The Cat as Familiar & Family
I once jokingly suggested that “All Witches Own a Cat” in a Ten Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Witchcraft post. I was mostly joking, I know many Witches who don’t have a cat, but there are a lot of us with a kitty or two. Some of us even embrace the most stereotypical of all Witch things, we have black cats.
Cats have been associated with witchcraft since the Middle Ages, generally in the form of a familiar. Historically a familiar was thought to be a demon who served a witch, with the familiar being a gift from Satan or another witch. Familiars were commodities and could also be bought and sold by witches. Familiars weren’t a unique idea during the Witch Hunts. They were seen as a form of imp; an imp being a demon generally controlled by a human and sent out to do nefarious and terrible things.
In order to hide their demonic nature, familiars were said to assume the form of animals. Cats were the most common, but familiars also appeared as mice, dogs, toads, birds, and goats, along with dozens of other animals. Any animal could be familiar, and many were said to change shapes, going from cat to dog in the blink of an eye. Not surprisingly all of the animals frequently associated with the demonic familiar were common ones. If I were a demonic creature I’d probably want to take the form of a lion or a gorilla in order to better protect myself, but I digress.
Familiars were treated just as horribly as their witch-masters, and many were burned to death or otherwise killed. Most familiars were probably innocent family pets, but who had time back then for innocence when there were imaginary satanic-witches to murder? If you were accused of witchcraft back then and a ladybug landed on your nose it was most obviously a familiar trying to help you escape custody, and confirming your guilt. The bug would be killed and the suspected witch then punished.
Spend anytime looking into the history of the domestic feline in Europe during the Middle Ages and you’ll encounter a lot of theories. Some have claimed that animals such as dogs and cats were often rounded up and killed due to being seen as familiars. A lack of cats is cited by some as the reason for the spread of the Bubonic Plague in Europe. According to this theory with no cats around the rat population exploded, and it was the rats who carried most of the plague due to the fleas living on them. That theory has been refuted by some scholars, but it’s a theory that refuses to die.
The papal bull known as the Vox in Rama was a declaration by Pope Gregory IX condemning the worship of Lucifer in Germany (and starting another round of the Inquisition). It also apparently vilified black cats, who were seen as stand-in for the Devil in the German Luciferian rites. According to the Vox in Rama, worshippers of Lucifer were required to kiss the butt of a black cat as a proxy for the Devil. (Because cats are always so willing to be held by people and have their back-ends kissed.)
Away from Pope Gregory, there’s another reason the cat was so easily cast into the role of Satanic assistant: cats are weirdly independent. Cats don’t really obey people the way dogs do, and they aren’t pack animals either. I’m also rather sure that in my house the cats are the ones who think of themselves in charge, which is keeping with their history. Humans reached out to dogs and domesticated them, it seems as if that cats showed up when people started storing grain and then were allowed to stick around (or more likely, they simply chose to stick around, and we were unable to say no for a variety of reasons). Cats chose to live with us because it made their lives easier, not to help us in any way.
Gerald Gardner, the first modern public Witch and the first person to write books about the Modern Craft, didn’t have much to say about the familiar in his published works. It shows up sparingly in both Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) and he didn’t spend much time elaborating on it. He expected the word to be familiar (sorry!) to his readers, and that was that. Previously, Margaret Murray had devoted an entire chapter to the subject of familiars in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) , thus cementing the idea of the witch’s familiar as an important part of religious Witchcraft.
In many Witchcraft circles the idea that a familiar is a demon or other magickal entity has been replaced by the idea of the familiar as a natural magickal assistant. A cat who is a familiar is just that, a cat, but one who lends their energy to whatever ritual or magickal working is taking place. Many of us speak of our pets as familiars, thus embracing this new way of interpreting a very old idea. (And of course there are still some who use the old definition, and some people who have animal familiars only on the astral plane. As language is a constantly evolving thing any use of the term familiar is probably a correct one.)
Cats because of their independent nature have a reputation for being aloof (and that’s putting it nicely). I know a lot of people who think cats are manipulative little bastards who don’t care about us human beings at all, but that perception is probably wrong. A recent study at Oregon State University found that most cats valued human interaction over food! I’ve always thought of cats as family, it’s good to know that they think the same thing about us.
I’ve always thought of my cats as familiars, though I’m not sure how much magickal work they’ve helped me accomplish over the years. Both Evie and Summer like to hang out in our temple/ritual room and when they do show up in the middle of a ritual or when we are working on some sort of magickal project I can’t help but wonder if they are doing so intentionally or just because they are curious. Even if they both aren’t familiars in the classical sense of the word, they are both certainly family, and sometimes that alone is good enough.
March 30, 2017 By Jason Mankey