Welcome to Magickal Musings, where I share with you little written meditations on some of my favorite witchy subjects!
Today, we’ll be discussing a topic that’s been very near and dear to my heart since long before I knew there was a “magickal” term for it: Animal Familiars!
To start off, lets begin by having a quick look at some popular definitions of familiars.
Middle Ages Perspective:
In Medieval times, during the witch hunts and Inquisition period, a “familiar spirit” was defined as an animal-shaped spirit believed to do the evil bidding of a witch. These animals were thought of as either an extension of the spirit of the witch herself, or an animal possessed with the spirit of a demon. They were often believed to have supernatural powers such as the ability to change shape. At that time, people accused of witchcraft were often the outcasts of society, living in nature and seeking companionship with animals. At one point during the witch hysteria of Early Modern Europe, the mere possession of a black cat or unusual pet was considered sufficient cause for investigation as a witch. The “witch’s teat,” was considered a fail-safe method of identifying a witch at the height of the witch-craze. It was usually a blemish or skin tag which witch hunters associated with the feeding of their familiars with blood rather than milk.
Because of these absurd Medieval myths, some modern witches today will reject the use of the term “familiar” all together. Tulluan Penry, for example, states that she would not personally entertain the idea of “familiars,” because it pays respect to the witch hunters, who tortured their victims to admit to things that were likely untrue. In her video on the subject, she brings up the concept that the witch hunts were majorly a means of suppressing and controlling women, and by labeling skin tags as evidence of witchcraft, most older women were able to be targeted.
Rather than labeling a particular pet as a familiar, she suggests that nature-based spirituality leads to a close affiliation with the animal kingdom as a whole.
Modern Neo-Pagan Perspective
Now-a-days, we often hear the term “familiar” applied to the favorite pet of a magickal practitioner. Generally, we think of a familiar as an animal that we have a deep spiritual connection with, who often guides us to make important life decisions, or even aids in spell work.
While almost no one today would argue that the obscene ideas mentioned in the Medieval perspective are true, there is still a fairly heated debate on the subject: Now, the argument is more about what makes a familiar a familiar.
For example, a lot of people new to paganism are eager to have that stereotypical black cat, and hurriedly proclaim their pet to be their familiar, or go out and adopt one with that intention… On the other hand, you have those who will argue that the relationship between a witch and a familiar goes much deeper than that, and has to hold up to a list of strict criteria in order to be considered valid.
Marietta at Witchy Words provides a very in-depth analysis of her research and personal experience on the subject of familiars. Her perspective is definitely worth reading. She describes very well how she and her familiars interact, and provides examples of how to try and understand whether or not your pet is a familiar.
I agree that not every witch needs to have a familiar, and that not every pet is your familiar. I, however, have a slightly different opinion on what makes a familiar.
One thing that I’ve noticed sets me apart from a lot of others who identify as witches is that my craft is not necessarily centered around “spell work.” I really only perform big “spells” a couple of times a year, when I’m prompted by a very strong need or desire to create a major change in my life.
What makes me a “Witch” every other day of my life is my way of seeing the spiritual significance in every part of my daily experience, and consciously choosing to create ritual around my otherwise mundane tasks, inserting intention into everything that I do.
My main objectives as a Witch are to learn to live in harmony with the flow of The Universe while also realizing my own power to effect the direction of my life while hopefully having a positive impact on those I come into contact with.
That being said, I tend to disagree when someone says that a familiar has to be an animal who specifically performs spell work with you in “in the circle.”
I see my familiars as being members of the animal kingdom who have presented themselves with a clear intention to aid me in understanding my place in the grand scheme of existence.
Do all animals do that in a way? If you have an eye for it, yes, absolutely! So what exactly distinguishes any animal from a “familiar” in my opinion? Well, I feel that there are different categories of familiars, and I’ll break them down here from the broadest perspective to the closest to home.
1 Animal Spirit Guides
In the Neo-Shamanic tradition, modern practitioners seek to re-evoke the ancient tribal world view of animism.
I like to describe animism as what Disney’s Pocahontas means when she says, “I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”
In this world view, every single thing we come into contact with is directly related to us in some way. The way we interact with nature, how we effect our surroundings and the way nature responds to us are intrinsically linked. In the collective consciousness, we all have subconscious memories of what it was like to take the form of different animals and plants, and we’re psychically linked to everything in nature, whether we consciously realize it or not.
