Familiar Spirit vs. Pet

Onwards today with one of my major peeves. What’s something everyone associates with witches? (and therefore anyone who is remotely “witchy”) Well, usually a black cat, a rabbit, or something like a toad. Or at least, that’s what I always remember hearing about. It’s a bit cliché, to be honest–those are the stereotypes.

What is is, though, at the heart of the matter is a familiar.

So let’s get into it, just what is a familiar and how is it different then a pet.

Traditional Familiar

Old beliefs & traditions about the creature

This stems back to medieval times (really older, but let’s go here). So way back in “ye olden days”, back when witchcraft was a heresy that could get you killed by the Church – a familiar was a particular entity that assisted a witch in doing his/her malicious works. Well, not always malicious. Even those considered cunning folk (or whatever regional term applied depending on what country/region it applied to) doing work for their neighbors might have a familiar spirit.

They usually are animals, but some familiar would be human in form. I don’t really remember coming across a lot of those, though. But I do remember there were some legends throughout Europe about a familiar taking the shape of a young human to go about with the witch. I’m having trouble finding specifics about that though, so there’s that. Most of the accounts I remember reading about had familiars as animals–most often cats. Which is rather interesting, in and of itself to consider just why cats are the most popular ones.

So what it was, at it’s heart: an entity that assists with magic.


Absolutely not a pet, a real animal/creature. A familiar was a created entity, something masquerading as a normal, living creature just to blend in.

So, keeping that in mind. A witch, cunning man/woman, wizard…whatever. They would have had a cat, a dog, ferret, rabbit or toad…something “ordinary” as a familiar. Because who is going to really think twice about the normal creature that their neighbor keeps? Most people wouldn’t even think twice about their neighbor John or Mary down the road who has a normal, ordinary pet cat or dog.

If John or Mary had a pet dragon, phoenix, or fairy–well that would draw a metric ton of attention that no one would really want. Hell, even a damned peacock owned by a peasant in most places would draw way too much attention. It’s best to do your work underneath the cloud of normalcy. Blend in, less attention, you get along better and enjoy your life without being bothered overmuch.

The Discovery of Witches – Matthew Hopkins (1647)

I’ve always been interested in one particular point, because it’s just…interesting.

How to Find a Familiar

This is actually somewhat amusing–from the outside looking in. Just stop and read this, then think it over for a quick moment.

  • Familiar entity just appears to the person
  • Familiar entity is gifted to the person
  • Familiar entity meets & makes deal with the person

So…all in all, here’s your lesson:

Don’t ever be alone

Don’t accept strange gifts

Don’t make a deal with entities you meet

Okay – so I’m kind of joking. Because really, I would say that it’s impossible to avoid those situations. At the heart, “meeting” a familiar really was just every day life. There’s no possible way to avoid those situations to avoid being charged with having a familiar.

What a Familiar does

I don’t work with them.

For obvious reasons; mainly being I’m not a practicing witch, not really. And I don’t need one. Also, I just don’t want to use one, they’re not interesting to me in that manner. But that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to how a traditional familiar worked.

They can be used as magical shields. That means, you can use a familiar to take the hit for you, so to say, if someone were to hurl a spell or curse at you. Just an extreme example, but an important one. Familiars are tools, they’re an entity with a specific purpose. That is, to work with you magically; and sometimes that means dangerous, ugly work. Magic/witchcraft isn’t always pretty–and so entities can be good tools to remove yourself from the line of fire (from a certain point of view, of course).


That creature that you love & care for.

This should need no explanation. But, let’s do a short one anyway, just for the purpose of this article.

A pet is your (beloved) creature that you love, feed, clean, tend to and play with. It’s usually a part of your family, and I would hope that people who have pets love them dearly. You don’t want any harm to come to your pets, you want to protect them and make sure that they have a comfortable, peaceful, harm-free life. That’s why people take their pets to the vet, spend thousands of dollars in treating pet ailments and injuries…why you talk to others for tips on how to spoil them (what foods for treats, good toys, etc).


