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 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 master's part, nor could such a spirit be disposed of without exorcism, as illustrated by the following story cited by Martin Antoine Del Rio:
"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 Paracelsus's 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 witch's 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. Martin's, 1973.