Witches’ Servants

Beliefs surrounding witchcraft were concerned mainly with the need to obtain protection from activities involving the black arts. In popular imagination, the typical witch was an old hag deriving pleasure from inflicting harm and misfortune on others. Witches were traditionally depicted in black garb, accompanied by their most trusted familiars – a black cat, bat, or raven – pointed black hat, cauldron, and book of spells. Witches’ creature familiars, derived from the Latin term famulus, meaning ‘servant’, were believed to be demons in human or animal form feeding on the witches’ blood and doing everything by their mistresses’ bidding. It was generally accepted that the witch could take on the shape of these familiars. Usually familiars appeared in the form of small domestic animals, although they could also appear as monsters, toads, or flies. Demonic flies were specifically a feature of northern European sorcery. These tiny and very mobile creatures naturally had access to anyone suspected of witchcraft. 

The cat’s role as a witch’s familiar was tragic indeed. In the ancient world, this animal was invested with an aura of holiness, but in Christian Europe, the cat was decidedly not destined to be venerated. With its violent repudiation of paganism, the Christian Church succeeded in reducing the status of this once sacred animal to that of a devil. In most European countries, the black cat was considered the embodiment of Satan. In Britain, the white cat assumed this role, whereas the brindled cat was notorious as a witch’s familiar. This reminds us of the ominous witch’s cry in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘Thrice the brindled cat hath mew’d’.85 

During the witch-mania in Europe, anyone could indiscriminately be accused by hostile neighbours or acquaintances to have assumed the shape of a cat. In Scotland, in 1607 a woman named Isobel Grierson was hanged on the evidence that she entered the house of Adam Clark at Prestonpans in the likeness of a cat.86 One of the last people to be tried for witchcraft in England was Jane Wenham, accused of assuming a cat’s form to terrify her victims. Towards the end of the witchcraft mania in Britain in 1718, William Montgomery of Caithness claimed he was driven berserk by a crowd of cats gossiping in human language outside his home. He attacked the animals with a hatchet, killing two and wounding others. The next day, two old women were found dead in bed, whereas another had an unexplained gash on her leg.87 This was considered indubitably positive proof of shape changing during the night. Witch-hunters were inclined to have very vivid imaginations and saw exactly what they wished to see. 

Not only the cat, but also the hare or rabbit were thought of as witches’ familiars. It was firmly believed that witches themselves appeared in hare or rabbit form. This is why various parts of the animals’ bodies feature in mischief-making spells and potions. The belief that it was unlucky to meet a hare originated in medieval times, as any hare was thought to be a witch in disguise. According to popular opinion, this transformation was achieved by rubbing the skin with fat from a hare. Usually, a hare concealed in the form of a witch could talk to and play tricks on hunters in the forest, leading them astray. This theme is central to many fairy tales and folk tales. If a hare was killed or wounded, it was firmly believed that a witch would be found the next day, either dead or with a wound corresponding exactly to the one inflicted on the hare. Countless old women were either hanged or burned because of such sketchy evidence. The almost-human plaintive cry and the upright sitting position of the hare might have contributed to such beliefs. 


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