So, What Is a Familiar Spirit?

The Title of Book 1 of the Cotton Family Series is Familiar Spirits for a good reason. Many of us in the pagan community have heard the term “familiar spirit” on occasion. Perhaps some of us have even worked with familiar spirits. But for those who aren’t familiar with the term familiar spirits, I hope to shed some light on the topic.


An old drawing that appears to include “familiar spirits

If you are to google the term familiar spirits, you will typically find answers somewhere in the range of “demonic entities” or “magical pets”. Depending on who you ask is which answer you will get. Yes, they are mentioned in the Bible and yes, they are thought of as magical pets by many modern Wiccans and pagans; however, their history is much richer than one might expect. And often their actual definition is completely overlooked.

The term familiar spirit became a popular one during the Dark Ages when the Witch Trials were revving up in Europe. With the rise of the Church came a “purging” of the individuals who defied the Church’s rules and regulations. The easiest way for the Church to be rid of rebels of any kind was to accuse them of witchcraft and lock them up and hopefully execute them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the Church accusing men, women, and even children of witchcraft, it was others in the community. It could’ve been your own neighbor who pointed their finger at you and said “witch!”

Along with the accusations of being a witch came accusations of practicing witchcraft (obviously). The way in which they could try and execute a witch was only to prove she was guilty of maleficia (black magick). One form of this was the confession of having a familiar spirit. During this time, a familiar spirit was considered a spirit that made a deal with the witch and would do her bidding for something in return.

One of the most well-known of the Witch Trials occurred in Lancashire, England in the seventeenth century. This case was known as the Pendle Witch Trials and involved accusations of witchcraft made against eleven people. In this case, more than one person was said to have had familiar spirits at their beck and call…there to do their evil bidding and to kill whomever they asked. One accused witch named Alison Device supposedly confessed to the following:

“there appeared unto her a thing like unto a black dog: speaking unto her and desiring her to give him her soul, and he would give her power to do any thing she would: whereupon she being therewithal enticed, and setting her down; the said black dog did with his mouth (as she then thought) suck at her breast, a little below her paps, which place did remain blue half a year next after: which said black-dog did not appear to her, until the eighteenth day of march last.”

As we can see, if this did indeed occur, in order for Alison to have her familiar spirit attend to her malevolent plans, she was made to suckle it at her teet and/or elsewhere. This leads us to another part of the accusations of witches and their familiar spirits. When a witch’s body was searched for signs that she was a witch, often the accuser would find a mole, birthmark, or some other mark on the person’s body and call it evidence from which they deduced the witch had a familiar spirit.

While we notice a familiar spirit is mentioned time and time again throughout the Witch Trials as being in animal form, there are also accounts of the familiar spirit taking human form. This in part cancels out the idea that a familiar spirit is simply a witch’s “magical pet” like many are prone to believe today. A familiar spirit is essentially a spirit of some kind that is able to shift into whatever form it likes in order to do a witch’s bidding. Could the familiar spirit enter a physical body and use it to its liking? Absolutely, but it’s probably easier for the familiar spirit to shift its own form. Some of the more popular forms the familiar spirits would historically take include (but aren’t limited to):  black dogs (see above), cats, toads, flies, hares, birds, and rodents. But they would also be seen as children or grown men. The form the familiar spirit would take all depended on the task they had to perform.

The familiar spirit in my book, Familiar Spirits, is actually an ancestor of the main character’s. While I’ve never heard of an ancestor being one’s familiar spirit throughout the Witch Trial documents, I thought it only made sense to have an ancestor help a witch with her magick. The idea of the title Familiar Spirits is two-fold, it encompasses the obvious in that Lucy meets her familiar spirit by going home, and it also points to the fact that the evil spirit that haunts her now once haunted her as a child…in this way, he is “familiar” to her but not her familiar spirit.

So what is a familiar spirit, exactly? They are spirits of various origins that can be in a working relationship with a witch. Their origins might be from anywhere: elemental spirits, faeries, plant spirits, demons, or even ancestors. It depends on the witch. But I do not believe they are merely any pet a witch owns that he or she feels is magical. That is a different thing altogether.



Drawing of a witch feeding her familiars circa sixteenth century.