If you ask three different witches what a familiar spirit is, you’ll probably get at least nine different definition. I have been asked many questions about the Familiar Spirit, particularly in confusion with how others have used the term. In this piece, I will share what the Familiar Spirit is for me and for my tradition. This isn’t to say other traditions and witches who use the term familiar spirit in a different manner are wrong, just how my views and experiences differ from their views.
When I first met Devin Hunter a few years back, one of the things we bonded over was the subject of the Familiar Spirit, which we saw eye to eye on, despite feeling that no one else did. I will use capitalization of The Familiar Spirit to refer to the concept we use in Sacred Fires and lowercase familiar spirit to refer to other concepts regarding the familiar spirit, unless quoting someone else. If you’re interested in connecting with this sort of Familiar Spirit, Devin provides a process in of doing this in Chapter 11 of The Witches Book of Power and another process for doing this in Chapter 4 of The Witch’s Book of Spirits.
So before I begin, let me explain how I met my familiar spirit. In my interview on Down At The Crossroads, I talked a little bit about how I discovered my Familiar. In the interview I talk about how I although I was interested in witchcraft at a very early age, even when my path went down other “non-witchcraft” paths, I was still seeking out magick and spirituality, despite what labels I put onto it. One of those paths was the path of Shamanism in various forms.
“As I got deeper in my shamanic studies, I was going through the Munaky Ki (Rites), which (are rites from) Alberto Villoldo’s school. I started spontaneously astral projecting, which scared the crap out of me. It would be like I was lying on my bed and then I’d be uncontrollably face-planting on the ceiling. This started happening so often I was like “Okay, I need to learn how to do this” and at that time I was like “I’m going to do a meditation to find my power animal”, which is pretty offensive now that I look back. But I did. I found this spirit, this barn owl who came to me. I saw it in the journey work in the meditation, but it really came to me at night. In the middle of the night I woke up and right above me flapping (her wings) in slow motion was this barn owl.
This barn owl spoke, and it speaks with a woman’s voice, and she said, “you’ve spent enough time here, it’s time to hunt in the dark now.” So that was the first message and of course I’m thinking “oh, this is just a spirit animal”, but as my relationship built, the communications became a very regular thing. So this wasn’t just the energy of an overarching animal. This was a very specific spirit with a personality, and it would change forms. Sometimes it would appear as a black cat, which sounds really fucking cliche, and then sometimes it would be kind of chimeric where it was part owl, part cat – which is a lot more like those old witch trial drawings and stuff, when they’re describing the familiar spirit. So at the time I had no frame of reference for what this spirit was. I was like, “maybe it’s not just an animal spirit.” This spirit became a guide for me and would help me navigate the astral and help me learn how to control getting out of my body and back in.”
– DatC #082 – For Puck’s Sake, Mat Auryn!
It was my Familiar Spirit that brought me back onto the path of witchcraft. It was my Familiar Spirit that was the bond that peaked my interest into The Sacred Fires Tradition of Witchcraft. The idea of a familiar spirit telling you its time to leave with them and taking you to other realms has a historical basis I discovered as my research into the subject of familiar spirits and The Familiar Spirits deepened.
“A few magical practitioners claimed that they first met their familiars in fairyland, or at the sabbath; however, a greater number claimed that their journey to these places had been initiated by the familiar’s invitation. Nairnshire witch Isobel Gowdie ( 1662 ) , for example, first met the Devil as she was ‘goeing betwix the townes of Drumdewin and the Headis’ where she ‘promeisit to me it him, in the night time, in the Kirk of Aulderne; quhilk I did’. Bessie Dunlop claimed that on one occasion Tom Reid ‘tuke hir be the aproun, and wald haif had hir gangand [go} with him to Elfame’, and that on another, she met a group of ‘gude wychtis that wynnit in the Court of Elfame; quha come thair to desyre hir to go with thame’. Scattered throughout encounter-narratives from Southern England, where descriptions of sabbath and fairyland experiences are seldom found, we still find references to familiars attempting to lure magical practitioners to ‘go with them’, although the destination- is not specified. Huntingdonshire witch Ellen Shepheard ( 1646), for example, claimed that ‘a Spirit, somewhat like a Rat, but not fully so big, of an iron-grey colour … said you must goe with me’ , whilst nearly seventy years earlier Essex witch Elizabeth Bennett maintained that a familiar spirit in the form of a black dog asked her to ‘go with it”
Difference Between The Familiar, the Animal Spirit and the Servitor
As mentioned above, The Familiar Spirit and the concept of totems and animal spirits differ. I have worked and still work with the spirit of Owl, but this is completely different than my Familiar Spirit who often appears in owl. The main difference is that animal spirits tend not to have personalities like other spirits, instead I would use the word “nature” to describe their actions, rather than “personality”.
