Becoming Familiar with Spirit Familiars

The witch and her familiar are iconic.  Just think of the witch’s black cat or a raven on a witch’s shoulder that is so ingrained in our popular image of the witch.  This image is so deeply instilled in our collective understanding of witches because it goes straight to the heart of what makes a witch – well, a witch – namely, a connection to the unseen worlds of spirit and magic.  In my own journey as a folk witch, my relationship with my spirit familiars has been the cornerstone of my personal practice.  

But what is a “spirit familiar?”  

 This is not a simple question to answer because there are very different ideas about who and what a witch’s familiar is.  Some consider their beloved pet to be their familiar, others only spirits, and yet others a thought form of the witch.  In this article, I will present my own understanding of spirit familiars based historical accounts, lore, and my own direct experience with familiars.  That being said, if your understanding is different than mine, be guided by your own truth. 

Historically, the term “familiar” is most often associated with the spirit allies of British and Scottish witches and cunning folk.  This does not mean that these important spirit relationships are reserved for those whose ancestry or practice stems from this part of the world.  Spirit allies are universal to those who connect with the Otherworld and engage in magical practices.  For this reason, the witch’s familiar shares common traits with spirit allies from other cultures, including, the shaman’s power animal, the Norse and Germanic ‘fylgia,” and the Irish “fetch.”  

My own definition of a “spirit familiar” is a powerful, shape-shifting astral spirit who a witch fosters a strong, reciprocal relationship with, and who over time, becomes a guide, craft teacher, protector, and lender of power to the witch.  Wow, that is a mouthful!  But to define familiars in this way clearly delineates what a spirit familiar is and why these relationships are so important to magical practitioners.

For the remainder of this article, we will explore my definition of a “spirit familiar.”  We will begin with unraveling the first part of the definition that “spirit familiars are powerful, shape-shifting astral spirits.”  

Familiars are Powerful, Shape-Shifting Astral Spirits:

Emma Wilby, author of “Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,” closely connects familiars with a very specific type of astral being – faeries.  She draws this conclusion from historical accounts of familiars found in the confessions of accused British and Scottish witches during the 16th and 17th centuries.  

The fae, like all astral beings, are spirits between this world and the next, but closer to our physical realm than to higher spiritual planes.  In fact, the lower astral realms overlap our world and if we could pierce the veil right where we stand, we would touch the astral planes.  

Astral spirits are a mix of spirit and material substance.  As Wilby puts it, “…the fairy possessed some kind of semi-material or ‘astral’ form putting them somewhere on the spectrum between human flesh and bones and spirit.”  The semi-substance of astral spirits compared to more ethereal beings, gives astral spirits the ability to strongly appear, manifest and shift things in the physical world. They are masters at harnessing and bringing astral energies into the material plane to weave fate, heal, divine the future, create, and more. Through relationships with astral spirits, we too can learn these skills, as well as form strong alliances with beings who can lend their unique power, energy and knowledge to magical workings and spiritual endeavors. 

Because astral bodies are malleable and can change form, spirit familiars have long appeared in history as both animals and humanoids. They are adept shapeshifters who can teach us how to skinwalk in our astral form.   

As stated before, the British/Scottish spirit familiar shares common characteristics with the Norse and Germanic “fylgia.” The fylgia, like the familiar, is an astral being and spirit helper who appears in lore sometimes as a human and other times as an animal.  The fylgia overlaps with another Germanic spirit called the “disir,” or ancestral fate mothers.  The word “fairy” stems from the French word for “fate,” and “fate mothers” – another term for the well-known “fairy godmothers” of European fairy tales.  Familiars and fylgia therefore have in common that they are connected to and may in fact be faeries, along with sharing the traits of being astral beings, shapeshifters and spirit allies to the living.

