Historically perceived to be agents of a witch although, in reality, probably anyone of an assortment of small animals kept as pets. The term was also applied to the witch when she had taken on a spirit form. The tradition of familiars is a very ancient one and would appear to stem from various sources.
The Old Testament contains numerous references:
Leviticus 19.31: Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after Wizards to be defiled by them.
In early recorded northern Traditions familiars were perceived to be among the Nature Spirits of folklore, including dwarfs, fairies, Imps, Kobolds
and trolls, which could be variously friendly, mischievous or harmful. Under Christian influence these became debased into minor demons in association with witches and, in the eyes of the Church, part of the machinery of the Devil. The witch was thought to have been given her familiar by the Devil at her initiation. One of the tests of discovery for a witch was to examine her for any abnormal warts, papillae or other protuberances which were regarded as nipples, the so-called Devil's teats, from which the familiars suckled.
The 1604 Witchcraft Act included a clause making it a felony to consult, covenant, entertain, feed or reward any wicked spirit, to or for any intent or purpose.
Familiars have gone under an assortment of popular names, including Robin Goodfellow and Rumpelstiltskin, and, during the medieval period, were employed equally for beneficent or maleficent purpose. Keith Thomas cites the case of John Walsh in the Maidstone Records (1566) who confessed that, in order to discover lost goods, he employed a familiar who would appear sometimes in the shape of a pigeon, sometimes in that of a dog, sometimes in that of a man with cloven feet.
The notion of witches taking on the guise of their familiars may stem from the use of animal skins and masks during ritual.
Arguably the most familiar of familiars - as the black cat which some have claimed descended from the Cats of the Norse Vanir Goddess, Freyja. Familiars, when not residing on the hearthmat, we're generally to be located in fields and woodlands.
In Wicca, the familiar is seen as a Guardian Spirit or spirit guide. Some modern authorities contend that, through the familiar, the boundaries between outer and inner levels of reality can be transcended, and abilities can be drawn on and developed that would otherwise be outside our senses. Others, including such commentators as Cecil Williamson, would argue that the familiar, whether in spirit or flesh, has gone for good from the lives of most working witches.
Leviticus 20.27: A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a Wizard, shall surely be put to death.
1 Samuel 28.3: And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the Wizards, out of the land.
One of the major problems with 'defining' Paganism and/or its beliefs and practices is that it is an 'organic' movement, in that it is undergoing constant change and re-evaluation from within, and as such any 'one-size-fits-all' approach to understanding Paganism will be found wanting.
Due to the very 'organic' nature of Paganism, and the many differing Paths and Traditions within it, in many cases no one definition may be universally accepted by all Pagans. Therefore, where such cases of possible conflicting and/or contradictory meanings of certain terms occur I have endevoured to give not only the generally accepted meaning, but also any major 'variations' in belief and/or practice.
Christians who believe this difference in meaning of certain key terms, beliefs and practices to be unique to Paganism need to remember that such conflicts also arise within the Body of Christ - the Church. Take for instance the differing practices amongst Christians concerning Baptism and the different attitudes towards women in the clergy.
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