View Full Version : The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland (Emma Wilby)

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:31 AM
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.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:31 AM
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." Elspeth's interrogators obviously did not find her definition of Johne Stewart (fairy man or ghost) sufficient, for the dittay later reads "she confest the devell quhilk she callis the farie man lay with hir" (Black and Thomas 1903, 113-4. My italics). Similarly complex seems the identity of the spirit allegedly encountered by a man tried in Aberdeen in 1598. The trial dittays record that:

Thow confessis that the Devill, thy maister, quhom thow termes
Christsonday, and supponis to be ane engell, and Goddis godsone, albeit he
hes a thraw by God, and swyis to the Quene of Elphen, is rasit be the
speking of the word Benedicte (Stuart 1841, 120).

The pivotal definitions used in this paper i.e. "familiar," "devil," and "fairy" are general and simplistic in such a context, however a working terminology is needed. The term "familiar" was used in the period to both denote the witch's demonic spirit and, in a more general sense, personal helping spirits, often defined as fairies. For the purposes of this paper, however, the term "familiar" will refer only to the "witch's familiar," often termed "a devil" or "the Devil" in witchcraft trial records and elite writings and will include the familiar in both human and animal form, as found in both England and Scotland. The term "a/the devil" will be employed in the strictly theological sense (that is, wholly malicious spirit identified as, or in the service of, Satan). The comprehensive term "fairy" can only be employed in a very general sense, but, following Katharine Briggs (1976) specific reference will be made to fairy "hobmen" (that is, a wide range of essentially solitary spirits known variously as hobgoblins, boggarts, brownies, hobs, lobs and so on, which nonetheless share basic characteristics and can be loosely considered a type). To denote the popular magical practitioners of the period who were known to communicate with the fairies, the term "cunning man/woman" will be used, although such people could be known under a variety of other titles such as "seer," "conjurer," "wise man/woman," and so on. The terms "cunning person" and "witch" will be predominantly used in the feminine to reflect the gender emphasis of the sources used.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:32 AM
There are many references to familiar belief in trial records and demonological texts. Contemporary references to fairy belief, however, are less common. The Secret Common-Wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, compiled at the end of the seventeenth century (see Sanderson 1976), provides us with the only comprehensive discussion specifically devoted to fairy belief, otherwise snippets are to be found in a wide range of elite scholarly writings and literature. Other sources of fairy beliefs are the records from trials for magical practices, most notably Scottish witchcraft trials. All written sources present problems when trying to isolate popular fairy belief, for they all, to a greater or lesser degree, reflect the prejudices of their educated authors and must therefore be treated with caution. It is possible to argue, however, that some confessions for witchcraft contain the most authentic (that is, closest to first-hand) examples of popular fairy belief. Because the prosecutors had no vested interest in a spirit being called a fairy, in the significant minority of witches' confessions where fairies are mentioned directly we can hazard that the references came from the witches themselves. Many other trial records evidently contain allusions to fairies which have been cloaked with demonological definition, however only those which contain direct references to fairies will be used as evidence of popular fairy belief. [4]

Because early modern sources of fairy belief are scarce, occasional reference will be made to beliefs from later sources, particularly those from the nineteenth century, though one should bear in mind the dangers of hypothesising about earlier belief on the basis of later.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:34 AM
In the early modern period both familiars and fairies were believed to possess a range of supernatural powers which were considered capable of affecting almost any aspect of human life. Those aspects with which the familiar was primarily associated--that is, human/animal health, domestic/farming processes and the general securing of material prosperity--were also areas of central concern to many types of fairy. Conversely, certain skills which were primarily associated with the fairies--such as the ability to divine the future, seek out lost goods, identify criminals and so on--were often associated with the familiar.

Although comparisons can be drawn between the familiar and many different kinds of fairy, the familiar seems to bear most frequent and specific resemblance to the fairy hobman. Both types of spirit were particularly communicative and indeed "familiar" with human beings and could be found living alone, or occasionally in small groups, either alongside humans in their houses or barns (the domestic hobman and many English animal familiars) or in the countryside (the non-domestic hobman and many familiars in the form of men).

