This week, I’m coming back to a topic that should be a lot more familiar to everyone (pun intended): the witch’s familiar.
Introducing the Early Modern Witch’s Familiar
The witch’s familiar is an ancient phenomenon, though the most commonly held ideas surrounding them seem to owe more to Early Modern Britain. Simply put, a familiar was a form of spirit helper with which the witch or cunning person held a certain kind of relationship. The kinds of familiars possessed by both cunning folk and witches differed too, with the familiars associated with “Cunning Folk” being more of fairy, and those associated with witches being
more demonic. It is the latter form that is the most recognizable today (Wilby 2005).
For witch or cunning person, the acquisition of a familiar was for the most part by chance. Accounts of encounters recorded during the witch trials, paint these encounters as happening spontaneously, as the witch or cunning person went about their business (Wilby 2005). Often the witch or cunning person would also be impoverished, or recently subjected to some kind of further hardship or tragedy. There is an undeniably folkloric feel to these encounters, and not unlike the kind of deal made by the girl forced to spin straw in Rumpelstiltskin (for example).
Unlike period descriptions of encounters with the dead, the fairy or demon familiars are described in stunningly naturalistic terms – they’re as real-looking as you or I. They were of vivid color, and animation and sound. But that’s not to say that they were “really” just the pets of people who looked a little “witchy”; it’s one thing to assume the shape of a thing, and quite another to actually be that thing. Having said that though, there were cases in which the pets of people suspected of witchcraft also shared the fates of their owners. But witch crazes are nothing if not illogical, let’s not mistake misplaced bloodlust for authenticity.
However, while the majority of accounts depict a person coming across the spirit that would become their familiar in a spontaneous way, there were ways in which familiar spirits could also be acquired. For example, one might petition a condemned person to return and serve as your familiar as in the case of Mary Parish’s familiar, a one George Whitmore (Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”). In other cases, one could gain a familiar by somehow encountering fairy royalty and showing them the proper respect thus acquiring a familiar as a gift. Alternatively, you might acquire a familiar as a gift from another witch – most commonly a family member (Wilby 2005). And lastly, if none of those methods were available to you, you could always try petitioning a demon such as the Verum demon Sustugriel who was reputed to ”give good familiars” (Stratton-Kent 2010).
As I said above though, the Early Modern familiar is simply just the most well-known form of spirit helper. The fact of the matter is that magical practitioners have been finding helping spirits and making pacts with them for a very, very long time. And like wands, familiars traverse a wide range of different cultures (albeit under different names – obviously).
The earliest account of what might be recognized as a familiar is the ob (pronounced “ov”) of the biblical Witch of Endor. The ob was both a spirit “of the dead or minor underworld deity that “speaks from the earth in whispering voices”, and an object of worship whose spirit can enter into a human and reside within them (Barrabbas 2017). In other words, to have a familiar is to be possessed by a familiar (something which I will speak of more towards the end of this post).
Among the Greeks, we find the parhedros who fulfills a similar function to that of the ob and the familiar. Given that the Greek Magical Papyri begins with ways in which to acquire a parhedros, we have to assume that they were considered an integral part of performing magic (Skinner 2014). Moreover, like their Hebrew counterparts, there is also the aspect of worshiping objects associated with the paredros. For those of you who are interested in the idea of performing one of these paredros rituals, it bears mentioning that those early methods of acquisition require blood sacrifice. Far less bloody to summon a demon in this case!
Moving over to Heathen period Northern Europe now, we find evidence that witches partnered with elves in order to perform their magic. Alaric Hall argues that rather than being the result of attacks by elves, the phenomenon of elfshot was more likely curses thrown by elf-empowered witches (Hall 2001). This is where we find our way back to Wilby’s period of study. Hall traces a pattern of witches working with mound-connected elves from the tenth century Old English magico-medical charm Wið Færstice and term ælfs?den (literally “elf-Seiðr”, or “elf-magic”); to Martin Luther’s account of being “shot” by a neighborhood witch; and finally to Isobel Gowdie’s accounts of encountering the Queen of Elfhame in a mound and seeing elves fashioning the shot. I personally take it somewhat further and point to the portrayal of Frey and Freyja in the Ynglingasaga. Freyja as the sacrificial priestess (and as we know, goddess associated with the form of magic known as “Seiðr”) ends up overseeing the cult to her brother, Freyr (who is associated with elves), even as he lies in the burial mound. The people bring offerings to the mound for peace and good seasons, and so even in death, he possesses a power that his sister does not.
Equally, elves were also associated with possessory divinatory trances that may have resembled or been confused with epileptic fits (Hall 2001), and so here too we find the possessory aspect of the ob.
Familiars and Hierarchy
The themes of hierarchy and spiritual authority also play their respective roles here. You may have already noticed that outside of the spontaneously acquired familiars, a higher power must be approached. This is an important distinction to make: the familiar gifted by fairy royalty will obey you if their royals command it. For those who inherit their familiars from others, one has to assume that the same terms and conditions of whatever pact was agreed upon transfer to the new witch.
