About Foofur and Familiars
17 years ago I spent quite some time in the local pet shelter. I was a member of the foundation board and the local SPCA, but I also worked in the shelter itself, cleaning the kennels and everything else that needed to be done. One day a little dog was brought in for surrender with just another lame excuse. His name was Bambi and he was a crossbreed Jack Russell / Welsh Corgi, just 8 weeks ‘old’. It was love on first sight for both of us. I instantly loved the little bundle of joy that almost fitted on one hand. We were meant to be together. The name Bambi didn’t fit him, so one of my co-workers suggested Foofur and that was perfect. My husband and I had just lost our previous dog, a Bernese Mountaindog. We both love large dogs, but somehow I couldn’t help but love this little Corgi dude… It took me a lot of effort and persuasive power, but Foofur came home with us and we never had any regrets.
As he was our only dog at the time, he was raised by the cats in our household. He took over some feline behaviour like sitting in the window sill and washing habits. Foofur’s favourite place wasn’t fixed, he was happiest when he was around me. Even when I meditated he was sleeping in my lap and didn’t move until I did. I took him almost everywhere I went. In the car he sat next to me on the passenger seat as my co-pilot. He often went with me to witchy events, weekends with my craft systers, etc. Everyone loved him. He could get along with every living creature, be it human, canine, feline or otherwise… he loved them all. At one of these events someone asked me if Foofur was my ‘familiar’. I had heard of the word before, but didn’t know the exact meaning. I thought it just meant ‘a witch’s companion’ so I said yes.
Foofur, around 3 years old
As always with your beloved pets you hope they’ll live forever, but we all know they don’t… Foofur got older and got some infirmities of old age. He could handle those, but we knew he was living in borrowed time. As one of his infirmities got worse that would be the beginning of the end. He got slower and lost some weight, but he was still the lovely little dog he always was and we still loved each other to pieces. We got some extra years together, but last year in June I had to let him go… I still miss him so much and I’m crying when I’m writing this. I love and loved all of our pets very dearly, but Foofur always had a special place in my heart and he still does. I know he hasn’t left me. I sometimes feel him on my feet at night, like I did when he was alive. I feel his presence and I still talk to him. Someone told me she felt his presence at my left shoulder. After all this years, again someone suggested he might be my familiar. So I decided to look it up a bit.
What is a familiar? That looks like an easy question, but the answers are multiple and diverse… Most common is a definition like ‘a familiar is a magic-user’s spiritual helper manifest in animal form’ or something similar. Some people use the words totem, power animal and spirit animal synonymously with the word familiar, but that doesn’t seem right. Sometimes they overlap or can be the same animal, but that’s more often the exception than the rule. Many see familiars as common household pets with an extra twist. They seem to have special powers and a way to communicate with the witch without words. Although the black cat is most well-known as a familiar, it can also be a dog, hare, ferret, raven, owl, or any other animal for that matter. Some sources take the definition a bit broader to include humans or human form, and spiritual entities. There are many stories in folklore about familiars, familiar spirits and the like. It is very possible that familiars are a twisted and demonised form of the Roman ‘lar familiaris’ , a family guardian spirit kept safe as a small statue in the ‘Lararium’, a shrine often close to the hearth. Among Australian Aborigines the medicine man sends his familiar spirit (his assistant totem, spirit-dog, spirit-child or whatever the form may be) to gather information. While this is occurring, the man himself is in a state of receptivity, in sleep or trance. During the English Civil War, the Royalist general Prince Rupert was in the habit of taking his large poodle dog named Boye into battle with him. Throughout the war the dog was greatly feared among the Parliamentarian forces and credited with supernatural powers. As noted by Morgan, the dog was apparently considered a kind of familiar. At the end of the war the dog was shot, allegedly with a silver bullet.These are just a few examples, there is much more interesting information to be found. I’ll list some sources under this article.
Charles Baudelaire, the famous French poet, seemed to believe in familiars. In his poem ’Le Chat’ (The Cat, 1857) he writes about it.
(Top: original, Bottom: translation by Roy Campbell)
C’est l’esprit familier du lieu;
Il juge, il préside, il inspire
Toutes choses dans son empire;
peut-être est-il fée, est-il dieu?
Familiar Lar of where I stay,
He rules, presides, inspires and teaches
All things to which his empire reaches.
Perhaps he is a god, or fay.
When researching familiars, one undoubtedly encounters the name of Margaret Murray and her book ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ (1921), in which she devotes a thorough chapter to familiars. It’s a very interesting read, I can definitely recommend it. She is responsible for much of the modern scholarship on the witch’s familiar. Her work delved into the variation of the familiar found in witchcraft practices. Many of the sources she relied on were trial records and demonological texts from early to modern England.
Using her studies into the role of witchcraft and magic in Britain during the Early Modern period as a starting point, historian Emma Wilby examined the relationship that familiar spirits allegedly had with the witches and cunning-folk in this period.
So the research field about familiars varies from folklore to hearsay and speculation to scientific scholarship to literature, and back and forth again. It is researched in many ways. And the truth? I don’t know whether that really exists or not. I guess it’s what you believe in, to whom you’d want to listen. Is Foofur my familiar? I still like to think so and in a way I see him like that so yes, for me it’s true!
February 12, 1999 – June 2, 2015
Sources and more to explore:
- Margaret Murray – The Witch Cult in Western Europe (book, 1921), esp. chapter VIII
- Emma Wilby – Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (book, 2005)
- Dr. Phillip Botha – Demonology: demons & devils / Spiritual Warfare (book, 2012)
- http://fleursdumal.org/poem/146 (Charles Baudelaire – Le Chat)