Author: Fire Lyte
Black cats, warty toads, and a menagerie of creepy, slimy, crawly animals have all been accused of allying themselves with witches. The image of the witch with her pointed hat and magic broom just wouldn’t be complete without Fluffy the magic talking cat taking a nap on the bristles as she flies through a full moon sky casting her spells on the unsuspecting public below. It is because of their connection to witches that many people are afraid of black cats, black dogs – otherwise known as Grims, and toads. In fact, people kill black cats every year, because people are so frightened of them. Where does this deep-seated fear come from, and is it merited?
The word we use to call a spirit in animal form that helps a witch is ‘familiar.’ This term originally comes from the Latin ‘familiaris, ’ meaning ‘domestic, ’ but it also has root definitions in the Old French ‘familier, ’ and the Spanish/Italian words ‘familia/famiglia’ meaning ‘family.’ Dr. Jim Maloney of NYU proposes that the noun form of ‘familiar’ that we use to mean a witch’s companion spirit most likely derived from these later definitions in the 1580s, because women that lived apart from society – who were tried for witchcraft – would have probably brought in stray or wild animals, nursed them back to health, and tamed them. That woman would have, most definitely, thought of such animals as family.
As with all things witchy in the Middle Ages, familiars got a really bad rap from their respective local populaces, as everything having to do with those put on trial for witchcraft was considered of the Devil. The Encyclopedia Britannica showcases these definitions clearly in their entry on familiars, in which they highlight that the noun form of ‘familiar’ – meaning an imp or spirit that assists, instructs, or otherwise augments a witch’s powers – came about in the Middle Ages during the witch trials. Not only were they thought of as spirits, but also they were automatically assumed to be demons.
But, let’s think about this for a second. So, familiars were actually wild or stray animals that men or women brought in from the outside – where they otherwise would have starved to death – nursed them back to health, and tamed them. Think about what this looked like to the average person in the 14th century in conjunction with what we know about the witchcraft trials. A man or woman living away from town near the woods, who has knowledge of medicine and agriculture, that subsists off of their own garden, and also seems to have tamed wild animals to do their bidding without any help from anybody else. Wouldn’t that seem strange to you? Would that seem a little…magical? It would if you lived 500-600 years ago and relied on your fellow townsfolk for your needs, and if you also happen to be a puritanical sheep that listened to everything your local fire and brimstone preacher said.
The Britannica goes on to explain that people believed these tamed animals must have been gifts from Satan, who apparently tames animals in his spare time. It was believed that the witch must feed the familiar by a mark given her by the devil known as the witch’s teat. During the trial of a witch, he or she was typically stripped naked and searched head to toe for such a teat. And, in every instance, some such mark of the devil was found: a mole, a wart, or even a finger could be used as evidence of this mark. Elizabeth Howe, Harvard scholar on the Salem witch trials, said in her book ‘The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane’ that a woman’s clitoris was also used as evidence of this witch’s teat. Once the mark was found, it was over for the defendant. The mark was considered a sure sign of the person’s guilt, and sentence was passed shortly thereafter.
However, a familiar wasn’t always just a mooch from Satan who sucked on a woman’s nether regions and blighted the crops of nosy neighbors. They could also be what are known as ‘tutelary spirits, ’ or ones that teach. Michael Freeze in his 1992 book Patron Saints talks about a host of tutelary spirits in various religions. From the African tribes that worshipped the spider god Anansi, to the Native American people whose entire pantheon was made up of animal spirits, to the magical foxes of Japan, to genies, angels, and devas, the never ending list of spirits that take the form of animals covers the globe. And, of course, none of them had anything to do with the devil.
Zeus turned into a swan and a bull in order to mate with a young, pretty girl. Odin had ravens that flew across the world and reported back to him each night the events of the day. Animals as teachers have had a firm place in religious and folkloric history for thousands of years. However, that was legally put a stop to in 1604 with England’s passing of the Witchcraft Act, which made it illegal to associate with, hire, be friends with, feed, or reward any evil spirit for any reason. The law was truly put into effect in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts when two dogs were tried, convicted, and hanged for being believed to be a witch or a witch’s familiar.
Given all this, though, familiars have become one of the most beloved tools of the modern witch. Every television witch from Sabrina, to the Halliwells, to Samantha had a cat that, in one way or another, identified itself as their familiar. They are there to point out information that is right under the witch’s nose, but is being overlooked. While many witches today like to keep an animal – or seven – around the house, the idea that they are working magical companions does not seem to be as prevalent as it once was. Or, is it?
Let’s go back to the original propagation of the familiar. They were probably animals that needed care, love, and attention from someone, and the people on the edge of the town were the ones that provided it. In all reality, did these people actually work magic or learn arcane secrets from these animals? No, but they probably appreciated the company and felt less lonely, which is a kind of magic in and of itself. Though, a quick scan through your local bookstore will tell you the notion still exists in modern witchcraft and paganism that we learn from our pets, and many texts actually encourage us with spells and high rituals to find our familiars.
A quick story: The folklorist William Morgan said that during the English Civil War, the Royalist general Prince Rupert was in the habit of taking his large poodle dog named Boye, into battle with him. Throughout the war the dog was greatly feared among the Parliamentarian forces and credited with supernatural powers. The dog was apparently considered a kind of familiar. At the end of the war the dog was shot, allegedly with a silver bullet.
So, what category do you fall in to? Are you the loving outsider who takes in strays or runaways, who has a house full of love and furniture covered in pet hair? Or, are you the puritanical witch who dances with the devil on the full moon and feeds Evil Fluffy from your nether-teat? Either way, make sure to spay and neuter your familiars. We don’t need more imps running around.
William Morgan, “Superstition in Medieval and Early Modern Society”, Chapter 3
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=familiar and searchmode=none