What is an Animal Familiar?

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A Familiar SpiritThere have been a number of requests for more information concerning the idea of animal familiars. It’s surprising how much misinformation, or just bad information, there is out there. While it’s fairly easy to cover established Christian theology from the Middle Ages, it’s harder to arrive at a contemporary consensus about what an animal familiar is. As usual, we find ourselves at odds with the accepted and traditional ideas of animal familiars in popular Pagan and Wiccan thought. Honestly, to us it seems like people have pulled a lot of the most popular ideas out of their butts.

Historically speaking, during the days of the Inquisitions, familiars were said to be given to witches by the devil. They were, in essence, small demons which could be sent out to do a witch’s bidding. Although cats, especially black ones, were the favored vessel for such a demon to inhabit, dogs, toads, and other small animals were sometimes used.

According to the ancient Witchcraft Act of 1604, it was a felony to: “consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed or reward any evil or wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose”, an act that “The Witch-Finder General” Matthew Hopkins used with zeal when extracting confessions. Hopkins also used the “Malleus Malificarum“, the so-called Inquisitor’s Handbook. Though the Malleus offered no instruction concerning familiars in the interrogation and trial of witches, it did acknowledge that an animal familiar “always works with the witch in everything”. As such, it advises the inquisitor never to leave a witch prisoner alone, “or the devil will cause him or her to kill themselves, accomplished through a familiar”. With this in mind, Hopkins would tie the witch up in a cell and leave them alone, while watching secretly for their arrival. If so much of as a fly or beetle approached them, it was deemed proof enough that they were indeed witches.

In contemporary witchcraft, any thoughts of animals as “demonic spirits of evil” have been left far by the way side, though many modern witches still use animals when working with magick, utilizing their primordial instincts and psychic abilities “to attune with nature and deities”. Animals are sensitive to psychic power and vibrations (maybe because things which are self-evident haven’t been taught out of them by well-meaning but misguided “teachers”), and are welcomed into the magick circle when power is being raised or spells are being cast. They’re also used to aid scrying, divination and spirit contact. When working with magick, animals act as a guard in psychic defense for they react visibly to negative forces and harmful energy.

We here at PaganCentric don’t think of animal familiars as spirits which can, or should, be used as tools in magickal rituals. Certainly an animal might choose to be present during a ritual and make its presence known in ways of its choosing, but it should never be included and thought of in the same way as you think of an athame or a candle. In short, the animal should be a willing participant, of its own accord, or it should be left out of your calculations altogether. Or, in other words, don’t be an ass.

But this doesn’t address the idea of what an animal familiar is. Does it?

Our primary divergence of thought where familiars are concerned is mostly a conceptual one. We’ve met many Wiccans and Pagans who think of familiars in terms which have an uncomfortable similarity to what Christians believed in the Middle Ages. Sure, they don’t use such archaic, misleading words as “demon”, but their conceptualization certainly seems to be that of an entity which is somehow separate from the normal existence of an animal; that of a spirit entity which inhabits an animal and serves as a spiritual guide. We think this is so much bunk, because it assigns a supernatural origin to something which is perfectly natural.

The gist of our disagreements come down to the idea of a soul. If you believe in souls, it’s certainly acceptable to embrace the idea that animals have souls as well as people. And if animals have souls, it’s perfectly reasonable to intuit that those souls might return again and again; hence our conceptualization of “a familiar spirit”. If you’ve been Aware for long and have always had an affinity for animals, you no doubt have noticed that while you’ve known dozens of animals, sometimes there are animals which are just different somehow. More aware. Smarter. Animals which do not seem like animals at all, but are like little furry people. And through the years you’ve no doubt noticed that as those animals have lived out their existences, they seem to return in other incarnations later on. This is the idea of “a familiar spirit”. At least as we see it. The forms and functions might change, but the spirit returns. You know it when you feel it.

What are the purposes of spirit animals? Who can say, really? You’ll find no shortage of people with ready explanations. But all humans can do is guess. We don’t know. None of us do. We’re ants describing rumbles in the dark. It’s unlikely these familiar spirits are demons in any way. Unless, of course, your concept of demons is anything that is aware but isn’t human (in which case nearly all animals are demons), or something that is supernatural and not tied to a physical reality (in which case we are all demons, since we merely inhabit the vessels of our bodies, without being our bodies).

Animal familiars are fellow travelers on this earthly plane. Nothing more. Nothing less. Certain spirits will return to us time and again because we are as familiar to them as they are to us. We are drawn together. Perhaps they are connected to a higher existence and were sent here to keep an eye on us and keep us company. Perhaps they are spirits which were drawn to us and our myriad possibilities. Or perhaps they’re just exceptionally aware animals. It is, after all, only human arrogance that reduces intellect and reasoning to traits only humans can possess, however much evidence might accumulate which proves such acumen rather common in the animal kingdom. We’ve known human beings who were dumb as rocks. Is it really that much of a stretch to conceive that there might be exceptionally bright and intelligent animals?