The difference is that when working with animal spirits, one tends to be working with the spirit of Owl and not an owl spirit – in other words, one is working with the overarching spirit of Owl – the collective group soul which is Owl, instead of a specific spirit with their own thoughts, desires, and motivations. While Owl is definitely an ally, for me, it’s not the same as my experiences with my Familiar. The closest comparison I would give is the difference between Angels – who seem to be more robotic and lack Free Will, with that of the Faeries, who have their own personalities, desires, free will, and agendas. Another major difference is that the Familiar will often shapeshift at times into other animals, creatures, or human forms – which is different than any experience I’ve had or heard of regarding animal spirits. This is also why the Familiar for me, is different than a servitor or a creature that you’ve constructed to do your bidding. The Familiar is its own independent and conscious entity that exists with or without you.
Difference Between The Familiar and the Fetch
Like the familiar, the Fetch has various definitions. Sometimes the Fetch can refer to the lower soul itself. Sometimes the Fetch can refer to a servitor spirit that one has created to do their bidding. Sometimes the Fetch can refer to the vessel the lower soul takes on when shapeshifting into an animal while traveling in other realms, particularly in shamanic journeying.
“The second part of our soul structure is called variously the wraith or fetch. This is the unihipili, or lower self. It will become familiar if we approach it as the Freudian id or subconscious, as long as we remember that these terms refer to aspects of the psyche and not to spiritual presences of which the psyche is but a part. Fetch is preverbal, communicating not in words and sentences, but in gut reactions, symbols and dreams. It is our animal and sexual nature… as well as our innocent child nature. It is primal and uncivilized.
– Storm Faerywolf
Betwixt and Between: Exploring the Faery Tradition of Witchcraft
I can see why the Familiar and the Fetch get confused and conflated as there are many parallels. The Fetch is our lower self, our animalistic self, our connection to nature, and our physical nature. It acts very much like an animal or pet. My theory is that all of us have a unique looking fetch, that appears to us in animal form. Though we may have different symbols or animal totems that represent the Fetch Soul in different traditions of witchcraft, I believe that the Familiar Spirit takes on the primary form that is familiar to our own Fetch, as a primary form of interaction – though it’s not limited to this. I would refer to the Fetch as the Familiar Soul or Familiar Self and not the Familiar Spirit, which I view as external but linked and understood primarily to the Familiar Self. Another common apparition of familiar spirits in history and among modern witches is that of the imp, which is a very Lower Self image. While I disagree with a lot of the use of the word ‘familiar’ in Timothy Roderick’s book, there’s some interesting insights in it.
“In the system of magic called Huna (which literally means “secret”), the animals hold a position of prominence in the shaman’s spiritual workings. It is believed that the Familiar Self (the Unihipili) is part of a trinity of souls that comprises the human spirit. The job of the Familiar Self is to help manifest the will of the magical worker. The Unihipili, just like the Rekken and the totem, is regarded as a personal animal spirit that ventures into the physical world to bring forth the magical worker’s wishes. Likewise, this was the task of the Familiar in the European traditions of magic – to work the will of the Witch.
– Timothy Roderick
The Once Unknown Familiar
Difference Between The Familiar and Spirit Guides
Familiars can be seen as allies or spirit guides. But I view a strong distinction. I believe they are a type of spirit guide, but differ greatly from common spirit guides.
“Familiars are spirits who intimately work with us. Not particularly invested in the enrichment of our souls, they are more interested in being friends and partners in crime. On occasion, as with what happened with me and my familiar, these allies can start off as guides and then over time move into the role of familiar. Guides are rarely permanent fixtures and have a tendency to come when needed and then exit the stage once the job is done. Sometimes you make friends, however, and they stick around, dropping the formality of mentor and guide and sliding into a much more intimate partnership of equals. In my case, which we will discuss a bit later, I met Malach as a spirit guide and then found out that we had past lifetimes together and a soul contract to meet up again in this life. Our partnership was prearranged in a previous life, and apparently we have been doing this for a long time. In my travels and intrigues I have found that many witches have similar past-life experiences and connections with their familiars.”
