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Title: So what is a familiar?
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(Date Posted:02/06/2009 06:20 AM)
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So what is a familiar?
The 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 unexpectedly.

By Terri Paajanen

What 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.

First 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 night.

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.

Then 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

Deva Bluewing

Non-Pagan 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).

Familiars - 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.

Familiars 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."

During 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."

There 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.

Outside 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.

Many 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 right animal.

Familiars 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.

Sorcerers 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.

Throughout 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.

In 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.


Witches 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.
Knowing 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.
A 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?!?).

Divination 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.

For 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.

Other ways 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 doorstep.

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.
Whatever 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.

Of 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.

If 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.

An 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 magician's familiar.

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