Raven was my best friend for almost 18 years. Until she met my husband, I was the only human she loved. Raven was my familiar in the truest sense of the word: she was there during every major spiritual crisis and bed-ridden hurt, guardian as I traveled and battled throughout the astral, a bringer of messages, co-conspirator of hexes, and annoying onlooker during deep meditations. We had a passive-aggressive relationship, but it was a long one full of sharp corners and close encounters.
As all familiars, she appeared in the night. I had recently tried connecting with my other cat, binding my witchhood through feeding food mixed with some of my blood but she just wasn’t up to the task. Apparently performing this ritual did indeed invoke a hellish being: one with pretty yellow eyes and the blackest, softest fur I’d ever felt. My boyfriend brought her home, named her Raven and placed her in my bed whilst I slept… I awoke to the sound of a tiny meowing. After cuddles and play, she pooped in my bed and continued to do so for a few more days. So I lit the candle, spoke the words, and Raven licked the blood from my pricked finger I offered…this cat was a menace, but she was the shadow instantly bonded.
My Scorpio kitty, born the day before Halloween in 1998, loved water. In the shower, she jumped on the ledge to observe my soapy chores and catch a steam for her fur; later she insisted on being petted down with hot, wet hands as a daily bath. She drank out of potted plants, forgotten water cups, fresh puddles outside. Raven could fly; she fell from a third floor balcony as a kitten and showed up, unharmed, on my threshold the next day. She left bats in front of my altar, sometimes still alive. She sat in protective circles as sentinel, her spirit traveled with me to other realms, and she aided my sight for divinatory operations. She didn’t like other animals, or people…preferring the solitude of hunting or napping. Raven sat in my lap as I completed three degrees, purring in comfort as she swished a tail across my face, attacking pens and highlighters in fervent use, laying casually across textbooks and laptops. Cats are complete narcissists which we are only too lucky to worship. She loved to roll in fresh catnip (or any herbs for that matter), often kissed the feet of my BABALON statue, and inhaled deeply marijuana smoke.
She changed and mellowed out as she got older, as all living things do. She slept a lot, wasn’t such an active participant in magickal operations, but enjoyed reaping the benefits energetically. A few weeks ago she had a stroke, and was a completely different animal. She often attacked me for no reason, lost her appetite and only wanted to be near her water bowl. I knew it was time to say good bye. I have never held something in my arms as it passed…especially a kindred spirit. I whispered the heart sutra in her ear as I watched the light go out in her eyes. And before I knew what was happening, she was gone. She is still slinking around corners, walking across my head as I sleep, and traversing the bardos as I intended. Her remains have been installed on the ancestor altar in my home, her ashes contained with some claws, fur and whiskers I kept over the years.
I think it is easier to explain my understanding of what a familiar is, by showing what it is NOT. Familiars are not a common “tool”; although listening to modern, self-proclaimed witches one would think we are each deeded one by the Devil Himself. I dare say, it is more resembling the animal helpers found in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world or Phillip Pullman’s dark materials. A complicated and often misunderstood topic, familiars are not your average house-pet, no matter how much you love that furbaby; like our children, house-pets are often not magickally inclined. Historically, familiars were associated with a physical animal connected to the lifeforce of a witch; kill the familiar and the witch dies. Usually believed to take on the form of a cat or dog, sometimes a familiar could also be a hare, toad, bird, or goat. Now, there are animal/plant allies, which are really more like totemic spirits and are akin to spirit guides…but this is not a familiar. There are also spiritual projections of our witch-selves in the astral, an etheric body which shapeshifts into whatever form we perceive it to be….sometimes this is called a “fetch” and varies with traditions. This, also, is not a familiar. Familiars are not domesticated, but are still somewhat wild. What can be expected of a creature that thinks for themselves?
The guidelines and ideology practiced by witch hunters included diabolical fabrications as justification for murder; feeding the familiar from a witches’ teat or other supernumerary growth on the body is not a necessity. While the familiar may not be able to shapeshift and walk around as a person, they can be a companion in the physical realm which elevates and assists the witch in magickal or spiritual work. Sent by Deity, Ancestors or a spell of conjuration, a familiar may not even choose cohabitation with a witch, only showing up when called. In my case, no matter how many times Raven disappeared she always returned; sentient Be-ings have Free Will also. There is an unspoken communication, a shared mind sometimes with a protective instinct; once, an unknown and frightening spirit circled the bed, which Raven followed and chased out of our bedroom (as told to me by my atheist husband).
As more witches work solitary these days, a familiar magickal partner can be just as rewarding and effective as a coven….if not moreso. A familiar can be a reminder of our distance with the natural kingdom and rhythms, reconnecting witches with our primal selves. They can offer the loyalty and lessons often betrayed by human teachers. And in return we can elevate their spirit as well, participating in their karmic cycle and reciprocating their spiritual service with compassion through feeding and caring. But just as a pet or child, the spiritual entities we bond to are also our responsibility…so a magick practitioner who takes on animals they cannot fully commit to are doing themselves, and that animal, a great disservice. Whether in physical or spiritual manifestations, a familiar is a lifelong commitment not taken lightly, a choice that needs heavy consideration and research… but with invaluable rewards if proceeded correctly.
For more reading: