Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Witch's Familiar

The Witch's Familiar

During the Medieval and Early Modern periods, belief in witchcraft was rife and predominant in the evidence used against witches during the witch trials was the familiar, or familiar spirit, although the belief in familiars goes back much further. A familiar was believed to be a supernatural entity, essentially a demon, which assisted witches and cunning folk in the practice of their craft and was said to be given to witches or cunning folk by the devil, although ancient lore says that they came from the Otherworld. The basic idea of a familiar probably emerged due to a need for humans to communicate with the unseen world of spirits, with the familiar first serving as a mediator between the physical and spiritual world. This concept later evolved, with the familiar becoming a companion and ally. With the rise of Christianity, the familiar became a servant, given by the Devil, and was considered to be a 'partner in evil' who helped the witch in casting evil spells. These supernatural entities appeared in many forms; often as an animal but were also believed to appear as human or as a humanoid figure. Cats, especially black cats, were favoured, with the fear of all cats being witches familiars resulting in cat massacres which swept through Medieval Europe. The demon helper was also said to inhabit dogs, toads and other small animals. Some sources also say that 'traditional vessels for such spirits were the cat, mouse, ferret, hare, bat, snake, hound, or bird – particularly a raven or an owl.' 

The Witch's Familiar (Original)
This connection between humans and animals can be traced back to Palaeolithic (2.5 million and 20,000 years ago) and Neolithic (4000-2500BC) notions, and can be seen in old shamanic practices associated with animal guides. Cave art, including etchings and drawings, depicts scenes that are believed to represent magical themes, along with artefacts from these periods representing different animals and creatures. Many of the animals represented in these periods are identical to those that have later appeared as familiar spirits, suggesting that they are related to ancient beliefs and practices. 
The earliest writings associated with witches and familiars show the similarity of a chthonic nature, with many of them being creatures of woodlands, wetlands, and caves which links them to Underworld themes and deities including Hecate, Diana, Pan and Proserpina. These deities are often associated with certain animals: Diana with the hound, Hecate with the toad, Pan with the goat and Proserpina with the serpent. The various types of familiar are often the same creatures associated with moon goddesses, mother goddesses and ancient chthonic deities. Our ancestors believed the night and the moon to be closely connected to the Otherworld and Spirit World, with folk beliefs holding that supernatural entities of the night lived in the dark and wooded places.

Diana and the Hound (Original)

The physical senses, hearing and sense of smell, are stronger in animals than in humans, and, from an occult perspective, their psychic senses are also stronger. So it is believed that a close relationship with a familiar strengthens the sense of a witch. Witches are said to have taken great care of their familiars. Emile Grillot de Givry, in Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy (1931), describes how witches 'baptised their toads, dressed them in black velvet, put little bells on their paws and made them dance.' The familiar also benefits from this relationship, which supposedly provides the familiar with an expanded view of reality and reinforces the familiar's energy pattern. And so the familiar becomes the mediator between worlds. With both parties benefiting, a connection between the human consciousness and nature's consciousness are said to join, forming a magical consciousness. With both consciousnesses joined, the witch and familiar are said to be capable of opening portals to other realms, accomplishing magical outcomes in both the physical and astral plane. Legends of shapeshifting witches probably originates from these beliefs. In a Lancaster trial written by G. B. Harrison, we are told: '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.' Owls were often associated with witches, giving us an example of how a witch was believed capable of changing their form. The Romans actually called the owl a 'strix', which translates as 'witch', with another term used during the Middle Ages being 'night hag', referring to the belief that the owl was a witch in bird form. In reality, the familiar is the magical partner and companion of the witch, and vice versa.

