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The Witch's Familiar
The Witch's Familiar
Spiritual Partnerships for Successful Magic

By: Raven Grimassi
Imprint: Llewellyn
Specs: Trade Paperback | 9780738703398
English  |  192 pages | 6 x 9 IN
Pub Date: July 2003
Price: $14.95 US,  $17.95 CAN
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1
History
of the
Familiar Spirit
In this chapter we will explore the occult concept
of the Familiar spirit in Witchcraft.
According to ancient lore, a spirit from the Otherworld
was believed able to dwell within the
physical body of an animal or creature. The traditional
vessels for such spirits were the cat, mouse,
ferret, hare, bat, snake, hound, or bird—particularly
a raven or an owl. The lore surrounding the
Familiar spirit indicates that a Witch received
one following initiation into the Witches’ sect.
A magical connection between humans and
animals has its roots in Paleolithic and Neolithic
concepts, and is evident in old shamanic
practices associated with animal guides. Various
drawings and etchings in cave art depict ritualized
scenes that are believed to represent magical
themes. A variety of artifacts from these periods
represent different animals and creatures carved
and painted by ancient artisans. Many of these identical creatures
later appear as Familiar spirits in the lore of Witchcraft.
This is highly suggestive of a survival theme related to ancient
beliefs and practices.
In the earliest writings about Witches the creatures associated
with Witchcraft all possess a chthonic nature. We find many of
them to be creatures of woodlands, wetlands, and caves. This association
links them to Underworld themes and to Underworld
deities such as Hecate, Diana, Proserpina, Morrigan, Macha,
Badb, and Nemain. To our ancestors, the night and the moon
were intimately linked to the Otherworld or Spirit World. Folk
beliefs held that in the night many supernatural beings inhabited
the dark and wooded places.
The Concept of a Familiar
The basic concept of a Familiar spirit most likely arose from a
human need to communicate with the unseen world of spirits.
At first the Familiar spirit served as a type of mediator between
the worlds. Later, the concept of a companion and ally evolved.
As we shall see later in this chapter, with the rise of Christianity
the Church viewed the Familiar spirit as a servant given to the
Witch by the Devil of Judeo-Christian religion. In this biased
and distorted view of the Familiar spirit the creature was portrayed
as a “partner in evil” who aided the Witch in casting
harmful spells.
As humankind became civilized, establishing farms, cities, and
the supporting structures associated with such communities, a resulting
loss of connection with Nature occurred. Instead of working
in a “common cause” with Nature, humans set about trying
to master Nature. All of Nature came to be viewed as a resource
for the gain of humankind. In response, the spirits of Nature
withdrew from the company of humans.
By contrast the Witch seeks to maintain rapport with Nature
and to live his or her life in partnership. Wild animals, and some
“domesticated” animals such as the cat, are more in tune with
Nature in daily life than are the vast majority of human beings.
Establishing communication with such animals brings one closer
to the source to which these creatures themselves are attuned.
Possessing a Familiar spirit allows the Witch to merge with the
instincts of the animal and thereby interface with the intelligence
of Nature.
The physical senses such as hearing and smell are more acute
in animals than in human beings. From an occult perspective,
the psychic senses of animals are stronger as well. A close rapport
with the Familiar spirit enhances the psychic abilities of the
Witch. The Familiar also benefits from having a relationship
with the Witch. Merging with human consciousness provides the
Familiar with an expanded view of reality, and intensifies the energy
pattern of the Familiar. The alien worlds of human consciousness
and “natural order” consciousness join together to
form a magical consciousness. In this the Familiar becomes the
mediator.
The magical consciousness of the Witch and the Familiar can
open portals to other realms, and can accomplish works of magic
in the material realm as well as the astral plane. This is the basis
of legends in which we find the magical servant of the Witch,
and tales of shapeshifting by Witches. In reality the Familiar is a
magical partner and companion for the Witch, and vice versa.
