The familiar spirit, often simply called the familiar, is one of the most well known companions of the classical witch. When most people think of the traditional witch's familiar they automatically imagine a demonic one, however there is a long history of fairies taking the role of the familiar spirit with some witches in Europe, just as some witches met not with the Devil but with the Queen of Elfland. In these cases the fairies seem to have been less like servitors, as some classic familiars may appear, and more like advisers who aid the witch by giving them knowledge and acting as a go-between for them with the world of Fairy.
There is a great deal of fluidity in the terms used here and what a clergyman might call a demon or devil the accused witch in turn would call instead a fairy or even an angel. For example Andro Man, a witch tried in Scotland in the 16th century said that his familiar was an angel who 'favours the Queen of Elfland'* (Wilby, 2005). In Eastern Europe there was a concept of witches or healing women having either good or evil spirits who aided them (Pocs, 1999). In some views what differentiated the familiar as either a fairy or a demon, as either a 'good' spirit or an 'evil' one, was the actions of the human being and the use they put the knowledge they gained from the spirit. This reflects a deep seated conflation of elves, fairies, and demons which existed particularly in England and shows a striking similarity in the supernatural afflictions caused by and magical cures used against both groups (Hall, 2007). This gives us not only a blurry line between fairies and demons as familiars but also shows us that there was truly no hard and fast line nor rigid definition separating the two types of spirits in common understanding.
Fairies as familiars are associated with both witches and cunningfolk, that is with both those who used magic for personal reasons and those who use it in service to the community. How a person was defined, like the term used for the familiar itself, was often fluid and could change or be multifaceted, so that one person's witch was another person's cunningperson or seer, and so on. Robert Kirk mentions such fairy familiars being attached to the Scottish Seers who he describes as predominantly male (Wilby, 2005). In later periods such familiars came to be more associated with women, even perhaps finding echos in the more modern leannán sí who guide and give knowledge to the bean feasa, but several older accounts claim the fairy familiar as the province of men (O Crualaoich, 2003; Davies, 2003). It may be best to say that fairy familiars were not segregated by the gender of the practitioner but that both men and women might have them.
Fairy familiars could take the form of animals, particularly dogs, but just as often appeared as ordinary looking people. They were notable only for how very unremarkable they were, looking little different than the common people around them; although they did sometimes wear the fairy color of green they were also noted to wear all black or all white (Wilby, 2005). In some cases like the fairy who was seen helping a bean feasa in Ireland as she gathered herbs other people besides the witch themselves saw the fairy (O Crualaoich, 2003). It should also be noted that they were clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not as dreams or see-through illusions (Wilby, 2005). While modern people may tend to relegate the familiar to the mental realm of guided meditations or spiritual journeys, historically they were real world manifestations which were seen, heard, and spoken to in the waking world. The reality of the fairy and encountering of the fairy familiar in daily life and while the witch was awake is noted in multiple sources (Wilby, 2005; Davies, 2003).
These fairy familiars were acquired in one of two ways, either met apparently by chance while the person was engaged in some mundane activity or else given to them intentionally as a kind of gift (Wilby, 2005). In several cases of accused witches in Scotland the witch claimed the Queen of Fairy herself gave them their fairy familiars, while in others it was passed on to them by a family member or other human being. The ones who were assigned by the Queen of Fairy seemed to act in particular as a go-between connecting the witch to Fairyland, relaying messages, and bringing the witch to Fairy to see the Queen at specific times. Those who found the fairy familiar coming to them spontaneously were in times of crisis, in great need due to illness, poverty, or other desperate situations, and would be offered help by the fairy in exchange for listening to the fairy's advice or agreeing to their terms (Wilby, 2005). Once the witch agreed to what the fairy asked or did as the fairy suggested they might continue to deal with that same familiar spirit for a short time or for years (Wilby, 2005). The relationship between the witch and the fairy familiar varied widely from person to person based on accounts that survived, mostly in witch trials, and could be either formal or more intimate.
The main help fairy familiars offered to those they were attached to came in the form of giving knowledge, both predicting events and teaching the person cures to treat illness (Wilby, 2005). Cunningfolk in particular made their careers through the knowledge of healing gained this way and the ability to cure any person who came to them with their familiars help. These spirits acted as givers of healing knowledge and as guardians for the witch, and in some cases granted the witch special powers of foresight or second sight directly (Pocs, 1999; Davies, 2003). They would accompany the witch when they went to meet other witches, traveled to see the Fairy Queen - and indeed would advise the witch there on proper behavior, such as kneeling - and when they went to the infamous witches' sabbath (Wilby, 2005; Davies, 2003). This is a marked difference from the role the demonic familiar played in other, particularly continental lore, where it might be sent out to do the witch's bidding by directly effecting people. The fairy familiar, in contrast, did not generally work the witch's will that way but rather improved their life by passing information to them and offering them advice and protection.
Having a fairy familiar was not an entirely positive experience however. Many of the witches and cunningfolk who spoke of such spirits mentioned times were they were frightened by them, even knowing that the fairy meant them no harm, one witch even going so far as to say that when confronted once unexpectedly by her familiar she fell to the ground in a fit (Wilby, 2005). There were also a variety of taboos which existed around such familiar spirits, often extensions of similar taboos seen throughout fairylore. For example it was considered unwise to speak of one's fairy familiar or to tell others of the things one's familiar did to help. In the trial records many witches initially denied having such familiars and only admitted it later under hard questioning, fearing breaking this taboo (Wilby, 2005).
The idea of the witch's familiar is a classic one and one that most people have some awareness of; usually the image people immediately think of is the demonic familiar spirit however historically the fairy familiar was just as present. There were some key differences between demonic and fairy familiars, the most important perhaps being who the spirit answered to - Devil or Fairy Queen - and the fact that the demonic familiar usually required a ceremony to call it forth while the fairy familiar was noted to appear at its own will, often to the surprise of the witch. Additionally the manner in which the spirit aided the witch also differed significantly between the two types. In other ways however it seemed that the difference between the two types of spirits was a semantic one, depending on the opinion of the person describing it as well as the actions and reputation of the person who it was attached to. In modern understanding it is the demonic familiar spirit which has come to be the main one we remember, but we would do well to consider the significance and folklore of the fairy familiar as well.
*the quote in Scots is: 'swyis to the Quene of Elphen'
Wilby, E., (2005). Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Pocs, E., (1999). Between the Living and the Dead
Davies, O., (2003). Popular Magic: Cunningfolk in English History
O Crualaoich, G., (2003) The Book of the Cailleach
Hall, A., (2007) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England