Mary Parish’s familiar George is the obvious exception to this. Unlike most other familiars in the accounts, he was a dead human whose service was contracted by means of an oath before dying. This allowed Mary the authority she needed in order to work with him postmortem. However, his story is not completely devoid of involvement by a higher (fairy) power.
At some point, a minor aristocrat by the name of Goodwin Wharton became covetous of George (who he had become aware of through his love affair with Mary), and endeavored to have Mary gift him her familiar. However, a fairy queen referred to as the Queen of the Lowlanders steps in. From Wharton’s journal:
” The transfer of George was further complicated by the queen of the Lowlanders, who demanded that Goodwin stop attempting to have George as his own personal spirit. At first Goodwin was a little resistant, but the queen insisted that if he would not willingly show her this preference, he should never see any of the Lowlanders. She wanted to be his number-one contact with the spirit world. Goodwin had little choice but to agree to her terms. As a consolation, George agreed to answer any questions directed at him as long as Goodwin turned his back and did not look directly where George stood. However, Goodwin could not understand the spirit very clearly, as he spoke in a low, soft voice close to Mary’s ear. So throughout their relationship, Goodwin relied on Mary to communicate with George.”
(Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”)
It would seem that even when it comes to contracting the familiar services of the dead, the fairies will still have their say.
Pets as Familiars
Now to come to something a little polemic, but that I find weirdly irritating all the same.
I’ve noticed a tendency among some in the Pagan/Witch/Heathen communities to refer to their pets as their “familiars”. At first, I thought it was just a joke being made (and for most people, it does seem to be). However, I seem to be coming across more people who actually think their pets are their familiars.
Now hopefully this blog has illustrated all the ways in which that is just fucking stupid. And I think one of the reasons why I get so angry about this is that after having worked with a familiar for a number of years, the collocation of “pet” with “familiar” is just yet more disrespect and treating the Other like some fun and twee little thing that’s just here for our edification, or worse – our entertainment. I feel like I’m quickly running out of ways to say that it’s not all about us humans.
Let’s just stop this, please. We’re better than this. And your dog/cat/bird/whatever may be cool, but he isn’t your familiar. Moreover, if you actually kept your dog as animal familiars were most commonly kept (in a wool basket, being fed milk, blood, or whatever), you’d be in trouble for animal cruelty.
So let’s just not; okay?
Barrabbas, Frater (2017) Spirit Conjuring For Witches
Cummins, Al (2017)The Rain Will Make a Door III: Faerie and the Dead
Hall, Alaric (2009) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Health, Belief, Gender, and Identity
Skinner, Stephen (2014) Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic
Stratton-Kent, Jake (2010) The True Grimoire
Wilby, Emma (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic
I’d recommend Rune Soup premium memberships to anyone, because they really are worth the $10 per month. They’re all are well-presented, the content is killer, and the grimoire course was no exception.
One phrase from that course has been going round my head on repeat this week:
“Lobsters are just gonna lobster.”
You’re probably wondering what I mean by that. After all, it is a pretty weird (yet self-evident) statement when presented without context. (Because what else are lobsters going to do but lobster as hard as their little crustacean selves can lobster?)
I would hazard a guess that no one has any issues with that concept, and would think anyone strange who expected dog or human behavior from lobsters. Yet when it comes to the world of the Unseen, we seem to lose the ability to understand that, and our expectations become entirely contemporary and human.
In the first part of this mini-series of posts on authority and hierarchies, I’m going to take a look at the way modern human ideas about numinous beings run counter to more traditional ideas. I’ll move more explicitly into discussing the implications for practice in the following posts.
Perceptions of Spirits, Fairies, and Other Non-Human Persons
We humans engage in anthropomorphism often. We do it with our pets, with senators, and even with numinous beings. However, this is a deeply problematic approach, because when you try to ascribe a certain set of characteristics to something, then you miss what they actually are.
Unfortunately, we humans are often not content with simple anthropomorphism; our perceptions of these beings must also match our very human politics too. We see this bias the clearest in the consideration of spirit and otherworldly hierarchies.
“Whether or not there are two set courts of Fairy, one thing that is clear is that the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by kings and queens. When we look at the bulk of the folklore it is usually a Fairy Queen who holds power, often with an unnamed King at her side or else ruling alone. In only a few Irish examples do we see solitary Fairy Kings. In the later folklore and ballads the Fairy Queens and Kings are often unnamed, going simply by their titles, but in older mythology and some local folklore we do have examples of named Fairy Queens and Kings, often beings who we know were once Gods.” Morgan Daimler, ‘Fairies’, p61
“The Kinds of Spirits. In regard to spirits, there are the superior and the inferior. Names of the superiors are: Lucifer, Beelzebuth, Astaroth. The inferiors of Lucifer are in Europe and Asia, and obey him. Beelzebuth lives in Africa, and Astaroth inhabits America.
Of these, each of them has two who order their subjects all that which the Emperor has resolved to do in all the world, and vice-versa.”
