Most witches today are acquainted with the idea of a familiar, and a great many witches will proudly tell you about the mundane exploits and magical escapades of the furred, finned, or feathered animal that holds that title in their lives. What many witches don’t know is that the classic witch’s familiar just as often came to the witch in spiritual form — a non-corporeal being who guarded, guided, and befriended the Cunning Man or Woman. Many more would be surprised to learn that it was (in certain times and places) expected that a coven of witches would seek counsel from a familiar who acted as patron saint (or guidance counselor) to the group.
At Samhain in 2011, my coven performed a type of seance. We pulled out our favorite talking board (a classic William Fuld Ouija board) and reached out to those positive, ancestral spirits who wanted to communicate. The response we got was fast, friendly, and in French. The spirit who contacted us identified herself with the letter Z, which we later adapted to the moniker “Zeta” (the Greek word for Z). She told us, in bits of French and English, that she had lived in Ireland in the 13th century and that she, too, was a witch.
Over the intervening years, our coven has come to learn a lot about Zeta. We know her actual name (which we won’t share in deference to her wishes). We know that she was from a Hiberno-Norman (Irish-French) family. We’ve learned about the familiar with whom her coven worked when she was alive, and we’ve learned about her death. She has even shared the names of her children, and we have been able to verify the historical information she’s shared through records of the time.
Zeta has been a wealth of information about older Cunning Craft practices, all of which have been verified either through trial records, folklore, or other avenues like herbal studies. For instance, she taught my coven about “dwale” which is referenced only obliquely in most Craft lore. Dwale, it turns out, is a folk name for a pain relief drink used by healers and midwives to help patients through unduly painful childbirth, amputations, and other traumas. It induced the twilight sleep, a half-waking and half-sleeping hallucinatory state. Dwale was made with nightshade berries, though, and could be deadly. As the lore goes, a witch’s coven would give her a lethal dose of dwale if she were to be put to the stake in order to spare her the pain of death by fire.
She also advised me to make a tea of nettles, blackberry leaves, and rose hips. When I asked why, she said it was a good general tonic. This was before I started studying herbalism at all, so I didn’t realize at the time just how good a tonic it would turn out to be. Nettle alone is considered one of the best herbs available for overall health. The Saxons honored it as one of their nine sacred herbs, in fact, because it is such a boon to well-being.
Our coven’s familiar has obviously been a fantastic teacher, but spirits working in this capacity may help a group of witches in ways that have less to do with instruction and more to do with the skills or interests of the sort out the coven in question. Perhaps your coven is very involved in spirit communication. I’m willing to bet that your coven’s familiar is acting as a gatekeeper. Is your group involved in political activism or community planning? Then your coven’s familiar may be acting as a guardian or mediator for you.
If you are already aware of a spirit helping your coven, you might consider formalizing the relationship. Offer the spirit a physical dwelling place like a decorated bottle or birdhouse, a doll, or a special stone. When she chooses to be embodied, Zeta occupies a lovely apple-sized crystal skull that we keep on our coven’s altar. She’s there with us when we perform rituals, and she gets a special place of honor during Samhain and certain magical workings. We also make a special incense for her. (She gave us the recipe early in our communication with her.) If you listen, your coven’s familiar will tell you how you can give back, as well.
[Written by Laurelei Black.]