If you didn’t see Part 1, it’s about why a cat, dog or other animal is not really what I call a familiar. Take a look if you like.
So what’s the alternative? A spirit, which is what most magical traditions mean when they say “familiar.” Magicians should be trained and ready to deal with spirits of all kinds and a familiar spirit is just that: one who hangs around enough to be a regular. That’s viewed differently in various magical traditions.
1:/ A friendly spirit.
The term “familiar” doesn’t show up till the medieval grimoires, but working with spirits goes back much farther. In Irish polytheist tradition there are many different kinds of spirits: the gods themselves, who are souls of powerful natural forces; the land deities who are spirits of forests, rivers and mountains; and the sídhe or fair folk, sometimes called elves or fairies.
The 15th century Book of Lismore tells the story of the druid Mogh Ruith, and refers to his slua sídhe or “host of sídhe.” The same phrase is used in other contexts to mean these spirits in general, sometimes in a negative sense, but in this case it implies a specific retinue of spirits who travel with Mogh Ruith and help him.
Given the high reverence that early European polytheists had for the spirits around them, I think it’s safe to say that their magic traditions must have treated them at least as equal partners.
2:/ Demons for the taking.
Such views were unacceptable in the Christian middle ages. Spirits and gods, other than Big G God and his angels, were considered demonic. Consorting with them was a sin, even a crime. But magic marches on, and magicians had a solution.
The solution was to write about magic as a power given by God himself, and spirits as demons who could be enslaved. It would be wrong to cooperate with demons, but treating them as slaves for forced labor was totally legit. Right?
Two of the most famous grimoires of Christian and Jewish magic, The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage and The Key of Solomon, both take this approach. A familiar spirit is, in this view, little more than a servant who must follow its master’s every command.
3:/ You’re making that up.
By the modern era, magicians no longer needed to fear the Church’s view of their practices, but that doesn’t mean they went right back to loving the spirits. The predominant view in contemporary Western magic is that spirits aren’t of particular importance at all: they’re tools the magician uses. In many cases, spirits aren’t even considered real.
Thus the idea of the “thought form”: that spirits are nothing more than creations of the magician’s own imagination, given life by his willpower.
This is the view that was espoused by Aleister Crowley, the most famous post-Enlightenment magician, and is advanced by many branches of ceremonial magic and chaos magic, the modern and post-modern styles of magic respectively.
These three different views of spirits may seem completely at odds, and on an ideological level they are. But in practice all three produce very similar results.
There isn’t one single standard for the best way to work with spirits; this itself could be taken as proof of , or it could just be that different types of spirits will respond to different approaches. As usual, in matters of “let’s choose the best way to interpret the invisible” I remain firmly Socratic. To pretend we know the answer is, well, make-believe. Whether spirits are real or imaginary is something I can’t picture anyone proving.
What seems clear to me is that these possibly-real entities deserve to be treated with respect. Making someone your slave has a moral and psychological cost attached to it, even if it turns out they were imaginary. Any system of magic that uses that approach is abhorrent.
My approach to familiars, then, is: find good spirits, don’t concern yourself whether they’re real or not, and treat them with decency no matter what.
Also known as speak softly and carry a big demon.
Tomorrow I’ll look at how that actually plays out with my familiar. (See it here.)
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