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:34 AM
Although some familiars conformed to a demonic stereotype (black in body and dress/cloven feet/fearsome aspect and so on) and some fairies were visually extraordinary (a tiny or giant size/shadowy/glowing with light/hollow backed and so on) in many instances both types of spirit resembled relatively ordinary humans or animals with slight, if any, visual anomalies. There is little heterogeneity, for example, between the sober appearance of the spirit (almost certainly a fairy hobman) described by a parishioner of Dyce, Scotland in 1601 as "ane litill bodie, haiffing a scheavin berd, cled in quhyt lening, lyk a sark" (Mc Pherson 1929, 130) and the Devil as described by Aberdeenshire witch Ellen Gray in 1597 as "in the scheap of ane agit man, beirdit, with a quhyt gown and a thrummit hatt" (Stuart 1841, 127). Similarly, there is little to distinguish the King of the Fairies as described by Auldearn witch Isobel Gowdie in 1662 as "a braw man, weill favoured, and broad faced, etc." (Pitcairn 1833, 3:604) from the Devil as described by Forfar witch Issobell Smyth in 1661 as "ane braw gentleman" (Kinloch 1848, 132) or Essex witch Rebecca Jones in 1645 as "a very handsome young man" (Howell 1816, 4:854). The Devil in the form of a man, as he appeared in Scotland, was often described as "mickle" or large/powerful, and we correspondingly find an early modern traveller in Scotland remarking that "A spirit, by the Country People call'd Browny, was frequently seen ... in the shape of a tall Man" (Martin 1970, 334). By way of contrast, other familiars seem to have been notably small ("half long," "littill" and so on), a description also redolent of hobmen as they appear in early modern and, with more frequency, later fairy sources. Both familiars and fairies could appear dressed wholly in black, or wholly in white, or in any variety of colours in between. In many accounts the devil appears in green, a colour which was often associated with the fairies. In 1661 Scottish witch Jonet Watson claimed, for example, that "The Deivill apeired vnto her, in the liknes of ane prettie boy, in grein clothes ... and went away from her in the liknes of ane blak doug" (Pitcairn 1833, 3:601). Like many familiars, Jonet's "prettie boy" was believed to shape shift, a magical skill which was also associated with the fairies, particularly the hobmen. Some of the less intimate English animal familiars resemble the more "permanent" fairy animals which were less close to humankind than the friendly hobman in animal form. The most common permanent fairy animal to be found in English and Scottish sources up to the nineteenth century, the dog, was also one of the forms most frequently assumed by the animal familiar. If later sources are consulted a close visual fairy match can be found for most early modern familiars.

Correspondences can also be drawn in relation to names. As we have already seen, the terms "familiar" and "devil" were interchangeable between the two types of spirit, this semantic intimacy being clearly evident in the comments of a Scottish clergyman in 1677 when he refers to a type of spirit whom:

the vulgar call white deviles, which possibly have neither so much power
nor malice as the black ones have, which served our great grandfathers
under the names of Brouny, and Robin Goodfellow, and, to this day, make
dayly service to severals in quality of familiars (Law 1818, lxxvi).

Similarly interchangeable, according to one source, was the term "imp" (often used to denote the English animal familiar) and the term "puckrel," with its obvious fairy associations (Gifford 1603, 9). The same types of personal names (often diminutive) given to individual fairies, were also given to familiars, particularly in England, reflecting the affectionate and intimate relationship often found between the witch/cunning woman and her familiar/fairy. Several familiars shared a first name with the ubiquitous hobman Robin Goodfellow. For example, the devil in the form of a man who reportedly appeared before a group of witches in Somerset in 1664 sounds very much like the versatile hobman:

on Thursday Night before Whitsunday last, about the same place met
Catharine Green ... and Henry Walter, and being met they called out Robin.
Upon which instantly appeared a little Man in black Clothes to whom all
made obeysance, and the Man put his hand to his Hat, saying, How do ye?
Speaking low but big (Glanvil 1681, 164-5).

