The folklore of a wicked witch and her familiar is well-known and often told. During the season changes and longer nights it is common to see a black cloaked figure with a cat or toad at their side. This is an archetype of magical practitioners wielding their power over animals and nature, but a far cry from the original beliefs.
Magical spirit creatures have featured within and resonated throughout history in creational myths, religions and tribal traditions. In recent times magical animals and familiars were re-imagined as dangerous or evil companions. Historically they were viewed as guardian angels rather than demons.
The Witch’s Familiar
A familiar is an animal shaped spirit believed to be a domestic servant, spy or companion to a Witch or Magician. They would divine information and assist in bewitching enemies. The animal was believed to have magical powers, for example an ability to shape shift.
During days of persecution during the medieval and early modern periods in North America and Europe, witches were assumed to have familiars in the form of toads, cats, newts, dogs, owls or mice. These were considered low ranking fairies or demons. Through British and Scottish contributions to the lore they were believed to feed off the blood of these witches and they in turn used them for spell casting. Innocent pet lovers were also persecuted because of these beliefs and they were blamed for crop failure or other unfortunate circumstances within the community.
During the Salem witch trials there were little accounts of animal familiars although one man was accused of his dog attacking by magical means. the dog itself was tried, convicted and hanged as Petti Wingington reveals in About Religion.
Pagan Lore told of familiars since that time helped to diagnose sources of bewitchment and illnesses as well as finding lost objects and treasures. Magicians locked them in bottles, rings and stones after conjuring them within ritual. They were then sold as charms for success in business, love and gambling. The witchcraft Act of 1604 only prohibited evil and wicked spirits so these practices were not illegal.
Animals were massacred due to their assumed dangerous nature, particularly cats. This resulted in the tragic situation of the Black Death during the middle of the 14th century as the rat and rodent population grew due to the shortage of cats. This lead to the near- decimation of the human population.
A spirit guardian or tutelary was a protector of farms or storehouses and even a household or nation in ancient Rome.
Socrates the Greek Philosopher claimed a daemon or personal spirit guided his conscience, helping him avoid foolish decisions or rash mistakes.
The genius is one type of personal tutelary deity who accompanies an individual from birth to death. Another form is the familiar spirit of European Folklore.
Shrines and altars are dedicated to tutelary spirits in many eastern religions. In Bangkok an abundance of brightly painted spirit houses are used to contain tutelary deities.
In Native America mythology, totem animals are strongly featured. they are believed to assist the Shaman when called upon from the spirit realm they inhabit. Totem animals are believed to reflect certain characteristics and qualities to serve as guardian spirits and guides in the spiritual and physical worlds. They advise on journeys and tasks in life. They could be large animals, turtles, buffaloes, deer, coyotes, rabbits, or as small as butterflies. they could be mischief makers but were helpful benevolent creatures.
Familiars and totem animals can be found around the globe in societies including Australia, Africa, Asia, Western and Eastern Europe and more.
Christians may refer to familiars and demons, but to Pagan or Wiccans they are considered to be guardian angels. They are also believed to be sensitive to psychic vibrations, E.S.P. and are welcome inside the magical sacred space and other workings.
A witch’s familiar can be his or her closest companion offering special knowledge and moral support as well as physical healing. They can react to the presence of negative or evil energies, be it a person who dabbles in vindictive magic or an unseen force.
A fascinating subject isn’t it!