A Witch's Familiar - is your pet more than just a companion?
On the eve of the Winter Solstice, a little bundle of joy entered my life. Not the screaming, fleshy, gurgling human kind (been there, done that…twice!); this precious gift was a tiny black kitten, rescued by a lovely lady after his mum had been run over and collected by my partner on a rainy, wintery Saturday afternoon.
I have wanted a cat for many moons but, with two large dogs and various hamsters, rats and a leopard gecko coming and going over the years, it’s been low on my priority list - so this little treasure came as quite the surprise.
I strongly believe that things come to us when the time is right. There have been many occasions where I’ve asked for something or set out to manifest a specific thing and not got it for a very long time, or received it in a way that I didn’t expect, and I have absolutely no doubt that I had to wait for this particular cat to be born.
Unbeknown to me, my partner had searched for weeks to find a rescued kitten as a gift for me at Christmas time. Bless him, he knows how passionate I am about rescuing animals, rather than buying from a breeder.
On this particular morning he received a message back, confirming that a little black male kitty was available and that he could come for a viewing that afternoon. I don’t believe in coincidences so, when he told me his plan, I instantly connected the profound timings. A black cat, coming to join our family at dusk on the longest night, the eve of the last winter solstice of the decade… he was meant to be!
When he eventually crossed our threshold, I felt instantly connected to him. It occurred to me that this cat might turn out to be my familiar, an animal with whom I would have a magickal connection and who would teach me wild and wonderful things. With the divine timing of his arrival that assumption could have easily been justified.
Back in the 1600s, when witch hunts were rife and accusations were fired faster than gossip could spread, a familiar was believed to be a small demon given to a witch by the devil (Let me reassure you that my partner is by no means the devil! Far from it… but that’s for another day).
In Essex, UK, my local folklore stems largely around the actions and activities of Matthew Hopkins, self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, who declared that witches either got their familiar directly from Satan or inherited one from someone else. Black cats, especially, were considered the most prominent creatures in which to find a demon residing, but dogs, snakes, toads, rats and other small creatures were also recognised as familiars. Bizarrely, people believed that burning a witch’s familiar would destroy their power.
Many domestic pets were killed due to their connection or companionship with known witches. During the Salem witch trials, in October 1692, a troubled girl accused he neighbour’s dog of trying to bewitch her. Minister Cotton Mather stated that if the dog really was the devil in disguise, it would not be possible to kill it, so the dog was shot dead and Mather declared it was innocent.
In 1604, James I introduced a new Witchcraft Act that referenced familiars as “the witches’ helpful demonic companions”.
Humans having spirit companions is a belief that dates back centuries and the term familiar has only been adapted to meaning a living creature in recent times. In The Complete Picatrix: The Occult Classic of Astrological Magic Liber, John Michael Greer and Christopher Warnock refer to the Arabic magical text which names Caraphzebiz as the first to connect with a familiar: “It was he who first discovered the magical art, and spirits appeared first to him… His familiar spirit said to him: I will remain with you, but do not reveal me to others or speak of me, and make sacrifices in my name”. Socrates talked openly about his personal spirit, a daimon who guided his actions and Ancient Romans believed that spirits called Tutelaries guarded their homes and belongings. Shamans also honour familiars as spiritual entities who astral travel and protect the sage from psychic attack.
The belief in spirits or demons occupying an animal’s body has mostly faded out and many modern-day Witches, Wiccans and Pagans have animal companions that they consider to be their familiars through an emotional or psychic bond.
Not every witch has a familiar, although some may have such strong connections with their pets that they can be easily mistaken into thinking they have one. Others may find that animals come into their lives unexpectedly, usually at a time of need or bringing with them a sign or message.
I believe my cat came into my life partly because I manifested him and partly because it was the right time for both of us. He needed a loving home that has the right energy for him and I needed a companion with the right energy for me. Now we have found one another we can grow together and learn from each other. Whether or not he turns out to be a familiar is yet to be seen, but I certainly won’t be adopting Cotton Mather’s approach in order to find out!
There is no definitive checklist to determine whether or not your pet is a familiar as every creature is unique but, if you have an animal companion and are unsure whether it is a familiar or not, watch to see if they show any of these commonly recognised traits:
Extremely heightened activity during magickal practices and rituals
Eager to get involved when you work magick
Boosts your energy by being nearby, especially when you need it most
Not afraid of the elements, especially fire and water
You sense there is something exceptionally unique about the animal
Temperament is naturally calm
Helpful and keen to offer their services
Displays unusual psychic abilities with you and things near you
When you talk, either out loud or telepathically, they'll listen or do what you ask
Alerts you to health problems
Your animal may show signs of one or many of these traits however, if you’re still not sure, the best way to identify if your companion is a familiar is to include them in your practice and meditations. Observe their movements and really listen when they try to communicate with you.
Animal familiars will always choose you; you cannot just go out and get one - you can only invite one into your life. You also cannot select what type of animal it will be.
Whether it turns out you have a familiar or not, always treat your animal in the same way you would any other companion – with love, respect, kindness and gratitude.