If you’re a practitioner of magic or other esoteric arts, chances are you feel a deep connection to the animal world. You might have a ‘familiar’ or have found your animal spirit guide, and you probably watch out for powerful animal omens in nature, like crows in certain numbers and cats crossing your path.
We’re huge animal lovers here at Dragonspace. Some of you might remember our dear old familiar, Harry the black cat who was as much a member of staff as we were! Many of the treasures in our little shoppe pay tribute to the animal world, be they magical creatures, wild beasts or domestic companions.
The concept of the ‘familiar’ comes from European folklore. Familiars were believed to be supernatural entities guised in animal form that assisted witches and folk healers in their magical practice. In the days of the witch trials, familiars were incorrectly believed to be incarnations of demons or the devil, but we know now that this is far from true. In modern Wiccan practice, familiars are commonly domestic companions - cats, dogs, birds, or rodents - who are fundamentally attuned to nature and thus help us connect.
But there are also animals out in the wild that we might feel a connection to - an owl who comforts on a dark night, or a wolf admired from afar. There are certain animals that have always straddled the threshold between our world and the next, and these animals tend to be common motifs in spiritual communities. Let’s take a look at some.
Ask someone to picture a witch’s familiar, and a cat probably springs to mind. Cats have a strange magical energy; a glint in their eye that’s seeing something we can’t. In Ancient Egypt, cats were considered sacred, with associations to the goddesses Bast and Sekhmet. The maneki-neko cat in Japanese culture - also known as the Beckoning Cat or Happy Cat - with its paw raised in a sign of welcome is a symbol of good fortune in the home. Then of course there are superstitions about black cats being ill luck, or that our feline friends can predict the weather and sense when a person is going to die. Whatever your belief, the cat - loyal yet solitary, playful yet fierce - has an undeniable link to the magical world.
THE DOG AND THE WOLF
Dogs aren’t as commonly seen as magical familiars in popular culture and myth as cats are, but they are no less worthy. Dogs make steadfast pets, and are also attuned to the spiritual world - there are many stories of dogs becoming visibly restless in mystical or 'haunted' locations. Again in Ancient Egypt belief, the dog manifests as Anubis, the jackal-headed guardian of the underworld, and in Ancient Greek legend, the three-headed dog Cerberus also guarded the gates to the afterlife.
And then there's the dog’s wild original form. The wolf is a sacred animal in cultures the world over, particular those with an animistic spiritual system. Wolves are considered fierce protectors and spiritual guides, steadily navigating wild territories both in the real world and its more magical layers. In Clarissa Pinkola Estés' famed book ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’, the wolf symbolises the inner wild woman inside us - a fierce creature, a loyal creature, and a deeply intuitive and mystical creature. The ‘shapeshifting’ concept of the wolf, which manifests in werewolf legend, reflects this.
THE DEER AND THE STAG
The deer plays a role in many mythologies, particular that of the Celts - a culture we have a deep connection to here at Dragonspace. In old Celtic belief, the ‘feminine’ deer was called Hind or 'Eilid' in the Gaelic tongue, and symbolised subtlety and grace. Her male counterpart, Damh the Stag, represented independence and pride. In old Scottish and Irish lore, otherwordly beings like fairies and deities often chose to morph into the form of a deer when they walked this earth. Being a woodland creature, the deer is also associated with many woodland gods - Cernunnon, the great Celtic Horned god of fertility, bore deer or stag antlers on his head, and tales of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting and wilderness, frequently feature deer or stags. Graceful yet strong, it’s no wonder cultures throughout history have bowed their heads to the deer.
THE OWL AND THE RAVEN
Heading into the avian world, owls often appear in tales of witches and fairies, age-old symbols for wise ones. But why is the owl considered so wise? After all, there are smarter creatures in the animal kingdom. It’s oft-debated, but many trace the association back to Greek mythology, as the Ancient Greek goddess of Wisdom, Athena, had an owl companion. The famous British nurse, Florence Nightingale, notably had a pet owlet named Athena that she carried around in her pocket - her familiar, perhaps?
The raven is another feathered creature often associated with magic. Whether it’s Huginn and Muninn (a.k.a Thought and Memory), Odin’s ravens in Norse mythology, or the Celtic goddess Morrighan who appeared in raven form, these black birds pop up in many mythologies throughout the ages. In other cultures, ravens are considered tricksters and harbingers of death. There are actually a group of captive ravens ever-present at the Tower of London to protect the city, following the old superstition that “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
The splendid snake tends to get a bad rap in many old tales. In the biblical creation myth, the serpent represents the devil, and the snake-headed Medusa of Greek mythology isn’t the most pleasant of figures. But other belief systems hold the snake in a more favourable light. The snake is one of the symbols of the Chinese zodiac, celebrating transformation and agility with the shedding of skin. In the Dreamtime stories of Indigenous Australian culture, the Rainbow Serpent is a great creator god, giver of life and maker of mountains. And of course, there are the associations between serpents and our friends the dragons, with the same coiled bodies and reptilian skin - some even speculate that the ‘fiery’ venom from a snake’s fangs inspired the legend of the fire-breathing beasts that we now know.
Be they furry or feathered, scaled or slimy, we’ve all got an animal that we feel a spiritual connection to. Maybe it stems from your culture or spiritual belief system; maybe it’s because you see glimmers of your own personality reflected in that of your animal companion; or maybe certain creatures strengthen you, and help forge that connection to unseen worlds. We’d like to know - who’s your familiar or animal guide? And what’s their story? Tell us in the comments below!