Owls were often believed to be a shape-shifted witch (Original)

The oldest idea of the familiar was that it was a spirit animal of an entire species of animal, represented by a single form. This is, in some cultures, called an animal guide or a power animal. These entities can supposedly be used as a link to Nature. This belief is often connected to shamanic practices . One of the earliest signs of the relationship between animal guides and humans can be seen in the Ver Sacrum, a religious practice pre-dating the rise of the Roman Empire which is connected with the Sacred Springtime of the ancient Italic tribes. This rite required the tribe to split up in order to form new colonies, during which their sacred animal was said to guide them. For example, the Sabellians were guided by a bull , the Piceni were guided by a woodpecker and the Lucani were guided by a wolf.

Over time, these supernatural beings, along with fairies, were combined into a common mythos. Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, tells us: '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 goes on to say that black and green were the favoured colours of witches, with green being the colour of the fairies. Richard Baxter, a Puritan cleric, was an earlier figure that viewed familiars as nature spirits. In his treatise, The Certainty of the World of Spirits, which was published in the year of his death, Baxter argued for the belief in 'invisible powers and spirits,' with the belief that familiars, or spirits of some kind, helped witches with the casting of spells and the raising of storms. He was, however, uncertain whether these spirits 'are neither Angels, good or bad,' or whether 'those called Fairies and Goblins are not such.' The fact that fairies were often believed to be familiars of witches shows the survival of Pagan beliefs in later periods.

 Quaker Witch with Demon Familiar (Original)

Another persistent theme within the belief of witchcraft is of the witch being transported to the Sabbat with help from their familiar. Fairy lore shows similarities to this belief with the transportation of humans to the Fairy Realm, which is suggestive of the Otherworld, with the crossing between the mortal and spirit realm with the help of a supernatural entity. Oral tradition tells us of how witches avoided detection by meeting in the astral plane to hold their Sabbats. This was aided with the use of 'flying ointments' which were smeared onto the skin and, within Fairy lore, the use of some magical dust or potion.

Witches often used the induction of trances to connect with other realms and here we can see the
connection of animal spirits as the magical partner of the witch. One ancient technique to induce a trance was to listen to the croaking of frogs. The frogs movement between land and water was possibly suggestive of a supernatural power possessed by the frog, giving it the capabilities to lead the witch to and from the spirit realm. Some folklorists of the 19th century, such as Charles Leland, have pointed out the addition of bronze frog images that have been used by witches to aid them in the working of spells and magic, indicating a close connection between witches and frogs. Fairies and imps were also said to aid witches to travel 'in spirit' due to the belief that they lived within the spirit realm. They allowed the witch to enter into the Otherworld by locating the doors that link the physical to the spiritual, which is possibly why fairies and witches are often associated in folk beliefs throughout Europe and the UK. 

The Egyptian Dog Anubis (Original)
Another familiar believed to help a witch in their travels was the dog which was believed to be a guardian and keeper of the passage between the physical world and the Underworld. While the dog is often seen as a guardian of Underworld treasures, it is actually the guardian of secret knowledge associated with death and resurrection. The Egyptian dog, Anubis, is the attendant of the dead and the soul guide of the spirit land. Dogs are also associated with messenger gods and gods of destruction. The dog is often placed in the company of mother goddesses and healers. Like cats, dogs were regarded as witches' familiars and, according to J. C. Cooper, author of An Illustrated Encyclopaedia on Traditional Symbols, 'represent witches as rain-makers, hence 'raining cats and dogs.''

It was believed that a familiar could be used to trace a witch when dealing with curses and bewitchment. One witch trial held in 1665 for Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, both from Lowestoft, was concerned with the bewitchment of a child. It was noted that 'One of the sick child's blankets was hung up and anything found in it thrown into the fire. A toad obligingly appeared and exploded when put in the fire, after which the suspect was discovered and much scorched.' Medieval Christians believed toads to be 'familiars of witches, symbols of avarice and lust, and tormentors of those in Hell for these and other sins.' European folklore shows that the toad had a much darker position than the frog. The toad was regarded as an emissary of the 'Evil One' in 16th century England, and was often burned to death as a result. In Norway, opinions were much the same, with the toad being regarded as evil, or as the representation of evil, with unfortunate frogs and toads being thrown onto the bonfire which people had danced around and jumped over on St. John's Eve. Killing toads in this manner was believed to ward off evil spirits and trolls which were active on that night. 

