Help from a Familiar Spirit

The Hedge Witch's Way: Magical Spirituality for the Lone Spellcaster - Rae Beth 2006


Help from a Familiar Spirit

In this chapter, we shall look at the practice of gaining help in the construction of prayers and spells from familiar spirits. For these give inspiration and ideas, rather than just the technical aspect.

A natural witch, a hedge witch, sooner or later meets with guides or helpers, who are from Pagan spirit realms. These are our familiar spirits. Stereotypically, they have been depicted as almost always cats or toads, who live with the witch and assist her or him psychically.

Of course, many witches have always had pets who help them in spirit realms. We still do. Sometimes, this has a practical aspect. Toads, for example, are the gardener’s friend, eating up ants and other pests that might have damaged the plants. The village wisewoman or wiseman of the past, or today’s herbalist, with a garden full of healing herbs, could well find the toad to be a good helper. As for cats, many people have kept them, and still do, to rid their homes of mice. Country living, and dilapidated country dwellings, could mean mice were in and out of your kitchen regularly. The cat is good company, as well. Many people talk to their cats, regarding them as a close (perhaps the closest) friend. There is no reason why this companionship should not extend into psychic realms.

However, many witches work with nature spirits who do not live with them (or at least not in a body) and who are not pets. Our familiars in middle Earth may be nature spirits of any kind: animal spirits from any species (birds, snakes, lizards etc.), tree spirits and even spirits of places.

Familiar spirits can also be underworld contacts, in which case they are of the faerie realm or are wise ancestors who want to guide us.

Needless to say, whether physically present or not, and of whatever type, we do not feed them on our own blood!

The practice of gaining these allies in the spirit realm goes back a long, long way. Shamanic healers — those palaeolithic and neolithic ancestors of today’s witches, and of all magical practitioners — developed a strong relationship with spirit guides, through their sensitivity to nature, and in ’inner plane’ journeyings. Cave paintings, old tales and present-day tribal teachings all show that the art of friendship with familiars was once taken for granted, as the essence of magical work. In Britain, the Celtic tribes had what, in deference to the Native American tradition, we now call ’totem animals’, believed to give clan members assistance. European tradition also contains the mythology of being led or assisted in a quest by a particular animal. Some of these are faerie beings, like the white hart or white horse so often associated with the faerie queen. In fact, Celtic mythology contains many faerie beasts — faerie hounds (white with red ears), faerie pigs, faerie cattle etc., and, of course, references to the faeries themselves, as encountering, confronting, guiding or helping (or enticing away) the hero or heroine. Well-known faerie tales show the same kind of thing. Cinderella has a faerie Goddessmother, the elves help the shoemaker in the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale. The faeries bless or curse (or amend the curse) in Sleeping Beauty.

Of course, many of the above examples are not familiar spirits, in the sense of personal spirit friends or guides or helpers, but they do show the ancestral importance of contact with Pagan spirits.

My own lifelong familiar spirit is a faerie woman. She is very beautiful, black-haired, almost as tall as I am and has webbed feet — a far cry from the dainty, little, gauzy flower faeries of Victorian literature (but the faerie realm contains all types). I have one other constant companion, a sea bird, who is a marvellous spirit healer and a skilled purifier, psychically speaking, of places — and of my own aura.

Of course, most of us witches owe a great deal to our familiars. As wildwood mystics, we become increasingly aware of the presence of spirits of all kinds. But as witches, we learn to work with them, utilizing the wildwood mystic’s sensitivity, for healing or inspirational purposes. Through them, we may gain guidance on how to word our prayers or spells, and how to enact rites of all kinds. As for myself, I would hardly dream of doing any important piece of ritual magic without consulting my familiars first. The faerie woman has inspired most of my writing. As a team, we answer each other’s need, for we would both like to see sound Pagan teachings becoming more widespread on Earth. I am her ’portal’ out to the Earth level in this respect. In return, she assists me in what I want to do and to know, magically.

Familiars also give psychic protection, healing, and guidance on the future, if asked to. They will not, of course, live our lives for us, taking all challenges and risks away. The life of a witch is, after all, meant to be developmental. How could we gain psychic, psychological or spiritual strength if everything was done for us? However, a familiar is a true, magical friend and the greatest help.

Dictionary definitions of the word ’familiar’ include, among other things, ’demon attending and obeying witch etc.’. I’m sure none of my spirit friends would appreciate being called ’demon’ — how rude! But they do ’attend’ witches. The word is also defined as ’intimate, in close friendship’, and this is correct. The relationship is one of mutual respect and friendliness. We do not command our familiars, and they do not obey us (nor we them).