– Devin Hunter
The Witch’s Book of Spirits
Devin touches upon some of the key distinctions that I have come to believe . Familiars once recognized are lifelong partners, though they aren’t familiar until recognized – until then, it’s pretty much a Stranger waiting for you to remember it. The other key point here is the relationship between the Familiar and the Self through many lifetimes. Spirit guides also tend to be focused on your spiritual evolution and the highest good for all, including yourself. The Familiar Spirit is a bit different. The Familiar Spirit is reminiscent of many different spirit guides and takes on the role of pretty much every type there is out there; a protection guide, a runner guide, a teacher guide, and a vocational guide – but it’s that last one that I feel defines the difference.
The Familiar Spirit is concerned with your vocation as a Witch. As such, they desire to ensure that you are the best witch you can be. They become somewhat of your sidekick (or perhaps you’re theirs) when it comes to the magickal path. As such, they will assist in magickal practices a spirit guide typically wouldn’t – because their focus is on helping you achieve greater magick, not the human conceptions of morality with that magick. They become intermediaries between you and other spirits, translators of psychic information, revelators of new magickal information and insights. The relationship feels like that of a soul mate – a concept I don’t typically believe in. They become your greatest partner, your greatest ally, and your greatest asset as a witch. There’s also a familiarity that feels like it goes beyond any one lifetime, a familiarity felt like none-other.
Difference Between The Familiar and Magickal Pets
Another common definition is to call a pet that you have that is drawn to magickal energy (and some really are) your familiar spirit, which evokes the idea of the witch and her pet cat. Margaret Murray in The God of the Witches discusses the idea of the Domestic Familiar, which seems to be a blending of the idea of the Familiar Spirit and magickal pets. I think this may be a large part of where the idea within modern witchcraft of pets being a witch’s familiar comes form. The Domestic Familiar was a physical animal that was kept, like a toad or a rat – but when Murray describes how the witch kept, fed, and worked with this physical animal, it sounds like anything but a physical animal but rather a spirit.
“I think the narratives that came from the pre-modern period regarding the Witch’s Familiar having the tangible form of an animal that lived with the witch is a conflation of a spiritual reality with a more easily observed ordinary reality. I think that primarily, chiefly, the familiar of any witch from history, or from the modern day, is going to be a spirit or a preternatural entity of that type.
I think the pre-industrial imagination had fewer walls between the seen and the unseen or between the rational and trans-rational, and could more readily embrace or conceive of an overlap between those two things. A woman known to be a “witch” who had cats around was going to inspire stories about her “imps” or “demons” taking the form of cats. That’s good imagination, what we might even call sensationalism these days. And yet, it’s based in something vital- a closeness between seen and unseen that we lack these days.
Hollywood and popular culture also (for modern people) have a huge role to play in how things like this are conceived of. Media is our new body of lore and story and myth, now.”
“The concept of the Familiar Spirit being an animal or “spirit animal” is, in my opinion, a white washing by popular wiccans (those who practice a loose version of Traditional Wicca or Trad Craft, mostly influenced by those much judged Llewellyn books from the 90’s) who just simply weren’t talented in the art of spirit mediumship enough, to explain away something they couldn’t do or didn’t understand. That’s what we do, we rationalize things away, and in popular wicca that has been done so many times that I think people stopped questioning it.
In the context of my tradition, the Familiar Spirit is a very real and palpable part of our craft and every single one of us has to forge a solid relationship with a Familiar in order receive initiation. This was not something that was available for me when training in other traditions, I had to find this on my own and develop material around it. While doing so I found other witches, all over the planet, who felt the same way and were having the same type of experiences as we were. So that was a big clue that what we stumbled upon was real and it needed attention. Over time, our work with Familiars has become the easily most recognizable aspect of our tradition publicly.
Yes, terms develop over time, but the idea that your pet cat is your Familiar Spirit is thankfully new enough that I hope people who are interested in this type of work take a look at the work here that myself and many other witches do. Your cat isn’t going to help you broker a deal with the crossroads spirit. For us, the term Familiar is one that comes with honor and responsibility. I think calling animal companions Familiar belittles that role and fosters a reality for the witch that removes the spirit world just another degree away from us. In The Witch’s Book of Spirits I get to really dive more into that work and am continuing to do so with following projects.”