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A Familiar Question
by Lupa

Most pagans have pets; we seem to be a very critter-friendly group!  From furry dogs and cats to sleek snakes and lizards to brightly colored birds—and then some—animals grace our everyday lives.  Almost every pagan I know has some kind of pet wandering around their home. 

However, some assume that any animal that lives among magic workers is a familiar.  They may point out how “Puppy always sits at the edge of the circle when our coven holds rituals” or “Our catMidnight loves to sit on our altar amid all the ritual tools”.  This really does nothing to differentiate between a pet and a familiar, as these are normal animal behaviors.  Most dogs are social creatures that love to get in on the action when company’s around, and cats are notorious for perching—and knocking things off shelves!  But just because an animal is in a pagan home, doesn’t necessarily make it a familiar.

This, of course, begs the question of what makes a familiar different.  There isn’t a lot of information on practical familiar work out there; most of what we have are old stories of animals given to witches by the Devil and sent off to do strange, nefarious tasks.  And while we have tons of resources on totem animals, which are noncorporeal, there’s very little on physical animals as familiars.

The primary trait of familiars that I have found in my research and practice is functionality—what role does the animal play in the pagan’s magical practice?  Most familiars I’ve heard about do things like guard their human during ritual work, particularly astral travel and other potentially risky activities.  In addition to protecting the physical body, the animal may also serve as a spirit guide, similar to a power animal, traveling with the person on hir journey.  Some lend their energy to magic by their presence, which may be augmented by a donation of a bit of fur or shed skin.  And familiars may also be used to perform certain magical tasks.  This doesn’t mean letting your dog run out of the yard on some errand or another, but rather communicating intuitively with your familiar regarding what needs to be done, and then asking for hir cooperation.

Not every animal is capable of this type of concentration.  I used to have ferrets, and no matter how much I tried to train them, they never could sit still.  I ended up with ferrets knocking over stuff on the altar, stealing offerings, and bouncing on me while I tried meditating.  Perhaps they would make awesome Discordian familiars, but they were just a little too crazy to work with me!  Other animals may not be all that great with intuitive communication, or may not be inclined to work magic, just like people. 

Because of this, a familiar must be carefully selected.  Some people advocate working a ritual to attract a familiar.  One such example is in Timothy Roderick’s excellent work, The Once Unknown Familiar.  The nice thing about his ritual is that it allows for contact both with animals already in your home, and animals that you haven’t met yet.[1]

Sometimes you don’t always have the time to wait around for a familiar to show up.  Just as there’s not just one person in the world with whom you are compatible for life, so there isn’t just one familiar you can work with.  When I first started working on my book on animal magic, I realized that while I had researched information on familiars and heard a lot of stories about others’ experiences, I had no experience myself.  Since I was working on a deadline, I didn’t have time to waste.  In addition, I had to be very specific about the type of animal I had because of pet restrictions in the building I lived in at the time, as well as time restrictions I had in my busy schedule.

My solution was to turn a trip to a small, local pet store into the ritual itself.  A ritual is an action with intent, fueled by Will, and doesn’t necessarily have to happen within a circle.  I made my statement of intent and headed out the door. Sure enough, the trip was a success, and I came home with Tatzelwurm, an ocellated skink who has been a wonderful familiar since then.  She’s small, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, but has completed a couple of magical tasks for me with fabulous results.

What keeps her from being just a pet is her participation in magic.  She’s a guardian during rituals; even if she doesn’t come out from hiding, I still get an energetic “ping” from her when I evoke her.  And she’s completed a couple of tasks for me.  Usually what she asks me to do, once I’ve told her what I’d like her to accomplish, is to leave a small two-hour candle (unlit, of course!) in her tank for a few days.  She charges it without my help, and once it’s ready she’ll “nudge” me to let me know.  While she doesn’t chew on it, fortunately, there are always tracks in the sand around it where she’s thoroughly investigated it.  And once the candle has burned, I tend to get results within a reasonably quick time.  Her reward is crickets—mealworms are her usual fare, but crickets are a treat.

Of course, this isn’t the do-all and end-all of familiar work.  Still, I wanted to emphasize that a familiar isn’t just a pet; it’s an animal that is an active participant on magical work.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with “just pets”, either—the joy of sharing your life with another living being is magic in itself!

[1] Roderick, Timothy (1994).  The Once Unknown Familiar: Shamanic Paths to Unleash Your Animal Powers.  St. Paul,Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 121-122.