Welcome to episode 13 of the Middle Aged Witch podcast and I can’t even tell you how much fun I’ve had and how much I’ve learned and grown just as a result of doing this show. It’s been so edifying for me as a witch to go back to basics with you and sort of re-immerse myself in the Craft, and to remember why I love it so much. There’s always so much to learn with witchcraft, and it’s been really nice for me, as I go through these topics and write my outlines, to look back and remind myself why it’s exciting and why it’s empowering and why I pursued witchcraft to begin with. So thank you so much for continuing to come with me on this journey. I have been overwhelmed with the kindness I’ve received from people who have enjoyed the show, and I just don’t ever want people to think that I don’t appreciate it. So before I get weepy, let’s move on.
So this is the first Thursday of November, and I have been really enjoying everything I’m seeing on social media throughout the last week, really. All the beautiful and creative costumes, and the frankly gorgeous altars. We had Halloween, and then Samhain which was really lovely and beautiful for our family. Then the new moon just happened, and I’m just completely enjoying the quieting, calming energy of this time. You can sort of feel the earth giving her last, big stretch before she eases into her winter slumber. And I hope I’m not the only one who’s been feeling that.
Today, I wanted to talk about the concept of familiars. It wasn’t my idea to do this topic, in the interest of full disclosure. This topic was suggested by a listener whose username is MJLaird89, and thank you so much, MerriJo, for taking the time to write to me. I’m always humbled and excited to talk to people who listen to my little podcast and to get feedback. A lot of the time it feels like a really one-sided conversation, and that’s not generally my style. I prefer a give-and-take interaction. So thank you again.
So, familiars. What are they? Where do you find them? Are they spirits or are they physical beings? Is my pet a familiar? How can I know for sure? I see these kinds of questions a lot on message boards, usually newer witches trying to kind of get a handle on things. And the responses people give aren’t typically super helpful. I don’t think that’s because witches are trying to be difficult, I just think it’s because a lot of the time, especially online, if you state your opinion, people seem to feel comfortable telling you how wrong you are about everygoddamnthing you say, so the instinct is to be really vague. And really, this isn’t only a witch thing, everyone does this, when we hear people explaining things the complete opposite way that we learned them, we feel the need to immediately mount our high horse and set the record straight.
But I don’t care for that approach when it comes to witchcraft, or really much of anything. I think we are given enough super vague and nebulous advice when it comes to the craft, and sometimes when we have a question, the suggestion to “go read books” isn’t going to help us. Just as an FYI, all the sources I used for this episode will be listed in the show notes, if you want to read more about the topic. So let’s get specific about familiars.
A familiar is just a supernatural entity of some kind that assists a witch in their work. Look, for about five hundred years or so, just about every community had some sort of folk healer in their midst that the entire community relied upon. These cunning folk acted as midwives, herbalists, they would conduct funerary tasks, they would prescribe cures for ailments, which were usually a combination of folk remedies and some kind of spellwork. And it was commonly believed that all cunning folk had familiars, and that these magical assistants were a vital part of the folk healer’s work. That’s all that familiar means as a definition. And as historian Emma Wilby notes, sometimes these familiars take the physical form of an animal, which is why we tend to think of a witch’s familiar as being like, a black cat or a crow or a toad, or whatever, but this isn’t always the case.
Historically, sometimes a familiar might be some form of fae (also commonly called a fairy), sometimes they were thought of as demons, although that line of thinking came mainly from the same kinds of people who thought witches were all evil and should all be hanged. Sometimes, the term familiar was just a way to refer to the house spirit, which is just the spirit that nearly every witch’s home has (whether you realize it or not), whose primary purpose is to protect and give aid to its family. But for the most part, the familiars were just any sort of spirit totem that could be called upon by a witch to help her, or him, or them. They could easily come in the form of a human, an animal, or a magical creature, like an elf or goblin or something.
Allow me to differentiate here, briefly, my interpretation of the distinction between the spirit guide and the spirit familiar. A spirit guide is a teacher who has chosen or been assigned to a specific person from the moment of that person’s birth until that person dies. And yes, everyone has a spirit guide. A lot of us have more than one. This guide might be an ancestor, but not always. Some spirit guides used to be human, but oftentimes they are just spirits and have always been in spirit form, what we commonly think of as guardian angels. They provide guidance, wisdom and protection. Again, everyone has at least one spirit guide, whether they are a witch or not, and regardless of whether they believe in or attempt to contact them or not.
On the other hand, a familiar is NOT a teacher, but an assistant. Also, not everyone has a familiar. Typically, it’s only practitioners of magick, be it a witch, a bruja, a curse-lifter, a folk healer, whatever, who will have a familiar. A familiar may find its own way to a witch, or a witch may call for a familiar to find them and help them. The familiar may stay with its witch for a short time, it may stay for years. The familiar might assist the witch in figuring out what a person’s ailment is, the familiar might suggest remedies, or might even go and fetch the remedy.
