There 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.