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THE WITCH’S BESTIARY:


The Familiar


By Antonia Treadwell Artwork By Ricardo Pustanio

In early modern English superstition, a familiar spirit, imp, or familiar (from Middle English familiar, related to family) is an animal-shaped spirit who serves for witchery, a demon, or other magician-related subjects. Familiars were imagined to serve their owners as domestic servants, farmhands, spies, and companions, in addition to helping bewitch enemies. These spirits were also said to inspire artists and writers (compare Muse).

Familiars are considered an identifying characteristic of early modern English witchcraft, and serve as one feature setting it apart from continental or New World witchcrafts.

Familiars are most common in western European mythology, with some scholars arguing that familiars were only present in the traditions of Great Britain and France. In these areas three categories of familiars were believed to exist.


Types of familiar spirits


The most common species identified as familiars are:

cats (particularly black cats)
owls
dogs
Less common species include:

frogs
toads
crows
lynx
snakes
hares
In later cases, familiars moved to more ethereal forms, often taking the shape of a "black man" (some claim a relation to shadow people) thought to be representative of Satan.

Familiars are generally animals. They usually have some magical power or are simply there to advance the story. Dangerous familiars are in the forms of weasels, puppies, and toads. Familiars were also animals or birds that sucked witch's blood.

On the eastern side of England, in places such as Suffolk, familiars were said to be more common. Eastern familiars were cats, ferrets, mice, moles, toads, and dogs. Familiars sucked blood and were known to eat bread, raw meat, and drink milk.

Each familiar grants special abilities to the chosen ones they visit. The first visit often occurs during childhood (between 4 and 6 years old). Each familiar has a special power inherent to it and it is often difficult to know and learn the powers they offer as a gift.



The scholarship on the witch's familiar has changed and improved in depth and respectability since it was covered in the demonological contexts of early modern Europe. The study of the witch's familiar has evolved from an obscure topic in folkloric journals to popular books and journals that incorporate a historical discipline with multi-disciplinary approaches like anthropology, study of early modern Europe, and women’s studies. James Sharpe, in his article on the witch’s familiar in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition, states: "Folklorists began their investigations in the 19th Century [and] found that familiars figured prominently in ideas about witchcraft."In the 1800s, folklorists sparked the imagination of the scholars who would, in the decades to come, write descriptive volumes on witches and their familiars.

One example of the growth and development of familiar scholarship can be found in the scholarly publication Folklore, which has consistently contributed articles on superstition from England and early modern Europe. In the first decades of the 1900s, the witch's familiar was only superficially mentioned as "niggets" which were "creepy-crawly things that witches kept all over them".

Margaret Murray, the mother of familiar scholarship, has taken what was a field comprised, at best, of gossip and hearsay into a legitimate branch of study in early-modern Europe. Her work delved into the variation of the familiar found in witchcraft practices. Many of the sources she relied on were trial records and demonological texts from early to modern England. These include the 1556 Essex Witchcraft Trials of the Witches of Hatfield Perevil, the 1582 Trial of the Witches of St. Osyth, and the 1645 Essex Trials with Matthew Hopkins acting as a Witch-finder. In 1921, Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe, a book that was quite remarkable in the depth and analysis of the culture and folklore that surrounded witchcraft and the theories concerning the witch-cult. Its information concerning the witch's familiar comes from the witchcraft trials in Essex in the 1500s and 1600s. Margaret A. Murray made megalithic contributions to the corpus of scholarship on the witch's familiar and has continued to be cited in recent scholarship, a testament to the timelessness of her work.

There has not been a contribution to familiar scholarship in eighty years which has equaled Murray's work.[citation needed] Although recent scholarship has been made multi-disciplinary with integrations of feminist-historian and world-historian approaches. One of the major pieces to come from this Atlantic Trend is Deborah Willis' Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England. In her chapter [Un]neighborly Nurture, she links the witch's relationship with the familiar as a bizarre and misplaced corruption of motherhood and maternal power.


