The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Ferrets (Polecats) and Weasels
Perhaps only hyenas attract the same level of fear and revulsion as weasels. True, many people dislike cats, spiders, wolves, and snakes but that loathing tends to be mingled with grudging admiration. Even people who claim to be all-around animal lovers frequently make an exception for weasels, perceived as disgusting, blood-thirsty, evil creatures with no redeeming features. They might be surprised to know that once upon a time, in some places, weasels were admired, useful, and sacred.
The order Mustelidae encompasses weasels, ferrets, badgers, stoats, polecats, fishers, martens, minks, wolverines, otters, and the most famous member of the family, the skunk. It’s a smelly family; the order’s name derives from its members’ ability to produce must (musk) from their well-developed anal glands.
Mustelidae are a well-distributed family and the identification of weasels with witchcraft occurs throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Weasels and ferrets traditionally serve as witches’ familiars and as a form into which witches commonly change. Weasels are understood as “witch-creatures.” As with hyenas, the comparison isn’t intended to be complimentary toward witches; however, negative feelings towards weasels tend to be based on misinformation, misinterpretation, and untruths.
The Mustelidae family has a lot of members; the names used to refer to various species are frequently used carelessly and interchangeably. Popular understanding of what is a weasel or ferret may not match scientific classification.
Weasels and ferrets are closely related species but they are not identical. Ferrets are exclusively domestic animals; they were domesticated about the same time as cats and were once far more widely distributed as pets. Few people have actually seen a weasel; wild, forest animals, they’re significantly smaller than ferrets. Despite their big reputations, weasels are tiny. Fierce, energetic and truly fearless, they can and will successfully attack creatures many times their size, chickens only one example.
Weasels appear to be magical creatures for a variety of reasons:
Because they are so tiny, like a fairy creature, their ability to bring down a much larger animal appears to be magical—witchcraft. (Fairies were once understood as potentially very dangerous.)
A legend exists (it happens to be untrue) that weasels hypnotize their prey with their “evil gaze” like a snake-charmer. This only adds to their sinister reputation.
Sleek, slim, with tails as long as the rest of their bodies, weasels resemble furry snakes with legs. Like snakes, they burrow in Earth, disappearing within and then suddenly popping out. Their size makes them look like creatures that should be prey, not predator. Brave, fearless killers despite their size, weasels look like a magical blend of cat and snake.
Weasels in Northern climates change colors magically to blend with the seasons. Usually light brown with a white belly in warm weather, many species turn snow white in winter.
Weasels cannot be contained. Houdinis of the animal world, they wriggle snake-like out of cages and confinement, disappear into holes in Earth, leap and climb to precarious heights, and twist their limber bodies into all kind of gymnastic feats. Quiet, stealthy, and fast, weasels suddenly jump out like jack-in-the-boxes: pop goes the weasel!
What seems to disturb people most, and the reason why ferrets are banned as pets in places like California, is their manner of killing and eating. People perceive that weasels enjoy killing, have fun with it and are needlessly blood-thirsty, leaving devastation in their wake.
There’s a vestige of truth in this observation but it’s also misunderstood and misinterpreted.
As tiny creatures that kill larger animals, of course what they’ve killed is too much for them to eat (and weasels, unlike wolves, are solitary hunters; there’s no group feast) so, typically, a weasel takes a few bites (more likely a few sips of blood) and then moves on. People see weasels as blood-thirsty, vampiric, murderous creatures and dub them “wasteful killers.” (Of course, this is all relative. From a hyena’s perspective, humans must be incredibly wasteful: we don’t grind up bones and eat them, the way they do.)
It’s difficult to understand weasels’ habits unless you understand weasels. They may as well be poster animals for what was once labeled hyperactivity. Weasels and ferrets in action resemble the cartoon character, “the Tasmanian devil.” Smart, fun, dizzyingly fast, they never stop moving, bouncing, playing—or at least not until they pass out from exhaustion, only to jump back into action as soon as they are refreshed. Not only their bodies but their minds are constantly working. Lively, joyous, curious, not shy: they are extremely fun animals to watch and play with, but they can be dangerous pets. With very low thresholds of boredom, their minds must be constantly engaged. Unlike many cats, dogs, or even snakes and rabbits, ferrets cannot be left alone to sleep or wait for the fun to begin. Left to their own devices, they will escape from any cage and cause havoc in their wake in their desire for fun, adventure, and stimulation.
