Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Familiar

A witch's familiar, also known as a fetch, is a magical partner obtained by the witch or cunning-folk in the form of an animal, bird, reptile or insect.  According to historian Emma Wilby, the need of a familiar was "primarily rooted in the struggle for physical survival - the lack of food or money, bereavement, sickness, loss of livelihood and so on and the familiar offered them, the witch or cunning folk, a way out of this by giving them magical powers".

Whatever the reason, familiars are emissaries to the wild powers, their existence in a dense spirit form that does the witch's bidding in the betwixt and between, for good or ill. Familiars and their relationship to the magical practitioner, predate medieval records. In spirit form, known as incorporeal, familiars have been described as "clearly defined, three-dimensional… forms, vivid with color and animated with movement and sound" the familiar is "as real as any normal creature of its kind."  This type of familiar is able to traverse the three realms easily.  They're linked to the witch is such a way that the practitioner can travel psychically within the body of the familiar itself. Known to have special nicknames, used exclusively by the witch to address them, familiars hold a prominent place within hearth and home. 

Corporeal familiars, meaning having a physical body opposed to spirit form, are the type of familiar most common to practitioners today, and are cared for as one would a pet, although the relationship is more of an alliance.  Corporeal familiars I have known, including my own, are drawn to magical practices and ritual, often settling nearby to quietly observe the activities of their human partner.  They can 'sense' the presence of spirits and feel the tides with a 'knowing' that is somewhat otherworldly at times.  However, when not 'lending a hand' they are happy to have a chin or tummy rub and retreat to a cozy corner for forty winks.

In Europe and the newly settles Americas, the belief was held that it was 'Old Horny' himself who gave the witch her familiar which was actually a demon in the 'guise' of cat, dog, owl or toad, summoned and sent forth into the night to accomplish deeds most diabolical. Animals suspected of witchcraft involvement were destroyed and there have been accounts of cats, dogs and goats being formally accused, tried and hung or burned for the offence.  Strangely enough, prior to the witch hysteria familiars were seen as the fey in disguise and were thought to be more or less helpful in temperament and skill.

The care and feeding of the familiar was up to the witch to provide, and a favorite morsel would be left on the hearth or at a special location.  However, unusual marks, moles, or the infamous supernumerary (third) nipple, referred to as 'witch marks,' discovered during torture or examination, were proof of the familiar's ability to suckle, sustaining its life.  The very idea of such an 'imitate' relationship was condemnation alone.

In many indigenous cultures allies of this sort are most often referred to as Totems.  A totem animal represents the whole species not the individual creature itself.  Specific associations attributed to the familiar were significant to the individual in their care.  Particular strengths and weaknesses revealed through the telling of stories attributed to the totem animal were of great importance to the life trek of the person. Most often assigned at birth the totem would remain with the individual throughout their lifetime.

Familiars on the other hand are identified and treated strictly as a 'working partnership', although well cared for, the relationship's duration is in the control of the familiar and can last anywhere from a few weeks to years all at their whim.  Although seeming rare there have been accounts of familiars being obtained by a person through a family bequest.

Since witchcraft is shamanic in nature, some witches, myself included, have what is known as a Spirit House or Jar.  Usually made from pottery, glassware, wood or woven cord, the Spirit House provides the 'incorporeal' familiar a safe place to reside.  To begin: once the container is obtained it must be filled with personal belongings of the witch.  As in the construction of a poppet, hair, nail clippings, even a bit of blood in a tiny vial, along with herbs, stones and in my case, shells are placed within it as a 'link' and attractive abode. Trance is then used to travel to the Other World while within the compass riding the stang.  Understandably it will take time and patience to meet the spirit animal, bird, reptile of even insect that is to become your working partner, but it is worth the effort.

Once the meeting has occurred the link must remain open and active.  The Spirit House should be kept in a clean, safe and respectful place within the home and offerings are given on a regular basis, either left nearby or within it along with gifts added to the house at regular intervals.

The strong connection between the familiar and the witch allows the practitioner to travel between the Three Realms, a basic direction finder aliening the Middle, Underworld and Upper Realms.  These realms are the arenas where the Hidden Company is contacted and where magic is harnessed in order for it to manifest in the world of form.  The axis mundi, symbolized by the stang, is the center of the Compass 'Round; the bridge between the realms the familiar can transverse with ease at the request of the witch.  Out there the familiar acts as the eyes and ears of the witch herself. 

Here is a bit of whimsy from our childhood; an Old Mother Goose rhyme.  The image shows the Old Lady riding the gander through the sky, but I ask you, could this be 'witch flight' by use of the inner eye?  Might it be actually the spirit of the witch riding the gander using its senses instead....in my mind it is just that, a witch up to magical mischief after hours from the comfort of her cozy chair by the fire.

Old Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.

Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.

 Davies, Owen (2003). Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. London: Hambledon Continuum.
Wilby, Emma (2005). Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
The French Connection was in 1650 which is the earliest known written reference known as a monthly periodical by the French critic Jean Loret (1610 - 1665) in his 1650 "La Muse Historique"

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