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"The Love Potion" by Evelyn de Morgan: a witch with a black cat familiar at her feet

A familiar spirit or familiar (from Middle English familiar, related to family) is an animal-shaped spirit who serves for witchery, a demon, or other magician-related subjects.

Familiars serve their owners as domestic servants, farmhands, spies, and companions, and may help bewitch enemies. Familiars are also said to inspire artists and writers (see Tutelary spirit, Power Animal and compare Muse)[citation needed].

Familiars are considered an identifying characteristic of early modern English witchcraft, and serve as one feature setting it apart from European witchcraft[citation needed]; although we find legends of "Familiar creatures" in other parts of the world.

Contents

Familiars in European mythology

Familiars are most common in western European mythology, with some scholars arguing that familiars are only present in the traditions of Great Britain and France. In these areas three categories of familiars are believed to exist:[1]

Historiography on the Witch's Familiar

Recent scholarship on familiars exhibits the depth and respectability absent from earlier demonological approaches. The study of familiars has grown from an academic topic in folkloric journals to a general topic in popular books and journals incorporating anthropology, history, women’s studies and other disciplines. James Sharpe, in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition, states: "Folklorists began their investigations in the 19th Century [and] found that familiars figured prominently in ideas about witchcraft."[2]

In the 1800s, folklorists fired the imagination of scholars who would, in decades to come, write descriptive volumes on witches and familiars. Examples of the growth and development of familiar scholarship are found in Folklore, which consistently contributes articles on traditional beliefs in England and early modern Europe.

In the first decades of the 1900s, familiars are identified as "niggets", which are "creepy-crawly things that witches kept all over them".[3]

Margaret Murray delves into variations of the familiar found in witchcraft practices. Many of the sources she employs are trial records and demonological texts from early to modern England. These include the 1556 Essex Witchcraft Trials of the Witches of Hatfield Perevil, the 1582 Trial of the Witches of St. Osyth, and the 1645 Essex Trials with Matthew Hopkins acting as a Witch-finder.[4] In 1921, Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe.. Her information concerning familiars comes from witchcraft trials in Essex in the 1500s and 1600s.[5]

Recent scholarship is multi-disciplinary, integrating feminist-historical and world-historical approaches. Deborah Willis' Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England links the witch's attributed relationship with the familiar to a bizarre and misplaced corruption of motherhood and maternal power.[6]

Roman Catholic Beliefs

In his book Hostage to the Devil, Jesuit, exorcist and Catholic polemicist Malachi Martin describes a possession case in which a familiar spirit is involved. Martin's account reveals that familiar spirits are considered both real and demonic by the Church. The only difference in church dogma between familiars and demons is the specific ways in which a familiar is believed to possesses an individual. In contrast to demons, familiars are not believed to possess the body. They rather possess the personality, the soul, the human affective relations and the psychological processes of a person, but the familiar spirit maintains a distinct personality. Martin also asserts that the familiar spirit entices the human spirit by appearing friendly and comforting when things go wrong, thus developing a progressive dependence on the spirit and the diminishing reliance of one's individuality.

Prince Rupert's dog

Prince Rupert and his "familiar" dog in a pamphlet titled "The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert" (1643).

During the English Civil War, the Royalist general Prince Rupert was in the habit of taking his large poodle dog named Boye, into battle with him. Throughout the war the dog was greatly feared among the Parliamentarian forces and credited with supernatural powers. As noted by Morgan,[7] the dog was apparently considered a kind of familiar. At the end of the war the dog was shot, allegedly with a silver bullet.

Witch trials

Most data regarding familiars comes from the transcripts of English and Scottish 'witch' trials held during the 16th-17th centuries. The court system that labeled and tried witches was known as the Essex. The Essex trial of Agnes Sampson of Nether Keith in 1590 presents prosecution testimony regarding a divinatory familiar. This case is fundamentally political, trying Sampson for high treason, and accusing Sampson for employing witchcraft against King James VI. The prosecution asserts Sampson called familiar spirits and resolved her doubtful matter. Another Essex trial is that of Hellen Clark tried in 1645, in which Hellen was compelled to state that The Devil appeared as a 'familiar' in the form of a dog.[8]

The English court cases reflect a strong relationship between state accusations of witchcraft against those who practiced ancient indigenous traditions, including the familiar animal/spirit.

In some cases familiars replace children in the favour of their mothers. See witchcraft and children.

Vampires

In works of fiction about vampires a familiar may refer to a human who is kept either as an informant and, virtually, a pet (as mentioned in the film Blade II; or as a continuous source of blood and sometimes servants or even friends (seen in the Blue Bloods series).

See also

References

  1. ^ M. A. Murray, Divination by Witches’ Familiars. Man. Vol. 18 June 1918. 1-3.
  2. ^ Sharpe, James; Rickard M Golden (2006). Familiars in the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition. ABC-CLIO. 
  3. ^ Times, The (1916). "Superstition in Essex: A Witch and Her Niggets". Folklore 27: 3. 
  4. ^ Murray, Margaret (July 1918). "Witches' Familiars in England". Man 18: 101. doi:10.2307/2787283. 
  5. ^ Murray, Margaret A. (1921). The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Clarendon Press. 
  6. ^ Willis, Deborah (1995). Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Modern England. Cornell U.. 
  7. ^ William Morgan, "Superstition in Medieval and Early Modern Society", Chapter 3
  8. ^ M. A. Murray, “Witches familiars in England.” Man, Vol. 18 July 1918 1-3.
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Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki


Sorcerers or necormancers, who professed to call up the dead to answer questions, were said to have a "familiar spirit" (Deut. 18:11; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chr. 33:6; Lev. 19:31; 20:6; Isa. 8:19; 29:4). Such a person was called by the Hebrews an 'ob, which properly means a leathern bottle; for sorcerers were regarded as vessels containing the inspiring demon. This Hebrew word was equivalent to the pytho of the Greeks, and was used to denote both the person and the spirit which possessed him (Lev. 20:27; 1 Sam. 28:8; comp. Acts 16:16). The word "familiar" is from the Latin familiaris, meaning a "household servant," and was intended to express the idea that sorcerers had spirits as their servants ready to obey their commands.

This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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