On Familiars

Familiars in Craft History

Due to our continuing search for answers regarding the nature of our contacts, we have delved into the lore of the Familiar in the Craft. What we have found is surprising. Besides the well-known and popular image of an animal Familiar, there are also recorded accounts of Human (or at least Human-appearing) Familiars. Also, there are numerous indications that the Familiar and the Fae are connected, and may even be different ways of expressing the same phenomenon. Here are a few brief passages which our research has turned up so far. We hope you find them stimulating.

From The God of the Witches, Margaret A. Murray, 1931:
“An important part of a witch’s outfit in popular estimation was a familiar. ‘These witches have ordinarily a familiar or spirit in the shape of a Man, Woman, Boy, Dogge, Cat, Foale, Fowle, Hare, Rat, Toad, etc. And to these spirits they have given names, and they meet together to Christen them.’ (quote from Guide to Grand-Jury Men, R. Bernard, 1627) An examination of the evidence shows that there were two kinds of familiars, one was for divining, the other for working magic. Familiars belonged apparently only to members of a coven, not to the congregations in general”

From The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Margaret A. Murray, 1921:
“The familiars in human form were human beings usually of the sex opposite to that of the witch. As these familiars were generally called ‘Devils’ it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them from the Grand-master; but the evidence, taken as a whole, suggests that at certain parts of the ritual every individual of the company was known as a Devil. This suggestion is borne out on the modern survival of an ancient dance in the Basses-Pyrenees, where the dancers to this day are called Satans.”

“In 1618 Joan Willimott of Leicester confessed ‘that shee hath a Spirit which shee calleth Pretty, which was giuen vnto her by William Berry, who she serued three years; the Spirit stood vpon the ground in the shape and forme of a Woman, which Spirit did aske of her her Soule, which shee then promised vnto it, being willed thereunto by her Master.’ (quote from Wonderfull Discoverie of Margaret and Phillip Flower 1619)

“In 1633, Margaret Johsnon, the Lancashire witch, stated that ‘besides theire particular familiars of spirits, there was one greate or grand devill, os spirit, more eminent than the rest. Shee allsoe saith yt if a witch have but one marke, shee hath but one spirit; if two then two spirits; if three, yet but two spirits. She alsoe saith, that men witches usually have women spirits, and women witches men spirits.’ (quote from History of Whalley, T. D.Whitaker , 1818)

“In a later confession, Issobell (Gowdie) gave the names more fully ‘The names of owr Divellis that waited wpon ws, ar thes. First, Robert, the Jakis; Sanderis, the Read Reaver; Thomas, the Fearie; Swein, the roaring Lion; Thieffe of Hell, wait wpon hir self; Makhectour (previously spelled Mak Hector); Robert the Rule; Hendrie Laing; and Rorie.’ (This comes after a long passage quoting from Gowdie’s 1662 confession at Auldearne in which she lists coven members and their familiars, all of Human form. From Criminal Trials, Robert Pitcairn, 1833)”
From The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland, Emma Wilby, 2000:

“Generalising about English and Scottish beliefs in this context is not without its problems, for the source material indicates considerable differences in belief between the two regions. For example, in Scottish witchcraft trial confessions the familiar frequently appeared in human form and was connected to a sabbath experience. In England, alternatively, the sabbath was seldom mentioned and the familiar most frequently appeared in animal form, often living in domestic intimacy with the witch.

“Although some familiars conformed to a demonic stereotype (black in body and dress/cloven feet/fearsome aspect and so on) and some fairies were visually extraordinary (a tiny or giant size/shadowy/glowing with light/hollow backed and so on) in many instances both types of spirit resembled relatively ordinary humans or animals with slight, if any, visual anomalies.

“The same types of personal names (often diminutive) given to individual fairies, were also given to familiars, particularly in England, reflecting the affectionate and intimate relationship often found between the witch/cunning woman and her familiar/fairy.

“If names from later fairy sources are brought into the equation, then one or more fairy equivalents can be found for the majority of familiar names on record.