As for the story about feeding familiars upon blood, I think we may safely assume this was a Church-devised horror story, designed to put people off the Old Religion. What is true, however, is that there is an exchange of subtle and psychic energy between the witch and the familiar. The witch provides the kind of energy that borders between the psychic and the physical, and is called ’etheric’ (there is masses of this kind of energy available to us in wild places and by the sea, which is why many spirits prefer to meet us there). This enables some kind of manifestation to take place, such as your familiar being able to talk to you telepathically or even, on more rare occasions, appear before you, if only as a wavering shape. Sometimes, in my own experience, there can be lovely smells, like essential oils or fresh flowers, around the house for no physical reason. This can occur when a familiar wishes to signal encouragement, or to give healing to you or to someone else.

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I have wondered what it is, specifically, that a witch’s familiar gets out of the job, aside from being able to affect the manifest world. When I asked mine, she said, ’We get the same satisfaction that a human teacher, counsellor or healer gets from their work. It is fulfilling. Also, we like receiving affection. It is that simple.’

’Yes,’ I said, ’but how do we witches gain one familiar spirit, rather than another? Why do you stay with me?’

’Like draws to like,’ she said, ’within the spirit realm, as in the earthly one. If the person’s aims and objectives are the same as those of the familiar, and if friendship and respect are offered, then friendship will be given. Why would it not be?’

She went on to explain that, as well as spirit companions who may be with the witch for a lifetime or more, there are also brief relationships. This is because a familiar spirit may be drawn to help out a witch for a short period on a special project. Nature spirits, middle Earth contacts, will very much want to join forces with a witch who is working magically, or physically, to heal the land or protect the environment. Having been attracted by this deep concern, they may then help the witch in other ways, for instance with spells of healing for people, or with the wording of prayers or magical chants.

Faeries also very much want to heal the land, or rather, our relationship with it, but, as familiars, they tend to be drawn to those who like working with fate-reading, prophecy and inspirational art — poetry, painting, song or dance, writing of any kind, or craftwork. They will certainly want us to use these arts to express the beauty and mystery of the land and so to inspire people to love mother nature and care for her.

Human discarnates may be people who knew us in earthly life, and therefore care for us. They may be dead friends or relations, or else they may be people who have ceased to reincarnate on this Earth, but who wish to help with the continuation of a certain kind of work. For example, they may have been witches themselves, or they may have been priests or priestesses of a Pagan tradition that they now wish to see reconstructed. They are called, in this instance, the ancestors, because they are our spiritual forebears. Both ancestors and faerie beings are underworld contacts.

There are no upperworld familiar spirits. Upperworld guidance is often received from one’s own higher self, known in the Christian tradition as the guardian angel. This ’high elf’ aspect of ourselves is our immortal spirit. The middle Earth aspect comprises our body, instincts and conscious personality. The underworld aspect is our soul, which, unlike the spirit, can be lost, damaged or destroyed, whereupon we lose hope, strength and individuality. Sadly, if we want to know what a person with a damaged or destroyed soul looks like, we only have to watch some of the passers-by on any street.

High elves, who are not our own higher selves, but independent beings in their own right — the Shining Ones — are never familiar spirits to a witch or to anyone. This is because they oversee whole groups of people or aspects of life. We may meet with them psychically, but they do not stay with us to guide or assist us personally. It is a very special, very temporary contact, probably to do with some large issue. For instance, we may meet with the Shining Ones who oversee the Celtic race spirit or the art of peace-making, but only if we can be instrumental in their concerns. This is because of the transpersonal nature of upperworld beings.

In spite of this, it is possible to meet psychically with, for example, a winged mermaid — one whose tail can transform into legs, so she can walk on land. Such a being undoubtedly has the freedom of all three realms, so we must be careful not to be overly rigid in our definition of the categories of spirits. Spiritual reality is not always arranged in three distinct layers, like a cake. In fact, the three realms overlap, and interpenetrate. But it is still true that our familiar spirits come from middle Earth or the underworld. These are the realms of our personal experiences and relationships.

To make sure that the upperworld aspect is very present in all work with our familiars, many witches place everything that we do under the protection of the Moon Goddess and/or Sun God (but equally, we could invoke a Sun Goddess or Moon God).