Hierarchies are a feature among both the spirits of the grimoires and traditional fairy lore. As we see from the examples above, the Fairies have their courts and royalty, and superior spirits reign above the legions of inferior spirits of the Grimoirium Verum (and others).
However, an adherence to hierarchical social structure is not the only common trait shared by both Fairies and grimoire spirits. There is also the matter of power, and where that being lies on the scale of power in relation to its position within the hierarchy; these are dominance hierarchies after all. For example, in the above quote Morgan ties the older Fairy royalty with previous godhood. This is also a factor with the superior grimoire spirits cited above. Beelzebuth, as Jake Stratton-Kent reveals, is none other than one of the Ba’als of the ancient near East, and Asteroth none other than the goddess Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna (depending on time period and culture) (Stratton Kent “The True Grimoire” Pp. 136, 185-189 ).
So we kind of have to assume that the reason why those who sit at the top of their respective hierarchies do so because they are the most powerful. Power is a universal passport to authority other others, and it doesn’t matter if a spirit or fairy belongs to a particular court or hierarchy, inherent power is always recognized. Especially by those who appreciate the ability to size up and not antagonize those who are stronger as an excellent means of ensuring continued existence.
It can be hard for a modern person to get their head around the concept of these kinds of hierarchies, and I believe this to be especially the case with modern Pagans (who tend to lean more towards the liberal end of the political spectrum). A lot of us tend towards ideas of equality, and some of us may even find the very concept of hierarchy distasteful. However, we cannot just simply decide that we somehow know better despite the literally thousands of years of precedent in multiple cultures. Because like the lobsters (who also interestingly form dominance hierarchies), those spirits are going to do what they’re gonna do despite our silly human feelings.
Centering the Silly Human Feelings
While we’re talking about those silly human feelings, we may as well address another key issue here: anthropocentrism. As a culture, we have a horrible tendency to center human feelings and human experience in all interactions with the Other, and it’s laughable. We act as though everything non-human out there is there for us in some way, when that is simply not the case. This is a large part of what it means to have agency. A being with agency doesn’t exist for others, they are not the means to another’s ends, but ends unto themselves.
Moreover, I can all but guarantee that they don’t see us as the special snowflakes some of us seem to think we are, and if any of them seem to, it’s generally best to assume they probably believe you to be delicious in the culinary sense. (Oh yes, some of them are known to eat people.)
Like I said earlier, “Lobsters are just gonna lobster”.
Birds of a Feather
Lastly, you know how humans tend to all stick together in alien encounter movies? It seems like a natural response to something so different from ourselves, right? And that’s not even taking into account the many ways in which we privilege our own species over others on this earth. Again and again, we put the needs of humans over those of the flora and fauna of this place, and we generally see nothing wrong with it.
Now think about that, and ask yourself why any spirits or race of otherworldly beings should feel any differently? Perhaps it is also anthropomorphism to ascribe this human trait also to fairies? However, that is not what we see in the centuries of fairy lore involving interactions between Fairies and mortals. If anything, the implication that there is a loyalty between Fairies that is not extended to humans (Daimler “Fairies” Pp 34-38).
Avoiding the Perils of Perception
Hopefully if there’s anything this post has made clear, it’s the importance of questioning our perceptions of the Other. Because not doing so, can lead to some very dangerous (if not deadly) situations depending on who you’re dealing with.
However, there is also a greater lesson here that can be applied to our human-to-human interactions in everyday life. You see, much of the way in which many of us consider the Otherworldly, is a reflection of how we consider other humans who are different from us (albeit on a different level). And I don’t believe it to be any coincidence that we mostly belong to cultures that were and/or are still colonialist powers. The cultural backgrounds within which most of us originate, are steeped in taking from and commodifying the “other” among our fellow humans. This is an important point to recognize and think upon, especially if you find it hard to get away from this mindset. Because if you still carry that baggage, you are not fully considering the “Other” (be it humans who are “other” to your cultural or racial group, or otherworldly beings/spirits) as persons with agency and worthy of genuine respect.
And of course, it has to be said that there is something very fitting about a discussion on the agency of the Fair Folk – who are known for their glamours – pulling the sins of humans towards each other into sharp focus. Sometimes the greatest horror is in the revealing.
In the next post, I’m going to look at the importance of authority when dealing with spirits and the otherworldly. This is quite a large topic, and so it will be sub-divided to save you from slogging through a 3000 – 5000 word post (including an excerpt from my upcoming book). Then finally, I’m going to look at how matters of authority and hierarchy play into the process of acquiring a familiar. So watch this space, and in the meantime repeat after me:
“I am not king shit.”
“Favors may be gained through relationship or reciprocity.”
“Others have agency too.”
For more in-depth coverage of fairy hierarchies and royalty, check out Morgan Daimler’s book ‘Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fairy Folk’.
For more information about the True Grimoire (which contains detailed discussion of hierarchy), check out Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘The True Grimoire’. If grimoires and goetia in particular are your thang, be sure to check out the rest of the works in his Encyclopedia Goetica (available from the same link).