. . . Or Are They Fellow Witches?
I participate in a few witchcraft/pagan groups in social media, and one of the subjects that comes up over and over again in all of them is pets and familiars. While most people are friendly when talking about each other’s beloved furry family members and how they relate to personal practice, there is often that person who feels the need to chime in.
You know the one. It’s the gatekeeper who pops in (no offense meant, of course) to boldly and confidently declare that absolutely no pet is ever a familiar (but Fluffy McCuddles is doubtless a lovely pet regardless).
Usually the conversation continues with barely a blip, as most people ignore said gatekeeper and the embattled subthread they sparked, but their assertions are damaging nonetheless. When someone who is new to their craft sees bold statements made with such complete confidence, it can be shaking. What if the gatekeeper is right, and the person with the “familiar” is deluding themself. What if believing in physical animal familiars is a form of imaginative overinflation of the importance of a beloved pet?
It doesn’t matter much if most people ignore the gatekeeper, because the end result of being a confident gatekeeper is the creation of more gatekeepers. There’s something comforting about absolutes, about dogma. Dogma saves you from having to ponder, and so it can be very attractive, especially when you are new to something and hoping for some solid ground to stand on.
Sometimes, after dismissing the possibility that another person’s familiar is a familiar, those gatekeepers will boldly declare that a “real” familiar is a spirit being that takes the form of an animal to aid magical work on the astral or other plane of reality.
While such spirit beings certainly exist, and are valid familiars, it strikes me as a weird choice for a dogmatic exclusionary definition. The idea of the familiar is very much wrapped up in the physical world, be it the tiny mouse toiling away for the apprentice wizard, the witch’s cat, the sorceress’s raven, or Odin’s wolves. Does anyone expect that their familiar will be able to physically talk, stir brews, or allow us to physically see through their eyes? Of course not! We also can’t summon lightning out of a staff, but that doesn’t mean real magic doesn’t exist.
When spirit familiars are offered as an exclusive definition, it makes me cringe viscerally every time. Spirit beings exist. Physical beings exist. The existence of one does not negate the other. Just because your familiar is noncorporeal, doesn’t mean someone else’s can’t be corporeal (and vice-versa!). Also, English words and terms can, and usually do, have more than one meaning.
If you want to call the animal-shaped spirit being you consistently work with your familiar, more power to you. It’s far less problematic than calling them your spirit guide, a term drowning in cultural appropriation. Go for it, just for the love of civil discourse and friendly conversation and inclusion, don’t deny someone else’s physical familiar just because yours is noncorporeal!
The Pet as The Familiar
I have read some amazing stories about how people found their familiars, or their familiars found them. It often involves the animal coming into the practitioner’s life during circumstances which are unusual, if not clearly magical. Other times a pet simply shows an unexpected inclination to help with magical processes.
These familiars often help in ways that are absolutely undeniable to the people who call them friend and family. Whether that is simply sitting watch and aiding in the focus of energy, getting into things that the practitioner has been ignoring, directly helping to pick out tarot cards, alerting to approaching spirits, or something else entirely, the impact can be profound.
It is possible that in some cases the animal in question simply wants to be involved in whatever their person is doing even though they don’t understand it, but when you can sense energy and magic, it’s not too hard to see the difference.Is every pet a familiar? Definitely not, but that doesn’t negate the very real experiences that people have with animals that are familiars.
Deliberately Seeking a Familiar
Familiars are not especially common, even in pagan and witchy circles, although a huge portion of us do have and love our pets. You might get lucky and adopt a pet who just turns out to be a familiar, but sometimes people specifically want the connection and magical companionship of a familiar.
If you are looking to adopt a pet that specifically has the potential to be a familiar, I suggest starting with magic. Create a ritual, a sigil, a jar spell, poppet, etc., whatever works best for you and your practice, to manifest a familiar into your life. If you want magic, there’s no better place to begin than magic.
After that is done, bring along a magical test when you go looking at prospective animals to adopt. Pendulums are an easy and portable option, but any magically charged or enchanted object will work. Channel energy through it, and see who takes an interest.
The last time I went out looking to adopt a black kitten, the shelter was overflowing with adorable black fuzz balls. My partner and I were having a very difficult time picking out one in particular, so I suggested she pull out her pendulum and ask it which kitten would be the best fit in our home.
I was expecting the pendulum to point to a kitten, but instead she had two kittens come running at her before she could even fully get the pendulum out of her purse. They gleefully played with the pendulum while all the other kittens completely ignored it. When we checked with the volunteer, the two kittens were brothers, so instead of bringing home one kitten, we ended up with two who were magically inclined, even though that wasn’t our intention when walking in.
It worked out that day that we wanted to adopt a black kitten (our elderly black cat had recently passed), but if we had been intentionally looking for a familiar, that wouldn’t have been a guarantee. If finding a familiar is your primary goal, be flexible. The animal that notices your magic and wants to be a part of it might not be exactly what you were picturing.
The Familiar as a Fellow Witch
This may be a bit of the animist in me hanging out, but I like to think of familiars and other magically inclined animals as fellow witches. Certainly, humans are not the only creatures on this planet who sense and can manipulate magical energies. Like the old idea that only humans can use tools, excluding other animals from the realm of magic is shortsighted and drowning in the egotism of racial superiority. But, like with humans, not all animals sense and manipulate magic. Also, just like some humans who can sense and manipulate energies are disinclined to develop or make use of those abilities, so too are some animals who are capable.
The core of witchcraft and magic is inside the practitioner, independently of whatever tradition they might practice, or trappings they might enjoy. Being able to teach someone how to call quarters, or the particulars of magical correspondences, is not essential to the existence of magical skills. In the same way, the abilities of animal practitioners come from within, usually with a hefty dose of intuition, and in the case of beloved pets, also through observing the magical workings of their person.
One of the things I love most about this perspective is that it gives the animal full agency in their magical actions. When you respect your familiar as a fellow witch, you are acknowledging that they choose to do magic, and choose to do it with you. It’s not an imposition or an obligation. It’s a beautiful partnership.