Within the practice of witchcraft there exists a creature that few outside of the craft will have any awareness of. It is a strange and often dangerous creature known as a “familiar.” When witchcraft was said to be rife across England in the 1500s and 1600s, it was widely believed that witches used small animals for a variety of reasons – such as spying on those who might do them harm. But, they weren’t animals in the normal sense of the word. They were said to be demonic entities that possessed the ability to alter their forms into multiple kinds of animals. For the witches of the Middle Ages, the preferable forms were black cats, black dogs, hedgehogs, hares, owls, and mice.
There were very good reasons why witches would use ancient rites to invoke the presence of demonic entities that would do their bidding for them. If a witch had a grudge against a particular person, then paying that person a menacing visit themselves would soon blow their cover and reveal them as a practitioner of the black arts – something which would typically result in them being burned alive at the stake, or drowned in a nearby river. So, the cunning witch would dispatch her familiar – a demonic thing in animal form – to act on her behalf.
After all, very few people would take much notice of a dog or a cat walking along the pathways of an old English village. Even less would likely give a hare, an owl, or a mouse a second glance. So, as a result, the familiar could approach the home of the targeted person, listen carefully to what was going on in the home of the person – or even place a malevolent hex upon them – and then report back to their controller. In some cases, the demonic things that the witches called forth from their hellish realms did not take on animal form: they shape-shifted into the forms of people, something which added yet another layer to the complex matter, and nature, of the familiar. In human form, they were often easily identified by their pale skin, malevolent appearances and dark clothes.
One might justifiably ask, at this stage, what did the familiars get out of all this? After all, Faustian pacts of these kind always require something in return. For the familiars it was blood, which often came from a sacrificed, slaughtered animal of normal proportions – and which the familiar would tear into and voraciously drink its blood. On other occasions, so the mythology of the era told it, the familiars would receive the blood in a very different way: they would suck it from the witch with whom it worked.
It should be stressed that, rather tragically, many women, burned or drowned for being witches, were actually nothing of the sort. Rather, they were elderly, single women whose only companions were pets. But, with the mindset that existed in England at the time, any such woman might very well become the unfortunate target of hysterical, torch-wielding crowds.
So, does that mean the matter of familiars has no basis in reality? Well, that all depends on how you view and interpret such legends and tales. One of the most popular guises into which the creatures would transform were black dogs. Very curious and paranormal-tinged reports of black-colored, fiery-eyed black hounds abounded in the U.K., centuries ago. They continue to be reported today, albeit to a lesser degree than in times long gone. In view of this, one might be inclined to say that the witches and their familiars are still among us, with the Phantom Black Dogs still being among their favorite forms of disguise.