Spirits that live with, travel with, and assist magicians, sorcerers,
and witches. The idea seems to have emerged in the
thirteenth or fourteenth century from the idea of fairies and
kobolds, the mischievous spirits who could be paid or cajoled
into assisting people in various ways. Familiars, it was believed,
could take the form of animals or birds. The black dog of Cornelius
Agrippa was one of the best-known familiars. His story
rested on the authority of the sixteenth-century Italian biographer
Paulus Jovius, and it was copied by Thevet, among others,
in his Hist. des Hommes plus Illustres et Scavans.
Jovius relates that Agrippa was always accompanied by the
devil in the shape of a black dog, and that, perceiving the approach
of death, he took a collar that was ornamented with
nails arranged in magical inscriptions from the neck of the animal
and dismissed him with these memorable words, Abi perdita
Bestia quae me totum perdidisti (Away, accursed beast,
through whose agency I must now sink into perdition). The
dog, it is said, ran hastily to the banks of the Saone, into which
he plunged headlong and was never seen again.
According to Pierre Le Loyer,
With regard to the demons whom they imprisoned in rings
and charms, the magicians of the school of Salamanca and Toledo,
and their master Picatrix, together with those in Italy who
made traffic of this kind of ware, knew better than to say whether
or not they had appeared to those who had been in possession
or bought them. And truly I cannot speak without horror
of those who pretend to such vulgar familiarity with them, even
to speaking of the nature of each particular demon shut up in
a ring; whether he be a Mercurial, Jovial, Saturnine, Martial,
or Aphrodisiac spirit; in what form he is wont to appear when
required; how many times in the night he awakes his possessor;
whether benign or cruel in disposition; whether he can be
Falun Gong Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
transferred to another; and if, once possessed, he can alter the
natural temperament, so as to render men of Saturnine complexion
Jovial, or the Jovials [Saturnine], and so on. There is
no end of the stories which might be collected under his head,
to which if I gave faith, as some of the learned of our time have
done, it would be filling my paper to little purpose. I will not
speak therefore of the crystal ring mentioned by Joalium of
Cambray, in which a young child could see all that they demanded
of him, and which eventually was broken by the possessor,
as the occasion by which the devil too much tormented
him. Still less will I stay my pen to tell of the sorcerer of
Courtray, whose ring had a demon enclosed in it, to whom it
behoved him to speak every five days. In fine, the briefest allusion
must suffice to what they relate of a gentleman of Poitou,
who had playfully taken from the bosom of a young lady a certain
charm in which a devil was shut up. Having thrown it into
the fire, he was incessantly tormented with visions of the devil
till the latter granted him another charm, similar to the one he
had destroyed, for the purpose of returning to the lady and renewing
her interest in him.
Sometimes the familiar attached itself voluntarily to a master,
without any exercise of magic skill or invocation on the
masters part, nor could such a spirit be disposed of without exorcism,
as illustrated by the following story cited by Martin Antoine
A certain man [paterfamilias, head of a family] lived at Trapani,
in Sicily, in whose house it is said, in the year 1585, mysterious
voices had been heard for a period of some months. This
familiar was a daemon, who, in various ways, endeavoured to
annoy man. He had cast huge stones, though as yet he had broken
no mortal head; and he had even thrown the domestic vessels
about, but without fracturing any of them. When a young
man in the house played and sung, the demon, hearing all, accompanied
the sound of the lute with lascivious songs, and this
distinctly. He vaunted himself to be a daemon; and when the
master of the house, together with his wife, went away on business
to a certain town, the daemon volunteered his company.
When they returned, however, soaked through with rain, the
spirit went forward in advance, crying aloud as he came, and
warning the servants to make up a good fire.
In spite of these services, the father called in the aid of a
priest and expelled the familiar, though not without some difficulty.
The Swiss alchemist Paracelsus was believed to carry a familiar
about with him in the hilt of his sword. According to the
seventeenth-century physician and historian Gabriel Naudé,
Paracelsus never laid this weapon aside even when he went to
bed, and he often got up in the night and struck it violently
against the floor. Frequently when the night before he was
without a penny, he would show a purseful of gold in the morning
(Apologie pour les Grands Hommes soupconnez de Magie, xiv, p.
281). Although other alchemists attributed these events and
other of Paracelsuss feats to the philosophers stone, Naudé
thought it more rational to believe that it was two or three doses
of laudanum (opium) that Paracelsus never went without, and
with which he effected many strange cures.
Familiars in Witchcraft
In the late thirteenth century, the idea of the fairy was demonized,
and through the next century it became a popular belief
that sorcerers and witches had spirit familiars. Among the
earliest appearances of the familiar was in 1303 when Philip IV
of France had Pope Boniface VIII deposed. Among other
charges listed against Boniface, Philip accused him of sorcery
and possession of a familiar.
In return for a pact with the devil, a witch was said to be
given a personal demon in the form of a domestic animal that
would assist the witch in carrying out malevolent magic. The
Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie stated, Each one of us has a spirit
to wait upon us, when we please to call upon him. The most
common form for a witchs familiar was a cat, and since so many
old women kept cats as companions in their loneliness, it was
not difficult for witch hunters to make accusations of sorcery.
The familiars had pet names, again a characteristic of domestic
cats and dogs.
During the witchcraft trials at Chelmsford, England, in
March 1582, Ursula Kemp confessed that she had four spirits,
whereof two of them were hes, and the other two shes were to
punish with lameness and other diseases of bodily harm. . . .
One he, like a gray cat, is called Tittey; the second, like a black
cat, is called Jack; one she, like a black toad, is called Pigin; and
the other, like a black lamb, is called Tyffin. Elizabeth Bennet
said she had a familiar called Suckin, being black like a dog.
Alice Manfield had four imps, Robin, Jack, William, and Puppet,
two hes and two shes, all like unto black cats. Agnes
Heard had six familiars that were blackbirds, white-speckled
and all black.
Gleadow, Rupert. Magic and Divination. Wakefield, England
EP Publishing, 1976.
Maple, Eric. The Complete Book of Witchcraft and Demonology
Witches, Devils, and Ghosts in Western Civilization. South Brunswick,
N.J A. S. Barnes, 1966.
. Dark World of Witches. New York A. S. Barnes, 1964.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcrft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca,
N.Y. Cornell University Press, 1972.
Valiente, Doreen. The ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. New
York St. Martins, 1973.