Familiars

by bennybargas

It seems fitting that this topic would naturally follow after my last (empaths) because nothing makes me roll my eyes more than when neo-pagans start talking about their half-Betazoid empathic powers or rather plain (even if idiosyncratic) pets as “familiars”.

Witches'Familiars1579In European witchcraft lore, familiars were a class of spirits that were believed to assist or protect the witch or conjurer. There were a number of ways to obtain a familiar, of course, and they varied by sources. According to some sources, a familiar will present itself before the witch in times of great need or duress or simply in the middle of a humdrum day while other sources indicate a witch is given or inherits the familiar.

However, you will note that what’s not in the lore: the idea that one’s pets become familiars. How many times have we seen it? A newbie who has just started studying the occult and witchcraft with a hopeful question, “I’ve had Miss Kitty Fantastico for years and I’ve just realized that she’s always doing [X], [Y], and [Z]–do you think she could be my familiar?”

What’s more, traditionally, a familiar was a tutelary or mentoring spirit with whom a witch had a working relationship; it wasn’t a pet who did quirky or circumstantially “witchy” things like walk the circle, lick your athame, or watch intently at your feet while you invoke the Gods. The familiar spirit taught the witch

Oddly, though, there is a type of spirit that fits the traditional mold of a familiar spirit but it’s been couched in terms that have been appropriated from other cultures. Many witches and neo-pagans today will speak of a spirit or spirits with whom they work who guide, teach, and help them in many spiritual or occult matters but they are referred to as “animal guides”, “spirit animals”, or even “totems”.

It would seem to me that these spirits are exactly what tradition describes as a familiar spirit, so why do we eschew tradition for appropriative terms born out of colonialist exoticism? Why do we use other people’s terminology of a concept for which we already have a term in the lore?

Now, I, myself, do not work with familiars (and certainly not “animal guides”, “spirit animals”, or “totems”), so I can’t answer my own question; I can only posit it. So, what say you all? If you work with these sort of spirits, do you by chance refer to them as familiars? If not, what do you call them? If you use the latter three terms (or variations thereof), why?

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