Q&A: Do you have a familiar?

This question comes from an anonymous user over on Tumblr, where a post about my cat, Cu Gwyn, that I wrote last year has been making the rounds. Anon asks:

Do you have a familiar?

I should probably answer this question with a modest, “No.” Especially if I don’t want to piss off any Trad Witches, some of whom no doubt have spent years studying various medieval texts detailing the practices of cunning-folk and witch-trial testimonies about various dealings with faery cats, demon rats and otherworldly toads. They’d be justifiably angry with me if I went around claiming to practice something that has so many serious books written about it, of which I’ve read exactly none. Aside from the usual stereotypes about witches and their black cat companions, all I know about the concept of the familiar is what a quick Google search can tell me. I don’t claim any extensive knowledge or experience about the use of familiars in magic, ancient or modern.

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I’m also not really the New Age type who thinks, just because my cat happens to enjoy watching me wave incense around making a fool of myself in front of my altar, that he has any actual interest in my spiritual or magical development. If he is a wise old soul, he is of a relatively indifferent kind — I imagine that, of his nine lives or more, this incarnation must be his equivalent of retiring to Florida. (He is curled up on the couch next to me as I write this, and when I ask him his opinion, he barely deigns to twitch an ear, his eyes resolutely closed, as if to say: I’m well aware that you’re trying to disturb my nap, which is why I’m ignoring you.) He is much more interested in what time I feed him dinner, than he is in aiding me in my rituals or spellwork.

Still, there is something about my Cu Gwyn that borders on the magical at times. The night after I found him as a stray 6-week-old kitten hiding under our car, I had a bizarre dream about being attacked by a horrible beast with knives for fingers… The next day when I took him in for his first checkup, the vet discovered some half-healed wounds on his belly, probably inflicted by a dog or another feral feline he’d encountered. I could shrug that off as coincidence, the result of an overactive and overly-sympathetic imagination. Except that I’ve had what seem to be “psychic dreams” on many occasions since Cu joined our family — the most vivid of them almost always involving chasing mice, a signal that I was sure to wake up the next morning to find evidence of them in the kitchen. My husband has had similar dreams. I’m a skeptic by nature, though, so I tend to shrug these experiences off as the promptings of my subconscious, which must have picked up on some subtle sign my conscious mind failed to notice.

But there’s no arguing that Cu Gwyn positively exudes personality. I’m sure a lot of pet owners feel this way about their companion animals. I’m not ashamed of taking that feeling seriously, and treating our cat like a member of the family. Scientists may still argue over levels of consciousness and intelligence in non-human animals — coming to a grudging consensus recognizing non-human consciousness as recently as 2012 — but having lived with animals of various sorts all my life (including cats, dogs, fish, frogs, rats, mice and, on one occasion, a newborn wild rabbit), I have no doubt that these beings possess consciousness, intelligence and personalities all their own. (Hell, if even cockroaches have personalities, how can we doubt that our feline friends do?) It is not mere sentimentality that leads me to sense a wakeful, minded being before me when I look into my cat’s sleepy eyes.

This is why I joke about my cat being my “familiar.” Though he may not realize it, his very presence in my life is an abiding reminder to attend to the familiar things that I may otherwise overlook. Through his languid resistance to my requests for cuddles, he reminds me that the world is not made up solely of my own needs and desires. Cu Gwyn is my familiar when he reminds me:

It’s about the simple companionship of ordinary objects and creatures and beings, and the way their presence shapes our lives even when we think we’re not paying attention. A part of us is always paying attention. There is always something within us that is attending to the textures and contours of things.

Over the past few years as I’ve walked a path more and more shaped by animism, shamanism and totemic work, I’ve felt the pressing need to remain grounded in the real, physical beings that surround me and share the land with me. I attend to the birds in my neighborhood — not the idea of birds I read in some book, or the imagined experience of a bird in meditation — but these particular birds, here and now. The two finches, say, who return each year to nest in my front yard, whose quirks and calls and favorite perches become known to me the same way the habitual movements and muffled noises of my human neighbors do.

One of the challenges of totemic work, I think, is learning to resist the seductive call of the exotic, not to go rushing off towards some other cultural paradigm that seems more interesting than our own…. But instead, to stay rooted in the familiar landscapes and communities around us, which so desperately need us to wake up to our relationships with them. To truly awaken to these familiarities as fully as we can.

And there is nothing more familiar than the placid gaze of my cat beside me.

Do you work with familiars as part of your practice? Do you have a pet or companion animal who has shaped your spiritual path? (Are you a Trad Witch who would like an apology for how under-researched this post is?) Let me know!


Have another question for the Q&A series? Leave it in the comments below, ask me on Tumblr, or email me.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

9 Comments

  1. Stephen Sims
    Apr 7, 2015

    I think that he is definitely your familiar.. Just because he doesn’t seem particularly interested in your magical practices.. Doesn’t mean he isn’t.. My familiar is my dog, Baby Girl.. She’s a Border Collie, Australian Shepherd mix.. And she’s always so comforting to people who need it and even protects me when I’m attacked by demons.. Which happens more often than not..

