Imps - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Today, should someone suggest that you have an impish smile or impish charm, it’s probably a compliment. Most likely you’re being compared to a charmingly naughty child. Of course, today, should someone call you “little devil” or “little demon” that’s probably a compliment too, not intended to be taken literally or as a threatening, hostile statement.

Perhaps because some people needed to believe that they were inherently superior to animals, many witch-hunters had a hard time fathoming that witches’ familiars, their trusted allies and companions, were really animals. If they had superior powers, they couldn’t be mere animals; they must be little demons or devils in disguise.

Imps were small demons who, commonly disguised as animals, served as witches’ familiars. Because they were supernatural creatures they could be expected to perform services that no true animal ever could, like fly through the air, invisibly cause death and destruction, or mysteriously torment victims of witchcraft. In areas where witchcraft was intensely demonized, it was believed that when a new witch was initiated at her first sabbat, Satan personally gave her an imp, not so much to serve her but to act as her control, ensuring that the witch carried out her assigned quota of nefarious deeds.

Unlike traditional familiars, which behaved like the regular animals that they were, eating and sleeping in the manner appropriate to their species, imps had special needs. Because imps were vampiric, witches were obliged to feed them using their own body fluids, milk if they were mothers, blood if not. (What type of blood imps fed upon is not entirely clear.) Witches were believed to grow an extra nipple just to feed their little imp. The search for supernumerary nipples became a common feature of later witch-trials, although it might be “found” in odd parts of the body and in odd forms.

Should the witch’s own fluids be insufficient, the imp might go and milk neighboring livestock completely dry. These imps would travel in the form of familiar animals like bats, hedgehogs, ferrets or cats leading to strange, implausible fears about certain animals being harmful to cattle. Hedgehogs are still commonly believed to steal cow’s milk, as are bats; of course the old stories never referred to real animals—thefts were caused by supernatural imps in masquerade.

The root concept of the imp may derive from small shape-shifting spirits previously understood as friendly and helpful. Pagan European households, from Italy to Lithuania, once cherished snake-spirit household helpers. Some spirits weren’t exclusively tied to one animal form: Finland’s para, for instance, are domestic spirits known to assume the forms of cats, frogs or snakes. Attached to a person or family, they magically increase supplies of butter, milk, grain, and cash. (In later folklore, para are classified as goblins.)

As the witch-trials faded from memory, the older pagan conception of animal-shaped, mischievous domestic spirits re-emerged. Imps, those little devils, became figures of fun, mischief, and humor, albeit sometimes with a nasty edge. Imps entered the lexicon of Halloween via Victorian postcards, where they are not depicted as animals but as bright red devils, an image borrowed from the Central European “devil,” Krampus, who starred in his own postcard series. This type of imp, fun, lascivious, and joyful, is drawn to perfection in Kipling West’s The Halloween Tarot.