by Rosemary Ellen Guiley
(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)
In August 2002, news broke that a New Caledonian crow named Betty, in a laboratory in Oxford, demonstrated intentional problem-solving ability by repeatedly bending a straight piece of wire into a hook so that she could snag food. Scientists marveled at Betty's intelligence, noting that not even chimpanzees had shown such ability to reason. Surely this was evidence of the thinking power of animals!
Of course, this wasn't news to many. Anyone who has had a close relationship with an animal knows their intelligence and their ability to understand people and respond accordingly. Therein lies the basis of the familiar: an animal who forms an intelligent psychic and magical bond with a person, creating a rewarding personal relationship and a working partnership.
The familiar is found in magical and shamanic traditions around the world. It is an animal, perhaps a shapeshifted spirit, who assists a magical practitioner in the performance of spellcasting and rituals. The familiar offers advantages of being able to do things and go places that humans cannot but animals can. Depending on tradition, the familiar may be a helper acquired at the completion of initiation rites, or may present itself at other times. It may have the ability to shapeshift into different animal forms. It serves only the person to whom it is bonded.
In Western lore, the familiar gained unfortunate notoriety as a supposedly evil, demonic entity during the anti-witch hysteria that began in the Middle Ages. Witches were said to use their cats, a common household resident, as well as dogs, toads, farm animals, and wild creatures to carry out their alleged evil intents.
The Malleus Maleficarum, the Dominican inquisitor's handbook written in Germany in 1486, offers no instructions concerning familiars in the interrogation and trial of witches, but does acknowledge that an animal familiar "always works with her [the witch] in everything." The familiar hysteria was greater in England and Scotland than in Europe. In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1604 made it a felony to "consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose." In witch trials, animals alleged to be familiars were cited as evidence against accused witches, and sometimes even put on trial and executed themselves. Familiars were less significant in witch trials in the American colonies.
Today Witches, Pagans and other magical practitioners enjoy beneficial and positive relationships with their animal partners. Familiars have a special psychic attunement and rapport that makes them valuable participants in raising power, setting and clearing space, spellcasting, scrying, healing, and other rituals and magical activities.
The cat remains the all-time favorite familiar. Cats have a long history in magical lore for their reputed psychic sensitivities and abilities. Any animal, however, can serve as a familiar.
While we do not know for certain exactly how animals think, we do know from our own experience how their consciousness responds to ours. They telepathically pick up "thought pictures." If you've had a pet, you know how this works. You start thinking about feeding a dog, for example, and this spontaneously creates mental images of getting food out and giving it to the dog. As soon as the thought picture is formed, you find the dog excited and going to its bowl.
When I had dogs, all I had to do was think about taking them for a walk, and they would come to wherever I was in the house, sit, and look happy and expectant. I didn't even have to say the magic word, "Walk." Timing didn't matter. The same phenomenon happened concerning car rides except when the trip was to the veterinarian or to the kennel, and then they knew, and they did not want to get in the car. They could read my intent in thought pictures.
The skeptics argue that one probably feeds a pet at the same time every day, or gives other body language signals that tip off animals to what's about to happen. Thus, the animal becomes conditioned in a Pavlovian sort of way. That argument, however, is effectively countered by the scientific research of Rupert Sheldrake as reported in his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. The book describes, among other things, dogs who reliably know when their owners make the decision to return home at unpredictable times.
Once I had a powerful demonstration of the effect of thought pictures on a budgie. One day, I saw a fluorescent green and yellow budgie flitting about the trees outside my home. It evidently had escaped its owner, or had been released—the equivalent of being dumped in the woods. It was late autumn, and I knew the bird would never survive the harsh New York winter, and so I worried about how to rescue it.
Whenever I spied the budgie outside, I opened the front door to our house and sat in the middle of the parlor. I envisioned the bird flying into the house on a path of light, and sent the intent that inside it would be safe, protected, and fed.
Much to my disappointment, nothing happened. The bird simply sat outside in the trees and then flew off. This pattern was repeated over and over again with no results. Sometimes I just left the front door open and got out of sight, though I sent the thought pictures.
After a couple of weeks, I stopped leaving the door open. The only things coming in were flies.
Then one day I sat in another room meditating, thinking about the little budgie. Suddenly I heard a strange scratching sound coming from the living room. I got up and investigated, and discovered the sound was coming from the fireplace. I opened the flue and out flew the budgie, sooty and a bit banged up from dropping down the chimney. Evidently he had decided to take me up on the invitation!
