By popular request I’m kicking off a series on how to summon a familiar. People talk about familiars in two different ways: as an animal, or as a spirit. I’m not talking about animals.
I know there are plenty of magicians who treat an animal as their familiar, and I raise my scotch to them. But that isn’t how I roll, and here’s why.
1:/ You sound crazy.
The idea that your pet cat or dog is actually a spirit, or that a magical spirit has incarnated in it and talks to you, sounds patently crazy. I’m not saying I think it’s crazy, but the majority of people will. Having an invisible friend may sound just as crazy, but it’s a lot more discreet.
2:/ It’s less accurate.
The idea that a familiar is a black cat or dog is pretty well steeped into our pop culture, but it doesn’t match the original use of the term in magical traditions. The concept of a familiar comes from Western magic and all of the medieval magic texts treat a familiar as a spirit, not a biological being. They’re quite clear on this point. The folkloric sources are much more diverse, with familiars frequently taking the form of animals, but even then it’s a spirit or “demon” in animal form – or even a shapeshifted witch.
Given that the cat-or-dog familiar first appears in fiction sources completely outside of magic tradition, apparently as a misunderstanding of earlier folklore, it seems one step removed from magical practice.
That doesn’t mean it can’t work. Anything can work in magic if you’re talented enough. But this is where I often refer to the faulty ladder analogy: a worker who’s used his old wooden ladder for his whole career knows which step is cracked and can’t bear weight. His ladder works for him, but that doesn’t make it a good ladder. Most people need a good ladder.
3:/ It’s awkward.
My familiar is a spirit, not an animal. He’s with me any time I need him. I can take him on a plane, into a restaurant or over to a friend’s house. If I skip a feeding he doesn’t freak out and shred the couch. He’ll never die and there will be none of the attendant issues of such a death.
Cats are awesome, but spirits > cats.
4:/ Uncertain motivation.
In theory, the bond between someone and their animal-plus-familiar is incredible. The cat seems to listen to them and respond with its meows. They can read each other’s thoughts. Always, if the magician is having a hard time the animal seems to know just what to do to cheer them up. There’s something special there.
But… you know what? Regular pet owners get all those things too.
The pet/owner relationship can be very close. Calling it magical makes me second guess them, in the same way I second-guess someone who thinks the reason it’s raining is because they feel sad. Is that possible with magic? Sure, and so is a spirit going inside a cat. But what’s more likely? Probably that you super-love your cat, and meteorology exists.
There are surely people who get around these problems. Animals can probably be familiars. But I think the reason most people want animals to be familiars has very little to do with making their magic effective, and a lot more to do with either buying into popular fiction or overly anthropomorphizing their pets.
Agree/disagree? Open the flood gates. Part 2 continues the series and talks about what exactly a spirit familiar is.
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