Witch trials

The most evidence of familiars comes from the English and Scottish period during the 16th century and the 17th century. The court system that tried witches was known as the Essex witchcraft trials. The Essex trial of Agnes Sampson of Nether Keith in 1590 displays proof of a divinatory familiar. This evidence shows Sampson being tried for high treason and the court wants to prosecute Sampson for attempting to use witchcraft on King James VI. The court documents Sampson for stating familiar spirits came when she called it and resolved her doubtful matter. Another evidence of a familiar appearing in an Essex trial is that of Hellen Clark tried in 1645. This court documented Hellen and she stated that the devil appeared as a familiar in the form of a dog.

The English courts reflect a strong relationship between the witch and the familiar.


Prince Rupert's dog


Prince Rupert and his "familiar" dog in a pamphlet titled "The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert" (1643). During the English Civil War, the Royalist general Prince Rupert was in the habit of taking his large poodle dog, named "Boye", into battle with him. Throughout the war the dog was greatly feared among the soldiers of Parliament and credited with supernatural powers, evidently considered a kind of familia). At the end of the war the dog was shot, allegedly with a silver bullet.


Familiars in art, music and literature
Familiars were mentioned in Shakespeare's Macbeth, as the witches called their familiars.
Loiosh, in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series
In the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, djinns and other demons are summoned and serve as a passive manifestation of a magician's power as opposed to any true arcane skills used directly.
Familiars have appeared in several fantasy role playing systems, most notably as the companions of wizards and sorcerers in recent versions of Dungeons & Dragons.
In vampire fiction (Salem's Lot, Blade, etc.), familiars are humans who were promised immortality by a vampire lord in exchange for services of some kind.
In The WB television series Charmed, the star characters possessed a familiar for the first half of the series named Kit the Cat, who was a white Siamese with blue eyes.
In the film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Elvira possessed a familiar named Algonquin, or Gonk for short, who took the shape of dogs and mice.
In the manga series Sugar Sugar Rune two familiars come as a mouse and frog.
In the Sailor Moon metaseries, the main characters possess familiars, in the form of cats, named Luna, Artemis and Diana.
In the Earthsea books, Ged has a mouse-familiar, an "ottak". There are references to several other familiars, including ravens and boars.
In the Harry Potter series there are a number of characters possessing beloved pets similar to familiars, though the term is never used. Note that the three pets students are allowed to have in school are an owl, a toad, or a cat, three common types of familiars.
The DC Comics character Klarion the Witch Boy has an orange cat familiar named Teekl, as does the character Morgana whose black cat was named Frimost.
In the Philip Pullman book series His Dark Materials, dæmons are similar to familiars.
In the animated television ReBoot, the character Hexadecimal had a "verminous" familiar named Scuzzy.
The Marvel Comics character Satana had a familiar named Exiter who died while trying to save his mistress.
In the British comedy programme The Mighty Boosh, Bollo, who is the "oldest ape in captivity" is the Shaman Naboo the Enigma's familiar.
In Riviera: The Promised Land, a Game Boy Advance game, the main character Ein has a familiar named Rose (who looks like an ordinary black house cat).
The PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night features several familiars that can be unlocked to aid the player.
In another PlayStation game, Azure Dreams, the basis of the gameplay is centered around recovering monster eggs that become the hero's familiar when hatched.
In the computer game GODS, a familiar is an unlockable bird of prey that follows the protagonist attacking enemies.
In the browser-based MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing, familiars are like pets that can be obtained to assist a player in various ways, from healing to attacking to increasing item drop rates.
In the Karin (anime), Karin's sister Anju control a horde of bat familiars that watch over Karin throughout the day. She is also accompanied by many doll familiars, most notably "Boogie" whom she often carries around with her.
In Rob Schrab's "Twigger's Holiday", Twigger has a humanoid familiar named Josh who often barks like a dog. Twigger's girlfriend Michelle also has a humanoid familiar who meows like a cat.
The plot of the Japanese visual novel Fate/stay night, tells the story of a war between magicians and their "servants", heroic spirits which can be rendered as familiars.
In the Japanese anime Zero no Tsukaima, all of the 2nd year students must summon their own familiar. The heroine's familiar turned out to be a human.
In Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Sabrina Spellman had a black cat familiar named Salem, though he was actually a warlock turned into a cat as punishment for attempted world domination.
Familiar is the name used for a common, bat-like monster in Ragnarok Online. They can be summoned by the MVP Boss, Dracula.
In the game Warhammer 40,000, space marine librarians, chaos sorcerers, and inquisitors can choose familiars as equipment.
A dog and cat prowl a dark alley, pausing to inspect a corpse, in the opening sequence of the 1986 horror/mystery film Angel Heart, foreshadowing the appearance of the sinister Louis Cyphre and his attorney.
Masaki Andoh from the Super Robot Wars game series has two cat familiar spirits, a female black cat named Kuro and a male white cat named Shiro. They also help him in combat, piloting Cybuster's Hi-Familiar remote weapons.
In the book "The Bridge" by Iain M. Banks the familiar lives atop the barbarian's back and helps him in a few ways, ranging from spells to advice.

