We’ve all seen the images of witches with their loyal cat or toad by their side. These witches’ familiars help them cast spells, or in the case of Harry Potter, deliver the mail.
But what are familiars and why are they so important to ideas around witchcraft? And what unusual familiars can we find in history, beyond the stereotypical black cat?
We’re going to look at exactly that, so grab your nearest pet for company, get comfy, and come with me into the world of witches’ familiars…
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Familiars… Historically Speaking
If we go back beyond the witch panics of the medieval period, familiars (or spirit guides) were originally seen as a form of guardian angel.
In ancient Rome, households enjoyed the protection of tutelaries. These spirits guarded homes and property, much like the genius loci.
In ancient Greece, some believed in the daimon, a personal spirit that guided a person’s actions. Even Socrates talked about having one. Philip Pullman popularised the idea in his series, His Dark Materials.
The Picatrix, a Latin translation of an Arabic magical text, names Caraphzebiz as the “first person to have a ‘familiar'” (Page 2017: 34). As Sophie Page explains, “[t]his familiar spirit performed marvels for him, helped him understand the secrets of nature and the sciences, and came when invoked with sacrifices” (2017: 36).
The Familiar during the Witch Panic
In 1604, James I introduced a new Witchcraft Act that included “the occult rituals of diabolic witchcraft” (Voltmer 2017: 110). This made working with evil spirits a capital offence. The act also referenced familiars, believed to be “the witches’ helpful demonic companions” (Voltmer 2017: 110). The Act really made an effort to clarify types of witchcraft. It also turned communicating with spirits and practicing magic with body parts into capital offences (Voltmer 2017: 110). The latter certainly veers close to the divinatory practice of necromancy.
By the time we reach the witch hunts of the 17th century, these familiars were more “popularly referred to as ‘imps'” (Davies 1999: 181). They manifested as small animals and a witch’s power could pass to another person through the familiar. Owen Davies points out the regional nature of the familiar, since there are almost no mentions in Wales, and few in northern England. The belief is strongest in East Anglia (1999: 181).
Many of the accounts came from this area thanks to the activities of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed witchfinder general. In East Anglian folklore, witches either got their familiar direct from Satan, or they inherited them from someone else (Davies 1999: 182).
Surprisingly, these imps still appear in court records in the area as late as the early twentieth century. The familiars get smaller in the accounts until most agree they were white mice (Davies 1999: 182). Davies points out this extended engagement with familiars in East Anglia could be as a result of the intensity of the witch hunting (Davies 1999: 183).
People believed familiars were evil spirits.
They fed on the blood of ‘their’ witch and acted as servants. Many think the word comes from famulus, a Latin word for servant. The famed ‘witch’s mark’, sought during investigations, was believed to be the teat where the witch suckled her familiar.
Familiars also taught witches how to do magic and dispensed advice. Witches used them as spies thanks to their shapeshifting abilities. Cats, dogs, owls, toads, and mice all fell under suspicion.
People saw hares as either familiars or witches in disguise. The most famous hare familiar comes from the Pendle trials. Elizabeth Demdike talked about Tibb. This familiar shifted into the form of both a hare and a black cat.
During the Pendle trials, Alizon Device claimed her familiar took the form of a black hound. Elsewhere, witches confessed to meeting the devil in his black dog form.
The belief is familiars is deeply irrational.
Many older people might keep an animal as a pet to provide company, or to keep down mice and rats. And anyone who’s ever owned a cat knows how difficult it is to get them to do anything, making them a poor choice to carry out demonic chores.
There have been suggestions that the mass slaughter of dogs and cats led to the increase in plague outbreaks, carried by rodents.
Thomas A. Donaldson points out the complicated relationship between the witch and familiar. The familiar didn’t just do what it was told. It also made requests of the witch, in exchange for its magical help (1995). It explains why one of the three witches in Macbeth says “I come, Graymalkin”. Her familiar, a grey cat, summons her.
Even royalty fell foul of familiar suspicion. The Parliamentarians grew convinced that the Royalist Prince Rupert’s dog, Boy, had supernatural powers. According to propaganda, the invincible Boy could find treasure, catch bullets in his mouth, and issue prophecies (Purkiss 2007: 377). Someone shot the poodle at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644.
The Positive Nature of Witch Familiars
Witches didn’t only use familiars for nefarious ends. They could find lost objects and some witches used them for divining.
Which really isn’t all that different from the ‘psychic’ animals we have predicting the outcome of football matches during the World Cup.
