none of it was found in their witch hunting manuals!

Riding Witches by Otto Goetze, 1924
Riding Witches by Otto Goetze, 1924

When the confessions do not match the witch hunters’ manuals, this is one clue that their practices were not fed to them by the interrogators.

Among the things the Benandanti confessed to was the practice of going into trance to journey to the spirit world to engage in spirit battles to protect their village’s crops from malevolent spirits that sought to sabotage their harvest.

Carlo Ginzburg discusses his theories, and even expands his discussion to other parts of Europe including German speaking regions and Lowland Scotland in his books, ”Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath” and “The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" (see link above).

Colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph by T.A. Steinlen.
Colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph by T.A. Steinlen. | Source

Emma Wilby is a British scholar who has found similar conclusions in her research into Scottish witch trials.

Wilby discusses accused witches’ use of trance, and other shamanic techniques, to engage in otherworldly travel and interactions with spirits in the other world.

Both familiars and the fairy realm are discussed in depth in Wilby’s books, “The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland” and “Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic.”

The theory that some accused witches were using shamanic practices is briefly touched on in “Scottish Fairy Belief” by Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan.

They mention another scholar, who I have not yet read, by the name of Eva Pocs whose research on witchcraft and the fairy tradition in Hungary and Southwest Europe has produced findings very similar to Ginzburg’s and Wilby’s.

Native American shaman - Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's The Strange Story Book, 1913
Native American shaman - Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's The Strange Story Book, 1913 | Source

So, we see that there is strong scholarly support for theory that a minority of witches may have been carrying on traditions that originated in the pagan landscape of ancient pre-Christian Europe.

Their familiars are often intermediaries to the spirit world. Familiars are often the beings who teach healing or magical powers to the witch.

This is not unlike the role of animal guides that we see in other shamanic cultures, or even in modern neo-pagan and new age beliefs.

And, indeed, Carol Rose mentions many worldwide cultures with folkloric tales of familiar-like entities in her encyclopedia.

Many of the cultures she names have historically shamanic traditions, such as the Saami, Native American, Australian Aborigine, and Siberian cultures. Of the Siberian tradition, she says “In Siberia the Familiar is known as a Yakeela, which may be required to combat the Familiar of an adversary shaman” (Rose, 113).

This sounds strikingly similar to the practice of spirit battles of the Benandanti described above.

Folklore and Popular Religion

To conclude, it’s important to mention that from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and indeed, in many cases even into modern times, the beliefs held by the populace are often vastly different than what they ought to believe when going by the standards of the powers that be.

In other words, if you were to ask “what religion were the people of Scotland in the second half of the 16th century?” Protestant Christianity would be the correct answer. However, this would not correctly reflect the beliefs of the common folk, especially among the peasantry.

A witch rides with her familiar, by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 1921
A witch rides with her familiar, by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 1921
From a vintage French postcard, circa 1917
From a vintage French postcard, circa 1917

The rural people hung on to “the old religion,” which was Catholicism, for many years after the Reformation. And that old religion was infused with many beliefs that were retained from the far older religion, indigenous polytheism.

Popular religion, therefore, is what is actually being practiced by the people vs. what the official religion preached at the pulpit teaches. And, it is usually a rich mix of influences from all of the above.

You see this very plainly today in Central and South America, where there is a fascinating merging of native beliefs and Catholicism. The same phenomenon happened many centuries earlier in Europe.

The tradition of the familiar spirit, like most folk traditions, retained elements of a pagan origin while it also assumed Christian ideas that were either organically infused or superimposed upon it by secular and religious authorities. This mix of influences is what makes folklore a fascinating, but sometimes challenging, topic to explore.


Briggs, Katharine. 1988. Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats. New York: Dorset Press.

Burns, William E. 2003. Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1966. The Night Battles. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Henderson, Lizanne, and Edward J. Cowan. 2011. Scottish Fairy Belief. Eastbourne, UK: CPI Antony Rowe.

Rose, Carol. 1996. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Enclyclopedia. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc.

Wilby, Emma. 2005. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic Press.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Carolyn Emerick


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • profile image

        Nevaeh Rodriguez 

        9 months ago

        Can people see your familiar or is it just you?

      • profile image

        Bonnie Magpie 

        15 months ago

        A most enjoyable and informative read, With Thanks.

      • profile image

        Lil Morgan 

        19 months ago

        Didn't they get cold, riding around in the sky at night, stark naked?

      • CrisSp profile image


        4 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

        This is very fascinating! I grew up reading tales of witchcrafts, fairytales, folklores and the likes and I still find them very interesting up to now.

        Good, enjoyable read.

      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 

        4 years ago from Oakley, CA

        Most interesting, indeed. Well done research, and educational. Far too many people have indulged in witch hunts of various sorts throughout history. What it really is, is persecution of those who appear somehow "different." It is still happening today, but the victims are not classified as witches; instead, they have become the LGBT community, or people of color, despite so called advances in civil and equal rights.

        It is possible I am mistaken--I often am--but I believe what you reference in your conclusion is also seen in the New Orleans area of Louisana, where Catholicism is mixed with older practices from the old voodoo religion.

        Voted up, ++ shared and pinned.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        4 years ago from USA

        Terrific hub, Carolyn. You've provided rich detail and so much information I didn't know. I feel so badly for all the little old cat ladies and black cats (and other critters) over the years who were maligned. Sharing, pinning, and G+ing

      • profile image


        4 years ago

        great article.

        i could not find the links to the books mentioned.

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        4 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Carolyn, this was another wonderful hub from you on fairies. It was interesting, informative with a voted up!

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This hub is interesting, thought provoking and informative, as always, Carolyn. Thanks for another enjoyable read.

      • poetryman6969 profile image


        4 years ago

        What I find most interesting about accounts and depictions of witches is how much men of the middle ages seem to fear the sexuality of women.

      • profile image


        4 years ago

        Another interesting and informative article, thanks Carolyn

      • CarolynEmerick profile imageAUTHOR

        Carolyn Emerick 

        4 years ago

        Hi Annart and Polly, thank you both so much for reading and commenting! I really appreciate it :-) I'm thinking I should check out those books!

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image

        Pollyanna Jones 

        4 years ago from United Kingdom

        A very nice read, with lots of different references and examples. annart's comment above about Philip Pullman brings to mind the fylgjur.

        A fetch can be a servant, guardian creature, protective spirit, or extension (or projection of) the self. There's a whole spectrum of animals in magic as you know, even down to shape-shifting! I really like the idea of "borrowing", whereby a witch enters a trance-like state and allows her mind to drift into her familiar. Very much like the wargs we see in Game of Thrones I suppose!

        Brilliant read as ever. Sharing this all over the place :-)

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 

        4 years ago from SW England

        You've given us a fascinating amount of information here, Carolyn. Tales of witchcraft are always loved by children and adults alike, I think.

        I like Philip Pullman's take on familiars in 'His Dark Materials'. If you haven't read the trilogy, it's a must! In these books, a human cannot exist without its 'other ego'; I see them as the characters' souls.

        There is so much research here too. I've come across the folklore of sorcery in Brittany (also Celtic origins) and in the central region of France (le Cher or le Berry).

        Thanks for a great read.



      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

      Show Details
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)