Similar correspondences from the period, are (citing familiar name first and fairy equivalent in brackets): Tom Twit/Vinegar Tom/Thomas a Fearie (Thom Reid, Tom Tumbler, Tomb Thombe, Tom Tit Tot); Hob (Hob/Hobgoblin); Great or Little Browning (Browny/Brouny); Piggin (Pigwiggen); Pluck/Puppet (Puck/ Puckle); Ball/Bidd (Billy); Willet/William/Walliman (Will o' the Wisp); Tibb (Tib); Jill (Jill/Jin). [5] If names from later fairy sources are brought into the equation, then one or more fairy equivalents can be found for the majority of familiar names on record.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:35 AM
Although many people believed in the existence of both familiar and fairy, far fewer considered themselves to have encountered them visually. Of this number, some claimed to have "seen" such spirits just once, or occasionally, whereas others claimed to encounter them on a more regular basis, commonly developing a particularly close relationship with one or more spirits. Both familiar and fairy could be encountered either as the result of an invocation, or spontaneously (although in England it was also not uncommon to find the animal familiar passed from one witch to another, often between family members). The initial encounter with both types of spirit was often described as spontaneous and conformed, in fundamentals, to standard encounter narratives found in fairy anecdotes and folktales of all periods. The individual was usually alone, either in the countryside or at home, and in some sort of trouble, when the spirit suddenly appeared and offered to help. In 1646 Huntingdonshire witch John Winnick confessed (of his familiar) that:

on a Friday being in the barne, making hay-bottles for his horses ... there
appeared unto him a Spirit, blacke and shaggy, and having pawes like a
Beare, but in bulk not fully so big as a Coney. The Spirit asked him what
he ailed to be so sorrowfull, this Examinate answered that he had lost a
purse and money, and knew not how to come by it againe. The Spirit replied
"... I will help you" (Davenport 1646, 3).

The following seventeenth-century description of a fairy encounter from the North of England, given by a man charged with witchcraft, follows a similar pattern (the man goes on to describe how he was led into a hill and presented to a "Queen" who sat in great state):

one night before the day was gone, as he was going home from his labour,
being very sad and full of heavy thoughts, not knowing how to get meat and
drink for his Wife and Children, he met a fair Woman in fine cloaths, who
asked why he was so sad, and he told her that it was by reason of his
poverty, to which she said, that if he would follow her counsel she would
help him (Webster 1677, 301).

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:35 AM
Both familiar and fairy offered the suffering human some help. Although the familiar is most notoriously associated with offering the witch powers to do harm and revenge herself on her enemies and so on, trial confessions attest that generally the first and most frequent offer made by the familiar was the promise of help to ease the witch's material suffering, a service also offered by the fairies. Although both familiar and fairy could promise great wealth, they more frequently promised something rather less grand. In the majority of cases, particularly in Scotland, the devil offered what was often termed "freedom from want" which in many cases amounted to helping the witch to earn a basic living. Freedom from want could also be offered by the fairies. In Rye in 1607 Susan Swapper (accused of witchcraft) confessed that she had met the Queen of the Fairies and had been told that if she knelt to her the Queen would give her "a living" (Gregory 1991, 36). In many cases both familiar and fairy made good this offer, not through the direct gift of material prosperity, but through making themselves and their powers or knowledge available to humans, who then used this resource to set themselves up as some sort of magical practitioner i.e. witch or cunning woman. The most characteristic skill possessed by the cunning woman was that of healing, and there is evidence that many individuals tried as witches, particularly in Scotland, claimed to be healers. An Aberdeenshire cunning man tried as a witch in 1598 claimed to have received his healing skills from the fairies, the trial dittays stating that "the Quene of Elphen, promesit to the [cunning man], that thow suld knaw all thingis, and suld help and cuir all sort of seikness" (Stuart 1841, 119). Alternatively the dittays from the trial of Orkney witch Jonet Rendall in 1629 record that it was the Devil who offered Jonet her healing abilities, stating that "the devill ... said to you He sould learne yow [Jonet] to win almiss be healling of folk" (Black and Thomas 1903, 103).

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:36 AM
The familiar was notorious for the fact that it demanded something from the witch in return for its services, the two of them negotiating terms in what amounted to a contract or covenant. Margaret Flower, who was tried as a witch in Leicestershire in 1619, claimed that she promised her animal familiars what they wanted and in return, "they covenanted to do all things which she commanded them" (Rosen 1991, 381). Historiographically the overtly contractual nature of the relationship between witch and familiar has been one of the elements of the witch/familiar narrative generally considered as having the most purely elite demonological provenance. Echoes of the contractual relationship between witch and familiar, however, can be found hidden in early modern fairy beliefs.

