I just wrote an article about familiars on the Witchipedia ( http://www.witchipedia.com/def:familiar ). I try to avoid injecting my opinion into Witchipedia articles but this is a subject I connect intimately to and have a great deal of personal experience in and a subject on which I vehemently disagree with most authors. (surprised?). So I am compelled to write a blog article on the subject.
Many authors refer to familiar spirits as only spirit in form, like what? Spirit animals or guardian angels or what? Totems? Some even say that familiar spirits aren't really individual spirits but the spirit of everything that that spirit is. Like Dog, or Cat or Weasel. But historical references clearly state that they are three-dimensional in form and have individual names like Pyewacket. The are described and mischievous and playful, clearly indicating that they have individual personalities.
Or these authors in their wisdom refer to familiar animals as simply pets with whom a magical practitioner has a strong psychic bond. I'm a trainer by trade and I have had a lot of pets, some of them not even my own, with whom I've enjoyed a strong psychic bond. I did not consider the majority of them familiars. Besides, historical sources say these "pets" were often given upon initiation as a helper and guide. The average pet is not a very good helper or guide. In fact, since most pet owners I've met have no idea how to handle their animal (granted most were asking me for help), most pets are a mess, especially during the first year.
I personally believe that a familiar is a spirit, something like a guardian angel, that periodically inhabits the body of a living thing. I believe that it enjoys this foray into the material world and does it consciously and I don't believe the animal is harmed. I don't think it knows the difference. Once the body has aged or become damaged to the point of death, the spirit vacates it, because what's the point of hanging around a dead body? But it doesn't just go away, it's still a spirit. It still hangs around. I do not believe a familiar spirit requires a physical host to be of use to the witch it is attached to, but it is much more helpful when it is attached to a body, for several reasons.
- A physical animal spirit is much easier to connect to, to relate to than an energetic being. If familiars were given to witches upon initiation, I would think that a being with physical presence would be a good "starter helper", since spirit communication and astral work are somewhat advanced techniques, not to mention evocation, invocation, compelling, etc. Really, is that what you'd drop on someone at an initiation? No, a living animal housing a helper spirit is much more practical. By the time the spirit vacates the body, the witch should be able to deal with it just fine.
- Any working relationship is more effective if there is some sort of bond, whether it be of loyalty, duty, affection or love. A physical creature is not only much more warm and cuddly than spirit creature, it's a lot more work and anything you put work into, you have stronger feelings for. I mean, if you neglect your spirit creature it just wanders off and you can convince yourself it wasn't real anyway. Neglecting your cat can result in a dead cat. Your much more likely to have an emotional bond with the cat than the spirit and be willing to put more work into the relationship, and the survival of the cat. The stronger the bond, the more efficient the cooperation. Stronger emotions also result in stronger magic. And check it out, after the spirit vacates the body - the bond is still there and you have all that practice taking care of it.
- A physical creature who embodies a conscious spirit creature can act as a conduit between the world of spirit and the physical world. A familiar is a bridge. It can travel in both realms and it can guide and assist a witch in both realms. Neither a purely physical (unconsciously spiritual) nor a purely spiritual entity can do that.
- A physical familiar spirit can act as both a physical and a spiritual guardian. Not just one or the other.
- A physical body can contain energy, a spiritual body can manipulate energy. Both is more awesome than just one.
A witch is a spiritual being in a physical form. Not because we are special, because we work at it. It makes sense that our magical companions should also be a hybrid except the familiar exists in an opposite state. We are physical creatures who have trained ourselves to exist in the realm of spirit while they are spiritual creatures who have trained themselves (or perhaps been trained) to exist in the material realm.
I believe that the spirit can stay with the witch, even if it has no physical body but it is most useful to the witch when it is inside a physical body so as to bridge the space between astral and physical. I believe that these spirits need not confine themselves with one type of body, but develop an affinity with certain species. I also believe familiars stay with families through the generations. I believe that one family can have several familiars attached to it.
We have one, a cat spirit. Allow me to over-share.