The oldest concept of the Witches’ Familiar was the spiritanimal
belonging to the group consciousness of a specific type of
animal. In other words, this was the spirit of the entire species
delimited into a single form. In some cultures this is called a
power animal or animal guide. Such an entity can be used as a
doorway or link connecting to the higher animal spirit or nature.
In such cases the astral form of the animal becomes the vehicle
for working with the greater consciousness.
The concept of the Witches’ Familiar is connected with
shamanic practices and the lore of magical creatures from many
cultures. One of the earliest and most clear signs of the relationship
between humans and guardian animal spirits is reflected in
the Ver Sacrum, the ancient Italic rite of the Sacred Springtime
predating the rise of the Roman Empire. Every spring season ancient
Italic tribes observed a custom wherein a portion of the
tribe was required to divide off and form new colonies. Their sacred
animal guided each tribe in this endeavor, leading them to
new lands in which to establish villages. The people known as
the Sabellians were guided by a bull, the Piceni by a woodpecker,
the Lucani by a wolf, and so forth.
Many of the animals associated with various deities, such as
Diana and the hound, Hecate and the toad, Proserpina and the
serpent, Pan and the goat, are animals that also appear as
Witches’ Familiars in the vast literature on Witchcraft. It is worthy
of note to realize that the various types of Familiars mentioned
in Witch trials are the same creatures associated with
moon goddesses, mother goddesses, and ancient chthonic deities.
In particular these are the frog/toad, snake, bird, and lizard
among many others. This is an indication of the antiquity of pre-
Christian themes found in Witchcraft, and demonstrates a longstanding
mystical tradition.
Over the course of time humans personified various spirits and
the forces of Nature. The concept of fairies and other supernatural
beings blended together into a common mythos. Historian
Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Witchcraft in the Middle Ages
(London: Cornell University, 1972), writes, “The small demons
that became the Witches’ Familiars of the later Middle Ages
were originally dwarves, trolls, fairies, elves, kobolds, or the fertility
spirits called Green Men. . . .” He adds that black and green
were the favored colors of Witches, and that green was a fairy
color. Historian Diane Purkiss (The Witch in History, London:
Routledge, 1996) comments on Familiars as being malevolent
fairies. Viewing Familiars as remnants of earlier pagan spirits suggests
a survival theme of pre-Christian religion within the folklore
and folk magic traditions associated with Witchcraft of the
Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods.
Richard Baxter (1615–1619) was an earlier figure who viewed
Familiars as Nature spirits. Baxter was a Puritan cleric who wrote
a treatise titled The Certainty of the World of Spirits, which was
published in the year of his death. The treatise argued for the belief
in “invisible powers and spirits.” Baxter believed that such
things aided Witches in raising storms and casting spells. In his
treatise Baxter wrote that it is uncertain whether the spirits that
served Witches “are neither Angels, good or bad” or “whether
those called Fairies and Goblins are not such.” The fact that the
latter concept was even a consideration here demonstrates the
survival of such Pagan beliefs into later periods.
Nonphysical Familiars
One of the persistent themes in the literature of Witchcraft is
the tale of Witches being transported to the Sabbat through the
aid of a Familiar spirit. In Fairy lore there are also many accounts
of humans being transported into the Fairy Realm. This is suggestive
of an Otherworld experience, a crossing between the
realms of mortals and spirits by the intervention of a supernatural
being. According to oral tradition, in order to avoid detection
some Witches met within the astral realm to hold their Sabbats.
This often included the use of “flying ointment” smeared upon
the skin. In Fairy lore either a magical dust or a potion is used.
According to the literature on Witchcraft, the Witches’ flying
ointment was made from herbs: aconite (wolfsbane), belladonna,
hemlock, smallage, and cinquefoil. This was mixed with a paste
made from the meal of fine wheat, or with fat or oil. In order to
be nonlethal, such a recipe would have to be concocted under
the guidance of a master herbalist, as even small amounts of
some of these herbs are deadly. We know that the earliest word
for Witch in Western literature was the Greek word pharmakis,
which means one who possesses the knowledge of herbs.