I whisked him off to our veterinarian, who pronounced him healthy and uninjured. But when I told her the story of "meditating" the bird into the house, she grew uncomfortable and shrugged, noting that birds come down chimneys all the time. Nonetheless, I knew differently. Had I not sent the thought pictures, I do believe little Merlin, as I named him, would have perished outdoors.
Besides thought pictures, animals respond to our emotions. They pick up on our moods, and they know what to do in response. If we are sad, they comfort us with impeccable timing and action. They share our happiness. They can sense when we need to be alone.
Our most likely familiars will be domestic animals, especially those whose species have a long history of living with people. These animals are born with a genetic predisposition to forming a bond with us. However, one can also have familiars in the wild, who can be equally rewarding and valuable. It is very useful to have friends in the wild who can come to your assistance.
The research with the crow Betty shows that it's probably no accident that one of the wild familiars of choice for magical work is the Corvus family—crows, ravens, and jackdaws. These keen, crafty, and sharp-eyed birds are renowned as intelligent messengers. Odin, for example, received the news of the world every day from his two crows or ravens (accounts give both types). There's a legend about a saint, Meinrad of Swabia, whose murder by thieves in 861 was witnessed by two crows (or ravens) whom he fed daily, and who pursued the murderers cawing away until the scoundrels were caught. Sibyl Leek had a jackdaw who attended all her coven meetings with her.
For several years now, my husband and I have had a close relationship with wild crows. It started when a pair began coming to our backyard bird feeder. Over time, we discovered that the crows were very aware of us and the fact that we were the benefactors of food. We began putting out choice tidbits just for them and their clan, and talking to them and sending thought pictures. Soon they responded to us, giving us certain signals when they wanted special treats such as peanuts, and entertaining us with their antics. We found ourselves inducted into the "Crow Fraternity," and discovered that when we traveled, crows in far-flung places were responsive to us.
Recently, my husband was out on a golf course and lost his ball. Spying two crows, he asked them if they'd seen it. One flew into the woods and led him to where the ball had fallen.
I believe that when we demonstrate an act of great kindness to creatures, we become imprinted with something in our aura or energy field that identifies us as friends to other creatures, especially of that species. It is no accident that lost and injured animals always seem to find themselves to the doorsteps of certain individuals. Those persons send out an invisible beacon.
Years ago, I believe I was imprinted for robins because I rescued one from certain death. I was driving along one summer day near my home in Rye, New York, and spied a bird up ahead in the middle of the road. I was surprised when it did not fly off as I neared, or even as I passed it. I turned around and went back to investigate. It was a fledgling robin, huddled and frightened. It evidently was injured, for it made no move to escape me. I carefully picked it up and drove it to a wild animal rescue shelter. They told me it had a broken wing, and they thought it would mend so that the bird could be released back into the wild. If I had not rescued it, it surely would have been run over.
Ever since then, I have had an unusual frequency of robins who choose to nest very close to my house, and even underneath my deck, despite the fact that I have moved several times since the rescue incident and now live far from where that took place.
Working with Familiars
I believe that one should allow animals to make the choice of serving as familiars. We can send out a psychic call of thought pictures and emotions; those animals who wish to respond will do so, be they domestic or wild. If a pet does not wish to take up the call, its decision should be respected. Be open and without preconceived expectation or bias; the right animals will respond.
Familiars change throughout life. If your cat passes, for example, your next familiar may be of another species. Sometimes familiars reincarnate quickly. Or you may be joined by a completely new creature. You may have more than one familiar, each of whom has its special role.
Pay attention to your dreams, for often familiars will announce themselves first there. Dreams transcend space and time. Animals can communicate with us clearly in our dreams. In turn, we can send them messages through dreams, and can send them as dream messengers to other people. In my book on soulmates, Heart & Soul, I tell the story of a woman who had an affinity with ravens, and instructed one in a meditation to help her find her soulmate. The answer was provided in a dream (interestingly, it was another bird-down-the-chimney story!).
Once a familiar comes forward, allow your intuition and signals from the animal to guide you in shaping the working relationship. Like regular pets, familiars will respond to voice and body commands, and will learn recognition of words, phrases, and gestures. They will respond best to inner communication. Vivid thought pictures and feelings should be conveyed along with words. Ideally, your familiars should be able to respond entirely to silent messages.
Be alert for opportunities to show kindness and love to animals, even in small ways. They will not forget. Your kindness will be returned magnified more than thrice over.
One must be pure of intent when working with animals. They are quick to detect ill thought and deceptive intent. You cannot wear masks with animals. They see your true self.
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2003. All rights reserved.