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Animal and Digital Familiars of the 21st Century

By Sunfell

In the medieval portrayals of witches and magicians, you will usually always find a ‘familiar’ mentioned- be it a cat, dog, Golem or other creature. According to the witch-hunters’ books, these critters were demons in disguise that hung around to do the witch’s bidding. Often, when a witch was tried and punished, her animal companions were often executed along with her.

Cats bore the brunt of medieval superstition. In fact, housecats were nearly exterminated as a species in Dark Ages Europe because of their alleged link with the devil. This led to a population explosion of rats whose fleas fueled the waves of Black Plague that devastated Europe.

In modern society, the idea of any animal doing the bidding of a working Witch or Magician is amusing. We all know that if we want real work done, we have to sit down and write a program on a computer, debug it, and launch it with our desires attached to it. Does that make a computer a ‘familiar’? Maybe it does!

There are many Pagans who are also computer people, and see computers as a 21stCentury sort of Servitor/familiar in the classical magickal sense. They can be built from scratch, (as Golems were) programmed and configured in myriad ways, and can do many tasks that servitors once did: answer mail, get news, screen calls, find bargains, pay bills- you name it. The only thing they can’t do is go places and pass as a person. And even there, some of the chatterbot programs are mighty hard to tell from Real People. People pour their troubles out to automated programs like ‘Eliza’ and her ilk- who simply parse the visitor’s text and comment upon its contents. The ancient magician’s servitors, Golems and Familiars were also able to do this, but it took a lot of time and trouble on the part of the magician to make them work.. The best part about modern computer familiars is that you don’t have to know about fluid condensers, ancient Hebrew, or do lengthy rituals (unless all-nighters working bugs out of a program counts) to have a fully functional electronic familiar at your beck and call. (But you’d better know your Java, Perl, and network connections!)

Although most Wiccans and Pagans are technologically savvy, most of them don’t have the time or patience to program their computers or animal companions to do whatever little magickal chores have to be done. For one, our ways are pretty streamlined- and we’ve come a long way from having to tie a message to a pigeon’s leg to confirm who will attend the next Sabbat Circle.

So, where do animal ‘familiars’ come in to today’s picture? Are they still a valid part of a magickal household? I guess that the best answer would be to tell you about my own magickal household, and my two too-familiar felines.

My two cats are probably have the biggest skate job in the world. All they have to do is wander around my house, head-butt my leg while I’m writing, ‘cute’ at guests, and snuggle up with me at night. Feline paradise.

I have gotten to the point in my working life that I no longer have to have the elaborate rituals with all the trappings, costumes, and props. My ‘hardwarian’ phase is past, and I don’t mind a bit. Nowadays, my rituals consist of a daily offering of incense, a weekly study of my Rosicrucian materials and other metaphysical reading, and the lighting of special candles on the major Wheel holidays. Most of my work is done internally, or even unconsciously, and it is rare for me to ‘garb up’ and get out the Wand.

But even though there is little outward show of anything metaphysical going on, my cats quickly cotton on to what I am doing. This is especially apparent during my weekly scheduled study time. Normally, they pay little attention to me when I am reading stuff, except to perhaps do a ‘rubbing’ pass on the way to flopping on the floor near my feet. But when I am studying magickal or metaphysical materials, they become extremely attentive, and like to get right up next to me- either on the arm of the chair, the back of the chair, or in my lap. (These guys are not ‘lap cats’- they are way too big.) It’s like they know what I am reading and doing, and want to get in on it. They will also trail me into the bedroom and watch me light the altar candles- they seem to know the difference between a casual bedroom visit and one where I am tending my altar for one purpose or another. They’ll sit on the bed and watch me.

My guys also have an uncanny knack for evaluating houseguests. Their behavior around a guest will usually confirm my own gut feelings about them. I remember when I lived in England and had invited a fellow over to visit. My cats wouldn’t come near him. The guy was nice enough, but he was a con-artist who had decided that I was going to be his next mark. Fortunately, both my cats and my guts warned me about him before he could get his hooks into me.

So, my feline family serves as bellwethers to the atmosphere in my home. I try to maintain an atmosphere there that is conducive to calm, good humor and magickal study. I think that the cats contribute as much to that as any working I could do. And they’re very good at it!

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A Little Bio

Sunfell (Lorie A. Johnson) has been a practicing Pagan for 28 years, and has studied with many different Teachers and Traditions. Among these are the Rosicrucian Order, The Silver Triskel Coven (Wiccan Initiators), the British Spiritualist Church, and the Ocali Nations Wolf Clan. She now considers herself an Eclectic TechPagan. A USAF brat and veteran, she’s lived in Japan and Europe. She finally settled in Little Rock, where she keeps the Arkansas State Legislature’s computers in line. She has three computers, two cats, and a brand-new sewing machine she’s learning to use. Her Magus Hat has little cursor arrows, hourglasses, I-bars and hyperlink pointy hands on it.

2000 Lorie A. Johnson

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