An animal spirit guide is any species in nature that presents itself to you at a time when you can really take notice of and implement its characteristics into your life to solve a problem.
Often times, we can be so caught up in the very human habit of overthinking that we can completely overlook the simplest universal truths. An animal spirit guide will enter your life in some random way, grabbing your attention and pulling you out of your usual autopilot way of thinking. This is usually not an animal that you know personally, or generally spend a lot of time in direct communication with. Its usually a wild animal that crosses your path unexpectedly or in a very notable incident. Other times, it can show itself in more subtle ways, but in a very repetitive, persistent manor that causes you to think twice about your place in nature.
It can be a beautiful reminder of how you can be more like this animal in your current situation, or it can be a “shadow totem,” an unpleasant experience with a creature that challenges your ego identity.
To use myself as an example. I absolutely love crows, even though they scare some people. I find them beautiful, and they help me to connect with the Autumn and the death part of the life-death-life cycle… On the other hand, I’ve had a completely horrible animal spirit guide experience with fleas a few years ago. Long story short, I was reminded not to sweep things under the rug, but to notice the small details and listen when the Universe tries to tell me I’m procrastinating about something, otherwise, my ego will get knocked down a peg or two. I’ll have to tell you all about that story in another post!
Over all, the idea is that animal spirit guides are The Universe’s way of “giving you a sign” when you’re lacking direction or drifting off course from the path of your highest good.
They usually only show up for a short time with the purpose of reminding you to learn from observing nature. They can easily be taken for granted if we’re not open to them, but when we agree to let them teach us, it can make all the difference in our lives! Again, though, don’t overthink it! While you can always learn from every creature you encounter, not every one is trying to tell you something hugely life-altering. When they do, you will know!
2. Spirit Animals, Power Animals, or Animal Totems
Keeping with the same idea of universal consciousness and animism, we come to a sort of animal guide that doesn’t just present itself occasionally, but is deeply connected to you throughout the duration of your life on Earth.
Its said that everyone has at least one Spirit Animal, and many of us have a few different ones. Your personality traits mirror the characteristics of that animal, and paying attention to that species can have a long term benefit along your journey. I, for example, have two that I know of: Cat and Owl.
For a professional explanation of what animal spirit guides and animal totems are, and how to tell the two apart, check out Jordana Van’s video series on the subject.
3. Domestic Familiars
Finally, we arrive at the type of familiar that lives right in our home as a member of our immediate family. As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of debate in the modern pagan community as to what exactly sets a familiar apart from an “average” pet. Three things seem to ring true for almost everyone:
1. A familiar can be any type of pet, not just a black cat.
2. Not every witch has a familiar, or will ever need one.
3. Not every pet has the potential to be your familiar in the widely accepted definition of the term. You have to really use your intuition to decide if you have a familiar or not.
While I do not agree with all the extremely rigid criteria that some witches like Marietta hold familars up to, I do hold a similar belief that a familiar sets itself apart from other pets in your life by connecting to you in a very direct, spiritual level of communication.
In a witch and familiar relationship, neither is really the “pet” or the “owner.” Its a mutual sense of responsibility that spans across almost every area of your lives together.
Its a symbiotic relationship in which you help to improve each-other’s life experience in ways the other wouldn’t otherwise be capable of. You look out for one another, guiding, teaching, and protecting each other…
Some believe that the relationship between a person and their familiar is a pre-birth karmic contract, where both parties have agreed to help each other’s souls evolve in this incarnation. Its a bond that is almost impossible to describe objectively, and I’m certain that every witch and familiar have a totally unique story that cannot be put into a box. Its a duo that together create something far greater than the sum of the parts.
A broad example of the way I distinguish between a pet and a familiar would be, just like not all of your best friends are necessarily your “coven members,” not all of your pets are necessarily your “familiars.”
I can best illustrate this concept by telling you about my relationship with my cats… But because this post is already ridiculously long as it is, I’ll save that magickal story for Part Two!
And, if you do happen to to be a cat person, you may also enjoy my article 3 Ways A Cat Can Help Balance Your Spiritual Practice.
Did my definition of a domestic familiar resonate with you?
Get your free printable Witch’s Familiar book of shadows page!
I’ve transcribed a short, sweet version of what we discussed above into a printable page for your magickal journal! Your free download comes with a full color version and a black and white version in case you’d rather use only black ink.
Click HERE to get your free page!
What are your experiences with spirit guides, totems and familiars? Please share your story in the comments!
Until next time, Brightest Blessings!