A pet is absolutely not a creature you should want to put through the grueling work of magic, defense or “taking one for the team”.

Basically, a pet is beloved–and for most people part of the family. No one would want to put their pet through trouble or unnecessary pain or suffering; not if they love their little furry/feathered/slimy/scaly friend.

The Love Potion – Evelyn De Morgan

Modern Pagan “Familiar”

Being the source of the peeve

Now I’m up to modern day definitions. And that brings me to the community as a whole.

Do you know how many times I see/hear/read about someone going on about how precious their familiar Fluffy is? And Fluffy is your normal tabby cat, black cat, mutt dog, black dog…ferret, parrot, snake, etc, etc, ad nauseum.


This is…baffling.

I totally get wanting to have your beloved pet be part of your rituals. And if Fluffy like to come and watch you do your witchcraft or magic, cool. Maybe Fluffy is magically inclined and wants to help you. Not a familiar, but a friendly, comforting presence. Sure. I can see that.

Actually, my last fluffy fur-baby Rose seemed to like to be around when I was doing my minor workings. She was a nosy, curious little cat, and liked to always be the center of attention. Which explains why she wanted to always be around. Because I have better things to be doing than practicing; i.e. paying attention to her. And if I was working, well then she better be there to get her attention dues.

But really, let’s be honest. Fluffy the Cat is usually there because you are–and cats like to be in the midst of things when they want to. They’re sensitive to energy, and probably just want to make sure you’re not fucking up their home (because we all know that the cats just let us live in their homes).

But 99.99% of the time–Fluffy, Fido, Hopper or Wiggles are not at all a familiar or even magically inclined. They just want to be around you, doing what you are doing. That’s part of the symbiotic relationship that we have with creatures. Some more than others, sure. But most of the time, your pet is not a familiar.

And think about it. Just…really think about what a familiar really is, and what your pet really is. Because a deep moment of thought, and I’m actually rather horrified at the implications of it all.

Why the hell would you want your pet to be a familiar? A familiar is an entity that will sometimes take the hit for you, should you piss off the wrong witch, or perhaps somehow get hit by stray flak. Whatever the case may be.

Why would any sane pet parent/guardian want their dear little pet to take a magical hit for them? That’s not something I would wish on my dear pets. Actually, it’s not anything I would wish on anyone I care about. Let alone my pets, who are really in effect somewhat “helpless” and need my protection. There’s a lot they can do, but I’m their protector from those things beyond their control.

So I just flat don’t get the modern obsession with talking about Fido, Fluffy or whoever being their familiar. It’s actually rather abhorrent, knowing what a familiar really is…the thought that anyone would want that for their pet. It hurts my heart. (I’m generally a cold-heart; but when it comes to animals, nope. I’m a sap)

Can’t we use another name?

Really. Think about it. Familiar has a particular meaning. It’s an entity that you work with–lots consider them a type of tool. That’s not the connotation I would want for my pet. Not at all. And people who follow traditional witchcraft or magic practices, I’m sure they get the same thought when they hear someone mention a familiar.

Obviously, words can change. But why not just come up with a new term or phrase? There’s got to be something else out there to use. Something that doesn’t have the old connotation of making your dear pet a tool that can get hit by spell/curse/whatever if needed. There’s probably dozens of other things you could come up with in English alone.

So there’s no need to use the term “familiar”.

I’d prefer myself some other name. It’s not like I’m going to use a familiar anytime soon (not that I can foresee). But it would be nice to be able to read in a group, chat or discussion and know automatically if I’m reading about a traditional familiar–or if I’m reading about someone’s pet that they think is doing magic with them.

Header is by Nino Barbieri.


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I'm a bibliophile who loves collecting books. Definite cat person. Amateur historian and major geek, who loves all things Tolkien and Star Trek. I'm also fluent in German.

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