In parts of Scandinavia, familiars were often associated with spirits of the land and nature. Fairies, dwarves, and other supernatural beings were believed to live within the bodies of animals. With the coming of Christianity, the practice of witchcraft went underground due to the assumption that any spirit, other than an angel, had to be a demon. During the witch trials, many domestic animals were killed due to their association with heretics and witches.

Shamanistic beliefs of animal familiars is that they are not physical beings, but are thought-forms or purely spiritual entities. They are said to travel astrally, serving as magical guardians against those who may try to psychically attack the shaman.

In 1318, Pope John XXII is said to have had nine alleged witches prosecuted for assorted magical crimes, including their contact with a familiar with the help of a polished glass. The Church made use of a collection of scriptures from the Old Testament involving familiars, although it is difficult to say what these Christian interpretations of the scriptures may have meant to the ancient Hebrews. The 'Witch of Endor' from the Old Testament (Samuel 28: 3-25) was often used as the foundation of the Church's opinion on familiars. There is, however, nothing within the original language to suggest that the woman in the story was actually a witch. The original script was translated from ba'alath ob, meaning 'mistress of the Ob', to Latin mulierem habentem pythonem, meaning 'a woman possessing an oracle spirit' which was, in the King James version, translated to mean 'possessing a familiar spirit.' The Hebrew word 'ob' was used in reference to sorcerers and necromancers who conjured the dead to answer their questions. The King James Bible translated this to 'familiaris', changing the meaning of the original scripture to that of a 'household servant'. This portrayed such spirits as being the personal servants of a witch or sorcerer. Literal translations of the Bible do not discuss familiars, dealing mainly with those that practice the arts of the occult. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy 18:10-11 tells us to avoid keeping company with a 'fortuneteller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, spell-caster, a spirit medium, or anyone who seeks oracles from the dead. The Book of Leviticu 20:27 encouraged strict punishment for anyone connected to the occult: 'A man or a woman who acts as a medium or fortuneteller shall be put to death by stoning.' The King James Bible simply replaced these original ideas with the use of the word 'witch'.

Queen Elizabeth, in 1563, declared that anyone proved to have invoked or conjured 'evill and wicked Sprites' would be punished, while King James, in 1604, expanded on this and was more specific, saying: That if any person or persons... shall use practice or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and wicked Spirit, or shall consult convenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill or wicked Spirit (will be punished). Court officials were often keen to convict those that were a part of the occult, often coercing the accused in order to shape the evidence in such a way that made it look as though the suspect was in clear violation of the law. 
The Malleus Maleficarum (1486), the witch inquisitor's handbook, gives no actual instruction concerning the familiar in the questioning and trial of a witch. This book does,however, mention familiars, stating that an animal familiar 'always works with her (witch) in everything.' It also cautions inquisitors to never leave the suspect witch alone because the Devil 'will cause her to kill herself', possibly accomplishing this through a familiar. If, during these trials, so much as a fly came in through the window during the questioning of a witch, it was believed to be a familiar. 

 Matthew Hopkins, the Witch Finder General (Original)
The main period for the focus of witches having relationships with animal figures was between 1550 and 1650, with Matthew Hopkins, the notorious 'Witch Finder General', using the possession of a familiar as primary evidence to prove a suspect guilty of witchcraft. As a result, many were executed simply for their ownership of an animal, along with their having a strange mark, which was believed to be a nipple used to feed their familiar. The courts often exchanged the term 'familiar spirit' with words such as 'imp', 'devil', and 'demon', so it is not difficult to understand how the oldest beliefs of familiars mutated under the direction of such religious authority.