The fylgia is often referred to as the “one who goes forward.” These spirits can be powerful protectors who travel to the places we will visit and can warn of any dangers ahead

I have personally experienced this type of warning from a spirit familiar when my husband and I went to visit a commercial building that we were considering buying.  I suddenly became very sick as we drove towards the property.  As we got closer, I became sicker and sicker until we decided to cancel our viewing.  As soon as we canceled, the intense sickness in my stomach instantly disappeared.  This was my familiar/fylgia warning me that we were in potential danger or that we would seriously regret buying the property.  My husband and I have never looked back and wondered what if we bought that old 1800s building!  We were grateful for the clear warning to go no further. 

The Irish “fetch,” is another spirit being who shares common traits with the spirit familiar and fylgia. It is thought by some to be the Celtic counterpart to the Norse fylgia.  It is described as appearing to a person soon before their death.  The fetch is “the follower,” because it is with us from birth until we pass; but like the fylgia, the fetch “goes forward” to where the person will ultimately go and guides the soul to the afterlife.  Both the fetch and fylgia are sometimes described as being the astral body of a person, but this confusion speaks to the malleable nature of astral spirits who can appear in one breath as a doppelganger of us, and in another, as a raven or wolf. 

The fetch as a death harbinger might seem counter to the concept of a spirit ally during a witch’s life, but Robin Artisson, author of “An Carrow Gwyn: Sorcery and the Ancient Fayerie Faith,” helps to resolve this contradiction.  Artisson directly claims the fetch as another word for the witch’s familiar and explains that “witches and sorcerers often gain their chief power from identifying with the fetch-follower long before death.”  Artisson views this as a “reversal of the natural flow of the relationship between human and follower.”  After all, the witch has chosen a path very different or “reverse” from most, seeking in life what is beyond death by tapping into the unseen world of energy and spirits.  Artisson believes that the witch-familiar relationship leads to great spiritual transformation for the witch.     

The witch fosters a strong, reciprocal relationship with familiar spirits:

The benefits of being in a strong relationship with powerful and knowledgeable astral spirits are many.  But first and foremost, spirit familiars are teachers to the witch and guides into the Otherworld.  It is in (or from) the Otherworld that the witch can deepen their esoteric, spiritual, occult, intuitive and magical knowledge and abilities. 

Having a close relationship with familiars opens the doorway to the spirit worlds.  Once this door is open, your spirits can teach you the valuable skill of hedge riding.  To ride the hedge, is to travel in astral form into the spirit realms where you can gain valuable insights, guidance, or healing. You can also learn to manifest your will through learning to weave and bring astral energies back to our world.  Our spirit familiars join us in on these journeys (whether seen or unseen) and help lead us to the knowledge we seek.  

It is important to understand that familiars do not do “the bidding” of a witch.  They are not bound in servitude, but are instead close friends and allies.  In fact, you may find that spirit familiars become as dear to you as family.  

Should you seek to enter into a relationship with a familiar, then you must be ready to take on the responsibility of tending to that relationship just as you would any important relationship in your life.  Sacred reciprocity is at the heart of any witch-familiar relationship.  

This means you must be willing to take the time to connect and communicate with your spirit familiars.  Leaving out food or drink offerings, buying a small statue or piece of jewelry to honor a familiar, expressing gratitude, and merging with your familiar for an energy exchange, are also great ways to strengthen your spirit relationships.  These are only a few of many ways to tend to your familiars.  

Roger Horne, in his book “Folk Witchcraft: A Guide to Lore, Land and the Familiar Spirit for the Solitary Practitioner” provides practical and helpful advice for approaching a potential familiar.  He stresses to:

  • Be polite
  • Be Kind
  • Introduce yourself
  • Ask for a name
  • Don’t judge a spirit’s appearance (but do judge their actions)
  • Give an offering
  • Foster a friendship

This sounds like good advice for building a strong foundation for any lasting relationship.  

