No witch would be complete without a familiar spirit, for in ancient lore a witch was someone who a fairy had become attached to.
From Cinderella's helping spirits to Puss in Boots, familiar spirits are hidden throughout fairy tales and lore. In many ways they are the most important part of folk religion, as at one time the cunning folk (good witches) were more important to the spiritual life of people in rural England than even the priests.
The relationship between each witch and their familiar spirits is unique. One woman from the Amur river had children with a tiger spirit after which her own magical spirit children became her familiar spirit. Another man found a wife while on a spirit journey and she became his familiar spirit, while in Italy a girls familiar spirit was the soul of her dead uncle. In England and Germany, however, most familiar spirits are servants of the Queen of the fairies who can take human or animal form.
Gaining a Familiar Spirit
In lore, there were always some few who sought out the fairies in hopes of becoming a witch. In Russia, for example, there were some people who sought the goodwill of the unclean dead by offering them eggs (Russian Folk Belief). Yet, in most stories, these people are attacked by the spirits or grow so frightened when they encounter them that they flee. As a consequence their aren't very many records of people gaining power by seeking out the fairies, even though it was sometimes considered to be very easy to become a witch. One unique exception to this is the case of Ann Jefferies, a servant girl who did bold things that even boys were afraid to do. For example, she would go out into the wild;
"Turning up fern leaves, and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time. “‘Fairy fairy and fairy bright; Come and be my chosen sprite,”
She never allowed a moonlight night to pass without going down into the valley, and walked against the stream, singing: ‘Moon shines bright, waters run clear, I am here, but where's my fairy dear?"
At first, the fairies ignored her, then one day, after she'd finished her chores for the morning in the household where she worked as a servant, and she was sitting in the garden, when six little men in green with “charming faces and bright eyes” came.
Anne's case is fairly rare; however, more commonly, a person inherits their relationship with the fairies from someone else (a mother, an uncle, etc.) or they are chosen by the fairies during a time of grief. As Purkiss puts it; "Fairies are the fantasies of the dispossessed. They do not come from wealth and privilege. They come from the deeps of misery. People whose lives are a perpetual struggle to survive suddenly faced with one burden too many..... A fairy story is a story about hitting rock bottom – in that sense a story about dying..."
So very often, the first encounter took place when the future witch lay dying or found herself in a time of desperation.
Saint Selvija from the village of Sveta in the vicinity of Demir Hisar offers an interesting example. Despite being married for ten years, Selvija was not able to give birth. According to her story, that period was “a great burden” for her... The story continues to state that because she was not able to have a child, her husband stopped loving her and started trying to force her to leave. She refused to do so as she had no other place to go. In the last four years of her “childless experience,” Selvija stopped eating everything, even bread. In this period of self-starvation, she often prayed to God to give her a child, vowing that she would be his servant. One day when, in an extremely weak and depressed condition, she sat down to rest, St. John appeared at her door and instructed her to go to a certain monastery where there was healing water that would make her healthy and able to have children: and finally, she had a girl... After having her children, Selvija became “weak” again until one day she fell into a coma. She was “like dead” for three days and three nights. That was the first time she visited both Heaven and Hell. After coming back, she started to heal and continued to heal until the end of her life.... (Petreska,2008)
In England, a starving man named John Webster was returning home from work with a heavy heart, for he couldn't think of a way to get food for his wife and children. That was when he met a fairy (who appeared as a woman dressed in fine clothes) who offered to help him escape his poverty. Meanwhile, Bessie Dunlop meets the fairy Tom Reid when she is starving to death and weak from having just given birth to a child, yet she still has to drive the cattle out into the field and home again by herself because her husband and child are even worse off than she is. Adding to all of this, one of her cows has just died, leaving her even more impoverished than she was before. As with most such stories, the fairy offers her comfort and aid so that she can get through her hard times (Wilby, 2006).
In the German fairytale, “Puss and Boots,” a boy’s father dies, leaving him so poverty stricken that he thinks his only recourse is to eat a cat and then starve to death, until the cat speaks to him and promises to make him rich (Jacob Grimm believed this cat to be a household fairy). In the story of “Godfather Death,” a poor man has no means to provide his son with a christening and so is desperately seeking any aid he can find when he encounters death, who offers to stand as godfather for his child (and who later aids his child in performing magical healing).
The miller’s daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin,” encounters the fairy Rumpelstiltskin when she has been locked away by her “fiancé” with the order that she weave straw into gold. At this time, she is between her father’s house and that of a potential husband, between being free and a prisoner, and it is then when the fairy appears to her. In “The Old Woman in the Wood,” everyone that a young girl is traveling with is murdered by bandits and, although she manages to escape, she is lost and soon finds herself starving. Sad at the loss of everyone she knows and so weary from starvation that she can't go on, she at last sits down to die. That is when a white bird comes with a magical key to a tree filled with food.
Into the Fairy Court
It was common during this first encounter for the relationship between fairies and witches to be formalized with their familiar spirit taking the witch to the fairy court to stand before the devil or the fairy queen. A witch named Isabell Haldane was taken when she was lying in her bed and carried to a hillside, which opened up for her to enter. She stayed there for twelve hours in the fairy court before being brought home again by a man with a gray beard.
Although Isabell says very little about her experience in the fairy court this first time, most people were given assignments to spread mischief or to help the poor as the kinder fairies were very often obsessed with helping those in need. Both these tasks were hard as helping the poor could mean fermenting a rebellion against the nobility. Such rebellions rarely ended well, as Joan of Arcs story shows. Even when a witch was asked to simply heal the sick and poor with magic they but more commonly, it involved healing the sick and poor with magic the witches tended to live thereafter in poverty. After all, one doesn't become rich by serving the poor.
In the case of Alison, her brother returned from Egypt to find her on the verge of death, so he healed her and took her to Fairyland. There, he introduced her to witches and the Fairy Queen (Linton, 1883). In an odd take on this idea, a man named Andrew Man was promised power by his mother, then, some twenty-eight years later, the Fairy Queen came and killed all his cattle. “and it was then that their guilty, albeit poetic and loving intercourse, began.” From this time on, he also gained many powers (Linton, 1883).
The Life of a witch
Since witches are very rarely in control of their own lives, how they live depends largely on the fairies which they end up serving and as I stated at the beginning of this article their are a near infinite number of relationships a person can have with the fairies. Some familiar spirits view their witch as a slave others as a pet, a lover, a sibling, a friend, a partner, and more. One thing is clear, however. If you want to tell the story of a traditional witch, you should perhaps begin by figuring out the personality of the familiar spirit they serve, for their life depends on this.