Just to make matters even more complicated, it is possible to have a familiar spirit who is a ’space’ faerie. Traditionally, faeries have come to this Earth from other worlds — that is, from planets elsewhere in the Universe. They are especially linked with the Pleiades and with a star that used to circle the planet Sirius, and they may have come from other planets as well, to join the Earth faeries — and may still be coming. Such a space faerie may easily be a person’s familiar spirit, if they wish it. However, this does not make them an upperworld contact. The upperworld is a state of consciousness and not a physical location. A space faerie is still an underworld being, whose work is soul-weaving, wherever they originated. They are simply from the underworld dimension of some other planet, and that is all.

Of whichever type they are, familiar spirits give help that is invaluable. If you want to create magical prayers and rites but feel that you lack inspiration, then you need a familiar (well, we all need them for all kinds of reasons).

Sometimes, a beginner witch is afraid to attempt spirit communication, for fear of meeting with an evil one — and there are risks. There are disturbed, earth-bound human spirits in existence, non-human spirits of mischief, and ghouls.

Yet you are not going to be troubled by them, unless you ignore certain safety rules. For instance, it is obviously unwise to do any magical or psychic work in a place where bad things have been happening — like a haunted house, or a place where someone has experienced a severe breakdown, or where there has been violence or heavy drug use. This is because it is not wise to open your inner senses in a place where you may be exposed to a psychically toxic atmosphere, as this could make you feel depressed, disturbed or ill.

If you have just moved house, or if you feel that there is a bad atmosphere in your home for any reason, you can purify each room with a herb traditionally used for psychic cleansing. In Britain, these are pine and juniper, but frankincense is extremely effective, though non-traditional. In the Native American tradition, people use sage. You can vaporize essential oils of pine, juniper and frankincense, or any combination of these, and let the oil burner stand in each room in turn. Alternatively, you can burn any of them, including sage, as an incense, and carry it from room to room, filling your whole home with clouds of scented smoke.

The other safety rule is always to ask protection from the deities.

Now, as to methods of meeting with familiar spirits, the one I am about to suggest is very simple. If you want to try it then you must be in some quiet place, undisturbed. If indoors, light the candles on your altar. Say the following prayer to the Goddess, or something like it, for protection and psychic awareness.

Prayer to the Goddess for Psychic Protection and Sensitivity

Great Lady of the Moon and of visions and magic, I ask for your blessing. Surround me with your cloak of light, an aura of silver that no harm can penetrate. And brighten my inner senses, all the knowing of the night, that I may see or hear or sense the spirits.

Now invoke the God, with the following prayer, or something similar, so that you may ask him for the same assistance.

Prayer to the God for Psychic Protection and Awareness

Horned God, I call to you, knowing you as master of the old paths into forest or faerie. Within the dimensions where humans sleep, but the elementals and the familiars move and affect the fate of mortals, you guide and protect. Waken me to the true presence of spirits. But keep me as safe as any wild creature who knows you as Lord of Wisdom.

If it is summer, you can have upon your altar a vase of herb robert, valerian, foxgloves, blackberry leaves, or any combination of these. They are herbs that can increase contact with the faerie realms and nature spirits. In winter, you might burn dried yarrow or vervain, for psychic awareness. Alternatively, you can vapourize the essential oils of bay or yarrow, or place willow leaves or, in winter, bare willow twigs, upon your altar.

This is the moment to offer up the flowers (if you have them), ritually raising them above the altar, or to heap the incense upon the charcoal or pour the essential oils into the burner. Then say something like this.

Prayer to Meet with a Familiar Spirit

Great Lady and Lord of the spirit realms of Moon and Wildwood, I ask you to send to me a familiar spirit. I ask to meet with one who will be in accord with my own best aspirations, and I with theirs. May she or he be kind, courageous, inspired, creative. May she or he be my lifelong companion, but only as the arrangement suits them as well as me. If I already have one such as this, may I know them clearly. If not, may a new link now be made, in love and wisdom.

Sit or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes. When you are ready, begin to visualize a big, beautiful, mysterious forest, or describe one to yourself. Take your time. See trunks of trees, see the branches and leaves, hear bird cries, see grass and wildflowers and winding pathways. Now the light begins to fade and the Moon rises. Follow a twisting path for a while, until you enter a glade. Stop here. This is the place.