We have always had a feline familiar in our family. I do not believe that a familiar spirit is required to inhabit the same shape every time, but I do believe that they develop an affinity for one shape or another. This one is a guardian and it prefers the cat shape. This guardian cat doesn't do a lot of magick, but it does watch over the children. In its first incarnation in my lifetime it was BC. I wish I had pictures of BC with me as an infant. He slept in my crib and attacked unauthorized passers-by. BC died young of mysterious causes that looked suspiciously like rat poison. It could be he ate a poisoned rat. It could be he attacked the wrong unauthorized passer-by. BC originally came to us as a bedraggled barn kitten that my pregnant mother took with her when she left the farm to go live on a Naval base with my dad (the most often attacked passer by). He died shortly after she returned, divorced, when I was 4. But he remained with me. I talked to him. The old folks were concerned. A few years later my mother found a kitten in the dumpster of the apartment complex where she worked. Who knows how she got there, but mom brought her home and she watch over us kids for a few years (attacking step dad periodically) until she was found (is this ironic?) mysteriously frozen to the bottom of one of our garbage cans one cold winter morning. But I often felt her hopping onto my bed at night. The next incarnation of our child guardian cat came when my oldest son was a year old and my daughter was 4. We acquired this motherless kitten along with a sibling just weeks before I fled with my children into the night to get away from their abusive father.
Both cats went with us, but only Fidget stayed with us. Her sister, a master escape artist, met death by misadventure a few years later. Fidget stayed with us until my son was 16 and cancer took her. Fidget was a child guardian, just like her former incarnations. She didn't like men, though she was more passive-aggressive than her predecessors (Poor Sean, she peed on his clothes!) and she loved the kids, especially my son.
Now don't assume that she just benevolently hung about letting the kids push her around in baby carriages. Nothing of the sort! She kept those kids in line. She herded them, snuggled them when they needed warmth and smacked them when they got out of line.
When she died, we determined that we wouldn't get anymore pets for awhile because we had a baby on the way. We lost Griffin just a few months later and still stuck with that policy. But a few weeks before my Sunshine was born I got a call about a poor, sick, motherless kitten who desperately needed a home and, for some reason, my friend insisted that my home was the home. I totally did not want this kitten. Two weeks after my son was born I caved and brought home another kid-obsessed nanny cat that attacks my husband and needs to be put away when guests are around lest she attack them too. Oh, and she's not nice to the baby, either. She is way too concerned with keeping him in line to be his friend. But she will be his, I have no doubt, when he's bigger. Right now, she belongs to my older son. My husband has reiterated his desire to not ever ever have a cat again. I assure him that they are not all mean, but he does not believe me. I have promised there will be no more cats as I expect there will be no more kids. Nina will live until Sunshine is well-hairy and then there will be no need for the familiar to return here. One of my older children will certainly have a child by then it will be drawn to.
Now I know what you're going to say: There is no evidence that these are familiar animals. I didn't do magic with them and who's to say that this isn't just what cats act like? I have had lots of cats. None of these family familiars existed in a vacuum. I've had other cats at the same time. I have loved my cats, and my kids have. But there's something about the familiars that you just recognize. And it's not even the behavioral traits. It wasn't until I sat down and started writing about them that I realized that they were all so stranger-hostile and man-hating. I've even had cats that were better with the kids. Maybe it's the way they walked in the first day and looked around like, "Yep, this is the place." Or maybe it's because when I take a good close look at them for the first time I see something… familiar.
The guardian familiars, the cats, are quite different from the guide familiar relationships we've had with the dogs. The dogs come to us as adults. After we've had our magical initiation. These, I don't think are
so much familial in nature as personal. And I don't think they need to be dogs, either. I just refer to them thus because that's what I had.
Of course you know about Griffin. Now that he is gone, I still feel his presence. There was awhile that he kept sending me images of puppies until he finally got the message that I can't afford to care for a dog at this time. Dogs are expensive. But still I feel he's around. I often wonder if he will be a duck or a rabbit since those are the livestock we are planning for our homestead. Or if he'll be sneaky and send some predator to convince me I need a guardian dog. I know he wants a body, though he doesn't need one. And yes, I did work magic with Griffin. He enjoyed it. He meditated with me and danced with me and really enjoyed drums and rituals and ceremonies. He
knew when to be still and when to be active and he took energy off me that was harmful. I think that's why he died. But when he died, and I sobbed like a soap opera star my daughter said, "He'll be back, mom." And he will. He's not gone. But that's the thing. I know his spirit is still there. But it's the body I miss and that just illustrates why a physical form a for a familiar is important. Because you can hug it!
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Comments, questions, criticism?