An aged crone with long gray tresses and a pointed black hat, stirring a bubbling cauldron with a cat curled up somewhere near her feet. In this popular modern image of a witch, that kitty, a.k.a. her familiar, is never far away. But why are witches so commonly depicted with felines and other animals? And what does it mean to have a familiar, anyway? Read on for the surprising history of the concept over the last 500-odd years.
Familiars on Trial
Today, animal familiars are usually thought of as a witch’s companion and partner in magic (think: Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch). They may be a cat, dog, snake, or other relatively small creature who assists in divination, spells, and other magical workings. The creature is considered to be emotionally and psychically close to the witch, a little like an enchanted pet.
In centuries past, the idea of the familiar was different — and often darker. Scholars say that our ideas about witches’ familiars likely draw on at least three sources: very old, shamanistic ideas about the powers of animals; folk beliefs around fairies and earth spirits; and the relatively common practice of keeping pets. But the idea of an animal as a witch’s familiar first surfaces in the witchcraft trials of early modern England, when familiars were thought of less as pets and more as minor demons.
In the pamphlets recording these witch trials, people accused of being witches (usually but not always women) describe their familiars as dogs, cats, toads, mice, rabbits, flies, or fantastic hybrids of different species. In their confessions, they sometimes relate inheriting their familiar from another witch, often a relative, but the creature could also appear out of the blue, often when a woman was lamenting her lot in life or cursing a neighbor. Usually, the creature would offer to help the accused in some way if they gave their soul to Satan. After such a bargain was struck, the familiar would carry out malevolent errands on the person’s behalf, whether small (like spoiling a neighbor’s milk) or large (harming an enemy). In return, their owner would provide a soft bed and food.
While the food might be oats or milk, frequently it was blood that came directly from the accused witch. This vampiric concept shows up in the first witchcraft trial pamphlet, covering three women accused in Essex in 1566. One of the women, Elizabeth Francis, confessed to having learned witchcraft from her grandmother, who gave her a white, spotted, talking cat named Sathan as a familiar. Francis said that she fed the cat bread and milk and kept it in a basket, sending it out to perform acts of maleficium (harmful magic). Before performing these errands, the cat demanded a drop of blood, which Francis provided by pricking her finger.
From that first trial in Essex, familiars were frequently mentioned in English and Scottish witch trial texts. (They were also sometimes referred to as imps.) As the trials progressed, the idea that a witch fed their familiar from a specific spot on their body evolved into a hallmark of witch-hood, and suspected witches would be searched for skin tags or moles that might be “proof” of such clandestine feedings.
The 1604 witchcraft statute in England cemented the idea of familiars even further in the popular imagination, Though not the first to outlaw witchcraft, it added the death penalty for those who “employ, feed or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose” — a prohibition clearly directed at keeping familiars. After that, women were sometimes indicted as witches simply for keeping small animals around.
Some witches were said to have many familiars at once. Elizabeth Clark, the first target of self-appointed “Witch Finder Generall" of England Matthew Hopkins, was said to have five. During a trial in the 1640s, she named her familiars as Holt, a white cat; Jarmara, a fat, legless Spaniel; Vinegar Tom, a long-legged greyhound with the head of an ox; Sack and Sugar, a black rabbit; and Newes, a polecat. She also named other familiars, including Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut, and more, the names of “which no mortall could invent,” according to Hopkins. (Indeed, some scholars think Hopkins did invent them himself.)
Familiars could also take the form of less-expected creatures. A witch named Joan Prentice, accused in 1589, had a familiar that appeared to her as a grayish ferret with glowing eyes. One male witch accused in 1648, John Bysack, had six snail familiars: Sydrake, Jeffrey, Peter, Aylewood, Sacar, and Pyman. They each specialized in attacking a different type of target, from cattle to Christians.
Interestingly, familiars don’t feature much in continental European witch trials. While the Devil might appear to witches as an animal, and it was thought that witches could shape-shift into animals, scholars say the idea of a pet-like demon running errands for a witch started out as peculiarly British and Scottish.
Familiars on the Move
The idea of familiars didn’t stay put in Britain, however. It followed the colonists to America. In fact, in 1642 the Connecticut colonists made having a familiar part of the very definition of being a witch when they passed a law that said “If any man or woman be a witch — that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit — they shall be put to death.”
In New Hampshire, a poor, elderly woman named Eunice Cole who ran afoul of her neighbors was accused of being a witch in the 1650s based in part on the fact that while neighbors were discussing her possible crimes they "heard something scrape against the boards of the windows.” They couldn’t find any source for the noise, but it sounded loud enough to be a dog or cat — proof, if their minds, of a familiar’s activity.
During the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, an enslaved woman of color named Tituba, who belonged to the town’s Puritan minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, confessed (under significant duress) to witchcraft. In her vivid testimony, she described “two rats, a red rat and a black rat” that served her, as well as a large black dog, cats, birds, a hairy creature that walked on two legs, and a strange winged being she could barely describe. Her confession, including the description of these creatures, helped set Salem aflame.
Even once the era of witch trials ended, belief in familiars persisted. In England, folklorists conducting research in the 19th century found that ideas about familiars (particularly mice and toads) were a prominent part of beliefs about witchcraft in many parts of the country. In interviews, people told researchers that familiars were passed down among witches from generation to generation — just as their ancestors had believed 400 years earlier. Some interviewees also believed that a witch couldn’t die unless she found someone to “inherit” her familiars, and that if the animals were harmed, the witch would be harmed too. These beliefs persisted into the 1920s and '30s.
The idea of the familiar is now a not-uncommon motif in popular culture. One of the most famous examples from the 20th century comes from the prominent witch, astrologer, and author Sybil Leek, who kept a jackdaw called Mr. Hotfoot Jackson first in England, and then in Florida. The spirited Mr. Jackson was featured in her 1966 memoir, The Jackdaw and the Witch, as well as in BBC interviews.
Another notable 20th century familiar had 17th-century echoes. In the 1958 romantic comedy film Bell, Book and Candle (based on a play of the same name), Kim Novak plays a fetching witch in Greenwich Village who keeps a Siamese cat named Pyewacket as a familiar. The cat plays an important part in the plot, helping Novak’s character cast love spells on the hapless Jimmy Stewart. The film reportedly required a nationwide search to find the right cat for the role; the producers said they were looking for “a cat with an Ava Gardner personality.” The cat (or cats — it’s unclear if several felines played the role) even earned an acting award from the Humane Society in 1958.
More recent fictional familiars have included Salem Saberhagen, a cat who appeared in various Sabrina the Teenage Witch properties, as well as Kit, a Siamese familiar on the show Charmed. In a marked change from centuries past, these familiars are seen as trusted helpers or advisors, not malevolent creatures.
Of course, for modern neo-pagans and Wiccans, animal familiars can be a cherished part of their religious beliefs. Instead of being a minor demon, these familiars are real animals with whom the practitioner has a close, magical bond.
Fortunately, times have changed enough that keeping small, beloved, named animals around is no longer seen as a sign of demonic activity in England and America. We’re now free to lavish as much care and affection on pets as we desire — without our neighbors accusing them of having spoiled the milk.