Since time began animals have been revered and worshiped as spirits of nature, known to the ancients as power animals or the animal guides of the Gods. Many animals therefore became associated with various deities, such like: Diana and the Hound, Heqet (or Heket) and the Toad, Proserpina and the Raven, Pan with the Goat and Athena with the Owl. Most other deities in one way or another became associated with animals. The ancients believed animals were closer to nature than humans, and would perform rituals and make offerings to their spirits in attempts to communicate with them.
Old shamans believed that all things and beings, particularly animals, were possessed of a spirit or soul, and that one could attract parts of their soul, thus their spirit and powers with mimicry. To achieve this they dressed in appropriate animal furs and feathers or wore horns and fierce looking masks while performing dance and imitating their antics. The novice shaman would acquire his animal spirits on completion of his initiation. These he would send out on errands or to do battle on his behalf, however if they failed or died, then so too did the shaman. The shaman would keep and use the same animal spirits until his death, upon which time they would disappear or be passed on to aid his apprentice.
Given the animal kingdoms intimate relationship with nature, its not surprising that witches as they evolved should adopt certain animals as their own link to nature, spirits and deities. Wise men and women commonly used animals, while wizards, magicians and village healers used them to diagnose illnesses, sources of bewitchment, divination and to find lost property or treasure.
It was not until the Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity that the witches pets and animals became thought of as agents of evil. As the persecution of witches began, so the church started teaching the concept that the Witches’ familiar was an associate of the Christian devil. They became demons and evil spirits in animal form, sent out by the witch to do their nasty bidding. They also believed witches possessed the power to transform themselves into animals, in which guise they committed any number of diabolical deeds. Later they were believed to use animal products in spells, making potions and concoctions to aid transformation, gain power over nature, or even to harm and kill.
The most common animals associated with witchcraft were the: Frog, Owl, Serpent, Pig, Raven, Stag, Goat, Wolf, Dog, Horse, Bat, Mouse and of course the Cat, though virtually any animal, reptile or insect would be suspect. Obsession with the witches familiar was most prevalent in England and Scotland and was mentioned in numerous trial records of the period, particularly those related to “Matthew Hopkins”, the infamous Witch Finder General (see Matthew Hopkins).
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 Hopkins used with zeal when extracting confessions. He also used the “Malleus Malificarum” the so-called Inquisitor’s Handbook. Though it offers no instruction concerning familiars in the interrogation and trial of witches, it does 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”. 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.
Today in contemporary witchcraft any thoughts of animals as “demonic spirits of evil” has been left 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, and are welcomed into the magick circle when power is being raised or spells are being cast. They are also used to aid scrying, divination and spirit contact. When working with magick animals act as a guard in psychic defence for they react visibly to negative forces and harmful energy.
Perhaps the most famous of contemporary witches to keep a familiar was Sybil Leek and her pet jackdaw named “Mr. Hotfoot Jackson”. Sybil was a hereditary witch with a long lineage going back to the witches of southern Ireland in 1134, but her choice of a pet jackdaw bears an uncanny relationship to one particular ancestor called Molly Leigh:
As the story goes, Molly was born in 1685 and lived in a cottage on the edge of the moors at Burslem near Stoke-on-Trent. Molly was a solitary character who never married; she talked to the animals and kept a pet Jackdaw. She made her living selling milk from a herd of cows to travelers and passers-by. An eccentric person, the Jackdaw was often seen perched on her shoulder as she delivered milk to the dairy in Burslem.
Molly was known for her quick temper and the people of Burslem were suspicious and frightened of her. This was not uncommon in those times, for throughout the country ‘women’ and particularly elderly women who lived on their own in remote places, were labeled as witches.
In Molly’s case it was the local vicar the Rev. Spencer who made witchcraft accusations against her. He claimed that Molly sent her Jackdaw to sit on the sign of the Turk’s Head pub, a pub that the vicar frequently visited, and when it did the beer turned sour. She was also blamed for other ailments suffered by numerous townsfolk.
Molly died in 1746 and was buried in the Burslem churchyard, but then many claimed that her ghost haunted the town. A short time after her burial, the Rev. Spencer along with clerics from Stoke, Wolstanton and Newcastle went to open her cottage and retrieve her pet Jackdaw. When they arrived they were shocked to see Molly (or an apparition of her), sitting in a favourite armchair knitting with her pet Jackdaw perched on her shoulders (just as she had often been seen in real life). Frightened, the vicar and others returned to the graveyard and reopened her grave. They drove a stake through her heart and threw the living Jackdaw into the coffin. The vicar then decreed that as she was a witch, she would not rest easy until her body was buried lying North to South. To this day, Molly's tomb is the only one that lies at right angles to all the other graves in the churchyard.
Many believe that an animal familiar is not acquired through personal choice, more that an animal will choose you as its guardian and companion. One cannot go down to the local pet-shop and choose a familiar simply on its symbolic significances: “I shall take an Owl for Wisdom, a Dove for Peace and a Spider for Imagination and Creativity”. Sorry, but that won’t work. Animals have their own in-built wisdom and intelligence, their own spirit and skills, and a bond needs to be made with them if they are to volunteer to work as your familiar. Most often the animal itself will let you know when this has been achieved.
Generally there are four different kinds of animal familiar. The first is our physical everyday live-in pets, most commonly the cat or dog. As with all our other family members an instinctive bond and psychic link is created over time. Silent communication of their needs exists and instinctively we know if they are happy or sad, hungry, hurting or in need of attention. They in turn reciprocate and adapt themselves to our life styles, intuitively they attune to our mood swings and circumstantial changes.
The second type of familiar is an imaginative creature, one you can closely identify with but never hope to own such like a lion, tiger or leopard. This is an animal whose characteristics you admire, and you may collect and hang pictures of it in your home. It resided in the astral plane and because of your intense liking for it; you consciously or unconsciously attract its aid. It’s said that deceased pets with which you had an affinity return in this capacity.
The third type of familiar is magickal, an elemental spirit. Witches and Magicians often call upon elemental spirits for aid when working with magick. When making talismans or amulets for specific purposes, they may call upon a particular familiar elemental to inhabit an object to enhance its effect. It is believed the Paracelsus; a medical academic (1493–1541) instilled such a familiar into a large precious stone on the pommel of his ritual sword.
The fourth familiar is the spirit of a human being, someone who has died. Many adept magicians will command the appearance of a human spirit but such spirits are hard to control, for instance, a spirit who has been commanded against his or her desires can be troublesome, in which case you need to be sure of your ability to get rid of them and this can be much more difficult than the original calling. Those spirits willing to act as our astral guides or teachers are commonly called ‘Guardian Angels’.
The most effective familiars tend not to be our domesticated pets, for due to their life expectancy our pets come and go, though the spirit of a deceased pet can still be used. The use of our domestic animals as familiars is merely a stepping-stone to the raw power and energy of wild animals that are much closer to nature; for instance, a domestic dog is a softened version of its wild counterpart the fox, wolf, coyote and other wild canine creatures. Similarly a domestic cat can be linked to other wild felines such like lions, tigers and leopards. Many witches and magicians start with a domesticated animal as a familiar in the hope that one day they will be able to handle and work more effectively with its true power form, the wild animals of nature.