Inducing a trance, whether through meditation, chemicals, or
other means, can link the Witch to other realms of existence and
to altered states of consciousness. One ancient technique involved
listening to the croaking of frogs as an aid to entering a
trance. Here we see the connection of the animal spirit as a magical
partner to the Witch figure. The fact that the frog moves
back and forth between land and water perhaps suggested a supernatural
power to lead the Witch to and from the spirit realm.
Nineteenth-century folklorists such as Charles Leland, Roma
Lister, and J. B. Andrews noted the incorporation of small bronze
frog images used by Witches for spells and other works of magic,
which seems to indicate a magical connection and relationship
between frogs and Witches.
From an occult perspective, trance (as an altered state of consciousness)
is conducive to astral projection, which allows the
consciousness to leave the physical body and travel as desired.
Astral projection is a theme that appears in the literature on
Witchcraft even as late as the seventeenth century, where it is
called “traveling in spirit” or “journeying without the body.”
Such tales appearing in Witch trial transcripts are consistent
throughout Europe.
In some writings a Witch’s Familiar is a fairy or imp. Such
creatures are said to dwell in spirit realms, and doorways from
this world lead into the Otherworld. Traveling “in spirit” allowed
the Witch to enter the Otherworld that exists beyond the physical
world. Perhaps this is why the fairy and the Witch are often
associated in folk beliefs throughout much of Europe and the
British Isles.
The Church and the Familiar Spirit
In 1318 Pope John XXII sent nine alleged Witches to be prosecuted
for various magical practices, including contacting Familiar
spirits with the aid of a polished glass. The Church employed
several scriptures from the Old Testament concerning Familiar
spirits, although it is unclear what the concept would have
meant to ancient Hebrews in comparison to the Christian
Church of the Middles Ages and Renaissance periods. Many
have used the story of the “Witch of Endor” from the Old Testament
(1 Samuel 28: 3–25) as a foundation stone concerning the
Church’s view on Familiars. However, there is nothing in the
original language to indicate that the woman in question was a
Witch. Here she is referred to as a ba’alath ob, literally a “mistress
of the Ob.” The Latin translation read mulierem habentem
pythonem
, which means “a woman possessing an oracle spirit.” It
is the King James version that translated the later Latin rendering
to mean “possessing a Familiar spirit.”
Sorcerers or necromancers who evoked the dead to answer
questions were referred to in Hebrew as an ob. Some commentators
have suggested that “ob” refers to a leather bottle, and therefore
this nickname arose from the belief that a sorcerer’s body
could serve as a vessel for a spirit from the Otherworld. Such
commentators claim that the Greek word pytho was used in
much the same regard to denote both the person and the spirit
within the sorcerer. However, historian Frederick H. Ceyer, in
his article “Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine—and in the Old
Testament” (appearing in the book Witchcraft and Magic in Europe:
Biblical and Pagan Societies
, Ankarloo and Stuart, University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) states that the precise meaning of
ob eludes us.
The King James Bible rendered the translation to read “Familiaris.”
This changed the meaning of the original scripture, and
now indicated a “household servant.” This was done in order to
portray such spirits as being the personal servants of a sorcerer.
The literal translations of the Bible do not actually address the
Familiar spirit; biblical scripture deals mainly with practitioners
of the occult arts. The Book of Deuteronomy 18:10–11 admonished
one not to keep company with any who is a fortuneteller,
soothsayer, charmer, diviner, spell-caster, a spirit medium, or anyone
who seeks oracles from the dead. The Book of Leviticus
20:27 called for a strict penalty: “A man or a woman who acts as
a medium or fortuneteller shall be put to death by stoning.” The
King James Bible replaced the original concept and inserted the
word “witch.”
