So what is a familiar?
biggest misconception is that your familiar must be a cat, or even more
stereotypically, a black cat. Not so. Any animal of any species can
present itself as your familiar. In fact, the form your familiar
chooses to take may be a message in itself, and may be completely
unexpected. Familiars can fill many different roles in your life,
including that of teacher, friend, healer or assistant. A familiar may
arrive in the form of a family pet, but they should not be treated that
simply. They are independent spirits that must be respected and
honoured. You will develop a strong psychic bond with your new
companion, and he/she/it will likely show a clear interest in your
ritual work. I can't really go into too much detail on how a familiar
might become part of your life, or how it may assist you with your
spiritual growth. Each person's relationship with their familiar is
special, unique and individual.
Of course, your familiar might
not even be a physical being. Having an astral familiar is also a
possibility. Astral familiars usually take the form of regular animals,
but they also may take the form of more exotic beasts (such as a
dragon, perhaps). Working with astral familiars usually takes place
during dreams or meditation. But working on the astral plane is a topic
for another time.
Where do you find one?
Sometimes you need
to search out your familiar, but other times they will find you. You
can't summon a familiar, only invite one. Meditation or scrying are two
methods that may help you locate your animal companion. They may arrive
in your life when you call, or just when you are in need of them. And
the flip side to that, is that they can also disappear from your life
if you no longer need their help or guidance. I would say that most
familiars stay with a person for a good many years, typically the life
span of their animal hosts. But don't be surprised if they move on
By Terri Paajanen
is a familiar? Why are familiars commonly a part of witch life? Is
there a list of acceptable familiars? Do I already have a familiar? Do
I need a familiar? Questions, questions, questions surround the idea of
familiars, but it seems there is no good place to go for the answer.
off, any animal can be a familiar from a worm to a giggling little
girl. For me, two camera shy cats and the neighbor's granddaughter make
up my cast of familiars. A familiar is not a pointer, a concentration
object, a ritual object, or a communications tool but a necessary
connection to our natural selves, a method or means of placing our
relation to the whole into perspective.
The human mind works in
an interesting way, just like a computer running a real operating
system, (something like Solaris, Irix, True 64 Unix, Linux or the like,
not like Whendoze or any other Muckrostuck product.) The human mind is
capable of multiprocessing in a way that makes most computers look
primitive. For instance making a pot of coffee: You start by putting
the water receiver under the sink nozzle and turning on the cold water,
then you make sure there is enough beans in the grinder you start it,
monitoring the water to make certain you don't over fill the receiver,
then you get out the filter and put it on the scale, by now the grinder
has stopped and still monitoring the water to make certain you don't
over fill the receiver, you weigh out precisely 1.2 ounces of coffee
and put the filter into the coffee basket. By this time the water
receiver is filled to the twelve cup mark and you pour the water into
the water tank of the coffeemaker, make certain everything is closed up
and the carafe is in place and press the "MAKE" button; all while you
are blathering on about your next project on the 'phone with your boss.
The discussion with your boss was a foreground process, all the tasks
that made up making the pot of coffee were background tasks, except
maybe selecting the coffee you were going to make. Maybe you say the
same things to your boss every morning to the point this becomes a
background task too while you concentrate on the letter you are going
to write to the editors of Green Egg about the article you read last
So this is an example of how the human mind multitasks,
but sometimes the mind needs a little help driving things into the
background that need to be there. Ever get distracted from some
decision making or problem solving activity by something
inconsequential but urgent? For instance, Selene, one of my cats just
upset the computer room water bowl and if I don't clean it up fast
water will seep through the floating computer room floor and set off
the floor moisture alarm—excuse me a minute.
Back to what I was
saying: Cognitive activities run fastest, and most efficiently in the
human brain when forced into a background process because actively
concentrating on a problem keeps your brain working in presentation
mode. With a computer, processing in the background runs faster because
the active session is not being sent to the usually slow video display
but the process is blindly proceeding at full processor speed and will
only be presented on the slow monitor or slower printer when the job is
complete. Likewise cognitive activities run fastest when not being sent
and reviewed by the slower conscious mind.