Within the glade is a tall column of white light. It is magical, a round white tower. Within it, the three realms can meet or you can move between them. The tower is shining, as though made of clouds with the moonlight behind them, white, glowing. It is so tall, you can’t see the top. Perhaps there isn’t one. All around it is short green grass, the forest floor. Visualize that you’re walking across this, right into the tower (it isn’t solid, but like white mist, and you can walk through it easily). Inside is a circular space, about nine feet from side to side. The glowing white walls are now all around you, the grass still underneath your feet.

Say something like this.

In the names of the Lady of the Moon and the Lord of the Wildwood, I call to a familiar spirit. Come to me, you who seek a witch. Come to me, you who seek to assist with magic and to guide in wisdom. If I am, to you, a suitable pupil, or good companion upon the path, if you are of my path, come to me now. I pledge myself to hear your counsel and to share my life and powers and possibilities, as it harms none.

You may want to alter this wording to include your special interests. For example, you might say, Come to me, you who seek to assist with healing. You may mention artwork or ritual, wildlife or music, or, of course, prayer. But you do not need to be too specific, unless you want to. Your call will go out far and wide — a sort of psychic advertisement! Familiars drawn to you will come because they can sense your real interests or read them in your aura.

See the white walls swirl towards you, thickening up so you can’t see a hand in front of your face. All is white mist. Then the clouds shift and clear — and you are in a different landscape. This may be a seashore, another wood, the inside of a hollow hill where there is a faerie court, anything. The first being that you see coming towards you should be your familiar. Ask them if that is what they are. They may nod or in some other way signify assent, and then speak to you, telepathically, inside your mind.

If you already have a familiar spirit and have known it for some while, then the psychic atmosphere of this spirit will be — familiar. You are used to one another’s presence. But this may be the very first proper meeting, so you will now have a chance to expand and deepen the whole relationship.

As I have said, the familiar could be any kind of creature, or a faerie or a discarnate human. Some people even report that they have a familiar that seems quite abstract. A shape of light or something elemental, like a fire spirit. So long as you feel comfortable with what you see, anything is all right. This is your familiar spirit, and your business.

After you have seen your familiar — or sensed them if you do not have the Sight — ask for their name. The first word you hear, within your mind, will be it. You may use this name to call to your familiar from now on, repeating it three times, when you are seeking assistance with the writing of a prayer or designing of a spell, or when you need psychic protection, healing or guidance. If you see them but do not immediately hear a name, you may call them by describing what you saw, e.g. fox, woman in green, spirit of the forest, jackdaw, otter, faerie priest, etc.

Ask them to strengthen the link between you, and to open your psychic senses, so that you can see or hear or sense them more strongly. Thank them for coming to meet you, and tell them that you hope to work with them, in a strong and creative magical partnership, from now on.

Next, ask if there is anything they would like you to do, to strengthen the connection between the two of you. You may sense or hear the reply or they may show you a symbol of some kind. It may or may not seem rational. For instance, you may be asked to collect fallen feathers of a particular species of bird, and keep them on your altar, or to visit a certain place, or to use a specific essential oil or incense — or anything at all. These answers may have something to do with attuning you to the familiar’s own nature, like visiting lakes and rivers if you have a moorhen, otter or swan familiar, for example. They may be for strengthening your psychic awareness — for instance, the changing of your diet or lifestyle. Whatever you feel you are being asked to do, so long as it is harmless, you have nothing to lose and very much to gain by doing it.

Continue the conversation for as long as you want to, before bidding them ’Hail and farewell’, with thanks and with promises to meet again. Now ask them to protect your inner senses, restoring your entire psyche to a suitable state for the mundane world. Visualize a protective symbol (like a pentagram or equal-armed cross within a circle) above your head. And open your eyes.

From now on, you may call to your familiar spirit whenever you need to. Always end any communication by asking them to prepare your senses and your soul for the everyday world — and visualizing your protective symbol.

As I have said before, not everyone is clairvoyant. If you find even visualization to be impossible, then do not worry. Just say the prayers and then describe the wood and the tower of light to yourself, inside your mind. When you get to the bit where you call out to a familiar, stop and read or say it out loud, in a ritual manner. Then sit quietly and see what you can sense in the psychic atmosphere around you. Begin to talk, inside your mind, to any presence that may be there, whether you can feel them or not. Request them to open your psychic senses — but gently and very safely — or to announce their presence in some way, or appear to you in a dream. Then thank them and ask them for psychic protection, as you end the session.