A soldier of Wallachia, summoned by Alucard as a familiar.Alucard from Hellsing has Cerberus-like shadow dogs for familiars, and has the ability to summon familiars of the victims of his killings.
The Elf Wizard Vaarsuvius, from the popular webcomic The Order of the Stick, has his/her own familiar, a black raven.
In H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House, an old witch named Kesiah Mason has a familiar named Brown Jenkin, a hideous ratlike creature with a human face.
In the Manga/Anime Negima! the main character Negi Springfield has a white ermine named Albert Chamomile commonly called "Chamo" as his familiar.
In the play Bell, Book, and Candle, by John Van Druten, as well as in the film adaptation, the main character Gillian Holroyd has a familiar in the form of a cat named Pyewacket.
Mythological familiars were also portrayed as antagonists in the TV series Dark Angel, starring Jessica Alba.
In Miyazaki's animated film Kiki's Delivery Service, Kiki is a young witch in training who owns a black cat named Jiji. Jiji can speak in human languages to her, but when Kiki's magic abilities start to fail, she can't understand Jiji, and he speaks in Cat.
In the anime series Paranoia Agent, a plush doll of the character Maromi comes to life and advises its creator Tsukiko Sagi much as a familiar would.
In the short story, "Puddle Head", which is no longer in print, the main protagonist, Joshua, has a familiar named "Reed Bones" given to him as a gift from his deceased father
In the anime D.N. Angel, With (or Wiz in the English version) is Dark's familiar, in the form of a dog and rabbit cross-breed.
In the Strategy RPG game series Summon Night familiars are summoned.
In Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy Mogget is the Abhorsen's Familiar.
In Matty (composed by Johnny Mulhearn), Christy Moore sings about the eponymous farmer meeting his "dark familiar" before he dies. (alternative lyrics)
In Jim Butcher's novel series "The Dresden Files" White Council member Injun Joe (AKA Joseph Listens-to-Wind) possesses a raccoon familiar named Little Brother
The MMORPG Runescape features a wide variety of Familiars in the skill called 'Summoning'

 

References
^ M. A. Murray, Divination by Witches’ Familiars. Man. Vol. 18 June 1918. 1-3.
^ Frances Dolan. Dangerous Familiars. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994. p 175.
^ Sharpe, James; Rickard M Golden (2006). Familiars in the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition. ABC-CLIO.
^ Times, The (1916). "Superstition in Essex: A Witch and Her Niggets". Folklore 27: 3.?
^ Murray, Margaret (July 1918). "Witches' Familiars in England". Man 18: 101.?
^ Murray, Margaret A. (1921). The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Clarendon Press.
^ Willis, Deborah (1995). Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Modern England. Cornell U..
^ M. A. Murray, “Witches familiars in England.” Man, Vol. 18 July 1918 1-3.

 

 

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SEASON OF THE WITCH: CELEBRATING HALLOWEEN

Each year on October 31st the world changes: Time, as we know it, ceases to exist and the veil that shrouds our world draws back for a brief span to open a doorway into the realm of shadows, mystery and ancient magick, of the dead and the dark Divine.

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Witches, too, it was long believed, were out in force upon this Night of Nights to welcome the Witch’s New Year in perfect fashion. When the last golden glow of the setting Autumn sun had faded, witches would take to the air riding upon broomsticks, spades, or butter churns, on the backs of airborne goats or huge black cats, some even upon the backs of flying pigs, all en route to the celebration of the Great Sabbat of Samhain or All Hallow’s Eve. This supernatural traffic was known as the Halloween Rade and all good folk who did not want to fall under an evil spell, or worse, get swept up in the raid themselves, transformed into some animal for a witch’s transport, were secure inside their hushed and darkened homes.

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