by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
Tales of plants and animals that have served witches can fill an entire book. Imagine talking cats, killer trees, flowers that make you fly and lambs that grow inside fruit. These are not fairy tales told just for fun; people actually believed in them, and some were even partially true.
The connection to animals and plants goes back to Stone Age predecessors of modern witches, who are still guardians of the earth. The drawings of animals on cave walls show it clearly. The giant cave bear, for instance, was considered the Master of Animals. The hunters worshiped him, and he granted them permission to hunt. Dangerous animals, such as the saber tooth tiger, the woolly rhinoceros, or the mammoth, could only be conquered, or avoided, by magic and ritual.
Later, many gods, demigods and other powerful entities appeared in animal form. The Celtic god Cernunnos, master of the forest and all its animals, appeared often as a stag. Even more significant are Cernunnos’ many appearances as an antlered man. In this form he looked exactly like the shape-changing sorcerer of the Stone Age.
The imaginary menagerie included domestic animals, like the cat, and those of wood and field, such as the hare. The garden contained the witch’s cultivated plants, and the weeds that flourished near by.
Let’s start with the menagerie. Every witch had her “familiar,” an animal that had been given to her by Satan himself. The animal was a pet as well as a demon, much loved and well taken care of by the witch. It received good food, careful grooming, and sometimes even wore clothes during cold weather. The witch protected it fiercely, and killing a familiar was an invitation to serious revenge. In return, the animal spied, robbed, and sometimes killed for the witch.
Funny as all that may sound, the people believed in this relationship. The witch’s neighbors even thought that the animals talked to the witch in human language. This can explain the terror they held for the villagers. If an old woman regularly talked to her pet, as lonely people usually did, she was doomed. A familiar was also recognized by always being close to the witch, usually following her wherever she went, and by its superior intelligence.
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