Magic, Occult, Witchcraft

What a Witch’s Familiar Is – and Isn’t

If you follow any large witchcraft groups on social media, you’ve probably seen a pic of an adorable puppy or kitten with some version of: “Here’s my new familiar! I just picked him up from the animal shelter today and I’m looking for some witchy names!”

Sorry to burst your cauldron bubble, but (almost certainly) your new furry, finned, or feathered friend is not a familiar. It’s a pet.

What is a Witch’s Familiar?

Traditionally, familiars have been described as type of demon in animal form – appearing either as ordinary animals or unusual beasts. They can assume any form, but are frequently depicted in historical texts as cats, dogs, toads, reptiles, or insects. Alternately, they can be “monsters” that are weird, fantastical mash-ups of various creatures.

from “A Treatise on Witchcraft” Sibley, 1621 – William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

What do Witches’ Familiars Do?

Witches employ familiars in the practice of witchcraft. The role of the familiar is to serve – and even protect – their witch and assist in spellcasting and other magic workings. We can imagine that the familiar’s day-to-day might include fetching ingredients for spells, acting as a lookout, or spying on others for information. Whatever the witch uses the familiar for, it’s a symbiotic relationship – rather than a pet/master situation – as we’ll see in the Care and Feeding of Familiars section below. Lore tells us that working with a familiar came with a price… it’s a gift with strings attached.

How to Get a Familiar

Though adopting a homeless pet from an animal shelter is admirable, it’s not how a witch would go about getting a familiar. Traditional lore says that a familiar is often “gifted” to a witch by another witch or by the devil himself.

The devil with a serpent and dog

There are accounts of familiars being ritually presented by the devil or being passed down from one generation to the next. Other stories have the familiar just “appearing” to a witch in a time of need. Of course, any witch worth her salt would assume there’s a catch when a magical being manifests from the ether. For one, there’s the upkeep…

The Care and Feeding of Familiars

Just like you won’t find your familiar at the animal shelter, you won’t find its food at the pet store. Kibble just won’t do for these little demons. They’re out for blood… yours.

A witch caring for her familiar spirits 1579

Witches were believed to feed their familiars by allowing the creatures to suck blood from the witch’s finger or the infamous “witch’s teat.” The teat could be any nipple-like bump anywhere on the witch’s body – including moles or warts.

Sounds pretty convenient, right? Not so fast. The mythology that sprung up around the witch’s teat also armed witch hunters during the witch trials. A women accused of witchcraft was often stripped naked while a group of expert inquisitors (men) examined every inch of her body for “devil’s marks” that would cement her “guilt.”

Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder General. From a broadside published by Hopkins before 1650

The lore surrounding witches, familiars, and their odd feeding habits very likely grew in direct relation to the witch trials (i.e. finding a way to convict and persecute accused witches). Pointing to a mole on a person’s body and claiming that its purpose was to suckle that witch’s household demon made the inquisitors’ job much easier.

Not only were accused witches believed to feed blood to their familiars from these specialized nipples, the witch hunters believed that the devil also enjoyed a sip when he’d visit in the night for intercourse with his servant. The offspring that resulted from these demonic trysts would also drink blood from the teat.

Familiar or Pet? When a Cat is Just a Cat

My primary goal here is to explain the difference between the familiars of traditional lore and a domesticated pet. Its writing was prompted by some fellow witches expressing their frustration over the confusion. It’s intended to be a high-level view of the legend and by no means exhaustive… I mean, we didn’t even talk about imps and fairies!

etching of a cat from a 16th century pamphlet on witchcraft – British Library

So, just to be clear, your store-bought pet – no matter how aesthetically “witchy” it may be – is not a familiar. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you didn’t have enough information before now to understand the difference. Just know that if you bought a black kitten as an accessory for some dress-up version of witchcraft, and insist on calling it a familiar, you’re going to get some pushback from practitioners and historians.

witch & familiar from a 16th century pamphlet on witchcraft – British Library

References: traditional texts, encyclopedia entries, and the wiki. Thanks to the British Library archive for digitizing Witchcraft pamphlet: A Rehearsal both Strange and True, 1579

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