The Court and the Familiar Spirit
In the year 1563, Queen Elizabeth issued a Witchcraft statute
that decreed a penalty for anyone who invoked or conjured “evill
and wicked Spirites.” A later statute introduced by King James in
1604 was more specific:
That if any person or persons . . . shall use practise or exercise
any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and
wicked Spirit, or shall consult covenant with entertaine
employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit
(they will be punished).*
Local court officials anxious to convict people of Witchcraft
used coercion to shape the evidence in such a way that suspected
Witches were in clear violation of the law (i.e., feeding or entertaining
evil spirits).
An interesting theme that appears in Witch trial transcripts is
the mention of the inherited Familiar. Most scholars view the
————
* Used with permission, © Thomas Donaldson, 1995.
Familiar spirit as primarily part of English Witchcraft, although it
appears in the Witch trial transcripts of other regions of Europe
as well. One example is the Venetian trial of Elena Draga and
Maddalena la Greca, who claimed to possess a fada in the form of
a chicken. A fada is a fairy-like creature, and in modern Italian is
called a fata. The Familiar spirit also appears in the Salem
Witchcraft trials in New England.
In the Chelmsford trial (1556), the accused confessed to possessing
a white-spotted cat named Sathan that was passed down
from Witch to Witch. In another Chelmsford trial (1582), a
twelve-year-old girl named Elizabeth Frauncis said she received a
cat from her grandmother, but later gave it away to a woman
named Agnes Waterhouse. In a trial held at St. Osyth (1582),
Margerie Sammon claimed she had inherited her Familiars.
English Witch trials contained accounts of suspected Witches
having relationships with animal Familiars. The main period of
such focus was between 1550–1650. Matthew Hopkins, the infamous
“Witch Finder General,” used the possession of a Familiar
spirit as the primary criterion for proving a person guilty of practicing
Witchcraft. As a result many people were executed on the
grounds that they kept animals or had a strange mark on their
body, said to be the nipple used to feed the Familiar.
Thomas A. Donaldson, in his 1995 essay “The Role of the
Familiar in English Witch Trials” (http://home.earthlink.net/~
tad5/familiar.html), defines Familiars as “first and foremost, spirits.”
He states that:
These spirits usually had their own names, communicated
to human beings through speech, and sometimes
displayed distinct personalities and motives. Most of
these spirits took on the physical form of a domestic animal
and established a relationship with a particular person,
often a woman with evil intentions. They helped
the “Witch” carry out her maleficia; in this respect the
trial records depict them as having incredible, unearthly
powers. The Familiar was by no means a subservient,
faithful helper who followed the Witch’s every command.
The relationship between the Familiar and the
Witch is better characterized as “give-and-take.” Some
Familiars played the role of little devils in that they requested
a pact (often satanic in nature) before they
would perform any services for the Witch. Furthermore,
almost all of them craved nourishment in the form of
human blood. They would attach themselves to some
part of the Witch’s body and suck blood out of her,
leaving a bruise that Witch hunters called the “Witch’s
mark.” The Familiars and Witch’s mark acted as a strong
evidence in the many trials.*
The trials held in Chelmsford, St. Osyth, Warboys, and Lancaster
found a combined total of forty-six individuals guilty of
practicing Witchcraft in connection with a Familiar spirit. Donaldson
notes that the courts readily exchanged the term “Familiar
spirit” with other words such “imp,” “devil,” or “demon.”
Therefore it is not surprising that the oldest concept of the Familiar
spirit mutated under the direction of secular and ecclesiastical
authority.
The courts extracted “evidence” that the Familiar typically
initiated contact with the Witch. Once attached to the Witch, it
appeared that he or she rarely had any choice but to keep it. Another
interesting element that appears in trial transcripts is the
account of each Familiar arriving with its own name already established.
In other words, reportedly the Witch did not name the
Familiar. Matthew Hopkins remarked that “no mortall could invent”
such names, which suggested to him something diabolical.
