According to English witchcraft handbooks of the early seventeenth century (familiars do not appear in Continental witchcraft trials and literature), the name given to spirits attendant upon witches or magicians.
Usually a low-ranking demon, familiars are visible to ordinary sight, as, for example, in the form of dogs or cats, but in some cases it was claimed that witches were followed by a swarm of invisible familiars. The word is from the Latin familiares, but alternative Roman names were magistelli and martinelli, while the Greeks called them paredrii.
It was held that the familiar, usually in the form of a small domestic animal, was given to the witch by the Devil as companion, helper and adviser, which could be used to perform malicious errands, including murder, and other feats of black magic. The familiar ― often only visible to the witch herself ― would be rewarded for its services by being allowed to suck some of the witch's own blood from a teat or spot on her body known as a "witch's mark."
This frontispiece depicts one of the most famous accounts of familiars, Matthew Hopkins' Discovery of Witches (1647) in which the author describes the five familiars said to assist the witch Elizabeth Clark:
1. Holt, a white kitten
2. Jamara, a fat spaniel
3. Vinegar Tom, a long-legged greyhound
4. Sack and Sugar, a black rabbit
5. News, a polecat
All medieval witches were believed to have a familiar given to them by the Devil for the purpose of strengthening the witch's own power. Common European familiars were believed to be cats, dogs, rabbits, toads and insects. Japanese familiars were dogs and foxes, and in Africa it was believed witches relied on the assistance of baboons, hyenas and owls.
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Sources: (1) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (2) Pickering, David, Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft, Cassell Academic; (3) The Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition Handy Volume Edition, Oxford University Press.
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