Familiars could also sniff out a bewitchment or diagnose a health problem. And that was all above board and legal. The 1604 Witchcraft Act only persecuted evil spirits. Consulting a ‘good’ spirit for help in a difficult medical case was tolerated, if not actively encouraged.
This mention of ‘spirits’ is critical. During the medieval period, familiars weren’t physical animals, but rather spirits that took the form of these animals. ‘Evil’ witches used demons as familiars to cause harm. It stood to reason that ‘good’ witches might use fairies, or even angels, as familiars to heal.
It’s easy to wonder how much these helpful familiars were accepted. Until a cure didn’t work or a crop yield failed.
Unusual Witches’ Familiars
Cats, dogs, and hares are the usual suspects. But other confessions reveal snakes, blackbirds, toads, beetles, and even butterflies to be familiars.
Donaldson points to the testimony of a child that a witch, Alice Hunt, kept tiny horses as familiars. Hunt kept the small horses “in a pot by her bed” and named them Robbin and Jack (1995). The child even showed officials where Hunt kept the horses. Even though the horses weren’t there, Hunt was still convicted.
Tiny horses aside, they’re all animals that you might expect to find in the European landscape. These animals could pass unnoticed, which to many made them ideal for carrying out evil intentions.
And even people could act as familiars.
Bessie Dunlop was tried for witchcraft in Scotland in 1576. She described seeking advice from “Tom Reid […] an honest well […] elderly man” (2013: ix). In these cases, the human familiar could be either a fairy or a ghost.
For the stories involving ghosts, the familiars sought out the witch. Many of the confessions describe accidental meetings. Who is to say these witches weren’t mediums instead?
In many cases, the witch wasn’t actively seeking a servant when the familiar appeared. Some inherited the spirit from a dying parent. Others met the familiar by accident. Some familiars only turned up when the witch struggled with a magical matter.
Burning the familiars would destroy the witch’s power. And there was another belief “that a witch could not die until she had found a relation who was willing to take her imps” (Davies 1999: 182).
We have to remember many of these confessions were obtained under torture. And the “tiny horse” testimony against Alice Hunt came from a nine-year-old.
So what do we make of all of this?
Emma Wilby asks us to remember the differences between our world and earlier societies. In the early modern period, “the harsh and unyielding physical world was also an enchanted one. Powerful occult forces permeated life at every level. The air teemed with invisible supernatural entities which constantly influenced the natural world and the lives of men” (2013: 8).
In such a climate, it would be easy to believe in the existence of magical helpers. If you didn’t know about germs, you wouldn’t know what caused an illness. And without modern technology, you wouldn’t understand crop failure or sudden storms.
We understand life is random and often bizarre. But religious thought dominated their society. They weren’t yet familiar with scientific or philosophical discourse. It was much easier to grapple with the unexplained nature of life by believing the old woman next door had a grudge.
And if she preferred the company of her pet to other people? So much easier to believe ill of her.
But we can’t just blame ordinary people.
The talk of familiars among ordinary people only really came about after they’d appeared in court testimony and confessions. But Rita Voltmer points out that “many of the more imaginative scenarios in the confessions which dealt with the occult […] predominantly arose from the fantasies of the interrogators, not from the accused” (2017: 125). This could explain the regional variations, as interrogators ‘led’ suspects based on what they’d read elsewhere.
Remember these confessions were often procured under torture. Their captors would ‘walk’ witches, which basically meant keeping them walking so they couldn’t find any rest. Without sleep, it exhausted them, leaving them more susceptible to accepting any accusations of witchcraft. It was also partly done to stop familiars from reaching them, though “the alleged apparition of familiars” could be used in evidence against witches at trial (Voltmer 2017: 117).
If you’d been kept up without sleep for long enough, you might start seeing your pet, your sole source of comfort, in a hellish jail cell.
The Tide Turns
Thankfully, familiars have taken on a more positive aspect in popular culture. Look at Harry Potter‘s Hedwig. Or Salem in the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch series. These loyal and trusted companions aren’t evil spirits, but rather helpers or advisors.
And if you have a cat? Try getting it to do your bidding and see what happens!
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Davies, Owen (1999), Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Donaldson, Thomas A. (1995), The Role of the “Familiar” in English Witch Trials [Online]. http://www.hulford.co.uk/familiar.html. Accessed 15 October 2018.
Page, Sophie (2017), ‘Medieval Magic’, in Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 29-64.
Purkiss, Diane (2007), The English Civil War: A People’s History, London: Harper.
Voltmer, Rita (2017), ‘The Witch Trials’, in Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 97-133.
Wilby, Emma (2013), Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
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