Despite the widespread belief in familiars, the Salem witch trials gives very few accounts of animal familiars. In 1692, John Bradstreet was accused of 'inciting a dog to afflict.' As a result, the dog was tried and hanged for being a witch.

The Familiar Spirit (Original)

Descriptions of familiar spirits by witches or cunning folk who had been accused of witchcraft had similar characteristics. Despite the supposed supernatural nature of these familiars, the accounts of them are surprisingly ordinary. They often had normal and affectionate names. For example, Bessie Dunlop, one cunning woman accused of witchcraft named her familiar Tom Reid. Another accused witch, the 17th century Jane Wellis from Huntingdonshire named her familiars Grizell and Gridigut. There are accounts telling us that the familiar often arrived with its name already established, meaning that the witch was not believed to have named the familiar. Matthew Hopkins declared that 'no mortall could invent' such names, which, to him, was suggestive of something diabolical. This indication fits with the beliefs of the time, with many from this era believing that all spirits possessed names, therefore it only made sense that familiars had their own exclusive names. Familiars were described by those that had supposedly witnessed them as clearly defined, three-dimensional....forms, vivid with colour and animated with movement and sound. With their later descriptions of their smoky, undefined forms, they sound more like ghosts. 
They were often believed to be malevolent when working for a witch, while they were believed to be benevolent when working for cunning folk, with a witch's familiar being identified as a demon, while the latter are often classified as fairies. A familiar's main purpose is to protect and serve the witch, as they inherit their new skills. Once the relationship between witch and familiar was established, the familiar actually served a variety of purposes. Witch trials show that familiars were believed to inflict injury and to cause death to both animals and humans. They were believed to haunt and harass people, although this was limited to verbally abusing, jeering and/or threatening the victim.

In accounts taken from British cases, witches and cunning folk generally had three different ways in which a familiar would come to them. The first was that the familiar would impulsively appear in front of the individual, inside or outside of the home. For example, Joan Prentice, interrogated for witchcraft in 1589, claimed that she was 'alone in her chamber, and sitting upon a low stool preparing herself to bedward,' when her familiar first manifested before her. A cunning woman from Cornwall, Anne Jeffries, claimed that her familiar appeared when she was 'knitting in an arbour in our garden.'

The second common appearance of the familiar to a magical practitioner was that they were gifted to them, sometimes by a family member or, supposedly, by a powerful spirit. Margaret Ley from Liverpool, questioned in relation to witchcraft in 1667, claimed that her familiar was given to her by her mother when she died. Another example comes from Joan Willimot, a Leicestershire cunning woman questioned in 1618. Willimot claimed that a mysterious figure, who she referred to only as her 'master', 'willed her to open her mouth and he would blow into her a fairy which should do her good. And that she open her mouth, and that presently after blowing, there came out of her mouth a spirit which stood upon the ground in the shape and form of a woman.' Other examples include a trial that took place in Chelmsford in 1556, where the accused confessed to possessing a white-spotted cat called Satan which was passed down from witch to witch and a trial in 1582, where a 12 year old girl admitted to receiving her familiar, a cat, from her grandmother, which she later gave away to a woman named Agnes Waterhouse.
In some accounts, witches or cunning folk are said to have experienced difficulties in the practise of their magic until a familiar appeared to them and offered them aid. It has been noted by Emma Wilby, historian and author of Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, that 'their problems... were primarily rooted in the struggle for physical survival – the lack of food or money, bereavement, sickness, loss of livelihood and so on.' The familiar apparently offered them a way out of this, solving their problems by gifting them with magical powers. Some lore states that a witch received their familiar following their initiation into the Witches' sect Witches and cunning folk often made some form of pact or agreement with their familiar. This would state a length of time for which the familiar remained with the practitioner, varying between weeks and, in some cases, decades. It seems common for witches and cunning folk to summon their familiar when they were in need of assistance, although the methods varied. Joan Cunny from Essex, in 1589, claimed that she had to kneel within a circle and pray to Satan for her familiar to manifest, while, in 1653, the cunning woman, Anne Bodenham, from Wiltshire claimed that she could summon her familiars by reading books. However, in some accounts familiars are said to have had the ability to manifest even when they were unwanted or when they had not been summoned. Elizabeth Chandler, a witch from Huntingsonshire, claimed in 1646 that she had no control over her two familiars, Beelzebub and Trullibub, and is said to have prayed to God that He would 'deliver her therefrom.'

