What is a Witch’s Familiar?
I have written about the subject of Witches Familiars, but have not provided a definition. Some people may not know this term, or not be aware of the special relationship that witches have had with animals since time began. There are quite a few layers of meaning to explore here, and I will begin with something little discussed in this context.
Lady of the Beasts
From ancient times, the Great Goddess has appeared in animal guise. As far back in time as the pre-historic Lascaux cave paintings, she has been depicted wearing horns or antlers that rise like the crescent moon above her head. In my prior blog article, “Witch’s Familiars and Their Charms: Witchery of the Hare”, I discuss the connection of the Moon and procreation. As Great Mother, the Goddess is at one with the Moon.
(The Moon reflects the image of the Goddess down the levels throughout the sublunar realms, until her power becomes manifest on Earth. In that form, she can be petitioned for favors by the Witch or Mage as she fertilizes all of Nature with her life-giving power.)
Many are the Forms of the Primal Mother:
The Goddess of the Witches, Diana has been called Lady of the Wild Beasts. As Diana the many Breasted, she nourishes all of the life forms that she has given life to. The animals surround her, follow her, and accompany her on the Wild Hunt. As Mother of all of Life, Diana is able to transform herself into the many guises of her children.
The sacred cats of Egypt such as Sekmet, or Bast, are embodiments of the Divine Mother. The swan and the dove belong of the Love Goddess Aphrodite as Mistress of Love and Death. The vultures and ravens of the battlefield are forms taken by the Triple Goddess’s Hecate and the Morrigan. The serpent Goddess’s of Wisdom is a familiar of Athena. Hathor, Isis and Nut of Egypt were known to take the maternal and lunar shapes of cows and bulls. One school of thought would call these animal shapes icons, another animal totems. We of the Witch Way know them as ‘familiars.’
Witchery and Shamanism:
Though it was not called “Shamanism” in Europe, Witchcraft has deep roots in practices very similar to Shamans, and Shamans have long worked with animal spirits. Whether the need was to encourage procreation in the animal kingdoms, or to enlist the aid of animal spirits their special talents by identifying closely with them, Shamans have traditionally been able to communicate telepathically with wild creatures, and sometimes even shape-shift into the forms of wild beasts. Judging by the early cave paintings and the activities of surviving Shamanically based cultures, fertility rites directed toward wild animals, even those where the goal was to acquire an animal skill such as the far seeing of the hawk, or the speed of the jaguar, were for the purposes of hunting. Animals are food, so great energy was expended to insure their plentiful numbers.
Pets as “Familiars”:
Women, as keepers of the house, have had a special relationship with domesticated animals. Women were perhaps the first keepers of pets, or animal companions with whom they share an emotional bond. It is highly likely that old women, often living alone, had very close relationships with their pets, as many do today. When Christian clerics began intruding into village life to gain converts, they certainly observed this phenomenon. Part of the Christian conversion program included a divide and conquer strategy — divide the people from the spirits of the land, the Great Mother, and her consorts by equating them with the Devil. A second strategy was to undermine the healing role of Cunning Folk, midwives, herbalists, and seers. It wasn’t long before the village wise woman and her pets were demonized, and lurid and degrading stories were spread about elderly Crones and their beastly ‘familiars’.
One story the Churchmen concocted was that witches kept domesticated animals, not out of love, but a as helpers in the spread of disease and death. Witches were apparently observed by these clerics going out at night under the full moon and transforming themselves into cats, crows, mice, or toads to poison wells, curdle milk, blight the crops, steal children for the faeries, and other assorted evils. A Witch kept her familiars and ‘imps’ loyal by feeding them with her blood. The animals were said to suck blood from her fingers or from an unusually placed nipple on her body.
Persecution of Witches and Their Familiars
By the 1640’s, when the WitchFinder General, Mathew Hopkins came along, the possession of these ‘witches teats’ or ‘marks’ had become an irrefutable sign that the person was a devotee of the Devil. The witches marks were thought to be insensitive to pain, so to test the accused, long needles were inserted into these marks. If the accused cried out, he or she was innocent. To fail to react was proof of guilt.
Once this insensitive teat was found, the witch was subjected to other, more intense, interrogation methods to extract a more detailed ‘confession.’
In 1164, Mathew Hopkins interrogated a witch in Essex, England. After much heavy torture, the witch spilled the names of her animal familiars: Pywakit, Pecke in the Crown, Griezzel, and Greedigutt were most likely cats.
In William Shakespeare’s play ‘MacBeth’ the three witches call for their familiars at the start of the play:
First Witch: I come, Graymalkin!
Second Witch: Paddock calls.
Third Witch: Anon.
ALL: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
(Three is the number of the Moon Goddess. Graymalkin is a cat and Paddock is a frog or toad.)
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