I read James Serpell’s piece on familiar spirits, ‘Guardian Spirits or demonic Pets: The Concept of the Witch’s Familiar in Early Modern England, 1530-1712, which appeared in Angela Creager and William Jordan’s The Animal/Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives (2002). It’s a thorough job, with some very good quotations and a jolly chart of the various animal forms the devil was said to have adopted.
The sources of bemusement remain: where such a strange idea came from, and in particular why it was English witchcraft that so featured the diabolic familiar in animal form.
It’s useful first to remind oneself of a widespread psychological phenomenon:
The Wikipedia writers paraphrase from Klausen and Passman, ‘Pretend companions (imaginary playmates): the emergence of a field’ in the Journal of Genetic Psychology (2006): “Adults in early historic times had entities such as household gods and guardian angels, and muses that functioned as imaginary companions to provide comfort, guidance and inspiration for creative work.”
After a non-Christian origin, a conceptual and etymological inevitability operated to produce the familiar spirit in animal form.
In Roman times, Ronald Hutton explains, you had a lares familiares, a guardian angel called your genius (a woman might have referred to hers as her natalis Juno). On your birthday, you made special vows and little sacrifices to your genius or juno on the household shrine, the lararium. Emperors, meanwhile, had a numen, and their re-union with their numen at death was what made a dead emperor into a god. Evil spirits, says Lemprière, were the Larvae or Lemures. They were considered to be the spirits of the dead, and ceremonies, Lemualia, were performed to keep them in their graves or make them depart. These evil spirits are just a general supernatural nuisance; they are not assigned to living individuals as opposites to the genius.
The genius is considered by some lexicographers to link to the word jinn. In Moslem tradition, Jorge Luis Borges explains, Allah created three forms of intelligent beings: angels, from light, the jinn, from fire, and humankind, from earth. The jinn can be evil. They manifest, Borges reports his sources as saying, first of all as clouds or undefined pillars, then can stabilise or condense into a human or animal form, as jackal, wolf, lion, scorpion, or snake – definitely not as domestic animals. Jinn can overhear angelic conversations, and so pass on second hand vatic information to wizards. But the harms attempted by an evil jinnee are easily defeated by invoking the name of Allah, the all Merciful, the Compassionate.
For the European tradition, the OED’s etymologies take the story forwards. In post-classical Latin of the 12th century, the guardian angel is the angelus familiaris. Because the culture was Christian, and that culture was intensely given, after Prudentius’ hugely popular 5th century Christian poem, to analysing the psychomachia, the battle happening in and around an individual soul, familiar devils followed, c.1464. You now have both a Good and a Bad Angel, like Faustus, and they form a morally effective pairing, as in this illustration:
A court scene, with the person testifying between his evil and good angels.
From Ulrich Tengler, Der neü Leyenspiegel (Strassburg, 1514)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/yalelawlibrary/11734629074/in/album-72157639358477444/ (See folio CXXXV).
The OED assigns spiritus familiaris to the 15th century, and has the term in its English form from 1545. EEBO can be used to add further quotations. The “familier spirit of a mannes awne minde” is mentioned quite neutrally in the translation of Erasmus’ commentary of Cato’s precepts in 1553, while 1554 provides the more opprobrious “one that had a familier spyrit, and used enchauntry” in a work by Richard Smith.
Of course, the neutral use is in commentary on a Roman writer. In the context of magic, the familiar spirit may have set off like the daemon of Socrates, being the source of your knowledge. But when that knowledge was forbidden, no neutral ‘daemon’ is possible: it is a demon informing you (or, more likely, misinforming you).
Lurking in familiar was a connection to the house: Latin, familiaris, ‘of a house, of a household, belonging to a family, household, domestic, private’. Canis familiaris is the domestic dog.
The Roman lares familiaris or penates were represented in the form of dancing human-shaped figures, who carry a libation cup and dish. But when the familiar spirit is no longer a daemon but a demon, no longer a genius but an evil genius, a witch-hunter can infer that, as it would be instantly incriminating to have a largely human-shaped devil visible in the household, the devil is going to be present either invisibly, or disguised in animal form.
Genesis, as it had been interpreted from the second century, gave ample warrant for Satan assuming animal form. Nobody could imagine Jesus appearing to them in the form of a dog, but part of satanic debasement was non-angelic form. Milton has his Satan suavely passing from cormorant, to tiger, to toad, to serpent, as best serves his advantage. Intelligent writers of Genesis-based poems, like Du Bartas and Milton, were fascinated in just how Satan could get a snake to speak. Du Bartas even seems to imagine that one way round this difficulty is that Satan, invisible, is ‘playing’ the serpent, like a brilliant musician coaxing a good sound from a poor musical instrument (Sylvester, translating Du Bartas, interjects an allusion to John Dowland’s ability to coax harmonious music out of a broken-down old instrument).
