Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Familiars [Part 1]: Types of Familiars

Looking as far back as old illustrations and as far forward as the popular series, Sabrina: The Teenage Witch, the trope of a witch always seems to include a black cat.  Familiars are often talked about as if every single witch should have a talking animal trailing close behind.  As is often the case, the reality of familiars is quite different from the Hollywood vision.

If you're here, it's possible that you're trying to brush up on a specific type of familiar called an "Imp" or "Domestic Familiar."

But wait.  Type of familiar?  There's more than one?

Nowadays, general jargon suggests familiar refers to an animal.  However, many types of familiars exist.  Not all of them interact with a witch the same way a domestic familiar might.  Not all of them exist in the physical realm.  So, in order to define domestic familiars, we must also define the other types of familiars as well.

Who knows - perhaps one will call to you soon.  Maybe one already is.

The Familiar Spirit
Woodcut from a 1720 collection depicting both male and female witches flying on broomsticks. Photo: Wellcome Library, London.

Historically, Christo-Europe believed that a witch's powers were born of a sexual pact created by a woman and a demon.  This demon of a specific name would often take an ethereal half-human shape.  The witch would not only have a relationship, particularly one of sexual nature, with the demon but would also be guided by this entity.  We see this relationship reflected in some ways by fairy tales where a woman makes a pact with a spirit in exchange for some sort of gift.  Most relevant to the concept of the demonic pact is Rumpelstiltskin, a trickster spirit whose name holds power over him and who gifts the miller's daughter with a special power.

While it varies from culture to culture, the idea of a guiding spirit bestowing a witch with special powers is perhaps one of the oldest in the book.  This guiding spirit is the original definition of a familiar and what we now specifically call the Familiar Spirit.

In modernity and without condemnation, the Familiar Spirit refers to an energy or guiding entity of the witch, an otherworldly being that enhances the use of magick, offering protection and assistance.  These beings can be anything from angels to demons to spirits to fairies and beyond, so long as their existence is primarily spiritual or astral.  They are called upon by name and willingly assist a witch.  Even more so, the Familiar Spirit becomes a companion and, sometimes, even a lover.  The intimate union of the Familiar Spirit with the witch, be it sexual or otherwise, is what creates oneness.  And thus the Familiar Spirit becomes a sort of reflection of the witch's soul.

Shamanic Power Animals / Spirit Guides

Power animals are part of most Neoshamanic beliefs.  This concept is sometimes inappropriately named as a "totem," spirit beings from certain Indigenous cultures, by some misinformed individuals. However, the correct terminology is a power animal, sometimes referred to as a spirit guide or a familiar spirit (not to be confused with The Familiar Spirit from above). A form of animism, the idea that all animals, plants and objects have a spiritual presence, power animals are spirits in the shape of an animal that guide a being.  Shamans with a core belief in spirit animals often feel that everyone has a power animal.  These spiritual guides protect, empower and imbue in the individual special wisdom, much like a guardian angel.

Individuals often discover their power animal through a dream or vision, or by having said animal repeatedly pop up in their life.  The animal can be anything from a mammal to a reptile and, depending on individual beliefs, an extinct or mythical creature as well.  Each animal has its own sets of traits and correspondences, so research is key once you discover your power animal.  A person may have many power animals over the course of a lifetime but it is thought that everyone has at least one.  Being without a power animal leaves an individual open to illness and misfortune.

Imps or Domestic Familiars

Here we finally arrive to the type of familiar that covers cats and toads, among other witchy tropes!

Back in European history, and especially during the Witch Trials, imps were said to be gifts from demons to the witch, typically an animal who would protect and serve its witch. These familiars supposedly fed upon the blood of their witch, typically through a third nipple or teat.

Nowadays, imps refer to any physical world entity who protects and helps a witch on his or her path.  Now this may refer to an actual animal such as, but not limited to, a cat, dog, snake, horse, bird and so forth.  An imp may even be a plant!  However, imps may also refer to a doll or stuffed animal or inanimate object.  These types of imps act as a vessel to a spirit.

Either way, the animal, plant or vessel has a special spiritual and magickal connection with the witch.  This bond allows the witch makes a pact with the imp to further connect the two, officially making it a familiar.

Finding Your Familiar

What kind of familiar best suits you?  Only you can decide that.  My personal expertise lies in domestic animals as familiars, which is the direction I'll turn to from here on out, but perhaps another type works better for you.  Use this article as a starting point for your research!  The familiar bond, be it to a spirit, an animal guide, a real animal or a vessel, is something to enter into with great caution.  As always, be careful, protect yourself physically and spiritually, and arm yourself with plenty of knowledge before diving into the world of familiars, be it any type of familiar.

Coming Soon
Familiars [Part 2]: Domestic Animals as Familiars
Familiars [Part 3]: Forming a Pact with your Domestic
Familiars [Part 4]: Your Domestic and Ritual
Familiars [Parts 5]: Hermes: Domestic Air Magick
Familiars [Parts 6]: Apollo: Domestic Fire Magick
Familiars [Parts 7]: Artemis: Domestic Water Magick
Familiars [Parts 8]: Zeus: Domestic Earth Magick


  1. Wonderful post - love the information in here, especially the links! Thank you.

  2. Great post! I've had some experience with power animals but didn't realize that the concept of the familiar was so extensive. Looking forward to the other parts of this series!