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.
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!