This is where
familiars come in. Familiars are born troublemakers that distract our
conscious minds from the tasks at hand so that we can shove the current
task into the background, just like now Sambo is doing his best to
untie my right shoe and Selene is wedging her nose under my left wrist,
trying to lift my hand off the keyboard so that I will pay a little
attention to her and not this stupid bumpy plank, (she has already
knocked the mouse off the edge of the desk.) This task being done I can
think about my next three hundred or so words in the back of my mind
while I run my fingers lovingly through her long white Angora fur
making a great cloud of cat hairs that will be drawn into my Ultra-10's
ventilation system until I have to rip off the cover someday and vacuum
its insides clean.
Familiars also have the task of exchanging
love and affection with us, redeeming our most valuable human emotions,
while distracting us with their highjinks and troublemaking. Where
would I be without my two cats? Probably in the loony bin.
there is the aforementioned neighbors' granddaughter who in a couple of
hours will be released from her school next door, burst into my home
with shouts and demands for cookies and milk and attention for the next
two hours until her Grandmother, who lives next door on the other side
of me, condescends to return home from work and taking the little
wonder off my hands for twenty-two glorious hours. (But if she didn't
show up every day my life would be emptier. In spite of my sometimes
grumbling I don't begrudge her a single freshly baked peanut-butter
chip cookie or a moment of the time I spend with her. Now if she was
twenty years older . . .)
Familiars are necessary part of
magickal and nonmagickal life and without them we would be in deep
psychological male bovine manure—they provide us with the comfort and
distraction we need to keep our minds working as human and not base
animal beings devoid of consideration and consideration. Even the
humbling tasks of caring for the litter box or cleaning the water and
feed dishes are an important part of the experience of having these
important creatures be part of our lives. My cats honor me by making me
their primary affection object but humble me by never minding my
orders; like now Sambo is repeatedly being dumped onto the floor while
he keeps jumping back onto the table and trying to eat the roast beef
sandwich I made for my lunch.
(Whendoze and Muckrostuck are
trademarks (© 1979, 1988) of Muckrostuck corporation of Readmond, WA
and have no relationship to any other fictional product or company in
any similar fictional city or state.)
An article by Silver Maykitten
history describes familiars as low-ranking demons in constant attention
to Witches for the purpose of carrying out spells and bewitchments.
Familiars usually assumed animal forms - cats, toads, owls, mice and
dogs seem to have been the most common - though virtually any animal or
insect could be suspected. In the Witchcraft Trials, if so much as a
fly buzzed in the window while someone suspected of being a witch was
being questioned or tried, it was said to be her (or his) familiar. The
inquisitors took the Bile to heart: those who had familiars were "an
abomination unto the Lord" and should be "Put to death: they shall
stone them with stones: Their blood shall be upon them" (Lev. 20:27).
- also called imps - were said to be given to Witches by the Devil or
bought or inherited from other Witches. A Witch could have several of
them. Cats were the favored forms, especially black ones. The fear that
all cats were Witches' familiars was one of the primary reasons for the
famous cat massacres that swept through medieval Europe.
were given names like any household pet, which most of them undoubtedly
were. Perhaps the best known familiar name is Pyewackett, the monicker
the Witch's cat in the movie Bell, Book and Candle, and a name that
dates back to Renaissance England. Pyewackett, Matthew Hopkins (the
famous Witch hunter) stated, was a name "no mortal could invent."
the Witch hysteria of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the obsession
with familiars was confined mostly to England and Scotland, where they
are mentioned in numerous trial records, especially those related to
Hopkins. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 made it a felony to "consult,
convenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked
spirit to or for any intent or purpose." But the Malleus Maleficarum
(1486), the major Witch inquisitor's handbook, offers no instructions
concerning familiars in the interrogation and trial of Witches. The
book does acknowledge that an animal familiar "always works with the
Witch in everything."
