The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Familiars are witches’ animal friends, partners, and companions. The term “familiar” implies an actual, specific, living animal—unlike the larger term “ally” which is inclusive of spirit animals. In general, familiars are what their name says: familiar. These are the animal companions people keep as pets within their homes.
Do you have a familiar? If you have had an intense emotional bond with a living creature other than a human, then one might say you have had a familiar, whether you work magic with that animal in any capacity or not. The dog who won’t leave your side, the cat who nightly sleeps on your feet, the bird who begins to sing as soon as it catches sight of you: these are all familiars, or at least potentially so. The dog who guards you with his life is as much a familiar as the cat who assists you in magic ritual. Mutual love, loyalty, and devotion define the relationship between familiars and humans. Whether that relationship is also part of a working magical partnership is up to you.
In terms of witchcraft, the familiar is the witch’s partner, assisting her in various magical working including divination and spell-casting. Although any creature could be a familiar, certain animals are considered most likely to become familiars or to be most suitable or powerful, including cats, dogs, ferrets, crows, hedgehogs, toads, snakes, and other animals found within this section of the Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.
A very high percentage of the animal species considered most likely to be familiars have been identified with the moon, lunar deities, and fertility ever since Neolithic times including cats, frogs and toads, snakes, canines, hedgehogs, and birds.
That defines the identity of the familiar and its role in witchcraft as seen by witches, past and present. However, that definition presupposes that intense emotional and psychic bonds between humans and other living beings are possible and are something positive. That’s a fairly modern viewpoint: one way of looking at familiar-keeping witches of the Middle Ages is that they were way ahead of their time, at least in terms of animals.
Today hardly anyone blinks an eye at people who talk of how much they love their cats, dogs, lizards or other pets. The pet industry is a hugely profitable business: people buy special food and toys for their animals. They spend fortunes to heal their ailing animals. Even today, however, many consider this crazy, and they were in the majority not that long ago.
There are still people who adamantly insist that they would never keep an animal in their house. No need to wonder why. Once upon a time, intense affection and familiarity with another species could get you arrested for witchcraft. Humans were not the only ones killed en masse during the Burning Times: most familiars of convicted witches were burned alive too.
During the Witchcraze, the witches’ viewpoint was not the officially accepted definition of “familiar.” According to the inquisitors, familiars weren’t just plain old animals of whom witches were very fond. Familiars were special gifts from Satan given to witches upon their initiation at sabbats to act as messengers and servants. The familiar’s animal or bird form might only be a satanic illusion; the familiar really being an imp or demon in disguise. Some inquisitors perceived that the familiar wasn’t the witch’s servant but her boss. The familiar gave the witch her orders, which she must then obey for fear of the devil. (See below, Imp.)
According to the witch-hunters’ definition, there was no need for a familiar to be visible or physically present to exist: familiar imps and demons could transform into various shapes or make themselves invisible if they desired. This had tremendous implications. Because some witch-hunters decided that, by definition, witches possessed familiars, a demonic familiar, invisible to everyone but the witch (or the witnesses who testified against her) made it possible for someone with no contact with animals to be convicted of having a familiar. The very fact that no one but the witch’s accusers could see the familiar was offered as the very proof of witchcraft. Of course the witch denied having a demon imp, but what would you expect her to say? She’s a witch.
These various conflicting perceptions are best exemplified by the story of Dr William Harvey and the witch, as told in an anonymous seventeenth-century manuscript. Dr Harvey (1578—1657), the discoverer of the circulation of blood, visited Newmarket with his patron King Charles I. Hearing stories about a local witch, Dr Harvey decided to investigate. He paid a call on the anonymous witch at her home at the edge of Newmarket Heath. Her first instincts were to be wary and secretive but Dr Harvey worked to put her at ease. Engaging her in conversation, he managed to pass himself off as a fellow magical practitioner. Enjoying the company, the witch relaxed. When Dr Harvey asked to see her familiar, she obliged. Putting out a saucer of milk, the witch made some toad-like noises and a toad hopped out from under a chest to lap up the milk.
Dr Harvey gave the woman a shilling and sent her out to buy them some ale. In her absence, he caught and dissected her toad. Imagine someone coming into your home and secretly dissecting your pet. Having dissected the creature, Dr Harvey formed the scientific conclusion that the familiar was not an imp or a demon but was, in fact, really a toad and thus, in his understanding, not truly a familiar.
When the woman returned with the ale and learned what had happened, she was absolutely devastated, screaming and lunging at the doctor. He tried to calm her with gifts and explanations, all to no avail. Eventually he lost patience and identified himself as the king’s physician, telling her that instead of crying for her toad, she should be rejoicing that he wasn’t having her tried for witchcraft. Dr Harvey was an early scientific hero and this story is often understood as a parable recounting an early triumph of science over superstition.