During the European and American witch hunts, witches were said to have familiars – often cats, bats or toads that would suckle at unnatural teats and confer powers. In Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches, sort of a genocidal handbook), the confessions of some witches spoke of familiar spirits as those personal demons that are a witch’s connection with and conduit to the devil. Some texts refer to the relationship between witches and familiars as a shamanic one. I can see this as closer to truth.
From a Jungian perspective, magic and mysticism is about reaching a new level of personal growth. Jung studied the spiritual symbols of Alchemy and magic, and found them to be encoded journals of individuation and the union between our inner light and shadow. Yep, alchemists were doing shadow work.
Lions and cats frequently appear in this imagery, along with serpents, crows, and owls – all of which are known as animals of wisdom found in darkness (the occult).
When I am faced with a large emotion, I often retreat into the intellectual. I will go look up something that engages my mind enough to keep me distracted from the emotional reality at hand. This, as you can guess, only works so far.
The truth is that I’ve discovered what a “familiar” is really for, and I’ve had a familiar for the last 15 years. She’s really sick, and I’m facing the reality of letting her go. My brain wants to skitter away from the sadness, the loneliness, the despair and helplessness that I’m feeling. As she wanders the house yowling and crying, miserable and desperate for help, I can only text the vet again. Has the bloodwork come back? What I’m really asking is whether there are medicines that will make her feel better. I can only call the compounding pharmacy again. Is the pain reliever ready yet? What I’m begging for is someone to give me something I can do instead of sitting here as she suffers.
If it’s treatable, and her condition can be managed with quality of life, then I will go to the ends of the earth to do so. But her organs are failing one by one. It would only be a matter of buying time. She’s 16 years old.
It’s kind of funny that the cat who became my familiar is named Pagan.
So what is a familiar really there to do?
If you accept Jung’s premise that magical practitioners are doing shadow work and psychological individuation, then it follows that these people also had to pass through intermittent periods of ego death. If, in the course of their work with symbol and spirit, they did have to descend into a period of unraveling, they would need a container to help them put themselves back together afterwards.
A few years ago, I was at the deepest place of not-being and not-knowing. Pagan sat in my lap, and blinked her green eyes at me. As I shook and cried and scrawled the words “Who am I? What am I?” in my journal, she looked at me.
“I know you.” her slow-wink said.
She knew exactly who I was. What I was. And she was content to purr and wait for me to figure it out.
She is my familiar not because she is familiar to me, but because I am familiar to her.
For a couple of years after I moved into my house, I called her “Roshi Pagan” because she was a soft teacher. She would curl up in my lap, and I’d do my best not to move from under her until she got up on her own. Sometimes, we would spend three or more hours on Saturday mornings just sitting. Looking out the window. Petting the cat. Just being. I have a hard time sitting when there’s so much to do. I learn a lot by sitting and being. My recent illness has taught me a lot about sitting and being.
If she does not come to bed with me, and sit on my chest, purring me to sleep, I will get up and look for her, because it means something is wrong. If she doesn’t immediately come running when I sit in my reading chair, I will look for her, because something is wrong. I am her person. She has claimed me. She knows me.
To be known is the greatest gift.
I’m crying again, and I know I’ll cry a lot more in the coming days and weeks. Today, I have spent the day in as much physical contact with her as she’ll allow. I think she’s been trying to comfort me, instead of letting me comfort her. It’s not a stretch to say that she’s in touch with my emotions. This is the cat that once swatted me across the face to stop a crying jag. (This is also the cat that once attempted a coup.)
I’ve never had a relationship with a cat like this. The only animal I’ve ever felt similarly about was my horse. She chose me, and that was that. I am her person.
And now, as her person, it’s my job to let her go.