Critters of the Occult – A Fierce Familiar is a Witch’s Best Friend
We all know that Hecate is mighty fond of the pups, and Gillian Holroyd worked magic through her cat Pyewacket (show of hands – who here has, or has had a cat named Pyewacket?) – but what other magical critters can we call upon when a little extra animal something is required? Judika Illes has a few unusual suggestions in her historical compendium The Weiser Field Guide to Witches – some are animals that are witches, others are animals that help witches, either way the force is strong with these critters of the occult:
Small, wild, and nocturnal, foxes are considered the most feline of canines because of their physical appearance and behavior. (Baby foxes are called “kits.”) They are profoundly identified with witches, especially in Japan, where they are the witchcraft animal supreme. Fox goddesses associated with magic and witches are native to China, India, Japan, and Tibet.
In Europe, foxes serve as witches’ familiars or as the form into which a witch transforms, but in Japan, some foxes are actually witches. The fox shape is the original form, but a powerful fox witch may be able to transform into the guise of a woman.
Not every Japanese fox is a witch. Most are merely mundane foxes. Lurking among these ordinary foxes are special, magical fox spirits. Fox spirits, known as kitsune in Japanese, are characterized by tremendous intelligence and magical prowess. Many fox spirits are gifted alchemists who strive for longevity and immortality. The older the magical fox, the more tails it may possess, although it may not be able to sprout any new tails until it attains 1,000 years of age. The most powerful fox spirit is the nine-tailed-fox.
Even without nine tails to identify her, the true identity of a fox witch may be ascertained with close observation. Although a fox witch may resemble a human, there will still be something vulpine about her. Usually her profile will appear snout-like, or she may make fox-like noises. Allegedly, a fox-witch in the form of a woman will cast no reflection in a mirror—or alternatively, her true fox form will appear.
Japanese fox spirits may also serve people as familiars and servants, offering protection and providing wealth. Japan never suffered witch hunts akin to those of Europe or its colonies, but families associated with fox spirits have historically met with discrimination, shunned and feared by their neighbors. (The wealth that fox spirits provide for their loved ones is believed stolen from others.) In Neil Gaiman’s 1999 novella, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, a fox spirit works her magic to save the man she loves.
The stereotypical African witch doesn’t wear a peaked hat or travel on a broomstick, but she’s still a night rider, out journeying to secret assignations with other witches. European witches were accused of riding wolves or bats; African witches ride galloping hyenas, the animals most closely identified with witches throughout Africa.
Hyenas are believed to be a tell-tale sign that will cause someone, usually but not exclusively a woman, to be branded a witch. Any evidence whatsoever, regardless of how flimsy or tangential, that links someone with hyenas may be considered proof of sorcery in African witchcraft trials. These associations are potentially dangerous, as suspected witches are still killed with relative frequency in many parts of Africa.
Folklorically speaking, any hyena may have some association with witches. Witches ride hyenas. Witches keep hyenas, known as “night cattle,” milking them daily. In some regions, it’s considered dangerous to harm a hyena as its witch will surely magically retaliate. Allegedly, these “hyena cattle” may be identified by the golden earrings they are said to sport.
Witches transform captive victims into hyenas. Witches are hyenas. A talented human witch can transform into the guise of a hyena, the better to creep around at night. Sometimes hyenas are witches. According to Bantu tradition, hyenas are capable of transforming into the guise of humans all by themselves, without the assistance of a human witch. Thus a human may really be a hyena-witch in disguise.
The West African spirit Ogun rides a hyena, indicating his power over witches and witchcraft. He is a great sorcerer—a master of transformational magic—but he can also break any spell or curse cast by a human or hyena witch.
Magpies are corvids like their cousins crows, ravens, rooks, and jackdaws, but with their distinctive black and white plumage, they are clearly distinguishable from other corvids. Like their cousins, they are identified with witches, but their mythology is quite different.