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 7, 2015

      Lol, I’ll have to let Cu Gwyn decide if he wants to be recruited, in that case. ;) I wouldn’t want to disturb his retirement of bird-watching and napping all afternoon.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 7, 2015

      P.S. I’m sorry to hear about your troubles with bothersome spirits. I’m glad you have a companion to help. :) You might also get something out of a post that my husband wrote several years ago — he has some helpful advice in it for what techniques are effective for him.

  2. Elizabeth Creely
    Apr 7, 2015

    I absolutely love this. I do not have a familiar, no. I have a question: does Cu Gwyn mean white hound? In other words, you name your cat for his exact opposite? :-)
    Either way, lovely writing.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 7, 2015

      Yep, that’s what his name means — or, at least, it’s intended to be etymologically related. :) I don’t actually know Welsh, so I can’t promise it’s actually correct. But I find it endlessly amusing. :) Also, when I say hello to him, it’s a little poem: Hi, Cu!

  3. Bones
    Apr 7, 2015

    I love this! Especially your thoughts on the exotic versus the familiar.

    I tend to shrug off apparent magical or psychic events that concern my pets, for the same reason. I wonder (after reading your post) if indeed their mere presence and mundane lives are enough to prompt our psyches – well, maybe that’s just the mechanism by which their magic works.

  4. Bob Patrick
    Apr 7, 2015

    I am most curious about our comment that your cat sees you “making a fool of yourself in front of your altar.”

    Why would anything you do at YOUR altar be “making the fool” of yourself? And then, The Fool is one of my favorite cards of the Tarot! Just sort of talking out loud here.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 7, 2015

      Bob, I’m going to resist the temptation to answer this straight away and tag it for a future Q&A post. ;)

  5. Ben
    Apr 8, 2015

    I have had a familiar but did not know it at the time. I was away from home working and was half asleep when i felt a familiar presence of my dog molly, so i moved so that she could sleep the way we always did (me on my side with my legs bent so she could lay behind me with her head on my feet). That woke me up and she was there but not there like i was seeing her with only half of myself. I got the call an hour later. But looking back she found the wood burl that is now my offering boul. And guided me when I was getting off balance. I have seen a true familiar only one other time with my frend and his cat, they are the reason i know that molly was mine.

    I also have met guides and messengers whom i believe are sent By Mielikki. I wouldn’t call them familiars but they’ve shown up when needed and to greet me when i go to the cabin. The first I met a doe on a trail on the way back to my family’s cabin. instead of the normal bounding away she moved closer blocking the path. I don’t know why but i pat her back and she even presented me her neck to scratch. After a few minutes there was a huge crash, a madrone tree that was up hill had given way. She stayed right where she was when the forest came back. She moved aside i went down the path turned the corner and the tree had fallen right where I would have been i couldn’t go around it. I’d have to back track and find a new path. And there she was waiting for me i thanked her and was going to go back to a split she kept pace with me and bounded ahead blocking the path again till i got to her then she pushed by a bush on to a deer trail i hadn’t known about she then looked at me i remember thinking ok i get it lead the way. She led me over two ridges using trails I now know by heart but had never seen before. The third ridge we came to she stopped at the top down the hill was my families cabin what would have been a half hour walk from that tree to my car (i always put a map printout on my windshield in a plastic sleeve with the trail i am doing and the time and date I’ve left with contact info and the radio ‘wilderness protocol’ i will fallow if in trouble) 45 min drive had turned into a four and a half hour walk. I had never ever thought to use my radio.
    I went back the next day with a salt lick and grain and left them at that first deer trail to say thanks i have seen her a few times more since then i greet her every time by name i call her Kate. That next year a mallard duck (i call him Mal) started showing up on our deck the day i come up apparently according to the neighbors who are there year round the duck shows up at dawn sticks around for a little bit then goes away for 2 hours and comes back again after hearing this i set up a wilderness camera and its true he shows up the day i arive. The nabors now joke that they know if I’m coming up that day by me sending my scout. When i get there he get on the picnic table quacks a few times then flies off. The last is an unknown if it is truly a special animal, a test for me, or my own mind and confidence. Near the lake at the cabin (btw no matter where i live that cabin is my home) is a triangle of grass where we have played baceball for years. Two roads go along the foul ball lines 3ed base side has the feed river for the lake on the other side of the road crossing when it meets the blackberry bushes bordering the outfield the cabin is where the first bace road meets the blackberry bushes. During a game on the forth of July 10 years ago a 500-700lb bear came walking down the first base side road everyone started to freak out the game age range was 8-45. I hollered for everyone to be quiet calm down and don’t run. I walked to where i was the closest to the bear and looked into his eyes then said directly to him “Arthur you are scaring people but don’t worry about them they don’t know why you are, so come with me for i understand why” i started to walk backwards but he caught up with me so i stayed beside him between him and the crowd. I walked him to the brige where he cossed and went back into the woods. I had seen animals even ducks do this on multiple occasions.

    We do leave stuff for our winged frends. On the darker side of the cabin the eaves have been modified to house bats we have mud finches on the light side. Four humming bird feeders, four seed feeders a tub of water for the birds bath, a baking tray for the squirrels and a salt lick on the top of the ridge. I also carry corn feed when i hike now.

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