I was going to write about familiars. And one day, I probably will. But not today. And rather than just leave this .... you know what, no. I am going to write about familiars. They are, after all, a major part of witchcraft, and everyone seems to think it means your pet.
Just to start with, I'd like to mention that the term "familiar" in this sense doesn't mean "something I recognise", but implies a sense of friendship and intimacy. I think the etymology is relevant here. From etymonline:
familiar: mid-14c., "intimate, very friendly, on a family footing," from O.Fr. famelier, from L. familiaris "domestic, of a household;" also "familiar, intimate, friendly," dissimilated from *familialis, from familia. The sense gradually broadened. Of things, from late 15c. The noun meaning "demon, evil spirit that answers one's call" is from 1580s.
There's this idea in Neo-Pagan witchcraft that a familiar is a pet. A pet with whom you have a special bond, maybe, but definitely an animal friend. Your cat likes your altar, so he must be your familiar. But this is a new idea. The association with animals comes not from actual witchcraft (or rather, what we now think of as actual witchcraft), but from the observations of those who associated witchcraft with devil-worship: the familiar was no animal, but a demon helper that took animal form. Somehow, somewhere along the way, this idea mutated into the idea that living animals themselves could be familiars.
Things are confused by the way different groups used terms like "witch". Historically, "witch" was a largely negative term; your local wise woman or cunning man wouldn't be likely to use the term to refer to themselves. Others might, painting these people as, depending on the time period, devil-worshippers or Today, the term is much more neutral, so when we speak about "witches" in history we are often referring to these cunning folk rather than the figures of Satan-worship in the popular imagination of the time. I will try very hard to make it clear whether I'm talking about modern witches, cunning folk of the past, or the "bad witch" of the Malleus Maleficarum, but I appreciate that things may get confused. (Is Mercury still in retrograde?)
"Familiar" was originally, and really still is, "familiar spirit", meaning essentially a spirit with whom one was friendly. In witch-related speech, the familiar spirit of the cunning folk became the familiar demon of the witch became the pet of the modern witch. But for a lot of witches who have a more "crooked path" type of craft, the element of spirit interaction is a major defining aspect not only of what they do but of witchcraft itself.
At one point last year someone asked me what witches believe. I answered that witches don't necessarily believe anything specifically, that different witches believe different things. He, quite rightly, called me on it. He asked how witchcraft could be a thing if there was not much we had in common. It got me thinking, and I decided to compile a list of things witches believed. The basis of the list is not that all witches believe all of these things, but that they will believe most of them. At least three out of the six. Disagree with too many of these things, and, well, maybe you're not a witch.
I proposed that witches believe:
- That there is energy, and that this energy can be raised, gathered, and manipulated.
- That this energy resides in oneself and in the world around one, and that this can include objects.
- That spirits exist, whatever their nature.
- That the world, and possibly the future, can be further understood via divination.
- That there are Mysteries, and things that can be known.
- That there are other worlds, that one might be able to travel to, if one has the knack and puts in the work.
That "spirits" one is, I feel, particularly important if one feels that one's witchcraft has a historical basis. Historical witchcraft - that is, the craft of the cunning folk - was usually Christian, but the Christianity of "popular religion". Christianity, but Christianity with a great deal of folk belief; residual cultural ideas that were a part of Pagan religion and when the old gods were ousted remained as a part of the culture, local beliefs in land-spirits, "superstition", and so on. Perhaps, though, that isn't precisely correct; it was largely the witches who were Christian, rather than their craft specifically. Regardless, both cunning folk and malevolent witches had familiar spirits, and it was this aspect of the Craft was the most likely, according to Hutton, to have Pagan origins and influences. I suggest that regardless of one's god/s, or wider religious beliefs, the belief in and interaction with spirits is a major element of witchcraft. - But of course, the belief in spirits has never been limited to witches, at least in Britain. Wilby comments that:
"The guiding principles in the lives of many ordinary people in early modern Britain were essentially 'animist' rather than Christian, and some of the most cherished beliefs and rituals paid little lip service to Christianity at all... A significant proportion of common folk seldom attended church at all... Of those who attended church, many just went through the motions with little real understanding. A large proportion of the laity could not recite the Lord's Prayer or the Ten Commandments and knew little of Christian scripture or doctrine."p. 15, "Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits"
You do see spirit work in modern witchcraft. Much of modern witchcraft is now Pagan, but there are a great number of non-religious witches who work with spirits of various sorts and I would imagine that most Christian witches would be, like their predecessors, a little outside the bounds of orthodox Christian belief, at least regarding spirits. Familiar spirits seem to have more in common with "spirit guides" than with living animal friends. I think this more popular term - "guides" - comes from Spiritualism and Theosophy. Doreen Valiente suggests as much in her ABC of Witchcraft:
"...Spiritualist mediums of the present day claim to be aided by spirits whom they call Guides; that is, spirits who particularly attach themselves to the medium for the purpose of assisting in the production of phenomena, and of advising the medium. Without wishing in any way to give offence to Spiritualists, this is exactly what the human familiar of the witches did and still does."