The witch-familiar relationship is often sealed by a pact or agreement between the witch and her familiar.  The pact sets the intention for a lasting bond – one sealed in trust, dedication, and reciprocity.  For this reason, familiars are connected to the Faerie Bride or Husband of lore, as marriage is a symbol of a long commitment.  Signing one’s name in the “black book” is another example of the pact between witch and familiar.  A witch’s relationship with her familiar is close and intimate – where secrets are told and secrets are kept.  This includes learning the secret magical knowledge of your familiars.  

But a trusting bond must first be fostered, then developed and maintained.  One in which both the witch and the familiar are honored as equals.  Not all magical practitioners may view spirit relationships in this way, but I do and have greatly benefited from taking the time to develop strong, reciprocal relationships with my spirit familiars.  

Spirit familiars are guides, craft teachers, protectors, and lenders of power to the witch:

Spirit familiars are teachers to the magical practitioner.  It is a common theme in Celtic lore for cunning folk to be taken by the faeries for a time and taught their craft. Examples of this are found in Thomas Cowan’s book “Fire in the Head,” on Celtic Shamanism.  He explains that in Celtic lore there are many accounts of cunning folk being taken to the faerie realms for often seven years, after which they are granted certain powers, talents, or healing abilities.  In my opinion, being “taken,” is a way of expressing being initiated by astral spirits into the mysteries of magic, spirits, and the Otherworld.  The path of the witch and shaman has always been one of initiation by spirits.  Many groups replicate the initiatory path of the witch through rites and rituals, but the most important initiations are those that the witch goes on by herself – guided by her spirit familiar(s).  

A well known example of “being taken” in Scottish lore is the story of “Thomas the Rhymer,” based on the historical figure of Thomas Learmont, the Laird of Ercildoune.  Thomas was taken by the Queen of Elphame to the faerie realm for seven years and in return was gifted with true speech (he could not lie), prophecy, and a faerie harp.  

Having apprenticed in Northern European Shamanism, it seems no mistake to me that the Queen of Elphame would take an interest in those who might have magical potential and seek to teach such individuals the mysteries of the Otherworld.  The Faerie Queen is often thought to be another form of the goddess Freya, the Norse and Germanic goddess of magic and witchcraft.  

According to Horne in “Folk Witchcraft,” “The primary reason for a witch to connect with the familiar is to learn….”  The power derived from these relationships can be used to:

  • Heal others (and yourself)
  • Know whether a person will live or die
  • Divine the future
  • Find lost objects or people
  • Communicate with the dead
  • Provide protection and strength
  • Safely astral travel (“hedge riding” or “journeying”)
  • Provide power for magical workings
  • Know what lies ahead in your day and travels
  • And more…

I could write an entire book on the benefits of a witch’s relationship with her familiar spirits.  But instead, I will end with the idea that spirit familiars are craft teachers to the witch. They should be treated with immense respect as they are often ancient, powerful spirits, or connected to ancient beings like the Queen of Elphame (perhaps Freya herself).  Your familiar can teach you healing remedies and how to access and strengthen your intuitive gifts.  Familiars will help you hone and empower your spellcraft and deepen your connection to the unseen worlds.  

I hope you will explore this important and often misunderstood element of witchcraft for yourself! When forming any new relationship with an unknown spirit (or person!), be discerning but also brave and open to the incredible riches of knowledge, healing, empowerment and spirituality that spirit familiar relationships hold for the witch.  I hope you will take the time to become familiar with your spirit familiars!  Blessed be.

Bibliography of Sources:

Artisson, Robin. An Carow Gwyn: Sorcery and the Ancient Fayerie Faith. Black Malkin Press, 2018.

Cowan, Thomas.  Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit. Harper One, 1993.

Emerick, Carolyn.  Thomas the Rhymer: Shamanic Tradition in Lowland Scottish Lore.  Carolyn Emerick, 2017. 

Horne, Roger. Folk Witchcraft: A Guide to Lore, Land and the Familiar Spirit for the Solitary Practitioner.  Moon over the Mountain Press, 2019.

Wilby, Emma.  Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic.  Sussex Academy Press, 2013.  

Copyright 2021 Vanessa Hanks, All Rights Reserved.

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