We are used to stories of witches having familiar spirits. What is not generally realized is that these familiars were often considered to be fairies, whether in the guise of humans, imps or animals such as fairy cats or dogs. Familiars often shared the common names of the local fairies- Robin, Jack, Tom, Hob, Jill, Peg and so on, though in the trial records they were also termed demons and devils. Though familiar spirits are reported in a minority of witch trials, it is a significant minority, and the accounts of meeting the familiars and the witch’s dealings with them, are remarkably consistent. John Beaumont, in 1705 [Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits] wrote extensively of the popular belief in familiar spirits. Robert Kirk [The Secret Commonwealth] wrote about the common use of familiars by Scottish seers, and in 1654 Durant Hotham claimed that the familiar spirit was a standard magical aid:[i]
“…he was of the sort we call white witches, which are such as do cures beyond the ordinary reasons and deductions of our usual practitioners, and are supposed [and most part of them truly] to do the same by the ministrations of spirits.”[ii]
Reginald Scot wrote that the witch would heal by means of her charms and familiars. [iii]
In 1646 John Winnick confessed that one Friday he was in his barn when a black shaggy spirit appeared to him, with paws like a bear, though it was smaller than a rabbit. The spirit asked him why he was so unhappy, and John replied that he had lost a sum of money, and the spirit agreed to help him. Stories of gaining a familiar often have similar, common elements- people in trouble or sick people are visited by a fairy who promises them a gift which is then faithfully delivered. The gift is usually one of knowledge- the power to cast spells, make herbal potions and cures and so on- in other words, the power to become a witch.
There is always a price to pay for possessing a fairy familiar. The Belvoir witch Margaret Flower, tried in 1619, said that she promised her familiars to fulfil their needs, in return for which they fulfilled her desires. The desires of fairies ranged from bowls of milk and offerings of bread, to human company, music and even human blood.
Familiars were often said to drink the blood of their witches, sometimes by nipping or scratching, sometimes from specially formed ‘teats’ on the witch’s body, known as the ‘Devil’s Mark’. Ellen Shepherd, a Huntingdon witch, in 1646 said that she had four familiars in the shape of grey rats, which she fed with blood from her hips, and in return, they granted her ‘all happiness’. In 1645 Thomas Everard, a Suffolk with, said that something like a rabbit asked for his allegiance, and when he gave his consent, it scratched him under the ear and drank his blood.[iv] The Suffolk witch Elizabeth Hubbard  said that three things in the likeness of children said that if she would cleave to them, she would want for nothing. They then scratched her back to make the marks, and afterwards sucked from them.[v] In 1582 Margery Sammon was given two familiars by her mother, two toads called Tom and Robin. Her mother advised her to feed them on milk; otherwise they would want to suck her blood.[vi] In 1644, a Yarmouth witch claimed that a tall man came to her door in the moonlight, and asked for her hand, and pricked it with a knife so that the blood flowed, and the mark remained for some time afterwards.[vii]
The Irish always advocated leaving out water for fairies at night; otherwise they would be angry and suck sleepers’ blood. In one story from Glen Rushen, on the Isle of Man, the fairies went onto a house one night to do some baking. The family had put no water out for them; they were heard to say, “We have no water, so we’ll take blood out of the toe of the servant who forgot our water.” From the girl’s blood they mixed their dough and baked their cakes, eating most of them, and poking the rest up under the thatch. The next day the servant-girl fell ill, and remained ill until she was given a piece of the fairy cake that was hidden in the thatched roof.
On other occasions, familiars were simply fed with ordinary food, such as milk, water and chicken. Margaret Moone fed her twelve imps with bread and beer, and Elizabeth Francis fed her familiar on bread and milk. This has direct parallels with the feeding of a shaman’s spirit allies in other cultures. In Malaysia, for example, a Bajang [a spirit/fairy] can be kept as a familiar by a magician who feeds it on eggs and milk.
This is reminiscent of the many stories of fairies being fed in return for their help. Bowls of fresh milk and cream were left by the hearth for brownies and other house fairies, like the German Chimke. Robin Goodfellow’s standard fee was a mess of white bread and milk. Before setting out on a journey, offerings of bread and milk were made to the Fridean, Scottish fairies that guard the roads. In Gotland, offerings of milk, beer and flax seeds were made to the Disma by being poured into a fairy ring.
[i] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,
[ii] John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, London 1677
[iii] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft,
[iv] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,
[v] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,
[vi] The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland
Folk-lore, Oct, 2000 by Emma Wilby
[vii] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,