Valiente splits things into three kinds of familiars, the first two types of spirits, the last "an actual material creature" or small animal companion. She seems pretty specific about the "small" thing; her examples, particularly "witchy", are a cat, ferret or toad. I am a fan of Valiente's but often disagree with her, and this is one of those times she and I don't really see eye to eye. Animal friends are animal friends, but not something I would call a familiar. At any rate, somewhere along the line "familiar spirits" fell out of vogue, in favour of the more new-age "guides". For my part, I tend to use the word "guide" more often, as it feels more general to me. On the other side of the coin, "familiar spirit" feels a great deal more personal, affectionate and, well, familiar a term, which really is the sort of relationship one should hope to engender with one's spirit friends.
Emma Wilby has made a fairly good argument for the witch as spirit-worker in her Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. I'm trying to work out a way to sum her book up in such a way as to give this entry a little more depth, but I'm having trouble. I'm very much tempted to just tell everyone to go and read it, as it makes my point better than I could. (At any rate, she is mentioned at length in the wikipedia article on familiars, which you can read yourselves.) But have I made my point yet, really? "Familiars are really spirits, hence 'familiar spirits'" is a brief idea and I could have been done with just that and moved on, so why did I keep talking? Why bother digging into the books at all?
I guess the reason I made this post is because the modern idea of the "familiar" annoys me. It does not contain truthiness (not to be confused with "truth"); it does not jive with my Craft, or my way of thinking about the world. It seems forced, false, plastic and part of what I feel is the clean-and-sparkly version of witchcraft, in which blood is never used in spells, spirits are avoided because they might be "negative" and people don't care where their crystals come from but will shy away from using the bones from roadkill. It's nice that you love my cat. I love my cat. Eh beats up other cats, and doesn't afraid of anything. But he is a cat; he's not a familiar spirit. On the other hand, if your cat hangs around after he's dead, then sure, I'll give you that. Then he's a familiar. It's not so much that I feel witchcraft knowledge is being lost, or that the Craft is being degraded. I just don't like it. Maybe it's that a failure to acknowledge if not understand familiar spirits, even as a precursor to the modern pet familiar, shows a lack of knowledge regarding witchcraft as a whole. And I suppose, in a way, the changing of the meaning of this word changes the feeling of what witchcraft is. It takes it one step more away from the shadows. Along with "who's your patron/matron?" it's one of those red-letter topics in particular ENP witchcraft circles - "do you have a familiar? pics!" - that subtly implies that until you have one, you're not a proper witch. In a certain way, maybe that is true of familiar spirits! but not having a special animal friend.
By the way, I'm not ragging on your relationships with your animals. Many people who describe pets as "familiars" aren't doing so lightly. They feel a remarkable and genuine bond with their animals. I don't want to make it seem like those bonds aren't there, or aren't important, or even aren't spiritually significant. But animal bonds exist with a great many different types of people, not just witches - particularly in working relationships such as police dogs. Our pets often rely on us just to know what they should and shouldn't do, and there are situations when we certainly rely on them. They are our friends, our family, our working partners. And this is significant to us as humans, I think, rather than as witches.
People will tell me language moves on and develops, and I will sulk because in a way that is true, but nevertheless I refuse to use the word "familiar" to refer to animal companions or pets. We already have the word "pet" for that, after all. For what it's worth, dictionaries tend towards the spirit or demon definition, rather than a living animal. I'm not taking another step away from the shadows. I am jealously guarding the word "familiar" as an aspect of down-and-dirty witchcraft. The adding of another meaning shouldn't lead to an old meaning dying, particularly if that old meaning still has relevance, and especially as that relevance is with the same subject area. Yet... when people say "familiar", how often do they mean "spirit"? Is this simple ignorance, or are people doing it on purpose to piss me off?