Academic journal article Folklore

The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland

Academic journal article Folklore

The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland

Article excerpt


This paper is a preliminary study into the nature of popular belief in the witch's familiar in early modern England and Scotland. It illustrates some of the similarities to be found between beliefs in the witch's familiar and contemporary fairy beliefs and argues that the extent of these similarities suggests that in the period there must have been considerable confusion between the two kinds of spirit, particularly on a popular level. The paper then goes on to argue that fairy beliefs provided a matrix of thought which underpinned the whole construct of the witch's familiar in the popular mind, a construct which interacted with elite demonological theory in a coherent and dynamic way.

Until recently, historians have tended to assume that the early modern witch's familiar was predominantly an elite demonological concept, imposed upon popular culture "from above." According to this hypothesis, prosecutorial suggestion during witchcraft trials, witchcraft pamphlets, pulpit teachings and so on served to gradually impress the idea of the witch's familiar into the popular imagination, where it then became a vehicle for the sensationalist and paranoid fantasies of the witch and her neighbours. There is now increasing acknowledgement, however, that ideas about witchcraft merged in a far more complex manner than this simplistic elite/popular abstraction allows and historians have been quicker to recognise that there was a substantial folkloric contribution to these beliefs, noting, among other things, the particularly close links between the fairy and the witch's familiar. [1] The folkloric dimension to English and Scottish familiar beliefs has still not been examined in any detail, however, and Keith Thomas's assertion that the English witch's animal familiar is a phenomenon "largely unaccounted for" remains as true today as it was when it was written nearly thirty years ago (Thomas 1971, 569). [2]

This paper examines some of the similarities to be found between early modern beliefs in the witch's familiar and contemporary fairy beliefs. It will argue that the nature and extent of these similarities prompts one to question how far the witch's familiar and the fairy existed as separate phenomena in the early modern mind, particularly on a popular level. The paper concludes by suggesting that fairy beliefs played a more significant role in the creation and promulgation of beliefs concerning the stereotypical witch's familiar than has been hitherto acknowledged.

Generalising about English and Scottish beliefs in this context is not without its problems, for the source material indicates considerable differences in belief between the two regions. For example, in Scottish witchcraft trial confessions the familiar frequently appeared in human form and was connected to a sabbath experience. In England, alternatively, the sabbath was seldom mentioned and the familiar most frequently appeared in animal form, often living in domestic intimacy with the witch. These and other disparities may in part be due to differences in the judicial procedure, most notably the frequent use of torture in Scotland. However they are also likely to reflect regional variations in fairy belief. [3] Whilst not wanting to obscure these differences, the aim of this paper is to present a broad overview of its subject matter and will discuss English and Scottish beliefs as a whole.


Dispute over the definition of spirits in the early modern period is an issue central to this paper. Spirits were labelled differently depending on geography, education and religious perspective, and categories of spirit overlapped considerably. This is vividly illustrated in some witchcraft trials, most notably those from Scotland. The dittays from the trial of Orkney witch Elspeth Reoch in 1616 describe how Elspeth claimed that a "blak man cam to her ... And callit him selff ane farie man quha wes sumtyme her kinsman callit Johne Stewart quha wes slane be Mc Ky at the doun going of the soone. …

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