Weasels possess an extremely high metabolic rate; they need small amounts of food protein more frequently than slower, more sedate, less active creatures. For these tiny creatures, even a few bites are sufficient. Squirrels cache their nuts, leopards store their meat, but this isn’t the nature of the speedy little weasel. It doesn’t think about what’s been left behind but searches for something new. When it’s hungry, it kills again. It may lap blood from its victim’s throat for a quick burst of energy, lending it its reputation as a vampire. (This nature is common to weasels, polecats, and ferrets.)
Despite its name, the European ferret is originally native to the Middle East and North Africa and was domesticated there several thousand years ago. Ferrets are also commonly called polecats, indicating the confusion between cats and weasels. Once upon a time, the classification of species was based on observation, not genetics. Cats and ferrets were perceived as being closely related, although that’s not scientifically true. The same name, “catta,” was used to indicate both ferrets and cats. In old writings, it’s difficult to determine to which the word refers. To add to the confusion, there are wild species known as polecats that are also identified as popular witches’ familiars. These polecats dwell in woods, swamps and marshes, making dens in stream banks or under tree roots.
Ferrets originally played roles not dissimilar from pet cats. Long before cats became common in Europe, ferrets were used to keep homes and storehouses safe from mice, rats, and other vermin. Weasels were famously used as ratcatchers in ancient Rome.
In some places, ferrets are third in popularity as pets, following only dogs and cats. However, there is a reason cats, once they were well distributed geographically, drastically overtook the role once played by ferrets. Adult ferrets behave like crazed kittens. The phrase “curiosity killed the cat” probably applies to ferrets more than it does to felines. With more curiosity than common sense, ferrets get into a lot of trouble. They must be supervised: they get into holes in the walls, behind household appliances; every year ferrets are killed when they sneakily climb inside pullout sofas and are then accidentally crushed.
Weasels are associated with knowledge: they can’t get enough, even when it isn’t beneficial to them. They possess an unstoppable urge to know. This concept survives in the English language when we say someone “weaseled” or “ferreted out” information.
Mythologically speaking, weasels are associated with magic, witchcraft, prophesy, sex, reproduction, death, battle, and healing:
Because of their shape, weasels are associated with human genitalia.
Because they slip easily in and out of Earth, weasels were understood as messengers between the realms of daily reality, the after-life and the spirit world. Fearless, smart, and persistent, nothing will stop them from accomplishing a mission.
Because they can dig their way out of anything, and escape from any confinement, they are associated with successful childbirth, their powers beseeched to quicken a child stalled in the womb or birth canal.
In the North American Pacific Northwest, the mink (a form of weasel) is the embodiment of the cultural trickster hero. He prepares Earth for human habitation. Mink differs from other trickster heroes like Coyote, Raven or Rabbit because of his suave, amorous, untiring nature; he is the lover-boy supreme!
In Apuleius’ tale The Golden Ass, a man is paid to guard a corpse from Thessalian witches. The witch ultimately approaches, stealthily and successfully, in the form of a weasel. She gets what she wants and simultaneously manages to play an enormous trick on the hero of the story, too. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: The Golden Ass.)
According to Greek myth, Hera sought to prevent or at least painfully delay Hercules’ mother, Alcmene, from giving birth to him. Depending on the version told, she posted either a childbirth deity or a pack of witches before Alcmene’s birth chamber with instructions to delay her at all cost. Seven days of hard labor later, Alcmene was in agony and near death. The plot was finally foiled by Alcmene’s devoted servant, Galanthis, who stopped the jinx with a trick. In the midst of all the angst and misery, in the presence of the goddess or witches, Galanthis laughed with gusto. Her laughter broke the spell; they assumed Alcmene had given birth and ceased their spell-work. Hera punished Galanthis by transforming her into a weasel, as a rebuke for trickery and too much cleverness. Weasel-shaped Galanthis ran off to the midwife-witch goddess Hecate, who offered admiration and respect for Galanthis’ ability to provide successful, safe delivery despite formidable odds. Hecate adopted the weasel as her sacred servant.