Musings on Spirit Familiars

My household in my 1200-square-foot Chicago condo is comprised of myself, four cats (Beowulf, Grendel, Hela, and Máni), and a corn snake named Brimo. I often think about the fact that, were I transported to Early Modern Germany or Scotland, I’d have certainly been executed for the “crime” of Witchcraft because a woman alone as the sovereign of her household was shockingly unacceptable, and my animal companions—deemed devils in animal form according to the superstitions of the time—would have certainly cemented my reputation as a consort of Satan and gotten me strung up on the gallows or worse. I simply could not have been viewed as a childless-by-choice woman who loves her pets as family and treasures each of their unique personalities as gifts.


A wonderful Witch Mother feeds her familiar spirits kept in the cupboard.

It’s no surprise that many Witches, Pagans, Polytheists, and Magicians have a deep and abiding bond with animals and the other terrestrial beings that we share our lands and our personal, even our magical, spaces with—I’m talking about the spirits of trees, plants, and herbs as well as the spirits of the mineral kingdoms. Relationships with these familiar spirits, so called because we have a sense of kinship with them not unlike the blood bonds with family members, often serve as our springboards onto our spiritual journeys. We find that we have always had, from early childhood onwards, the ability to “talk” to our pets or to the spirits of trees, for example, long before we had any formative ideas about what constitutes “Witchcraft” or “Magic.”

As a child, I always maintained that I could understand what my cats and dogs were thinking; I could read their minds, know if they were experiencing pleasure or discomfort, and I regularly reported digests of my conversations with them to my parents. When I was a sophomore in high school, I used to get into arguments with one hideous teacher who arrogantly would yell at the top of her lungs that animals are incapable of having thoughts and emotions. She was frustrated with my assertions to the contrary and it triggered a shocking rage in her, the expression of which somehow always landed me in the principal’s office, not her. Hadn’t this teacher ever heard of Koko, the gorilla who could communicate in American Sign Language? For fuck’s sakes! I stood my ground.

In my mid-twenties, when I identified as a Wiccan and did solitary rituals before finding the Gardnerian coven I would join in 2000, I had an amazing tuxedo cat named Sylvester. He was a large cat, a good 17 pounds when I rescued him from the cemetery where my brother is buried. He would swagger into a room with the mien of a Sicilian mafia boss (his full name was Sylvester Gambino). Sylvester was loving but he demanded respect and all of his decisions—including his claiming of your lap for a nap zone when you were intent on getting up from the sofa and doing loads of laundry—needed to be honored. No one could resist his charms. He wasn’t just lovely; he was a Strega cat too, naturally. He somehow always sensed when I was getting ready to perform ritual and he would silently enter the room and then plop down in the exact center of the space where I was planning on casting my circle. I knew this was his way of participating—honestly, it felt like he was the battery powering the magic I did!


Sylvester and me, 2007.

Sylvester never stirred until after the rituals ended. I knew he could see spirits in the house as well, just like my little Hela does today in my haunted condo.

Building and sustaining relationships with one’s household spirits as well as the spirits of land, stone, tree, flower, herb, and crystal also serve as the hallmark of devotional practice, and, frankly, good “neighborliness.” As humans, we’re so habituated to the act of taking. We need to be mindful of our place in the scheme of things and give, too.

There is a mass paupers’ graveyard underneath and surrounding my condo building and the entire Dunning neighborhood on Chicago’s far northwest side, encompassing even the campus of Wright College. I knew nothing of this when I bought my home almost six years ago (it’s amazing what realtors choose not to disclose) but now know that I was certainly led to this place to do my Work. A tree that I’ve named the Hel-Tree (the photo below is a close-up of its trunk) stands like a forlorn sentinel near the entrance to the token cemetery the City of Chicago relegated for these 38,000+ John and Jane Does who died in abject misery (victims of the Chicago Fire, Union Civil War soldiers, and scores of nameless Czech immigrants exploited as labor at the Dunning Asylum’s poor farm are among the dead) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


I see a goat face, don’t you?

I routinely leave offerings at the Hel-Tree’s roots, which serve as an axis linking the Spirit World and this one. Not only do I feed the Nameless Dead, who I know wander about in restless confusion, but I feed and honor the Hel-Tree itself. It is a powerful Being, worthy of reverence and respect.

In what ways do you honor the spirits that surround you? How do your rituals sustain the spirits in question, the Life Force overall, and your own spiritual practice? I’d love to hear from you!

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