Because fairy lore was so aggressively demonized by the Church, fairies became equated with demons. Thus, the folkloric rulers of the fairies were often conflated with the devil, or seen to be in league with him.
Therefore, we see some witches receiving their familiars from the fairy king or queen, and others from the devil himself. For this reason, familiar spirits were often equated with demons by witch hunters.
Carol Rose says that “in Wales, familiars are mostly demons who are usually invisible” (Rose, 113). This tradition of invisible demonic familiars appears to be unique to Wales, and may be a result of prodding by witch interrogators rather than any real folkloric belief.
Possible shamanic connections
It is my opinion that animal familiars may serve a similar function in folk belief that we see entities such as spirit animals, power animals, totems, spirit guides, and so forth, fill in other cultures.
In fact, the modern conception of a spirit guide is quite similar to a guardian angel, and Carol Rose makes the analogy of an attendant familiar spirit with the role of a guardian angel in her encyclopedia.
There are many scholars today who have developed a very strong case for the theory that a minority of accused witches may have been engaging in ancient shamanic practices carried over from the pre-Christian era.
This does not apply to all, or even most, of the accused, as we know that witch interrogators would elicit confessions with the use of torture and tell the victim precisely what to confess. However, there are some anomalies.
For example, Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg has studied the Benandanti, or “good walkers,” a group of accused witches from the Friuli region of Italy.
The region of Fruili had its own dialect that was distinct from the other Italian dialects, which protected them from the witch trials for a very long time, as there were no inquisitors who could speak their language.
When they eventually got around to interrogating them, the inquisitors were astounded by what the Banandanti confessed to – because none of it was found in their witch hunting manuals!
When the confessions do not match the witch hunters’ manuals, this is one clue that their practices were not fed to them by the interrogators.
Among the things the Benandanti confessed to was the practice of going into trance to journey to the spirit world to engage in spirit battles to protect their village’s crops from malevolent spirits that sought to sabotage their harvest.
Carlo Ginzburg discusses his theories, and even expands his discussion to other parts of Europe including German speaking regions and Lowland Scotland in his books, ”Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath” and “The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”.
Wilby discusses accused witches’ use of trance, and other shamanic techniques, to engage in otherworldly travel and interactions with spirits in the other world.
So, we see that there is strong scholarly support for theory that a minority of witches may have been carrying on traditions that originated in the pagan landscape of ancient pre-Christian Europe.
Their familiars are often intermediaries to the spirit world. Familiars are often the beings who teach healing or magical powers to the witch.
This is not unlike the role of animal guides that we see in other shamanic cultures, or even in modern neo-pagan and new age beliefs.
And, indeed, Carol Rose mentions many worldwide cultures with folkloric tales of familiar-like entities in her encyclopedia.
Many of the cultures she names have historically shamanic traditions, such as the Saami, Native American, Australian Aborigine, and Siberian cultures. Of the Siberian tradition, she says “In Siberia the Familiar is known as a Yakeela, which may be required to combat the Familiar of an adversary shaman” (Rose, 113).
This sounds strikingly similar to the practice of spirit battles of the Benandanti described above.