“Although many people believed in the existence of both familiar and fairy, far fewer considered themselves to have encountered them visually. Of this number, some claimed to have “seen” such spirits just once, or occasionally, whereas others claimed to encounter them on a more regular basis, commonly developing a particularly close relationship with one or more spirits. Both familiar and fairy could be encountered either as the result of an invocation, or spontaneously (although in England it was also not uncommon to find the animal familiar passed from one witch to another, often between family members).

“The initial encounter with both types of spirit was often described as spontaneous and conformed, in fundamentals, to standard encounter narratives found in fairy anecdotes and folktales of all periods. The individual was usually alone, either in the countryside or at home, and in some sort of trouble, when the spirit suddenly appeared and offered to help.

“The less common relationship with a visually encountered fairy would have been of an inherently different order, for that which was implicit in the “ordinary” relationship became explicit in the “extraordinary”: the unseen fairy became seen, its unheard voice became heard, and those things which the human ordinarily desired from the fairy in thought, could be verbally demanded.

“Transition into the fairy world was believed to occur either “in body” (during which, to mortal eyes, the physical body either completely disappeared or was replaced with a fairy or fairy “stock”) or “in spirit.”

“Many believed that some (or all) fairies were souls of the dead, albeit clothed in some type of astral form. After natural death human souls might find themselves in fairyland; alternatively, living humans taken into or visiting the fairy realm could find themselves unwilling or unable to leave, resulting in the death of the mortal body.

“In the early modern period human presence in fairyland, whether in body or in spirit, was believed to have been actively encouraged by the fairies. Although this fairy enthusiasm was most notoriously associated with the theft of newborns, the fairy was also believed to desire adult human company, this desire prompted by a variety of motives ranging from amorousness to the more practical need for human skills in wetnursing, warfare, sport, music and so on.

“In the context of the spiritual interpretation of entry into fairyland, whichever method the fairy employed to bring the human into their world, and for whatever reason they wanted them there, the fairy would have been in effect desiring and appropriating (for a given length of time) the human spirit or soul.

“In the same context those early modern individuals who were tempted to enter fairyland voluntarily, for whatever reason, would have been aware that their visit amounted to a temporary, albeit tacit, commitment of their soul (to be used/enjoyed by) the fairies.

“In addition, the spiritual interpretation of entry into fairyland was sister to the belief that on death the human soul could find itself permanently in the fairy world and any humans who believed themselves to have a relationship with a fairy, even if it did not involve visits to fairyland, was likely to have been aware that such a fate was a possibility. It is not illogical to surmise that any prolonged and/or intimate involvement with the fairies, such as that enjoyed by the cunning woman, may have been considered to increase the possibility of such a fate.

“It would not be unreasonable to argue, on the basis of this brief look at early modern fairy beliefs, that in popular culture of the period it was considered both logical and beneficial for an individual to believe that they fostered a close and contractual relationship (whether non-visual or, less commonly, visual) with a supernatural entity… affiliating themselves to a coherent and dynamic matrix of indigenous folk beliefs.

“By the same token, the fact that the believed relationship between witch and familiar corresponded so closely to this relatively ubiquitous and (on a popular level) culturally conservative matrix of fairy belief suggests that psychological analyses of the phenomenon offered by some scholars (that the familiar beliefs of the general population were sourced in a paranoid sensationalism fuelled by elite demonology and that the witch’s supposed relationship with her familiar was pathological, stemming from her mental instability) are far too simplistic.

“The implication is that the definition of the spirit was up to the human.

“The familiar names here are all taken from trial records or witchcraft pamphlets. The fairy names are predominantly taken from contemporary elite writings (usually commenting on “popular” belief) and dramatic literature. Personalised names in witchcraft confessions which can be categorically ascribed to fairies (as opposed to being tangled up with familiars) are few.

“The terms “in body” and “in spirit” are an over-simplification. The early modern mind possessed a more complex understanding of matter and the way it interacted with spirit than is suggested by this essentially dualist categorisation. Beliefs concerning different types of intermediary or astral bodies (also found in later sources) reflected diverse conceptions of human and fairy ontology.”

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