Spirits of a Familiar Nature
What is a familiar spirit? Modern Paganism often concerns itself with the gods and goddesses of ancient pantheons. The deities of Ancient Greece and Rome, Egypt; Celtic deities and the divinities of the Norse and Germanic traditions, to name just a few. Many practitioners of Modern Paganism and some Wiccan traditions connect with specific pantheons and individual deities, often acting as devotees to that specific tradition. By making regular offerings, libations and working rituals in honor of these patron deities they are able to forge a close bond with these particular entities often gaining inspiration and guidance from their relationship with these primal forces.
There are entire traditions surrounding specific gods and goddesses such as Hecate and Dionysius with their own unique rituals and sacred days of observance. Some polytheists and eclectic magical practitioners who believe in many gods may have one or two patron deities, but when it comes to magical practice they may incorporate a number of different deities or spirits from different pantheons. Rituals are adapted depending on the desired outcome to utilize the specific functions or realms of expertise of various deities. While some practitioners may petition the help of a deity or spirit that they do not regularly work with they will often utilize their relationship to a patron deity or spirit to act as an intermediary to garner the help of those entities who are less familiar.
While the worship of deities was a central part of Pagan religious practice and continues to be today, the gods and goddesses were sometimes seen as removed from human affairs due to their celestial nature. While their presence is felt in rites of dedication and initiation, and their aspects are invoked when their divine insight is needed; they spend the majority of their time tending to their realms of influence keeping the ebb and flow of universal law in its continuous cycle. The more celestial and impersonal forces would often use intermediary spirits or aspects of themselves to attend to individual human affairs. So while in the ritual you may be working with an aspect of the Goddess of Love, like Venus or Aphrodite or an intermediary of the Horned One such as Pan or Dionysius, while the entirety of their divine nature continues to be omnipresent. Aspects or intermediaries of the great gods and goddesses of the Universe have full access to their wisdom and power, allowing them to appear in multiple forms simultaneously in more that one ritual space.
During the Great Sabbaths when numerous Witches and Pagans alike gather around the same time, connecting with the same archetypal forces simultaneously, we are accessing the same root of the powers we seek to engage. For example at Samhain, when the Horned One and other chthonic forces are called upon we amplify their presence by spreading it over a larger area. Instead of it being diminished and divided into individual points of existence a web of power is created by creating multiple points of manifestation allowing these vast entities to physically manifest their true infinite natures.
Individual Familiar Spirits
During the Middle Ages, the concept of the Witch’s Familiar took on its current form. Often thought to be the first gift of the Dark Lord for selling one’s soul at the Witches’ Sabbath. There is a lot of medieval superstition surrounding the familiar spirit, but upon further investigation, there are numerous cultural interpretations for this phenomenon. Going as far back as Ancient Egypt with their multi-part model of the human soul we see evidence of the idea of a spiritual entity that remains with the individual throughout their lifetime. The Greeks and Romans had a multitude of spirits which acted as guardians of individuals, families, and specific areas of land. To the Ancient Greeks, they were known as daímōn, which were in-discernable and unseen forces related to a fate that often manifested as a voice directing the actions of the individual. These forces were known by Plato, Socrates, and other great thinkers.
In Ancient Rome there were genii loci, or spirits of place that were tied to a specific area of land acting as guardians. Offerings were made to these ancient spirits that were indigenous to the area existing before the Empire itself, likely a remnant of ancient Etruscan culture. These spirits were honored at public altars that were erected at crossroads, borderlands, and other areas over which they ruled. There were also more individualized spirits that belonged to individual families or households who were called Lares. They were closely related to land spirits and were honored at home altars called Lararium.
These spirits were closely related to the fecundity and generative power of the land, which was often represented as a great serpent within the Earth. The sovereignty of the Earth is generally depicted as feminine in nature and was the source of the ruler’s power in pre-Christian Europe, as the king was seen as being married to the land itself. In Northern traditions, we see these spirits of the land who were known as Landvaettir and the Matrones of Celtic cultures were seen as integral parts of the land. These similarities suggest a common Indo-European root and widespread belief in the animistic view of the natural world.
Familiars in Traditional Witchcraft
In classical witchcraft, the familiar spirit is a central theme. Forming a relationship with this personal spiritual guide gives one a lifelong connection to the deeper mysteries of the spirit world and their own spiritual nature. There are a number of rituals that can be adapted to reach out to the familiar spirit, who always present when specifically called upon takes a more active role in one’s practice. Offerings made to the familiar spirit prior to rituals are incorporated into opening preparations as a way to invite the familiar spirit to actively work with the Witch to achieve the desired outcome. The familiar spirit can be sent out in place of the Witch to gather information, and influence outside events when it would be unsafe for the practitioner to do so.
Many witches will dedicate an altar specifically to the familiar spirit, which acts as a place for the spirit to reside and gather its energy when needed. Spells can be cast over the altar to empower the familiar spirit and give it specific instructions. The familiar spirit’s altar will also house the vessel for the spirit itself, which is a physical object fashioned by the witch that acts as a touchstone for contact with the familiar once a relationship is established. After the dedication, the altar belongs to the familiar spirit and should not be shared with any other spirits or objects unless instructed by the familiar for specific purposes. The spirit is fed on a regular basis to enhance its power and the connection with the witch.
There are many functions that can be fulfilled by a spirit familiar, and over time new abilities will present themselves. Communion with the familiar spirit is usually through telepathic means via clairaudience, intuitions and dreams sent by the familiar. Traditional methods of divination, specifical scrying in a dark mirror or liquid surface are great ways of making initial contact with the familiar and catching glimpses of it spiritual form. Familiar spirits manifest in a multitude of ways commonly appearing as an animal, humanoid or somewhere in between. Although they are most often felt by the practitioner as a constant presence and source of intuition. The familiar spirit is an invaluable partner in one’s magical practice and will act as a protector and teacher loyal only to the witch with whom it is familiar. Offerings of the witch’s blood, smoke, and liquid libations are traditional ways of feeding the familiar spirit, and once it is called from the shadows it becomes a loyal ally. Sometimes a familiar spirit attaches itself to a family or group coven. The egregore or spiritual consciousness of a coven or initiatory tradition also acts as a kind of familiar that is accessible to the members of such a tradition.
Familiar spirits are personal and unique spiritual entities that have their own protocols and affinities just like each individual practitioner has their own unique way of working their Arte. The familiar-witch relationship is a sacred bond that goes back to ancient times, and while the origins of these spiritual allies are obscured in mystery their presence in virtually all human spiritualities is evidence of the need of humanity to form a relationship with the spiritual realm for the benefit of both parties.