Magpies inhabit North America, Europe, Northwestern Africa, the Middle East, Central and East Asia. Despite this wide range, magpies are consistently associated with feminine power, romantic magic, and oracular prophesy. Virtually wherever they are found, magpies are associated with witches—either as their familiars or, more frequently, as the form into which witches transform.
Latvian, Russian, Scottish, and Swedish witches were believed to transform into magpies. Although Siberian witches allegedly possess the power to transform into any creature, folklore says magpies are their favorite choice. A Russian nickname for witch is soroka-veschchitsa, meaning “magpie-witch.” Various legends describe these magpie-witches. According to one, Ivan the Terrible gathered all the witches he could find in order to burn them, but before this could be accomplished, the witches transformed into magpies and escaped.
Another Russian legend suggests that murdered witches reincarnate as magpies. Although their bodies are those of birds, they retain their witch souls. Since you never know which magpie is a witch magpie, it’s crucial to be nice to all of them—otherwise they might cast a spell on you. Some even suggest that whenever encountering a magpie, one should always salute politely in greeting.
At one time, rabbits and hares were the animals most identified with Europe’s witches, playing the role now given to cats. Rabbits serve as witches’ familiars and messengers and were believed to be the form into which witches most frequently transform.
The association of rabbits with witches is bittersweet. On one hand, rabbits are the subject of powerful mythology, associated with magic, women’s power, and the moon. On the other hand, rabbits, like witches, are often hunted.
Rabbits are very low on the food chain; virtually all predators feast on them. Their survival as a species depends on their fecundity—their amazing ability to reproduce quickly—and on their brains. Rabbits are tricksters, able to hide in plain sight. Wild brown rabbits camouflage well, suddenly appearing and disappearing, as if by magic.
In 1662, Isobel Gowdie, a Scotswoman, apparently volunteered a detailed confession of witchcraft. She described how she and her fellow coven members transformed into hares via a magical chant. English singer Maddy Prior’s song “The Fabled Hare” incorporates excerpts from Gowdie’s witch trial testimony.
A Devon legend describes how witches congregated after dark on Dartmoor heath. Most people left them alone, but a hunter named Bowerman consistently disturbed them. Finally, enough was enough. One witch transformed into a rabbit. Not realizing her true identity, Bowerman gave chase as she lured him into a magical ambush. Her sister witches surrounded the hunter and his hounds and transformed them into large, granite rock formations that may still be seen on Dartmoor heath.
Witch goddess Hulda is accompanied by an entourage of torch-bearing rabbits. Rabbit witches serve as entertainment for children: in Katherine Pyle’s illustrated 1895 children’s book, The Rabbit Witch and Other Tales, a rabbit witch in a head scarf steals naughty children; in Walter De La Mare’s children’s poem, “The Hare”, “an old witch-hare” gets spooked herself.
The association of rabbits with witches is not limited to Europe. In China, rabbits are identified with witches, alchemy, and sorcery. Instead of a man in the moon, China has an alchemist rabbit in the moon, endlessly grinding the elixir of immortality with his mortar and pestle, a servant of witch goddess Hsi Wang Mu.
Native to the Western Hemisphere and ranging from Canada through South America, raccoons are considered witch animals in many Native American cultures. Solitary, nocturnal, omnivorous, medium-sized mammals, they have dexterous hands, like people.
The raccoon is unique among animals in that, given access to water, it washes its food before eating. Facial markings make raccoons appear as if they are wearing black masks. Their eyes glow at night. Raccoons creep around human habitations at night, searching for food, and although cautious, they display little fear of people. Raccoons are associated, folklorically, with transformation, stealth, and secrecy.
The English word raccoon derives from an Algonquin word arachun, meaning “the one who scratches himself,” but other words for “raccoon” in other Native American languages emphasize associations with witches and magic. In the Cheyenne language, the word for raccoon is macho-on, “the one who makes magic.” The word for raccoon in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, is cioatlamacasque, literally “she who talks with spirits.” The Yakima word tsa-ga-gla-tal may be translated as witch, spirit, or raccoon.