Familiars are one of those elements of witchcraft that get a bum rap as a result of historical persecution of witchcraft. Many women (and men) convicted of being witches during the various witch trials were accused of having a familiar, a demonic spirit which accompanied them in animal form and aided them in their black magic. Times have moved on, and the term lacks the demonic connections of the past but other terms such as Spirit Guide or Animal Guide are used in preference over such a loaded terminology.
Often when people talk about familiars they are talking about a physical animal companion however familiars are not limited to animals or the physical form. Some witches have animals whilst others have minerals, plants and spirits as theirs, what is consistent with all familiars if that they are a companion in magical practices.
Focusing on animal familiars for a moment, many people feel drawn to calling their pets familiars, often allowing them to come and go during their physical rituals or sharing energies and love in their practice. Whilst this is certainly an acceptable praxis some feel left out in the cold because they are unable to have pets for one reason or another. Additionally it ignores the fact that, even after removing the connotations of the Witch Trials the Familiar is a spirit entity and does not need to hold a physical form in order to guide us.
The word “familiar” is, in some cases, used interchangeably with “spirit guide” which better defines the role of the familiar as guide on the spiritual level. They can offer advice and guidance, protection and support as we navigate the mundane world but more importantly the spiritual world. Familiars come into their own when we undertake pathworking and creative visualisation in order to explore our connection with the spirit world and the divine. Our familiars walk with us in this world between worlds and it is here that their guiding and protective qualities can be most clearly felt. It is also here that we are able to absorb their lessons to the fullest.
Familiars come and go, choosing who they will as they will. Whilst is might be nice to think that your animal familiar was a Wolf, Bear or Fox, or that a spirit familiar might be a Native American Indian Chief or an Egyptian High Priestess we as practitioners have no choice in who chooses us. The familiar that chose us do so because they can see that there are lessons we need to learn which they are able to teach us. It might be a quality of personality, or a measure of support during a difficult time, or it might be that they are best suited to supporting us with particular aspects of magical practice. For this reason a person can have many familiars at the same time or over a period of time.
Just thinking about it now I have had 5 different animal familiars over the years. Some have stayed with me only a short time or only appear im certain circumstances. On the other hand others remain and I know I can call on thenlm any time I have need of their help.
A note aside, Familiars should not be confused with totemic symbols (be they animal, plant or mineral). Totemic guides are guides of a family or clan rather than the individual and remain constant throughout life. Whilst the most obvious example would be Native American Tribes holding a particular animal in reverence above others as symbolic of the tribe another example closer to home can be found amongst Scottish clans.
Meeting Your Familiars and Guides
Whilst there are ways in which we can connect with and discover our familiars we are not able to force the association. The easiest way to meet them for the first time is through meditation/visualisation.
As with any meditation adopt a comfortable, temperate position (one you aren’t likely to fall asleep in) and prepare yourself mentally to enter a relaxed state. For the basic meditation I am going to outline below I suggest allowing yourself between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on how confident you are in meditating. You will want to avoid music you find irritating, or that has spoken words that are not consistent with the goals of your meditation. I highly recommend using a track which includes a call back signal, this will indicate to you when it is time to return to the walking world in good time meaning you don’t have to worry about timing yourself and can avoid turning the experience into a mad rush at the end when the music runs out.
Don’t over ritualise meditation, it can make it seem too overwhelming and more effort than it needs to be. Avoid candles, which could become a fire hazard whilst your eyes are closed, and incense, which might become a source of irritation and distraction, and instead opt for a dimly lit or darkened room.
The only precursor to your meditation should be an opening statement of intent. This might be spoken or an internal statement, but its goal should be to clearly lay out the purpose of the meditation and focus both your mind to the task at hand. It is an invitation to spirit to come and make itself known either as an opening invitation or for a purpose, being aware that you should only ask for one thing per meditation. The clearer and more specific the dedication the clearer the communion and guidance.
That said, if you are trying to discover the identity of your familiar it is best to let go of your preconceptions. You might think you know who you are going meet but by avoiding preconception we are open to spirit and more likely to connect with the familiar that is reaching out to us. Once you have established a connection with a familiar it is only natural that you would enter your visualisation with the intention to meet that particular guide however, keep in mind that the ways of the spirit are not the ways of men. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve entered mediation to get guidance from one spirit and found something entirely different waiting for me.
Once you are comfortable and feel grounded and protected taken a number of deep cleansing breaths and start your visualisation.
Picture before you a door, it doesn’t matter what kind of door nor does it need to be a door you know, just a door which is recognisably yours. Reach out to the handle and open the door, step through and close the door behind you.
You find yourself stood on a woodland path, ancient trees line the pathway on either side and the canopy of leaves rises high above your head. Set off down the path, being aware of the sights sounds and smells around you.
You have reached a woodland glade. In its centre stands a mighty oak tree. Approach the tree and take a seat amongst its roots, your back firmly against the trunk of the tree. Look up amongst the branches and see how high it rises into the sky. Feel the exposed roots and be aware of how deep they extend into the earth. This tree united the earth and sky in its being, sitting between worlds.
Repeat your statement of intent and wait.
Make note of what you see and feel, what impressions come to you in this time. Most likely your familiar will approach you directly, but occasionally they will communicate indirectly. Whatever appears, whatever impressions you receive, accept and welcome them Don’t anyalise why something has been given, simply accept it and take note of it for now.
Take some time to communicate with your familiar, ask questions or simply spend time with them. If they choose to lead you away from the tree feel free to follow them, taking note of what happens as you go. Just be sure to return to the tree before leaving the meditation.
When it is time to return ask your familiar for one gift or wisdom to take back with you to the waking world. It might come as an offered gift, a wisdom or even an impression; whatever form it takes thank them for the gift and return along the woodland path to the doorway through which you arrived.
Open the door, pass through it back into the room, remembering to close the door behind you. Now its time to come back into yourself, become more aware of your body, of yourself, and open your eyes.
Take a moment to journal your experience, reviewing the elements you can recall and taking the time to understand what was given and the possible meaning behind it.
Enjoy your time and connection with your familiar. Whilst it is fair to say that they are a tool just as a wand or knife is they are so much more. They are a sentient entity to be treated with respect and reverence, just as you would treat anyone who you work with in you craft practice with respect and dignity. Do not make demands, and always be thankful for their support and guidance even if you don’t immediately understand it. You can give thanks to your guides by making small offerings to local spirits or donating time and energy to a cause or activity you associate with that guide.