What is an Animal Familiar?

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Black cats are the traditional witch's familiar. Photo Credit: Victoria Caverhill/Adore Photography Moment Open/Getty Images

In some traditions of modern Paganism, including the various Wiccan paths, the concept of an animal familiar is incorporated into practice. Today, a familiar is often defined as an animal with whom we have a magical connection, but in truth, the concept is a bit more complex than this.

History of the Familiar

During the days of the European witch hunts, familiars were "said to be given to witches by the devil," according to Rosemary Guiley's Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft.

They were, in essence, small demons which could be sent out to do a witch's bidding. Although cats - especially black ones - were the favored vessel for such a demon to inhabit, dogs, toads, and other small animals were sometimes used.

In some Scandinavian countries, familiars were associated with spirits of the land and nature. Fairies, dwarves, and other elemental beings were believed to inhabit the physical bodies of animals. Once the Christian church came along, this practice went underground -- because any spirit other than an angel must be a demon. During the witch-hunt era, many domestic animals were killed because of their association with known witches and heretics.

During the Salem witch trials, there is little account of the practice of animal familiars, although one man was charged with encouraging a dog to attack by way of magical means. The dog, interestingly enough, was tried, convicted, and hanged.

In shamanistic practices, the animal familiar is not a physical being at all, but a thought-form or spiritual entity. It often travels astrally, or serves as a magical guardian against those who might try to psychically attack the shaman. 

Many people in the NeoPagan community have adapted the term to mean an actual, living animal.

You'll encounter many Pagans who have an animal companion that they consider their familiar - even though this is a co-opting of the word's original meaning - and most people no longer believe that these are spirits or demons inhabiting an animal. Instead, they have an emotional and psychic bond with the cat, dog, or whatever, who is attuned to the powers of its human partner.

Finding a Familiar

Not everyone has, needs, or even wants a familiar. If you have an animal companion as a pet, such as a cat or dog, try working on strengthening your psychic connection with that animal. Books such as Ted Andrews' Animal Speak contain some excellent pointers on how to do this.

If an animal has appeared in your life unexpectedly -- such as a stray cat that appears regularly, for instance -- it's possible that it may have been drawn to you psychically. However, be sure to rule out mundane reasons for its appearance first. If you're leaving out food for the local feral kitties, that's a far more logical explanation. Likewise, if you see a sudden influx of birds, consider the season -- is the ground thawing, making food more available? Not all animal visitors are magical - sometimes, they're just coming to visit.

If you'd like to draw a familiar to you, some traditions believe you can do this by meditation. Find a quiet place to sit undisturbed, and allow your mind to wander. As you journey, you may encounter various people or objects. Focus your intent on meeting an animal companion, and see if you come into contact with any.

Author and artist Sarah Anne Lawless says, "[Animal familiars] select you, not the other way around. Everyone wishes their familiar was a bear, wolf, mountain lion, fox — all the usual suspects — but in reality this is usually not the case. In most cases an apprentice witch or shaman starts with smaller less powerful animal helpers and over time as their power and knowledge increases they acquire stronger and more powerful animal familiars. Keep in mind that the size of an animal does not reflect its power as some of the most powerful animals are also the smallest.

In cases of true hereditary witchcraft or shamanism animal familiars can be inherited from a dying elder as they have a vested interest in you as family. Even though you cannot select one, you can seek them out and invite them into your life, but you cannot request which animal they will be."

In addition to familiars, some people do magical work with what's called a power animal or a spirit animal. A power animal is a spiritual guardian that some people connect with. However, much like other spiritual entities, there's no rule or guideline that says you must have one. If you happen to connect with an animal entity while meditating or performing astral travel, then that may be your power animal, or it may just be curious about what you're up to.