Witches' Familiars: A Look at Familiar Spirits and Magical Pets
Witchcraft: Familiars in the Dark Ages
Today, neopagans and modern witches refer to their household pets as being their "familiars", but the concept of a witch's familiar originally meant something a little darker. The witches of the Dark Ages and beyond had familiar spirits that were not as cuddly as Fido...not as sweet and docile as Mr. Fluffers. The witches' familiars of the Dark Ages were anything but kind and fluffy...oftentimes these familiars were very demanding and, in some cases, quite sinister when their wills were not satisfied.
The familiars of the Dark Ages were said by the Church to be "demons" or evil spirits that took the form of animals and even humans in order to exact their evil will upon a local witch. But the witches of the Dark Ages saw their familiar spirits as being helpful in all manners of survival...we will explore the concept of the witches' familiars of the Dark Ages and compare them to the witches' familiars of modern times.
The Witch's Hare
Possibly one of the lesser known of the witches' familiars is the hare. A hare is a larger type of rabbit and is mostly prominent in Europe (more so than in North America). There are many folklore stories that tell of women shapeshifting into the form of hares in order to steal things from their neighbors or merely to escape from danger. They were also said to shift into the form of a hare to move about at night undetected and meet up with other local witches for a witches' "sabbat". In addition to witches being able to shift into the form of a hare, they were also thought to have hares as pets...or even more mysteriously as "familiars".
It was thought that certain spirits would agree to help a witch if the witch would help them in some way. Usually by feeding the spirit with blood or some other bodily fluid like breast milk. These spirits would go out into the world to do the witch's bidding in the form of a hare. Tibb was a familiar spirit talked about during the Pendle Witch trials who had the ability to take the form of a hare to escape unwanted situations (read on to learn more about Tibb the familiar).
Hares were most likely associated with witches because of the fact that they were sacred to many ancient goddesses in the past (i.e. the goddesses Eostre, Artemis, Hecate, Holda). When the Church wanted to convert the "pagans", they had to make some of their customs and deities look evil...hence turning sacred animals into "witches familiars" or evil spirits.
The Black Cat
The most famous of the witch's familiars is the black cat or what modern people might call the "Halloween Cat". Cats are steeped in mystery. They have been loved by many ancient peoples and are still loved in modern times today. The first domesticated cat was in Ancient Egypt, and no doubt because cats were regarded as sacred to the Egyptians' cat goddess of fertility and motherhood known as Bast. In Nordic culture and religion, the goddess known as Freya was said to have been guarded and guided by two large cats. In China, the black cat brings good luck. Perhaps the association between cats and old-world religions is the reason why cats have been tied to "witches" during the Dark Ages and onward.
In the confession of Elizabeth Demdike during the Pendle Witch Trials, the accused witch 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 the idea he knocked her into a ditch.
When the pilgrims came to America, they brought with them the idea that black cats were evil because they were associated with witches. And so this superstition rooted itself in American culture and can still be seen in Halloween decorations and debauchery today.
Some modern witches search out black cats to have as pets, and therefore refer to these black cats as their "familiars". Are these black cats truly familiar spirits or simply pets that they consider to be magical?
The Witches' Hounds
Hounds have long been regarded as associated with the afterlife in various old texts and folklore, so it is no wonder that famous witches from the Dark Ages were said to have familiars that took the form of black dogs. One such infamous witch, Alizon Device, who was put to trial for witchcraft in the Pendle Witchcraft Trials, confessed to having a familiar who was in the form of a black hound. This black hound would suckle at her breast and thereafter would do her bidding. She confessed that her familiar, the black dog, had lamed a man after she requested it of him.
Helen Clark, another accused witch, in the year of 1645 confessed to having met the devil. The devil had taken the form of a black dog.
Certain old-world gods and goddesses were said to have been protected by hounds, including the Greek Goddess of Witches—Hecate. There were also ancient gods who were depicted as dogs themselves—Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the Egyptians and Cerberus, the underworld three-headed dog guardian to the Greeks. Dogs have long been tied to the crossroads between life and death.
The Wolf and Other Familiars
In addition to the likely suspects, there were many other animals that were thought to be familiars to witches during the Dark Ages.
The Wolf is an animal that was often associated with witches in the northern European countries. During the werewolf-witch trials, many men and women were accused of witchcraft and being able to shift into the likeness of a wolf. Some said that it wasn't the actual witches who were the wolves but actual familiar spirits who inhabited the bodies of wolves to do the witches' bidding. Wolves were sacred to old gods, as well.
Any type of weird or unlikely creature could have been accused of being a witch's familiar. Some of the lesser known familiars included frogs, toads, lizards, blackbirds, snakes, insects and more.
A witch's familiar was not always in the form of an animal...the familiar spirit could also take the form of a human being if it so wished. A couple of the Pendle Witches accused of having familiars confessed that their familiars were actually in the form of a human man or a little boy. Perhaps these familiar spirits took on the shape of something that the witch could feel most comfortable with...or perhaps they took on the shape of something that the witch might have been fearful of.We may never know.
Witches' Familiars Today: Spirit Guides and Magical Pets
In the neopagan movement today, there are many who believe in animal spirits as guides and guardians. There are those who call themselves modern-day witches who claim to have "familiars", but often these familiars are not spirits as they were in the past. Often these modern-day witches' familiars are merely cute, fluffy household pets such as a cat, dog, bird, or other domesticated creature. Modern witches call these household pets their familiars but they might be better suited to be called magical or spiritual pets.
For a modern witch to lay claim to a familiar, the animal must be of spiritual form and have made a pact with the witch. The animal is actually not an animal, per se, but a spirit who takes the form of an animal...and most likely this spirit will not reside in the witch's home.
Familiars are also different from totem animals and animal spirit guides, though often they are all thrown into the same pot. Totem animals are an animal that has chosen to guard a specific tribe, family, or lineage and usually do not do any magical bidding for the person involved. An animal spirit guide may come to you in a dream or in real life to teach you a valuable lesson. The familiar, the witch's familiar, will stay with the witch for a certain time in order to help him/her out magically...to do his/her bidding...and then they may leave.
As you can see, the "familiars" of today are much different from the familiars of the past.
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© 2014 Nicole Canfield