The folklore of the wicked witch and her diabolical animal familiar is a well-known and often repeated tale. When the seasons change and the nights get long it’s not uncommon to see images and symbols of a dark-cloaked witch with an evil black cat or toad at her side. This is a fantastic archetype of magic users wielding control over nature and animals, but it’s a far cry from the beliefs that started it all.
The concept of magical spirit creatures has resonated throughout history in creation myths, tribal traditions and religions, but it’s only relatively recently that magical animal and familiars became re-imagined as evil or dangerous companions. Historically, familiars or spirits were often seen as a type of guardian angel rather than an evil demon.
The Witch’s Familiar
Most people conjure up thoughts of the witch with cat or toad when speaking of familiars. In the days of widespread persecution of witches in Europe and North America during the Medieval and Early Modern periods, women accused of magic use and witchcraft were assumed to have a familiar, most often in the form of cats, dogs, owls, mice, newts or toads. These servants to witches were considered low-ranking demons, or even fairies. Legends of the time, British and Scottish contribution to the lore, said familiars fed on the blood of the women. The witches in turn used the animals for spell casting. The familiar could shape-shift, and spy on others. Many completely innocent pet lovers were persecuted for this ‘unnatural’ pairing, and the blame was placed on them for any kind of bad luck, such as milk spoiling or crops withering.
“During the Salem witch trials, there is little account of the practice of animal familiars, although one man was charged with encouraging a dog to attack by way of magical means. The dog, interestingly enough, was tried, convicted, and hanged.” Patti Wigington reveals in About Religion .