In European folklore and folk-belief of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, familiar spirits (sometimes referred to simply as “familiars”) were supernatural entities believed to assist witches and cunning folk in their practice of magic.
According to the records of the time, they would appear in numerous guises, often as an animal, but also at times as a human figure, and were described as “clearly defined, three-dimensional… forms, vivid with colour and animated with movement and sound” by those alleging to have come into contact with them, unlike later descriptions of ghosts with their “smoky, undefined form[s]”.
When they served witches, they were often thought to be malevolent, while when working for cunning-folk they were often thought of as benevolent (although there was some ambiguity in both cases). The former were often categorised as demons, while the latter were more commonly thought of and described as fairies. The main purpose of familiars is to serve the witch or young witch, providing protection for him/her as they come into their new powers.
Since the 20th century a number of magical practitioners, including adherents of the Neopagan religion of Wicca, have begun to utilise the concept of familiars, due to their association with older forms of magic.
Pierre A. Riffard proposed this definition and quotations
A familiar spirit (alter ego, doppelgänger, personal demon, personal totem, spirit companion) is the double, the alter-ego, of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own, it remains closely linked to the individual. The familiar spirit can be an animal (animal companion).
The French poet Charles Baudelaire, a cat fancier, believed in familiar spirits.
It is the familiar spirit of the place;
It judges, presides, inspires Everything in its empire; It is perhaps a fairy or a god? When my eyes, drawn like a magnet To this cat that I love…
A. P. Elkin studied the belief in familiar spirits among the Australian Aborigines:
A usual method, or explanation, is that the medicine man sends his familiar spirit (his assistant totem, spirit-dog, spirit-child or whatever the form may be) to gather the information. While this is occurring, the man himself is in a state of receptivity, in sleep or trance. In modern phraseology [spiritism], his familiar spirit would be the control [control spirit].
The Goldi [Nanai people in Siberia] clearly distinguish between the tutelary spirit (ayami), which chooses the shaman, and the helping spirits (syven), which are subordinate to it and are granted to the shaman by the ayami itself. According to Sternberg the Goldi explain the relations between the shaman and his ayami by a complex sexual emotion. Here is the report of a Goldi shaman.
“Once I was asleep on my sick-bed, when a spirit approached me. It was a very beautiful woman. Her figure was very slight, she was no more than half an arshin (71 cm.) tall. Her face and attire were quite as those of one of our Gold women… She said: ‘I am the ayami of your ancestors, the Shamans. I taught them shamaning. Now I am going to teach you… I love you, I have no husband now, you will be my husband and I shall be a wife unto you. I shall give you assistant spirits. You are to heal with their aid, and I shall teach and help you myself…’ Sometimes she comes under the aspect of an old woman, and sometimes under that of a wolf, so she is terrible to look at. Sometimes she comes as a winged tiger… She has given me three assistants-the jarga (the panther), the doonto (the bear) and the amba (the tiger). They come to me in my dreams, and appear whenever I summon them while shamaning. If one of them refuses to come, the ayami makes them obey, but, they say, there are some who do not obey even the ayami. When I am shamaning, the ayami and the assistant spirits are possessing me; whether big or small, they penetrate me, as smoke or vapour would. When the ayami is within me, it is she who speaks through my mouth, and she does everything herself.”
Amongst those accused witches and cunning-folk who described their familiar spirits, there were commonly certain unifying features. The historian Emma Wilby noted how the accounts of such familiars were striking for their “ordinariness” and “naturalism”, despite the fact that they were dealing with supernatural entities. Familiar spirits usually had names, and “were often given down-to-earth, and frequently affectionate, nicknames.” One example of this was Tom Reid, who was the familiar of the cunning-woman and accused witch Bessie Dunlop, while other examples included Grizell and Gridigut, who were the familiars of 17th century Huntingdonshire witch Jane Wallis.
Relationship between magical practitioner and familiar
In the British accounts from the Early Modern period at least, there were three main types of encounter narrative related to how a witch or cunning person first met their familiar. The first of these was that the spirit spontaneously appeared in front of the individual while they were going about their daily activities, either in their home or outdoors somewhere. Various examples for this are attested in the sources of the time, for instance, Joan Prentice from Essex, England, gave an account when she was interrogated for witchcraft in 1589 claiming that she was “alone in her chamber, and sitting upon a low stool preparing herself to bedward” when her familiar first appeared to her, while the Cornish cunning-woman Anne Jeffries related in 1645 that hers first appeared to her when she was “knitting in an arbour in our garden”.