Donaldson states that the fact animal Familiars had their own
pre-existing names fits with what is known of the general magi-
————
* Donaldson. Ibid.
cal beliefs in this time period. People of this era commonly believed
that all spirits possessed names, and therefore it only made
sense that Familiars had their own unique names.
Once established with the Witch, the Familiar served a variety
of functions. Trial records reflect that Familiars inflicted injury
or caused death to both humans and animals. Haunting or
generally harassing people was also accredited to the Witches’
Familiar. In general this was limited to verbal assault, jeering, or
threatening the targeted person. Perhaps some powerless individuals
of this era fantasized the service of a spirit to vent their rage
and anger at some real or imagined sense of oppression. No doubt
there were some Witches who did invoke their Familiars to carry
out magical attacks against their enemies.
Donaldson points out that when examining trial transcripts it
is difficult to tell whether the Witch or the Familiar is the one in
charge. It appears in most recorded accounts that Familiars often
did perform services for the Witches. The relationship was not
necessarily one of “mistress and servant” but involved a giveand-
take relationship. Each party had something to gain in the
relationship. In some trials a formal pact or binding agreement
between the Witch and the Familiar was required.
The Familiar sought nourishment from the Witch in either
blood or breast milk. Witches reportedly sometimes fed milk and
bread to their Familiars, but the Familiar craved human blood.
Occult theories of the period suggested that the Familiar required
blood in order for it to maintain a corporal body, since it was actually
a spirit. According to trial records the Familiars obtained
blood from the Witch by pricking a place on his or her body and
sucking out the blood. This left a mark on the body that was
identified by Witch hunters as the “Witch’s mark” or the “Devil’s
mark.”
In reality any mark, bruise, mole, or abnormality of the skin
was enough to convince the Witch hunters that they had exposed
a Witch. Commonly, with aging, the skin develops dark spots,
moles, and other growths, and most accused individuals were elderly.
To counter this, Witch hunters maintained that a Witch’s
mark is usually found in “an unusual place” like the tailbone or
genital region. Witch marks were said to be insensible to pain
caused by a pin or a needle thrust into them.
Donaldson notes a commentary on the Lancaster trial written
by G. B. Harrison in 1929. In the article Harrison proposes that
Familiars were not spirits but simply Witches in animal disguise:
But the spirits which appear now as men, now as animals,
are, at first sight, more difficult to explain until it is remembered
that in the Witchcraft ritual the members of
the coven disguise themselves as animals . . . [the Familiars]
are nothing more than the evil humans who were
responsible for the whole business.*
The Modern Witch
and the Familiar
Most modern Witches have their own unique view of what constitutes
a Familiar spirit. No contemporary Witches accept the
Judeo-Christian view of the Familiar as accurate or valid. Many
modern Witches tend to perceive the Familiar in much the same
way that some American Indian traditions view animal guides or
power animals. In this regard they are messengers to and from
the Otherworld and are gifted to one by the Great Spirit. They
are also healers and powerful allies for those with whom they
form a relationship.
For the modern Witch there are essentially three types of Familiar
spirit: the physical, the astral/spirit, and the artificial Familiar.
The physical Familiar can be a pet or any animal/creature
————
* Donaldson. Ibid.
to which you feel drawn. The astral/spirit Familiar is one that
pre-exists as a conscious entity within the elemental realm or the
Otherworld, which lies beyond the world of the living. The artificial
Familiar is one that can be created through magic.
Familiars can assist the Witch in carrying energy for healing,
communication, or spell casting. The Familiar can also be used
for protection of the home and/or personal property. During sessions
of astral projection or dream work the Familiar can safeguard
the Witch on many levels. The Familiar can also retrieve
information on the planes, both inner and outer. These aspects
are covered in the chapters that follow.
Let us turn now to the next chapter and explore how one obtains
a Familiar, and the nature of the Familiar spirit.


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