In the end, it is perhaps quite possible that like attracts like. Just as we are invariably drawn to associations with other people that we cannot explain and which in hindsight seem unlikely, if not miraculous, so too are we drawn to certain familiar spirits, and them to us. It doesn’t have to be jotted down in some moldy old book as supernatural and profound. Just as you simply are, so they simply are. You’re fellow travelers on the same dusty road, and should be glad for the company. Don’t over-think it.

As I’ve been writing this, my current familiar, a cat named Hannibal, has been watching me type. He doesn’t normally take much interest while I’m at the computer desk, preferring to sun himself in the sun through the bay window. But now he watches me with interest, and perhaps a hint of amusement. Maybe he doesn’t know exactly what I’m writing, but he knows that I’ve been writing this with him in mind. Or perhaps he’s just hungry. I may never know. Humans have a need to explain things which cannot be explained, rather than just accept the obvious on its own merits. I have no doubt that Hannibal is more than a mere cat. And I’m equally certain he’s been with me in other incarnations. When he’s gone, I am sure I will see him again. We don’t have to define that or explain it. I am his and he is mine, and we are friends. That’s really all I need to know about it.

In the end, we believe folks should discard the archaic idea that animal familiars are somehow supernatural beings who have been sent to guide us. This is not to say that we can’t learn from animals. I remember once when I was trying to cross a swollen stream, I saw my cat on the other side of the stream, watching me patiently as I slowly realized that he was sitting right across a line of partially submerged stones that I was able to step upon to get across the waters. Was that a supernatural encounter, my spiritual guide taking care of me and helping me to return home without getting wet? Or was it just an intelligent animal friend pointing out the obvious thing that my limited human perceptions was not picking up on? I don’t know. I was grateful for the help, and thought no more of it than that.

Our existence is wonderful. We live as an extension of the possible. Our potential is beyond our understanding. So much of the world and reality lies outside the limitations of our perception. And this includes animal familiars. We don’t need to understand them to know that they are, any more than we need to understand oxygen in order the breathe. If you have an animal familiar in your life, put aside your dusty old books and just go sit with them for awhile. I’m sure they’ll enjoy your company. And if you can shut up your analytical human mind for a while, you just might learn something about what it means to exist in the moment and be.

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About Claire

Claire Mulkieran is a teacher of Pagan-related spirituality and the unofficial patron saint of meandering misfits (or a delusional lunatic, depending upon whom you ask). If you're ready to read between the lines, consider her guiding motto; "Are you a figment of my imagination, or am I a figment or yours?" Claire is also rumored to be a glorified computer programmer by trade, but you can call her a “Systems Security Designer” (which is fancy way saying she's paid to break things).

15 Responses to What is an Animal Familiar?

  1. Lisa Baugham March 12, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    Thank you X’s 3 for your uncomplicated writing in such a complicated world. At my ripe old age of 57, this complicated Christian mom has decided to go on her own exploration that definitely doesn’t go along with what I’ve always been told. I’ve always been extra sensitive, been different, just not like other people, and so on and so on you get my drift. Which led me 2 this article finally! Everything that led to this article was getting so complicated I thought oh my gosh! Everything is about demons and cats and spells, which, I am very interested in the less evil stuff, don’t get me wrong. But, your article made sense and really touched my soul and it really made me feel good about how I feel about my beloved animals. I also have a special feeling about nature too. With that being said, thank you once again! okay,now on with my journey!!?!!

    • Claire March 19, 2016 at 12:23 am #

      I’m glad if this helped in some small way. If I can offer any advice, it’d just be to go your own way. The only difference in your path and organized religion is that once upon a time someone wrote down their ideas about how things work, a lot of people agreed with it, and then it was suddenly a religion with rules. All religion really is, in my opinion, is one person stumbling across a Truth that resonates with them, and walking that path. And if they tell people about it, then you might establish a religion. But they all spring from the same source – human beings exploring. Don’t be afraid to walk your own path. :-)

  2. Krista Jamison February 26, 2016 at 2:20 am #

    I like your belief of “familiar animals” and that humans and animals can be “familiars” to each other. I’ve always believed in having a personal “animal spirit familiar”. Except that I have one for every direction, or element except metal. For instance: my water “animal” is a dolphin, my air is an owl, my earth is a black leopard, and my fire is a tiger. If it were possible, I’d choose a dragon as my metal–or at least a lizard. ;D So what do you think of having animal “spirit” familiars?

    • Claire March 19, 2016 at 12:24 am #

      Whatever feels right to you IS right. Doesn’t matter if it’s been written down in a book somewhere.

  3. Michael November 17, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    The shamanic animal guides seem a natural extension of their corporeal counterparts. Any thoughts on the possibility that whichever animal someone’s familiar happens to be could be a designated corporeal member of that animal’s spiritual archetype?

    When someone says they’ve been given a vision by Tiger or Swan or whichever? They’re referring to something that surpasses individuality.

    Jungian psychology delves deeply into similar provinces of consciousness as those explored by shamans world wide. Which makes these experiences strangely divided between experience, results and the tenacious doubt of ‘What If?’.