The second manner in which the familiar spirit commonly appeared to magical practitioners in Britain was that they would be gifted to a person by a pre-existing individual, who was sometimes a family member and at other times a more powerful spirit. For instance, the alleged witch Margaret Ley from Liverpool claimed, in 1667, that she had been gifted her familiar spirit from her mother when she died, while the Leicestershire cunning-woman Joan Willimot related, in 1618, that a mysterious figure whom she only referred to as her “master”, “willed her to open her mouth and he would blow into her a fairy which should do her good. And that she open her mouth, and that presently after blowing, there came out of her mouth a spirit which stood upon the ground in the shape and form of a woman.”
In a number of accounts, the cunning person or witch was experiencing difficulty prior to the appearance of the familiar, who offered to aid them. As historian Emma Wilby noted, “their problems… were primarily rooted in the struggle for physical survival – the lack of food or money, bereavement, sickness, loss of livelihood and so on”, and the familiar offered them a way out of this by giving them magical powers.
In some cases, the magical practitioner then made an agreement or entered a pact with their familiar spirit. The length of time that the witch or cunning person worked with their familiar spirit varied between a few weeks through to a number of decades. In most cases, the magical practitioner would conjure their familiar spirit when they needed their assistance, although there are many different ways that they did this: the Essex witch Joan Cunny claimed, in 1589, that she had to kneel down within a circle and pray to Satan for her familiar to appear while the Wiltshire cunning woman Anne Bodenham described, in 1653, that she conjured her familiars by reading books. In some rarer cases there were accounts where the familiars would appear at times when they were unwanted and not called upon, for instance the Huntingdonshire witch Elizabeth Chandler noted, in 1646, that she could not control when her two familiars, named Beelzebub and Trullibub, appeared to her, and had prayed for a god to “deliver her therefrom”.
Travels to Fairyland or the Sabbath
Familiars are most common in western European mythology, with some scholars arguing that familiars are only present in the traditions of Great Britain and France. In these areas three categories of familiars are believed to exist:
- human familiars, throughout Western Europe
- divinatory animals, Great Britain and France
- maleficent animals, only in Greece
Prince Rupert’s dog
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 Parliamentarian forces and credited with supernatural powers. As noted by Morgan, the dog was apparently considered a kind of familiar. At the end of the war the dog was shot, allegedly with a silver bullet.
Most data regarding familiars comes from the transcripts of English and Scottish witch trials held during the 16th-17th centuries. The court system that labeled and tried witches was known as the Essex. The Essex trial of Agnes Sampson of Nether Keith, East Lothian in Scotland in 1590, presents prosecution testimony regarding a divinatory familiar. This case is fundamentally political, trying Sampson for high treason, and accusing Sampson for employing witchcraft against King James VI. The prosecution asserts Sampson called familiar spirits and resolved her doubtful matter. Another Essex trial is that of Hellen Clark, tried in 1645, in which Hellen was compelled to state that The Devil appeared as a “familiar” in the form of a dog.
The English court cases reflect a strong relationship between State’s accusations of witchcraft against those who practiced ancient indigenous traditions, including the familiar animal or spirit.
In some cases familiars replace children in the favour of their mothers
Historian Emma Wilby identified recurring motifs in various European folk tales and fairy tales that she believed displayed a belief in familiar spirits. She noted that in such tales as Rumpelstiltskin, Puss-in-Boots and the Frog Prince, the protagonist is approached by a supernatural being when they are in need of aid, something that she connected to the appearance of familiar spirits in the Early Modern accounts of them. She believed there to be a direct connection between the belief in and accounts of familiar spirits with these folk tales because “These fairy stories and myths originate from the same reservoir of folk belief as the descriptions of familiar-encounters given by cunning-folk and witches”.
Recent scholarship on familiars exhibits the depth and respectability absent from earlier demonological approaches. The study of familiars has grown from an academic topic in folkloric journals to a general topic in popular books and journals incorporating anthropology, history, women’s studies and other disciplines. James Sharpe, 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 19th century, folklorists fired the imagination of scholars who would, in decades to come, write descriptive volumes on witches and familiars. Examples of the growth and development of familiar scholarship are found in Folklore, which consistently contributes articles on traditional beliefs in England and early modern Europe.
In the first decades of the 20th century, familiars are identified as “niggets”, which are “creepy-crawly things that witches kept all over them”.
Margaret Murray delves into variations of the familiar found in witchcraft practices. Many of the sources she employs are 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. Her information concerning familiars comes from witchcraft trials in Essex in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Recent scholarship is multi-disciplinary, integrating feminist-historical and world-historical approaches. Deborah Willis’ Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England links the witch’s attributed relationship with the familiar to a bizarre and misplaced corruption of motherhood and maternal power.