Imps, Familiars, and The Familiar Spirit

The topic of Familiars in modern witchcraft is a bit  misinformed as to what exactly these beings are. Some say they are simply a pet belonging to a witch; however, it is far from the case. In the hopes of clearing things a bit up for my followers, I am writing this to explain what Familiars are and the differences between the different types.

There are a few different types of Familiars to consider. There are:

  • The Familiar Spirit
  • Imps
  • Familiar spirits
  • Bloodline Familiars

Let’s discuss what they are and how they differ from another.

The Familiar Spirit

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen and Charles Mikolaycak

This is somewhat comparable to the Holy Guardian Angel found in various practices of high and ceremonial magic, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn. It is the human familiar spirit, the fairy lover, the demon lover, the spirit companion, the familiar self, the witch’s doppleganger. It is the you that is separate, yet it is its own entity. These are the beings that witches met when flying to the sabbat, their spirit lover. Typically, it is opposite to the witch, “In 1633, Margaret Johnson, the Lancashire witch, stated that besides theire particular familiars or spirits, there was one greate or grand devill, or spirit, more eminent than the rest. Shee allsoe saith, yt if a witch have but one marke, shee hath but one spirit; if two, then two spirits; if three, yet but two spirits. Shee alsoe saith, that men witches usually have women spirits, and women witches men spirits,” (source). It might be that these spirits are complete opposites to their witch counterpart; however, it may also be they take a form most desired by the witch. It is why some have Familiar spirits of the same gender, or spirits that change gender along with their witch.

Examples of The Familiar Spirit

  • Tam Lin (from the Ballad of Tam Lin)
  • The Queen of Heaven (from Thomas the Rhymer)
  • Cupid (from the tale The Most Pleasant and Delectable Tale of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche)

Imps

The Witches’ animal familiar, maleficent animals, divination animals, domestic familiars. These are, usually, physical creatures or vessels that act as the witch’s familiar. These are the creatures people typically think of when thinking of familiars. They are the witch’s pet, servator, companion, spy, and aid in the magical arts.

Now from this, there are 2 main sort of imps. A living creature of flesh such as a rabbit, cat, or dog. There are also imps that are merely spirits tied to a vessel. These vessels can be anything from stuffed animals to bottles or urns. The Familiar’s spirit possesses the vessel, which then it seeks to serve the witch. It can be an actual spirit or even created by a witch (or even by another spirit). Now the interesting part of this is that the living creatures can even act as vessels for familiar spirits.

Imps are the creatures you see depicted being fed blood from witches. Witches allow familiars to suckle blood from their witch marks to forge the pact between the two. The imp receiving care and food, and the witch receiving aid and power from the imp. The pact between the two is what makes an imp the witches’ familiar (vs just a regular pet or spirit).

Familiar spirits

A witch can have many familiar spirits, which take many forms. Though, they tend to be animal in form. There are some known to be human or even “supernatural” in form. There are descriptions of familiar spirits that are fairies, spirits of the dead, saints, devils, demons, and even angels. Some witches state they had certain plants as their familiars.

They take similar roles to spirit guides and spirit helpers; however, they, like imps, also require a pact as well. A witch can have many familiar spirits all that serve their needs depending on the reason for the pact. However, the pact isn’t always made through physical means vs the pact made with imps.

Bloodline Familiars

These are known as “Totem” familiars. Bloodline familiars are those that are passed down from hereditary practices, from parent to child. Covens have also been known to have these, and can give access to these familiars through initiatory means. They are familiars that serve specific bloodlines or groups, and only grant their power and aid to those within it.

One can also argue that a Bloodline familiar is not truly a spirit, but rather an icon. A symbol of that family or coven, in which appears in dreams as a sign or omen. I attempted to do more research into this, but it was only mentioned in one of my texts, “There is that which is used as the coven “totem” animal, mentioned earlier in connection with the symbolism of the witch bracelet. This symbolic animal form is decided upon at the formation of a coven by mutual agreement among the members and after much introspection and divination. The chosen totemic animal form or forms, for there may be several, is then ritually “assumed” by coven members during the chain dance at the Sabbat itself, and also should they at any time wish to indulge in the practice of “sending for the fetch,” commonly Omens and auguries of coming events may also be drawn by the seasoned practitioner from the appearance on the scene of one such specimen of a coven totem, a grey bird maybe or a large black cat. Part of this witchlore may have filtered out in the past and now be responsible for the common public beliefs about lucky or unlucky black cats crossing one’s path, and so on,” (Mastering Witchcraft by Paul Huson).

The Pact (how does one get a familiar?)

The pact is something that is spoken of within many witch confessions and trials. The witch obtains the familiar, forges a pact, and begins the relationship. Familiars were told to appear in a few different ways.

  • given from a spirit (the devil)
  • passed down from another witch
  • appearing by chance
  • created by the witch’s own “evil” desire (this references that familiars can be created by the witch themselves)
  • appearing after a great rite or initiation

There are those that believe every witch will have at least one familiar, whether it be a physical creature or not. Though, familiars don’t appear in every witch lore. It is mostly common in western European witch lore.

What does the pact entail? Typically, it involved the feeding of blood to the familiar to strengthen the bond and forge the union. I’ve seen reference to a few other methods such as spiritual sacrifice, offering of milk or food from the same dish, or even scraping off bits of your kitchen table to feed the familiar. Others reference to rituals being performed to summon the fetch and create the bond. Though one thing is very important, the witch and familiar must be bound to one another body and spirit.

This allows the witch to travel to the Sabbat with their familiar, perform magical acts with them, or even hag ride them into the night.

Hope this helped clear a bit up! My resources are below. As a note: I do reference reading Margaret Alice Murray, not for her incorrect theories, but for her amazing resources. When reading her books focus on quoted references. You can also do further research by searching into her sources (though some are difficult to find).

reading list

  • Demonology: demons & devils / Spiritual Warfare By Dr. Phillip Botha
  • Witches’ Familiars in England by M. A. Murray
  • Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England by Deborah Willis
  • The Esoteric Codex: Supernatural Legends By Cedrick Pettigrove
  • The History of Witchcraft and Demonology by Montague Summers
  • Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
  • The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland by Emma Wilby
  • Traditional Crafte translated by Robin Artisan
  • Mastering Witchcraft by Paul Huson
  • The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer
  • The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Alice Murray
  • Irish Witchcraft and Demonology by St. John D. Seymour
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