Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Witch Familiars Explained

Witches' familiars are not household pets. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina finds truth from a feline friend.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s teen witch Sabrina Spellman, played by Kiernan Shipka, is a student so gifted she is sought by two schools, Greendale High School and the School of Unseen Arts. As a half-witch, she travels, sometimes astrally, in two worlds and has the same problems as the inhabitants of both. She has a dutiful boyfriend, devoted friends, and even more devoted enemies. Like most kids who go to boarding schools, Sabrina isn’t allowed to take her pet to school with her. But this is a very special creature, and Sabrina has a very special bond with it.  It is her familiar. Sabrina conjures her familiar in the opening episode of the series, which makes the attempt to merge the real magic and traditions of witchcraft with the comic book fantasy of witchery. Familiars are welcome in both worlds.

Sabrina’s familiar is an American Shorthair cat named Salem Saberhagen. Created by George Gladir and Dan DeCarlo, Salem was introduced as an orange cat in in Archie’s Madhouse #22 in 1962. The cat kept its own tongue in the comics, and didn’t start talking or developing its cutting wit until later. In the comic series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Salem was a witch who was stripped of his magical powers and sentenced to spend 100 years as a cat with no magical powers by the Witch’s Council. His crime was plotting to take over the world.

On Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, familiars are said to be goblins. Various texts have described them as demons, fairies, elves, pixies, and other elemental beings believed to inhabit the physical bodies of animals. Some documents mention dwarves, which might not seem elementary to the modern student. Familiars can be physical, spirit or artificial. The physical familiar is a pet, animal or creature. The spirit familiar is a conscious entity from beyond the land of the living. Artificial familiars are created by magic.

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Familiars were reported to be supernatural entities who assist in the practice of magic, affect the weather and occasionally bring witches to the Sabbat. An astral or physical familiar helps direct manipulations of natural energies of stones, herbs, astrological aspects and the four elements. Some familiars were described as humanoid, some monstrous. European witch hunters believed them to be small demons given to witches by the devil.  Familiars are different from totem animals, which are tied to the protection of a tribe or lineage and not individual practices. They are also not the same as animal spirit guides which give life lessons.

A Little History

Most of what we know about familiars and early occult traditions and beliefs come from those who would wish to destroy the practice. The Christian Church associated any spirit other than an angel as demonic. Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull condemning witchcraft on December 5, 1484. The first works on the subject came from inquisitors Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer who wrote the book Malleus Maleficarum.

“Funny enough, the earliest mentions of a familiar that I am aware of is actually the Christian Bible,” Alexandrian witch and High Priestess of the New Orleans Coven Christine Stephens tells Den of Geek. She points to Leviticus 20:27, which states “a man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death.” Laura Lenhard who runs Talisman and Cauldron in Derby, Connecticut, points to The Bible‘s Book of Samuel: “‘Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit that I may go to her, and inquire of her,'” she quotes. Saul’s servants referred him to “a woman who has a familiar spirit at Endor.” But Saul was looking for someone with “the gift of being able to induce or compel a departed spirit to revisit the world and submit to questioning,” Lenhard says, not an animated animal spirit.

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The concept of animal familiars goes back to Medieval texts, such as the 1566 pamphlet English Witchcraft, which comes “from the period of state-sanctioned witchcraft accusations,” says Lenhard. “The Devil is represented as a familiar spirit and the animalistic creatures used as a vehicle are described in detail. Between 1566 and 1704 there were 81 different pamphlets on witchcraft.  These pamphlets were sort of like little magazines of the day, and became more narrative and storytelling as time went on. The 1604 Act criminalized the keeping or conjuring of familiar spirits.”

“During the witch trials, witches confessed to having familiars, notably the Essex Trials in 1556, and under the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins in 1645,” adds Lisa Derrick, an author and sorceress who follows the Thelemic dictum.

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Cats, Dogs, Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh my.

Sabrina’s familiar in Chilling Adventures of Sabina is a black cat named Salem. Black cats have crossed many magical paths. The misfortunate felines are believed to bring good luck in China. Cats are independent creatures with reflective eyes which can peer through the darkness with clarity and a Cheshire grin. The first domesticated cat was in Ancient Egypt where cat goddess Bast promised fertility and motherhood. The Nordic goddess Freya was guarded and guided by two large felines. Purged in Europe they were catnip in the new world. Pilgrims brought the idea that black cats were evil to America but then threw the scraps of magic users to the dogs.  A man was charged with magically encouraging a dog to attack someone at the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The dog was put on trial, convicted, and hanged.

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According to the colonial laws of Massachusetts, “if any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.” A girl from Andover, Massachusetts, accused a neighbor’s dog of trying to bewitch her in October of 1692. The dog was shot but later cleared of the crime by Cotton Mather himself. The Puritan Minister who sat judgment over the most famous witch trials in America ruled if the dog was actually the devil in disguise, it would not be possible to kill it.

Helen Clark, who was accused of conjuring a storm through witchcraft in Leith, Scotland, in 1645, confessed to meeting the devil in the form of a black dog. During Britain’s Pendle Witchcraft Trials of 1612, Elizabeth Demdike confessed her familiar’s name was Tibb, who she claimed was a spirit who could take the shape of almost any animal he pleased, but was most pleased in canine form. Alizon Device confessed her black hound was a familiar who did her bidding after she let it suckle at her breast.

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All dogs may not go to heaven, but there is a special place for them in the Wiccan and pagan traditions. The Greek Goddess of Witches, Hecate, was protected by dogs. The three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the underworld in Greek mythology. The Egyptian God Anubis had a jackal’s heads. The goddess Artemis had a dog familiar.