is a scant evidence of familiars in early American Witch trials. In the
Salem Trials in 1692, John Bradsheet was indicted for "inciting a dog
to afflict." The dog was tried and hanged as a Witch.
of Witch trials, more benevolent familiars were believed to exist,
serving wizards and wise men (and women) who were magicians or village
healers. The familiars helped diagnose illnesses and the sources of
bewitchment and were used for divining and finding lost objects and
treasures. Magicians conjured them in rituals, then locked then in
bottles, rings and stones. They sometimes sold them as charms, claiming
the spirits would ensure success in gambling, love, business or
whatever the customer wanted. This sort of familiar was technically not
illegal; England's Witchcraft Act of 1604 prohibited only evil and
wicked spirits. Some familiars were said to be Faeries. Oberon was a
popular name for fairy familiars in 15th and 16th century England.
modern Witches have animal familiars, usually cats, which are their
magical helpers. Some also have dogs, birds, snakes or toads. Witches
do not believe the familiars are "demons" or spirits in animal form but
simply animals whose psychic attunement makes them ideal partners in
magical workings. Some Witches say that it is possible to endow pets
with magical powers and turn them into familiars, though others don't
believe it should be done. Still others believe familiars are never
"pets" (and should never be treated as such) but are animals who
volunteer to work as familiars and are Karmically attracted to Witches.
Witches who do not have familiars send out psychic "calls" to draw the
reputedly are sensitive to psychic vibrations and power and are
welcomed partners inside the magic circle and other magical work. They
also serve as psychic radar, reacting visibly to the presence of any
negative or evil energy, whether it be an unseen force or a person who
dabbles in the wrong kind of magic. Familiars are also given psychic
protection by their Witches. Some Witches it seems also use the term
familiar to describe thought-forms created magically and empowered to
carry out a certain task on the astral plane.
and shamans in cultures around the world also have helpers in the form
of spirits. Dispatching them on errands to heal, harm or kill - called
sending. The physical shape of a familiar varies. New Guinea sorcerers
rely on snakes and crocodiles, while in Malaya, the familiar is usually
an owl or badger passed down from generation to generation.
Africa, the wild creatures of the bush are said to be Witches'
familiars: for the Lugbara, they are said to be the toad, snake,
lizard, water frog, bat, owl, leopard, jackal and a type of monkey that
screeches in the night; for the Dinka, they are black cobras and
hyenas. The Zulus' familiars are said to be corpses dug up and
re-animated with magic; they are sent out at on night errands to scare
travelers with their shrieking and pranks. In Shamanism, a novice
shaman acquires his familiar spirits, usually manifesting in animal,
reptile or bird shapes, when he completes his initiation. He or she may
send them out to do battle in his or her place, but if they die, so
does the shaman. Familiars usually stay with their shaman until death,
then disappear. Among certain Eskimos, the familiar is embodied in an
artificial seal, not a live animal.
closing, what I usually instruct in this area is that the student of
magic who feels that they have found a familiar is that they should
practice an exercise called "Trading Places" by Keith Harry. This
exercise is simple enough to memorize and to practice, and though it
was not written specifically for bonding with an animal familiar it was
designed for becoming familiar with an animal, and inducing a mystical
experience. I think you will readily discern its value in the acquiring
of a familiar.
and magicians throught the ages have had familars. There is a wealth of
lore behind these beings, but for now I'm going to concentrate on the
practical side of aquiring, keeping, and working with a familiar.
whether you need or are going to get a familiar is an important issue
often ignored. Your choice to aquire a familiar may be based upon a
'feeling' that you ought to have one, and this is often the best way to
find out if you need one or not. However, you should be wary of wanting
a familiar as a fashion statement of sorts, or to make up for some
deficiency in yourself, percieved or otherwise
There are also practical considerations to take into account, as there are with any animal.
familiar can often look after itself better than most animals, but you
still have to be prepared to feed it, pay vet's bills, create a clean,
comfortable, and appropriate environment for it, and get any licenses
necessary. Not to mention legal restrictions on keeping certain animals
in your area.
