A familiar spirit or familiar (from Middle English familiar, related to family) is an animal-shaped spirit who serves for witchery, a demon, or other magician-related subjects.
Familiars serve their owners as domestic servants, farmhands, spies, and companions, and may help bewitch enemies. Familiars are also said to inspire artists and writers (see Tutelary spirit, Power Animal and compare Muse).
Familiars are considered an identifying characteristic of early modern English witchcraft, and serve as one feature setting it apart from European witchcraft; although we find legends of “Familiar creatures” in other parts of the world.
Familiars in European mythology
Familiars are most common in western European mythology, with some scholars arguing that familiars are only present in the traditions of Great Britain and France. In these areas three categories of familiars are believed to exist:
* human familiars, throughout Western Europe
* divinatory animals, Great Britain and France
* maleficent animals, only in Greece
Historiography on the Witch’s Familiar
Recent scholarship on familiars exhibits the depth and respectability absent from earlier demonological approaches. The study of familiars has grown from an academic topic in folkloric journals to a general topic in popular books and journals incorporating anthropology, history, women’s studies and other disciplines. James Sharpe, in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition, states: “Folklorists began their investigations in the 19th Century [and] found that familiars figured prominently in ideas about witchcraft.”
In the 1800s, folklorists fired the imagination of scholars who would, in decades to come, write descriptive volumes on witches and familiars. Examples of the growth and development of familiar scholarship are found in Folklore, which consistently contributes articles on traditional beliefs in England and early modern Europe.
In the first decades of the 1900s, familiars are identified as “niggets”, which are “creepy-crawly things that witches kept all over them”.
Margaret Murray delves into variations of the familiar found in witchcraft practices. Many of the sources she employs are trial records and demonological texts from early to modern England. These include the 1556 Essex Witchcraft Trials of the Witches of Hatfield Perevil, the 1582 Trial of the Witches of St. Osyth, and the 1645 Essex Trials with Matthew Hopkins acting as a Witch-finder. In 1921, Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe.. Her information concerning familiars comes from witchcraft trials in Essex in the 1500s and 1600s.
Recent scholarship is multi-disciplinary, integrating feminist-historical and world-historical approaches. Deborah Willis’ Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England links the witch’s attributed relationship with the familiar to a bizarre and misplaced corruption of motherhood and maternal power.