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Sorcery workers’ choice of animals and the traditions which follow them are also dictated by their location. Witches from New Guinea have been known to have crocodile familiars. Malaysian familiars are passed down from generation to generation. Witches in Africa have lizards, jackals, primates, leopards, and occasionally a mighty lion. But some of the most powerful familiars are the smallest, even though many apprentice witches choose to begin their familiar connections with smaller animal helpers. Witches give certain characteristics to animals who appear to offer the best match. For instance, bear familiars are thought to protect a witch to the death.

In shamanism, the animal familiar is not a physical creature, but a spiritual entity which travels through the astral. Shaman initiates find their familiars by manifesting an animal or reptile shape. They might also inherit a familiar from an older member of the family or tribe who is dying. A bequeathed creature will have a vested interest in the lineage and stay with them until death. Some witches feel the presence of their familiars passing from the body of an elder pet to a younger pet.

Helper Animals

Magical practitioners also choose different creatures because of their associations with specific tasks. A toad familiar helps with healing and also assists as witches move in and out of the spirit realm. A spider familiar has the ability to spin and weave the strands that feed the tapestry of a spell. Snakes are associated with old gods, goddesses and the banishment from Eden story from The Bible. Snakes assist in transformative magic because they undergo their own transformation when they shed their skins.

One practitioner who preferred to remain anonymous says her python Hades is very useful in magical working. She says she “uses the skin that she sheds in root/herb mixtures, tinctures, oils, baths, gris gris bags, etc.” Baptized into African spiritual traditions at birth during her naming ceremony, she credits her grandmother, who “used to work with snakes in swamp land Louisiana.”

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Owls may deliver the mail in the Harry Potter series, but they are also the nickname the kids have for the Ordinary Wizarding Level exams. An owl familiar is traditionally associated with wisdom. It also represents flight, as do all its aviary cousins. The falcon familiar brings the gift of perception and acute vision. The raven will evermore be associated with death, but a raven familiar can pick up information and is thought of as a messenger. A bat familiar has acute hearing and can maneuver the darkness. These airborne creatures may also help witches who need to fly.

Like a Bat Out of Hell

From 1400 to 1782, between 40,000 and 60,000 people were put to death for witchcraft in Europe.

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Punishable by the cruelest of deaths, many witches were said to continue the practice and held their Sabbats in the astral realm. Astral travel is considered dangerous on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, especially for convicted witches. Witches prepared for travel by going into a trance state, represented as a chant on the series. They would prepare themselves for flight with the use of flying ointment, and be assisted by their familiars. Some reports say familiars also transported humans into the fairy realm.

Familiars also protect the property and body of a witch during astral travel. “Most commonly, familiars guard sacred space and ritual circle,” says Lenhard. “They can move within and without, unlike humans.”

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The bewitching beasts bring their own flavors to magic, sometimes incendiary. “One of my most helpful cats, Miss Judy, who was black and very old (17) when I got her, set her tail on fire during a ‘silence’ spell and added an extra zap of burnt black cat fur to the successful working,” says Derrick. “My current black cat donates his fur for working. My darling pit mix Dexter would howl along as I banished.”

Here Puppy. Hear Kitty.

Sabrina calls her familiar to her by going into the woods and chanting an invocation. Real practitioners sometimes call their familiars through a meditation which sets its intent on meeting an animal companion, although a familiar can be drawn consciously or subconsciously. However, most practitioners believe animal familiars pick the witch, not the other way around.

“They meet and greet you as an equal,” says Lenhard, whose magical companion is a parrot named Orlando. “A familiar is not a pet. They either want the job or not. It is their choice.” Witches respect and revere the earth and nature and see all life as equal. They treat familiars the same. “A familiar is an equal in every way.”

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Sabrina chooses to call her familiar prior to the Blood Baptism which comes on her sixteenth birthday. The creature apparently shows up at exactly the right time. “Pets as familiars appear for us when we need them,” says Lisa Derrick. In most cases, the animal presents itself by its demeanor. “They are literally utterly familiar, no shyness,” Lenhard says. They walk in like they own the place from day one, as if they’d been there a thousand times before. They are Alpha dominant around other animals.”

While most in the NeoPagan community no longer believe spirits or demons inhabit an animal, many believe the creatures have supernatural gifts of intelligence, often very human. Practitioners report a kind of telepathic bond with their familiars. “Absolutely,” says Lenhard. “Most will get up and start walking to the door as you are thinking of going out. Orlando perches on my shoulder when I am crafting.”

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Besides the spiritual aspects of the relationship between familiar and magician, the bond is friendly. Once the witch and the familiar bond in a spiritual merging and the pair can communicate, they react to each other’s needs. “She communicates on her terms, but she can always sense my mood,” says the anonymous witch. “When I have migraines, she will sit right on top of my head.”

Familiars are psychically protected by and protective of their witches. The animals are sensitive to psychic vibrations, and react in the presence of negative energy, but they have their own personalities, biases and agendas, and often must be further conditioned to the ways of their witch. “Well, every pet should be trained,” Derrick laughs. “There are old stories of witches feeding their familiars some of their blood, but I can’t say if that’s common, or healthy.  My familiars have just fallen into their gigs instinctively.”

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Non-witches who wish to get enlightenment from household pets might not be as attuned to the natural calling of animal familiars, but they can still learn from their furry or scaly friends. “I have had cats and dogs that were pets only, but even ‘pet grade’ animals can be helpful,” says Derrick. “Talk to your ginger cat about money, your gray cat about seducing someone. My current familiar gets a lot of conversation. He will share some of my food (pasta, crackers) that doesn’t upset his stomach. He gets to pull tarot cards and he helps with setting intentions.”

Sabrina Spellman’s cat Salem protects the teenage witch, helps her with her magic, and keeps her company. The series hints that the black cat is much more than he appears, larger and far more powerful a creature than pads, paws, and claws.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres on Netflix on October 26.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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