In both elite and popular culture of the period individuals believed that they cultivated either non-visual or visual relationships with fairies. Even the most common "ordinary" type of non-visual human relationship with a fairy would have been implicitly contractual in nature. John Aubrey claimed, for example, that in England "Countrey-people ... were wont to please the Fairies, that they might doe them no shrewd turnes" (Aubrey 1972, 203. My italics). The less common relationship with a visually encountered fairy would have been of an inherently different order, for that which was implicit in the "ordinary" relationship became explicit in the "extraordinary": the unseen fairy became seen, its unheard voice became heard, and those things which the human ordinarily desired from the fairy in thought, could be verbally demanded. It is logical, then, that we find written records left by elite magical practitioners testifying that- they believed themselves to have overtly contracted with visually encountered fairies. We cannot assume, merely because they did not record their experiences on paper, that popular magical practitioners did not consider themselves to have done the same. Some sources hint at the existence of explicit contractual relationships on a popular level. In 1588 Alesoun Peirsoun of Fifeshire claimed that the fairies "wald cum and sitt besyde hir [as she lay sick in bed], and promesit that scho sould newir want, gif scho wald be faithfull and keip promeis" (Pitcairn 1833, 1:163. My italics). Similarly in England, the fairy woman in the confession recorded by Webster verbally initiates a contractual relationship with the old man when she says, "If he would follow her counsel she would help him" (Webster 1677, 301. My italics). Other sources describe more explicit contracts, but are also more suggestive of elite manipulation. Some invocatory rituals described in magical manuals, for example, possibly had their origins in popular belief. One such, described by Katharine Briggs as "a pure piece of folk-lore" details the long and complex preparations needed to summon a fairy, and then urges the invoker to "then covenant with her for all matters convenient for your purpose and she wilbe alwayes with you of this assure yourselfe for it is proved" (Briggs 1959, 116). Similarly blatant was the contract made between Leicestershire witch Joan Willimot and a fairy woman, as described in her confession of 1619 (Rosen 1991, 377. The contract is quoted fully in the next section).

Later sources clearly indicate that contractual relationships with visually encountered fairies were a part of nineteenth-century folk belief. In Scotland, for example, the fairy "men and women of peace" were believed to habitually form "alliances" with mortals and negotiate to work with them for a prescribed length of time, for an agreed payment, in a manner redolent of the bargains sometimes struck between early modern Scottish witches and the Devil (Campbell 1900, 40-1). This is also a common folktale element, the protagonist often striking a verbal "deal" with an encountered fairy or other supernatural being which has offered them its help.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:37 AM
Whether the contract between the human and familiar/fairy was explicit or implicit, both types of spirit made a variety of contractual demands in exchange for their services. Two of the most notorious of the familiar's demands, and those most commonly assumed by historians to have had elite origins, were that the witch promise her soul to the familiar and that she renounce her Christian faith.

The explicit demand for the soul, though not made by every familiar, commonly occurs in confessions. In 1612 Lancashire witch Elizabeth Southerns confessed that she "was coming homeward from begging" when she met "a spirit or devil in the shape of a boy, the one half of his coat black and the other brown, who bade this examinate stay, saying to her that if she would give him her soul, she should have anything that she would request" (Rosen 1991, 358). It was not uncommon for the familiar to demand that the soul be handed over after a specific number of years, or at death. Huntingdonshire witch Anne Desborough claimed in 1646, for example, that two spirits in the form of mice called "Tib" and "Jone" told her that "when she dyed, they must have her soule" (Davenport 1646, 12). Occasionally a witch's confession contains a spirit, defined there as a fairy, making a demand for the soul. The most dramatic example is to be found in the confession of Leicestershire witch Joan Willimot in 1619, Joan claiming that:

(her master) willed her to open her mouth ... and he would blow into her a
fairy which should do her good. And that she opened her mouth, and that
presently after his blowing, there came out of her mouth a spirit which
stood upon the ground in the shape and form of a woman, which spirit did
ask of her soul, which she then promised unto it ... the use which she had
of the spirit was to know how those did which she had undertaken to amend
(Rosen 1991, 377).

