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A Witch Named Isobel and a “Familiar” Creature

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 wide 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 through 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 that the witches called forth from their hellish realms did not take on animal form: they shapeshifted 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.  Not at all unlike the Men in Black of UFO lore. 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 the 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 teat of 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 in the 1500s and 1600s – when the hunt for witches was at its height – 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? No, not at all. Recall that two of the most popular guises into witch the demons would transform were black cats and black dogs. Very curious and paranormal-tinged reports of black-colored, so-called Alien Big Cats and fiery-eyed black hounds abound in the U.K. They continue to do so. In view of this, one might be inclined, and correct, to say that the witches and their familiars are still among us, and with the ABCs and the Phantom Black Dogs still being among their favorite forms of disguise.

One animal, more than many others, which has long been associated with witchcraft, sorcery, and shapeshifting is the hare, which falls into the same family as the rabbit. They are widespread, with large populations throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and Africa. And, on top of that, they are a most mysterious animal. When it comes to the matter of shapeshifting and hares, there’s no doubt that one of the most famous cases on record revolves around a woman name Isobel Gowdie. In sharp contrast to the image that most people have of witches – namely, old, wizened hags with hooked noses – Gowdie was a young woman, a housewife from the 12th century Scottish village of Auldearn.

So the story went – according to Luke Mastin, in “Famous Witches – Isobel Gowdie (? – 1662),” and Fiona Tinker, in “Isobel Gowdie” – Gowdie had secret and regular late night meetings with the Scottish ruler of the fairies, the Queen of Elphame, as she was known – a supernatural elemental who had the ability to appears as young and beautiful woman and as an old, menacing woman. They were meetings said to have occurred deep underground, far below an ancient hill near Auldearn. They were also meetings which led Gowdie to become exposed to the secrets of shapeshifting. Unlike so many alleged witches who suffered terribly at the hands of so-called witch-finders – but who, in reality, were often merely sadistic characters who took pleasure in inflicting brutal pain and even death – Gowdie didn’t have to be tortured to convince her to spill the beans about her meetings with the fairies and her shapeshifting activities. She was wide open about her antics of the after dark variety. She even share with her interrogators the specific spell she used to transform herself into a hare. It went as follows: “I shall go into a hare, With sorrow and sych and meickle care; And I shall go in the Devil’s name, Ay while I come home again.”

And, when she wished to return to human form, Gowdie would mutter: “Hare, hare, God send thee care. I am in a hare’s likeness now, But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.” The history books do not record Gowdie’s fate; however, given the savagery of the widespread witch-hunts that went on throughout England and Scotland at the time, the likelihood is that the outcome was not a positive one. Drowning or burning at the stake were the most probable outcomes for poor Isobel.


Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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