And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.
LEV 20:6 (KJV)
Although most frequently portrayed as being animal - or animal like - a familiar can also be human(oid) in shape. They also vary in size, from forms as small as grass hoppers to man sized and larger, but normally have in common an inability to look exactly like whatever creature they are trying to imitate and possessing at least a few unnatural or monstrous features.
If the creature happens to be imitating a domestic animal, other creatures of that kind will not normally be deceived and will generally fear and flee or attack it - rarely with much success. A string of disappearing cats or dogs may be the first clue that a witch and thier familiar have arrived in the area.
Some familiars maintain their physical bodies by feeding on blood - either that of the witch or blood stolen from others. Others are reputed to steal the lives of sleeping infants to maintain themselves or engage in other acts of predation or to feed on sacrifices made to them by their witch. These forms of sustenance may not be mutually exclusive.
Besides channeling magical power for its witch the familiar may condescend to perform other tasks such as thieving, spying, the delivery of messages and, if capable, murder. They are also known to instruct in occult lore and other secrets. Sometimes witches are depicted as being able to see through the eyes of their familiars, but that may be metaphorical. Larger familiars (goats are common in the European mythos) may allow themselves to be ridden, allowing the witch to take advantage of their powers of supernatural flight.
Some witch finders give account of witches with more than one familiar - this may be nothing more than the results of inexpert use of torture extracting false evidence, or it may have more cogent explanations such as:
- The patron uses a group of intermediaries rather than just one.
- There is a pool of familiars managing a group of witches1.
- The actual familiar uses a cut out network.
- The witch has named all of the spirits with which she is in contact rather than just the familiar.
- The witch is in fact a shaman and the "familiars" are a group of spirit allies instead.
- The witch is merely a crazy cat lady who thinks she has a group of familiars.
…there are probably other cases as well.
Not to be confused with homonculi or any other form of construct, nor with the spirit allies of a shaman that happen to have taken material form. Spirit allies, in particular, can be hard to filter from familiars, but the usual rule of thumb is that if it is representing itself it's not a familiar but an ally (or minion or patron, depending on the power relationship). Another potential source of strange looking animals around a witch might be ineptly shape-shifted fellow witches.
Game and Story Use
- Many fRPGs use the familiar as something altogether more innocous - players will need to be informed if you are going for authenticity.
- Being a supernatural creature, a familiar may well be quite hard to injure, let alone kill - probably requiring some kind of depleted phlebotinum shells (silver would be normal) or other magic.
- If it can be managed however, destroying or banishing the familiar should sever - or at the very least massively obstruct - the witch's link to their patron. This may lead to all sorts of hilarity, from merely a cessation of their supernatural powers to the sudden return of senescence or injury previously covered up by the patron's power (shades of Dorian Gray possibly). Also, if there is any magical backlash or fallout from breaking the link, be certain that it will fall on the witch rather than their patron.