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1. a supernatural spirit often assuming animal form, supposed to attend and aid a witch, wizard, etc.
2. a person, attached to the household of the pope or a bishop, who renders service in return for support
3. History an officer of the Inquisition who arrested accused persons
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

An attendant spirit that usually took the form of an animal or bird. During the persecutions it was believed that every witch had a familiar—a servant provided by the Devil to work the witch's mischief. The owner would feed his or her familiar by giving a drop of blood, sometimes from a supernumerary teat. Such a teat would be searched for when a person was accused of witchcraft. Any similar protuberance, mole, or papilla of any sort was considered damning evidence. Matthew Hopkins made familiars a major issue in his hunting of witches and had every accused searched for the supernumerary teat and for the devil's mark.

King James's Witchcraft Act of 1604 specified that it was a felony to "consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit." Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) states that demons could take animal form and be kept as pets by witches, who fed them milk and blood. Richard Bernard, in his Guide to Grand Jurymen (1627), said that witches "have ordinarily a familiar, or spirit, in the shape of a man, woman, boy, dog, cat, foal, fowl, hare, rat, toad, etc. And to these spirits they give names."

The very act of having a pet, especially one to which the owner spoke kind words, was in itself a sign of a witch and familiar, according to the accusers of the Middle Ages. Sometimes the mere fact that an animal—even one not belonging to the accused—had been seen running toward the supposed witch was enough to indicate that it might be the familiar.

According to the evidence of the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, both Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn had familiars. Sarah Good's was a cat and a yellow bird; the bird sucked her "between the forefinger and long finger upon the right hand." Sarah Osburn had a thing with "wings and two legs and a head like a woman," according to the children accusers. Also at Salem, young Dorcas Good,

Sarah's five-year-old daughter, claimed to have a familiar. She said it was a snake. When asked where it sucked, she pointed to her forefinger, where the examiners observed "a deep red spot, about the bigness of a flea bite."

In Finnish, Lapp, and Norwegian folklore, familiars frequently take the form of flies, while Malay witches have owls and badgers. In European belief, cats are the most common, along with dogs, rabbits, and toads. The cat (and sometimes the hare) is often referred to as a malkin or malking.

In 1324 Dame Alice Kyteler, of Kilkenny, Ireland, was accused of having a familiar in the form of a cat, although it sometimes appeared as a shaggy dog and sometimes as a black man. She called it Robin Artison. Dame Alice attributed all her wealth to the workings of this familiar.

Many times a witch would give or bequeath his or her familiar to another. Elizabeth Francis, one of the Chelmsford witches of 1566, claimed to have received her white spotted cat familiar, named Sathan, from her grandmother. In turn, Elizabeth passed it on to her sister, Agnes Waterhouse.

Ursula Kemp, one of the witches of St. Osyth in 1582, had four familiars: a toad named Pygine, a lamb named Tyffin, a gray cat named Tyttey, and a black cat named Jack. The frontispiece to Matthew Hopkins's Discovery of Witches (1647) shows the "Witch Finder General" together with two witches and an assortment of their familiars. They bear such names as Pyewacket, Ilemauzar, Sacke and Sugar, Jarmara, Vinegar Tom, Pecke in the Crowne, Newes, and Griezzell Greedigutt.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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