We have volumes of accounts of familiars actually being demons in disguise, whose purpose was to trick or trap witches into doing the devil’s bidding. These demons would corrupt a witch and compel or entice her to do all sorts of evil, like setting curses on others, or stealing babies for sacrificial purposes, but even though we have so many of these accounts, we have to consider the source material. Unfortunately, a lot of the historical records having to do with witches familiars comes from court documents compiled during witch trials in Europe and the early Americas, so any useful or factual information is very clouded and is written through the lens of those people who were accusing others of witchcraft and devil-worship, most of whom were innocent of witchcraft altogether, I must clarify.
So it’s difficult to sort through all that information and come up with anything that we could call concrete or helpful in trying to determine how a modern witch might meet and use the help of a familiar. But we shall endeavor to try.
If you suspect that your familiar may have already found its way to you, that is to say, if you think your pet might actually be your familiar, you’re already ahead of the game. Now, I know there are people who will insist that your pet is NOT your familiar and who get really frustrated when witches call their pets familiars. And while I understand their perspective, respectfully, I don’t give a shit if you do that. Even if your cat isn’t actually a familiar, it doesn’t dilute witchcraft if you call him that.
But if you want to know for sure, you can use your favorite divination method to find out. We will go deep into different divination methods in the next couple weeks, and there is so much to say on the subject and so many different kinds of divination, that I am still trying to figure out how many episodes it’s going to take to get through it, but for our purposes, in this instance, we are going to leave it to you. So meditate with a piece of amethyst, or a purple candle, and just get to a calm mindspace. Once you’re there, start putting the question out into the universe: is Fluffy my familiar? It may take some time, but eventually, you’ll get your answer.
If your pet isn’t your familiar after all, or if you know you don’t currently have a familiar, we are going to summon one. And this means we are going to work a spell. You can do it however you like: you can create a sigil for calling in a familiar, you can write your desire on a bay leaf and burn it, you can use candle magic, you can write an incantation, you can combine several of these methods or use a completely different one. You’re going to be very specific in your wording, and it might be a good idea to ask for a certain sign to know that your spell has been successful.
After that’s done, you’re gonna just listen for the answer. You may get a message in a dream, or you may get the message in your waking life, but if you stay open to hearing the message, you will get it. A friend of mine had been interested in finding a familiar to work with and just happened to come across an animal shelter adoption drive while she was out running errands. She hadn’t been looking to get a pet, and she wasn’t really prepared for it, and she normally wouldn’t have even thought about going to an adoption drive, but something just compelled her to see what it was all about. And lo and behold, there was a little ginger cat, a little old to be called a kitten, but too young still to be called an adult cat, and she said that even though it was calm, the cat was making such intense eye contact with her that she felt like he was screaming at her to notice him.
She adopted Spaghettio that day, and he’s been her familiar and companion for like five years now. If you call for a familiar, it will come to you. It may take time to get to you, but it will come. Just keep listening for the message.
So now you’ve found your familiar. How do you utilize them as an assistant and a companion? A familiar is going to help you in all kinds of ways. The great thing about a familiar, especially when it does happen to take the form of an animal or even a pet, is that it’s primary, day-to-day function for you is going to be that of emotional support. Even with mundane household pets, science is acutely aware of how they can help us to be more calm and centered. They will sense when we are overwhelmed or upset and they are drawn to us in those times of distress and they give us a point of focus and help us to feel better. If that is all the assistance a familiar ever gives us, it’s a hell of a gift.
But beyond that, a familiar can help to give us messages and warnings almost telepathically. I mean how many times have you discovered that someone in your life turned out to be a total asshole, and said to yourself, “I knew there was a reason my dog didn’t like that guy.” My daughter Tree always knows when she needs to pay close attention during the day because there’s a crow that will occasionally squawk at her bedroom window in the morning, causing a hell of a ruckus, and it’s so different to the regular old songbirds that you hear outside in the mornings. And as soon as she hears this crow, she just recognizes and understands that it has a message for her, and she starts paying attention.
But even if your familiar is NOT an animal, they can and will still leave you messages in other ways. Finding feathers, coins, seeing repeating numbers, hearing the same song over and over again, all of these can be messages from familiars. You just have to forge and nurture a relationship with your familiar and then establish with them how you will recognize the messages they send you. It’s an interactive relationship.
A favorite way to use a familiar’s assistance is with the performance of magick. You can call on your familiar to give aid when you’re doing spells or rituals and to provide some extra sauce to the workings. As a magical being, they’re going to be in a position to lend additional energy to your magick and give it that little bit of additional zestiness. If your familiar is a wild animal, like a bird, you can send it out to gather information for you which it will be able to communicate to you by telepathic means, or in dreams, or by leaving those little messages for you to find, like those random coins.
The last thing I want to emphasize is that it’s important to remember that a witch and familiar relationship is totally unique, and your experience may not match what you see online or read about. You’re going to have to take the time and do the work of creating and developing that deep trust between yourself and your familiar so that when it’s time to get down to work, you and your familiar are going to be ready to work together to create some beautiful magick.
If you already have a familiar, I would love to hear your feedback. Tell me how you found your familiar, and how you work together. And send me a picture, I love seeing nonhuman magickal beings. Join me next week, when we dive into the cozy topic of kitchen witchery.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for listening today. My name is Eli, and this is the Middle Aged Witch podcast.