When people envision a witch, they usually are with a black cat, owl, or other animal. In the days of the Witch Trials of Europe and North America, women accused of witchcraft were assumed to have a familiar, most often in the form of cats, dogs, owls, mice, ravens, or toads. These familiars were considered demons. Legends say that the familiar would feed on the blood of the witch, and in turn, the witch used the animal's power for casting spells. The familiar could shapeshift and spy on people, too. This is a fantastical stereotype of a magical being with "users" wielding control over nature and animals. The thought is so far off base that its laughable.
Around the World
The stories of magical spirits taking the form of animals is found throughout history in many myths, legends, and traditions. The concept of familiars can be found in cultures around the world, including Africa, Asia, Australia, Eastern and Western Europe, and North and South America. Historically, familiars were a type of guardian angel rather than a demon. This is animism. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit, is in harmony with nature, and has earthly wisdom. The Norse had strong beliefs in land spirits, and the ancient Greeks and Celts believed in spirits of springs, rivers, hills, and forests. These spirits were honored with offerings and festivals.
A familiar or familiar spirit is a supernatural being that helps and supports a witch or other magical practitioners in their lives. The familiar often has special powers and may change shape or form throughout the course of a witch's lifetime. A witch’s familiar can be their closest companion, offering moral support, special knowledge, foresight, ability to see and hear spirits in unseen realms, and/or assist in physical healing. The spirit within the animal reflects certain qualities or characteristics that help them serve as guides and guardians of both the physical and spiritual worlds (a hedge ride). Your familiar will safely take you there and back, as well as protect you while you are there.
You can have one or many familiars. These are spirits with whom you have an intimate relationship. You know them as your friends or family. Personally, I have four familiars, and handful of repeating messengers.
Ready to meet your familiar?
You may seek a familiar through meditation, divination, or riding the hedge, but it is my belief that familiars cannot be summoned or chosen, and they will come to you in physical form. Think about it, what is a lion doing in the Pacific Northwest? A familiar finds you, like many pets. Hmmm?! With that said, not all pets are familiars and not all familiars are necessarily pets. Most pets are as far removed from the harmony with nature as we are. It is a fine line, but I believe there is one. A pet may be a great support and may be magical, but this doesn't make it a familiar.
In my experience, there are two different kinds of familiars: Messengers and Companions. Messengers don't usually stay in your life very long. They have a message to give, and it is up to you to be open to receive it. Then, there are companions. These are the familiars who are with you for a long time or connected with your family. They lend support, protection, knowledge, healing, and magical power.
The other thing to mention is that everyone wishes their familiar to be really cool, like a bear, wolf, or mountain lion, but I hate to burst the bubble—this is not usually the case. Also, the size of a familiar does not reflect its power, look at the mighty Ant; or that spider on your woodland who has been trying to get your attention for years. Your familiar will have the characteristics that you need for YOUR witchy work in the world.
It is also important to note that a young witch may receive a smaller, less powerful animal to learn alongside, and then receive another familiar down the road. My first familiar was a snake, who found me when I was 7-years-old, and actually snakes continue to find their way to me no matter where I seem to go.
If your familiar is a wild animal, don't assume that it is your familiar. Sightings or dreams of a particular animal could just be a chance meeting or a messenger. If the animal appears to you 3 or more times in unusual circumstances (out of season, unusual behavior, or it listens to and understands you, and reacts to your words—sometimes talking back), this is your familiar. Recurring dreams of an animal could be a familiar trying to get your attention. The final clue will be the animal appearing before your very eyes. After having at least five recurring dreams of a shapeshifting Fox-Coyote-Wolf, I had a very large coyote with its tongue hanging out (like it was laughing) run across the road not five feet in front of me. I couldn't help but laugh myself...after the shock wore off.
If you find yourself having a hard time locating your Familiar, try going deep into meditation to meet your familiar, but don't be discouraged or disappointed if you don't get the meeting you were hoping for. They are on their own time, not ours.
Here is a meditation to help you meet your familiar.
This is one of my Familiars. Her name is Marble. She is a family familiar, as my ancestral crest held the Lynx. She's even sitting on my lap as I type this. You'll see her on my Instagram from time-to-time. I call her Self-care Kitty, because she teaches me how to nurture, nourish, and love myself. She talks quite a bit and tells me what to do (often), especially when it comes to magic.