    Defining what Spirit is, what Mind is, etc… We can’t know these things with any certainty, of course. Opinion and perception do act as a bridge which connects us to discovery, though!

    Thanks for the well written and perceptive article :)

  4. Abbey November 16, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    I have never practiced any type of “magic” but on tv yesterday, I watched a show dealing with black magic, and decided to look up stuff on it just out of curiosity. Anyways, I was reading spells – and the one that stood out to me was congouring a cat familiar. I love cats, so had to type in what it was into Google. Ran into spooky things talking about demons until this article.

    I just wanted to say this way very neat, and I enjoyed reading this – I’ve got a black cat and a calico, and my calico girl often reminds me of exactly what you wrote about. She seems more of human then any cat I’ve had in the past, and she often protects me. She is always by my side, day and night. Maybe she is one of these that you speak of, I don’t think of her as a demon . Or any cat in that case, all cats are precious.

  5. Agnes September 20, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

    Completely identify with your story. Thank you for your uncomplicated writing.

    When you shared about your kitty I thought of mine. My dear sister friend Shera is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. She is a beautiful soul inside and out. She recently showed me her protection of me. Another cat growled at me and she came running and did her thing. I am protective of her too; and she knows that. I love when she looks into my eyes. Occasionally I’ll give her a hug and she hugs me back. My heart feels an immense sense of joy that’s hard to describe. She is a gift beyond measure. I love sharing and doing life with her. My little seven pound wonder♡♡♡

  6. Anne September 12, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    I recently had to say goodbye to one of my animals, a chihuahua who I always felt a different, stronger connection with. I always thought of him as my familiar. He was such a kind, gentle soul. He always felt more ‘human’ to me than my other animals, all of which I love deeply, he was just different. I can’t wait to see him again :)

  7. Christina August 8, 2015 at 7:32 am #

    Thirteen years ago I moved into my studio. I have watched the tree grow to it’s fullest and the birds that lay rest within it’s branches. Around 10 years ago a female dove befriended me. She would sit upon my sill and coo. He daughter 2nd generation guardian dove came around about 8 years ago and would spend hours with Magik Kitty. They were dear friends. Feb. 2015 a terrible freeze came. We lost heat in our building and I decided to close my window once heat was restored in case it happened again. Two afternoons prior Dovie came with a small one. She stayed for a long time deeply peering into my eyes. Then she was gone. When the ice melted sadly Dovie had not made it. A proper burial was given her. Baby Dovie came and cried her song. Weeks went by and I fed her. I never feed the doves only water but it was the deep of winter and Baby was left in my care. She never grew larger. I feed her sunflower seeds. She has a friend now. And Magik is also gone. Baby Dovie and Panther my rescued friend with paws spend hours together and I am blessed with the empathy of Baby Dovie as I am leaving my precious home and cry a lot. Baby cried and cried with me all day last week. I now keep as best I can my tears in check. Baby deserves a happy life. She comes for breakfast each morning and dinner in the evening. Panther makes sure 0735 and 1830 Baby Dovie has her meal of organic sunflower seeds. I have a friend that will be her keeper when we go. My neighbor sharing the fire escape will be given a note of this story of love in hopes to protect her always. She is special she could not grow up and needs a watcher. As her mother watched over me. Blessed be.

    • Kat September 16, 2015 at 10:52 am #

      Beautiful story…heartbreaking.
      Thank you for sharing.
      Well wishes.
      Blessed be.

  8. Giffie June 9, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    “Humans have a need to explain things which cannot be explained, rather than just accept the obvious on its own merits. I have no doubt that Hannibal is more than a mere cat. … We don’t have to define that or explain it. I am his and he is mine, and we are friends. That’s really all I need to know about it.”

    Love this, just two souls sharing their existences together.

    Thank you for this piece.

  9. Suze O April 8, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    I often wonder if the idea of a familiar was also part of the Viking belief system. Each Viking had an animal associated with them on a spiritual level – as a totem or a spirit-companion. It could protect them, help explain personality traits in the person, and also indicate a person’s weaknesses. Vikings did not just worship different gods, they had a complex system of physical vs. non-physical manifestations of their personalities.

  10. Tracy December 17, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    I had to say goodbye to my animal familiar today…and I wanted some comfort in why i always thought of her as my ‘familiar’ in a positive, beautiful and connected way instead of the negative. Thank you for such a wonderful, thoughtful, and really perfect article. I had kitty for only 11 years, but I really do understand that i was hers and she was mine. And instinctively, I spent many, many lovely moments with her, where we just ‘were. Thank you, I am bereft, but I now feel a little more comfort and a lot of my kitty’s soul. Blessings to you.

  11. Llya August 17, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    Thank you so much for this. There is too much contradicting information and so much that is confusing. Thank you for keeping things simple, straightforward and open!

  12. Vix August 6, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    I was just looking for some information about familiars and came across your perfect article. It was awesome, and exactly what I was looking for when I typed ‘familiars’ into Google. The idea that my cat is a demon is like – uh, no, so not resonating with me, but your words struck a chord so thanks so much for writing this. :-) x

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