|Imputed 'devil's door', Warfield Church, Berkshire|
I think that the medieval church in general down-played the genius or ‘good angel’. They are mentioned, but really they occupied a role the church wanted for itself: leaving aside special miraculous interventions by the Blessed Virgin Mary, the church is the best protector. Having promoted itself to guardian-angeldom, the church would naturally incline to emphasise what you were being so well protected from. As an instance, on the Heritage Open Day this last weekend, I cycled to Warfield Church in Berkshire, which has one of the reputed ‘devil’s doors’. It is asserted that such small doors, in the North wall of a church, were opened during the medieval Catholic baptismal rite – involving exorcism – of a baby in the font placed near to the devil’s door. Subsequently, ‘devil doors’ tended to be walled up: in the Reformation, it is said. Maybe very early Christian buildings had a North-side door for the not-yet baptised, and the feature was reproduced in later buildings. An exorcised devil flying out of an aperture is such a common motif that such doors probably did at some later time have that different function in a drama of exorcism (absurd though it is for a spirit to require a doorway). This is a separate issue; my point is about the church’s tendency to make the devil familiar. The devil was inside you prior to your baptism, and he is always trying to resume control, he will always be close at hand.
Once the devil had become multiplied into vast numbers of evil spirits, every sinner can have one, and the church can busy itself beating them away. Some irremissible sinners, demonology began to say, struck personal covenants with devils. Invisible devils inevitably had a neither-here-nor-there quality. It became the duty of the person accused of witchcraft, or the person who said they were bewitched, to see devils. Particularly in England, and perhaps because the English always seem to have accommodated an odd range of animals living with them, animals already in the house were co-opted as devils; or in the absence of animals, the assumed attendant devils were assigned animal forms by those who claimed to be witnesses, or by witches who were trying to confess compliantly enough to worm their way back into judicial favour.
The sinister, vice, element from psychomachia had in effect combined with the household suggestions of ‘familiaris’ (“some domestical or familiar devil” in Daneau, A Dialogue of Witches, 1575) to suggest that the spirit prompting to evil adopted disguise as a domestic animal, as when Elizabeth Stile confessed that when she went to gaol, “her Bunne or Familier came to her in the likenesse of a black Catte” (1579). The OED does not include this sense for the noun ‘bun’, but it was in regular early modern use, alongside ‘imp’, as in Great News from the West of England: “In the Town of Beckenton … liveth one William Spicer, a young Man about eighteen Years of Age; as he was wont to pass by the Alms-house (where liveth an Old Woman, about Fourscore) he would call her Witch, and tell her of her Buns; which did so enrage the Old Woman, that she threatened him with a warrant…”
If the church had appropriated the role of good genius, we can then see Milton’s Comus as powerfully re-instating the guardian angel, the daemon, sent direct from heaven to intervene - because Milton was well on the way to his repudiation of organised worship.
I think the most revealing familiar spirits are those whose forms and actions are recounted in Edward Fairfax’s Daemonologia. I say this because Helen Fairfax, the writer’s eldest daughter, was simply making them up, deliberately and in a calculated fashion, to get her father’s attention. Yes, reported familiars were always made up, but in this case there’s no ambiguity about delusions, or hysteria, or deception by a third party. Helen Fairfax simply let rip, unleashed her imagination and expanding on themes she’d heard in other reports.
She witnessed a Protean devil: human formed, then a beast with many horns, then a calf, then “presently he was like a very little dog, and desired her to open her mouth and let him come into her body, and then he would rule the world”
Her father is completely credulous. On the 16th November, 1621, a black dog, she said, had leapt onto her bed “and I tried if I could feel the dog, but I felt nothing; and the wench said ‘The dog has leaped down and gone’ ”
Then there is Margaret’s Wait’s alleged familiar “At last the woman pulled out of a bag a living thing, the bigness of a cat, rough, black, and with many feet”. This alarmingly non-tetrapodic beast keeps trying to sit on the Bible Helen is conspicuously attempting to read.
More imaginative is the black cat: “when the cat opened her mouth to blow on her, she showed her teeth like the teeth of a man or woman”. This imaginary being mixes together the devil in animal form and the witch who, in her animal form, is incompletely transformed.
The women that Helen Fairfax so heedlessly accused were taken for examination. No supernumerary teats were found on them, and they were acquitted when tried. The relentless Helen, who is making all this up, subsequently sees a witch breast-feeding her familiar, and is indignant at this crafty way of escaping exposure. She has come up with a way the women at the York assizes escaped proper detection. Finding her lies officially disbelieved only caused Helen to rally with more lies.
What moved Helen Fairfax was said to be paternal neglect. She maybe also took some pleasure in deceiving a father who had no regard at all for her intelligence. A desire to be married and away from home is also apparent. Satan appears to her as a gallant gentleman. The God himself appears to her in the hall. This is too much for the family, who can believe in the devil being present, but not God himself, and Helen swiftly adjusts her story, as the God who appeared to her produces evasive answers, and finally shows his horns.