Now, as to the subject of whether we can actually talk to a bird or animal or faerie being — or come to that, to a discarnate Pictish priest — since none of these speak our own language, it would appear there are huge difficulties. The answer is simple. They do not speak to us, but convey the essence of ideas, information and so on, telepathically. It is our own minds that supply the language, translating what we have understood into our own vocabulary. Psychic communication is essentially non-verbal, but we need words if we are to grasp concepts consciously enough to act upon them and to understand — so we supply the words ourselves.

Some people might object, saying that they cannot see how a bird, or horse or any animal spirit could have a developed enough consciousness really to help us. ’Surely’, such people would say, ’the creatures are limited in their perceptions. Even as spirits they cannot understand what health advice we might need, nor the practice of magic, nor the web of fate. Nor even our feelings.’ Are we sure about that?

The question remains open as to whether the spirit friends we meet are, objectively, separate beings from ourselves, or aspects of our own minds, personified as a faerie, dog, thrush, eagle, wisewoman, or whatever else. One day we will know. Meanwhile, if our familiars can give good advice, accurate predictions about the future, a tangible increase in energy when we are tired and assistance with magical prayers and spells (or at least some of these), then it may not be useful to analyse them too far. Our culture has a strong need to dissect and label, often from a rather mechanistic viewpoint. Sometimes this is good, but over the issue of who or what our spirit friends are, it may be pointlessly destructive.

I believe my own familiars to be quite separate from myself. It is not that cut-off, unrecognized aspects of ourselves do not exist. Indeed they do, as certain modern schools of thought, like psychosynthesis, have stated clearly. But ancient Pagan belief, as expressed in shamanistic cultures, has always recognized the difference between a part of one’s own soul that has been traumatized and suppressed (soul retrieval then being necessary), and the spirit friends who help with such work.

Any witch or Pagan mystic can acquire real familiars to guide or help her or him. Even if you cannot immediately see, hear or sense the spirit you have called to, be assured that they are there.

About the easiest way to talk with a familiar is to write a dialogue with them. This is especially useful for getting their input on prayers, spells or plans for rituals. Sit quietly in some peaceful place with a notebook and pen. Write a formal request for their presence — something like this: Hail, familiar spirit [or call them by name]. I ask you to be here and talk with me. I ask for guidance.

Now, switch your pen to your other hand, the one you don’t usually write with, to jot down their replies. Switch back to your normal writing hand to write your own next part of the dialogue — and so on. In this way, you can have a really long conversation, and even take down prayers and entire rituals at their dictation.

In time, it becomes easier to write with your other hand. You may never become as fluent or legible as with your dominant hand, but you do get more used to it. The non-dominant hand is said to be linked, via the nervous system, with the more intuitive hemisphere of the brain. This is why it seems easier to use, when in psychic communication. Whatever the rationale, it works very well, but you do have to practise until you get used to it.

As with trance conversation, the first thing that you hear inside your mind will be your familiar spirit’s answer. If it doesn’t make sense at first, don’t worry. Just write it down anyway. As you continue the conversation, it will become clearer.

What should you do if something horrible, frightening or insane is dictated to you? Stop — and call upon the Goddess and God to banish this intrusive spirit. Then call upon your real familiar and ask her/him to protect you. Then visualize your protective symbol. Go and do something else than psychic work for a while, until your psyche recovers from this disturbance. I think it very unlikely that you will find this sort of thing happens to you. In fifteen years of guided writing, I have never known it to occur. In theory, it could do, and the above is what I would advise in that event — but it would be rare.

Of course, you should never act upon advice from a familiar if it seems unbalanced, unwise or likely to lead to some danger. Needless to say, bad advice will not be from a real familiar, but from a spirit intruder or from some unconscious, angry part of your own mind. Use common sense to decide what is good, genuine advice and what is not — the same rule that would apply if you were being advised by someone in the ordinary, everyday world.

In any case, even if the advice sounds as if it could be right, you do not have to act upon it. It is never right to give up our autonomy to another being, not even to a wise familiar spirit. They are not there to demand our slavish obedience, any more than we should impose that upon them. The relationship of master/mistress and slave, or even of guru and disciple, is not recommended to a witch or a wildwood mystic. Not even within the inner realms.

Some people fear that they will start hearing lots of ’little voices’ through doing this work. This is not so. The familiar’s voice stops the minute you put down the pen, and bid them ’Hail and farewell, with thanks’. It is a discipline, a technique. Safety rules have been included here, but in fact, there is more danger in being deaf to all spirit voices, as so many people are in today’s world.