It is possible to get round some of these restrictions
by being extremely sneaky, but the law has to be taken into account
sometimes, not to mention that the possibility of finding space for a 7
foot salt water crocodile in an inner city flat is somewhere between
that of my being Madonna's long lost sister and of New York being
devoured by a Shoggoth (oh my gods, what have I said?!?).
is one way of finding out if a familiar is necessary, and which
familiar is suitable for you, as is meditation upon the matter. A
familiar will often be of the same species as your totem animal (see
previous essay on shamanic totems for more information on finding your
totem animal) or of a related or compatible species.
example, my totem is the snake, as are my familiars, but I have also
worked with lizards and cats (which on the surface may seem to be the
enemy of snakes, but which have a lot more in common with the scaley
little darlings than one might think). Someone who's totem is a dragon,
might well have a monitor lizard as a familiar (monitors are one of the
most advanced and intelligent species of reptile, can get extremely
large, sleep a lot, and can bite chunks out of people they don't like).
For what it's worth, the infamous Komodo Dragon is a gigantic (and very
appealing) species of monitor.
This also applies to entities you
work with which have animal associations, i.e. your familiar could be
the animal with which your patron deity is associated. For example, a
magician working with Epona could have a horse as her familiar, or a
witch who's patron is Athena may have an owl as his.
of telling if you are destined to have a familiar include dreams,
affinities, constant reccurrences of images relating to a specific
animal, entities telling you during a communicatory working and, not
least of all, an animal you have been dreaming about turning up on your
You should never choose to bring up or aquire a
familiar lightly. More than any animals in your life, your familiar
with be your companion, ally, and confidante. Do not abuse this
privelege. One way of aquiring a familiar is to bring it up yourself.
For this it is necessary to get the animal when it is very young and to
nurse it by hand. You should feed it by hand (although you should also
ensure that it should be able to feed itself). A young carnivore, when
weaned can be fed meat you have chewed for it, and so forth.
animal you choose as your familar, you should learn as much about it
and it's dietary and other needs as possible before you start. Pay
careful attention to the animal, and learn what its needs and likes are.
course, not all, or even most familiars are brought up this way. Your
familiar may just turn up on your doorstep one day and let you know
what it is. This often applies to animals such as cats, dogs, and
birds, and whatever fauna is native to your area, but even animals that
are not typically found wandering the streets of wherever you live can
'find' you. If you go to shops selling, or hang around with animal
breeders, you may well find your familiar sitting in a tank (or
whatever) looking at you, and demanding that you take it home.
you work with an entity that feels you ought to have an appropriate
familiar people with a non-literal attitude to god-forms can plug their
ears here), you might well be compelled to go to an animal shop and to
attend to a particular creature. This particuarly applies in the case
of god forms which have associated creatures that are not native to the
environment in which you live.
You should take the advantages
and disadvantages offered by the species you have or are considering as
a familiar. Cats are probably the most common witch's familiar, as they
are intelligent, psychicly inclined, hardy, and versatile. Snakes are
similarly psychicly inclined, but in mose countries there will be times
of the year where it is unsuitable to take them out at all, and you can
never send them out alone. Dogs in general tend to be a bit too
boistrous and fearful of a magickal environment to be really useful,
although there are a few who seem to take well to it.
Such things should be taken into consideration, but are less important that your own instincts.
often unconsidered question is what to do with your familiar once you
have it. Now, while it's all very well to have your familiars perched
around you looking sweet and messing up your typing skills (thank you
Yig), there are actually a lot of magickal uses for the modern