As I have noted briefly above, witches were believed to feed or nourish their familiar. It was believed that the familiar needed the nourishment of breast milk or blood, although some witches are reported to have fed their familiar on bread and milk. However, most theories of the time suggested that a familiar often craved and required blood in order to maintain a physical body, as they were believed to be spirits. While familiars were believed to take blood straight from the witch, witches were sometimes believed to provide other sources to feed the craving of their familiar. In 1324, Alice Kyteler from Kilkenny, Ireland, who was convicted as being a witch, confessed that she sacrificed red cocks to her familiar, providing it with a source of blood. Familiars, according to trial transcriptions, obtained blood by pricking the witches body and sucking out the blood. This was believed to leave a mark, which was identified as the 'witch's mark' or 'devil's mark' by witch hunters. This mark could be anything from a bruise, mole, or any skin abnormality. Most often accused were the elderly, who often had the common dark spots which we attribute to old age. These marks were believed to be insensitive to pain caused by a pin or needle pushed into them.
Outside of the witch trials, it was believed that some magicians and village healers were aided by more benevolent familiars which could diagnose illnesses and sources of bewitchment. They were also used to divine and find lost objects and treasures. During rituals, magicians would conjure these spirits, locking them into bottles, rings and stones which were sometimes sold as charms, with the magician claiming that they would ensure success in whatever the buyer sought. This was not technically illegal, with England's Witchcraft Act of 1604 specifically outlawing evil and wicked spirits.

Modern witches have their own views on familiars and no longer accept the Judeo-Christian opinion of the familiar as either accurate or valid. Familiars are now more often perceived in much the same way as some American Indians view animal guides or power animals. They are now seen as messengers that move between the mortal and spirit realm, healers and powerful allies to those with whom they form a relationship which are gifted to a witch by the Great Spirit. There are, to a modern witch, essentially three types of familiar spirit: the physical, the astral and the artificial. A physical familiar is a pet or animal to which you feel drawn. An astral familiar is considered to be an entity which exists within the spiritual realm. The artificial familiar is one that is created by the practitioner with the use of magic. In modern times, the familiar assists the witch by carrying energy for the use of healing, communicating and spell casting. They are also believed to protect both the home and personal property. Familiars can also defend a witch during astral projection and dream-work, as well as carrying information to or from the spiritual realm.
In conclusion, familiars have evolved and changed through the years and, in modern times, have pretty much come full circle back to the beliefs of the ancients. Familiars have been considered to be guides and helpers, aiding a witch, magician or shaman in the practice of their magic. They are said to take many forms, often as animals, with the favourites being cats. They are, however, not limited to being only animals, with many beliefs stating that the familiar is a spirit capable of living within the body of an animal or creature. They can be a readily evolved spirit or can be created through the use of magic by a witch. The evolution of Christianity saw familiars condemned, linking them to demons and the Devil and giving a primary source of evidence against an accused witch. While they have often been linked with evil, cunning folk were also said to possess benevolent familiars which could aid a person with any matter. In this case, the spirit was sometimes bottled and sold. Modern times, however, bring us back to the belief that the familiar exists to protect and aid it's witch by carrying the additional energy needed during healing, communication with other worlds and spell-casting. It is now believed that the familiar spirit connects us to the spirits of nature, much like the beliefs of our ancestors before us.

Next time: We'll take a closer look at the origins of witchcraft.

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