The concept of the familiar has been a vital component of various cultures throughout man’s history. The Romans, for
example, believed that each household was protected by a familiar whose job it was to keep the family from harm, and shamans and medicine men of various tribal traditions have long honored the spirits of animals for their
wisdom and assistance in magickal workings. Yet despite these positive influences, when we think of a familiar the most common
image is that of the evil witch with her fearsome-looking black cat. This archetype, straight from the fairytales of our childhood,
has its roots in the fear and superstition of the Dark Ages, and it bears scant resemblance to the modern-day familiar.
With the infamous witch trials of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods came an obsession with familiars—those hellish
imps that took the forms of animals to assist witches in their evil deeds. It was believed that these imps were given as gifts
from Satan to his faithful followers. The arrangement seems to have been a lucrative one for the devil, as when an imp wasn’t
busy inciting the witch to greater evil, it was reporting back to its master on the comings and goings of his servant. It
became common knowledge that witches often took the form of their familiars to travel unnoticed to their unholy sabbats, and
that as a reward, they were given drops of the witch’s blood. At the witch trials, evidence for consorting with the
devil oftentimes included accounts of the accused keeping company with an animal, and many a lonely old woman was executed
as a witch because of her affection for her pet.
It’s interesting to note that, while witches’
familiars were considered evil during this period, the harnessing of spirits was acceptable in certain circumstances. Indeed,
magicians often sold as talismans small vials or trinkets in which they claimed to have entrapped a spirit that would ensure the
buyer’s good fortune. It seems that consorting with spirits was permissible as long as the spirits were considered to
While the familiar could take any animal form,
right down to the smallest spider, the creature whose reputation suffered most from its role as the witch’s evil accomplice
was, of course, the cat. This association may have come about because cats were plentiful and were often kept as pets
to help control the rodent population, an ever-present problem due to the lack of sanitation. Black cats were especially targeted
as familiars because the color black was associated with the powers of darkness.
Toads, too, were often identified as familiars,
possibly traceable to the early Roman belief that they could predict, and even affect, the weather. Various parts of the toad’s
body were thought to have magickal attributes. Their spittle, for instance, was said to confer the power of invisibility,
and their horns, known as toad stones, were useful for detecting poison.
The dogs of the period got their share of bad press as well. Faithful follower, able shepherd, and ferocious
defender, it was perhaps the dog’s unyielding loyalty to its master that earned it its place as a familiar. Legend has
it that one of the most famous magic users of history, Cornelius Agrippa, had as his familiar a large black dog that accompanied him wherever he went. When Agrippa was
accused of dabbling in the dark arts, the dog was quickly branded as a familiar. It is said that the magician, momentarily
regretting his occult activities, ordered the dog to be gone from him. The animal immediately departed and was never seen
The image of familiars as evil demons in animal
form reflects only the historical picture—one painted with the ignorance of past ages. Today’s witches view their
familiars in an altogether different light. For the modern witch, a familiar can be any animal with which the individual feels an affinity. While these animals
are not considered evil spirits, they’re far from being just a household pet and are treated as partners in the practice
Because animals are believed to be more sensitive
to vibrations from the unseen world, they are useful to the witch as a kind of psychic sensor, indicating the presence of
negative energy by their behavior. Familiars also bring added energy to magickal workings because of their close affinity
with the spirit world and their attunement with their witch.
The finding of an animal familiar is a very personal
thing, and often the witch will send out a psychic call to attract a suitable one. An immediate and overwhelming feeling of
kinship between the witch and the animal usually signifies the discovery of the new familiar.
In some cases familiars are not confined to physical
bodies. Although they play the same role as animal familiars, spirit familiars are more versatile in that they can move about more freely. The presence of these sprit familiars
is often experienced as a voice, vision, or strong feeling of peace. If necessary, they can be associated with inanimate objects,
such as a stone or piece of jewelry, to make contacting the spirit an easy task.
Just as the twenty-first century witch shares
little in common with the frightening hags from our favorite childhood stories, so the image of the black cat as a demon from
hell has lost much of its clout in the modern world. Like the medieval magician’s charms, modern-day familiars—animal
or spirit—are benevolent by nature. At their best, they impart knowledge and offer guidance. At their worst, they offer
companionship and love. Thankfully, in our enlightened age we can realize the importance of both.