With Halloween around the corner, the stereotypical image of witches are ever present. When you think of a witch, you probably think of them with a black cat by their side.
Trick-or-treaters have been donning this costume for over a century, but what is the history behind the witch’s familiar?
Witchcraft in England
While witch trials had been occurring in England long before the Early Modern period, there was a massive increase in women accused of witchcraft closely aligned with growing Puritan sentiments.
Reactions towards witchcraft became slightly hysterical with the policies of Elizabeth I, who passed a statute against ‘witchcraft and enchantments’ in 1563, which opened the floodgates for the prosecution of witches in England.
Trials against witches steadily increased and reached a height after the English Civil War, when Protestants used witchcraft as a justification for the straying of the King from Parliament.
In these witch trials, prosecutors would find the accused to be living with a small household pet, such as a cat. Many believed that these animals shared a supernatural bond with the accused women, and texts often described them as ‘demons’ or ‘devils’. Some accused witches even claimed that these animals were carrying out their evil bidding on their behalf.
Satan the Cat
The earliest pamphlet detailing a witchcraft trial comes from 1566. This pamphlet explains the trial of one of the first women executed for witchcraft, Agnes Waterhouse. In true Early Modern fashion, this one’s a bit of a weird one, so strap in!
The pamphlet introduces the concept of witches keeping animals, known as familiars. It gives an interesting portrayal of them, however; while we might imagine a witch’s cat today to hold more of a ‘pet’ role, the animals in this pamphlet seem to represent the actual devil, conducting demonly duties on behalf of the accused women.
The example given in this pamphlet is the familiar of the accused Elizabeth Francis: Satan the Cat. In the trial, Elizabeth claims to have learnt the art of witchcraft at the age of twelve after her grandmother told her to give her blood to ‘Satan’, presented to her as a white spotted cat.
Elizabeth would offer her blood to Satan the Cat, and in return, Satan would supposedly carry out her wishes. The first thing Satan granted Elizabeth was twenty-eight sheep (all our first wishes when presented with a wish-granting demon cat, amirite?).
The pamphlet gives some bizarre insight into the accused actions of Elizabeth Francis and Satan the cat: one minute Satan is making butter go off quickly, the next he is killing Elizabeth’s husband and six-month-old child (at her request) – talk about variety.
Elizabeth eventually passes Satan the Cat onto her sister (possibly sister-in-law) Agnes in return for a freshly baked cake (fair trade off?), and with it, her witch-y abilities. With Satan in her possession, Agnes took to causing the death of several of the village’s livestock, and eventually turned her murderous urges towards humans, giving her disagreeable neighbour dysentery and doing away with her husband.
We also get a taste for other types of witch’s familiars in this pamphlet, as Agnes turns Satan the Cat into Satan the Toad, and eventually into Satan the Dog.
The pamphlet’s anti-Catholic agenda seeps through as it claims that Satan the Cat/Toad/Dog told Agnes that she must say her prayers in Latin, rather than English, an act perceived as an alliance with Catholicism.
The trial of Elizabeth Francis and Agnes Waterhouse and the story of Satan the Cat/Toad/Dog set a precedent for future witch trials and the idea of the familiar was used as a handy Protestant propaganda tool.
Although there were some earlier recordings of witches having familiars, Satan is certainly closest to the image we have of familiars today. Is Satan the Cat the reason that witches are so often shown with cats?
The witch’s familiar today
This idea of the witch’s familiar that originated in Early Modern England is still prevalent in film and literature today.
These familiars can range from the classic representation, such as Salem in Sabrina, to more pet-like plays on the idea of a familiar, like in Harry Potter. They have also turned up in more unconventional ways, such as the Dæmons from His Dark Materials. Can you think of any other examples of the witch’s familiar?
Learn about the Early Modern period and the witch craze in our Early Modern Series!