It is easy to assume that references to the explicit contract for the soul found in such descriptions of fairy encounters are the result of elite intervention. There are, however, close links to be found between the human soul and the fairies in the early modern period, particularly in relation to beliefs surrounding human travel with the fairies or entry into fairyland.

Transition into the fairy world was believed to occur either "in body" (during which, to mortal eyes, the physical body either completely disappeared or was replaced with a fairy or fairy "stock") or "in spirit." [6] In the latter case, it was only the spiritual part of the human (which in Christian terms would be called the soul) which went into fairyland, leaving the material body behind, an event which generally occurred when the human was dreaming, sick, or in some kind of trance. In 1675, for example, the Synod of Aberdeen recorded that it had received "divers complaints and reports ... by several brethren that some under pretence of trances or familiarities of spirits of going with these spirits commonly called the fairies" (McPherson 1929, 130). This spiritual as opposed to bodily interpretation of human entry into fairyland corresponds with early modern evidence, most frequently found in Scottish sources, connecting fairies and the dead. Many believed that some (or all) fairies were souls of the dead, albeit clothed in some type of astral form. After natural death human souls might find themselves in fairyland; alternatively, living humans taken into or visiting the fairy realm could find themselves unwilling or unable to leave, resulting in the death of the mortal body.

In the early modern period human presence in fairyland, whether in body or in spirit, was believed to have been actively encouraged by the fairies. Although this fairy enthusiasm was most notoriously associated with the theft of newbores, the fairy was also believed to desire adult human company, this desire prompted by a variety of motives ranging from amorousness to the more practical need for human skills in wetnursing, warfare, sport, music and so on. In 1662 Isobel Gowdie of Auldearn and in 1670 Jean Weir of Edinburgh talked of helping the fairies with their fighting skills (Law 1818, 27; Pitcairn 1833, 3:602-12). On a lighter note, in the seventeenth century the "fairy boy of Leith" claimed that his musical skills were enjoyed by the fairies (Bovet 1975, 104-6). Sometimes fairies were motivated by darker intentions, plotting to keep humans in fairyland permanently against their wishes or to use them as part of their seven yearly teind [tithe] to hell (Pitcairn 1833, 1:163; Briggs 1976, 394). While humans often strayed inadvertently into fairyland, the fairies also actively encouraged human entry, frequently using coercion or intimidation. In 1623 Scottish witch Issobell Haldane claimed that "lying in hir bed, scho wes taikin furth ... wes caryit to ane hill-syde: the hill oppynit, and scho enterit in." Issobell stayed with the "ffarye-folk" for three days until she was "delyveret" from thence by "a man with ane gray beird" (Pitcairn 1833, 2:537). The fairies could also employ more subtle methods, however, such as enticement, trickery and even bargaining, tempting the human with the delights of fairy revelry, the promise of material gain, or the getting of magical help/knowledge and so on. In 1576 Ayrshire witch Bessie Dunlop claimed to have been prey to such gentler tactics, claiming that the "gude wychtis" from the "Court of Elfame" rather politely "baid hir sit doun, and said, `Welcum, Bessie, will thow go with us?'" her ghost familiar Thom Reid telling her that to do so would "make hir far better nor euer sche was" (Pitcairn 1833, 1:53).

In the context of the spiritual interpretation of entry into fairyland, whichever method the fairy employed to bring the human into their world, and for whatever reason they wanted them there, the fairy would have been in effect desiring and appropriating (for a given length of time) the human spirit or soul. In the same context those early modern individuals who were tempted to enter fairyland voluntarily, for whatever reason, would have been aware that their visit amounted to a temporary, albeit tacit, commitment of their soul (to be used/enjoyed by) the fairies. We have an implicit contract here. Moreover, if the human entered fairyland through some sort of negotiation (and the magical practitioner, more confident and pragmatic about spirits and their ways, was the individual most likely to do this) then we have something very like an explicit contract for the soul. [7] In addition, the spiritual interpretation of entry into fairyland was sister to the belief that on death the human soul could find itself permanently in the fairy world and any humans who believed themselves to have a relationship with a fairy, even if it did not involve visits to fairyland, was likely to have been aware that such a fate was a possibility. It is not illogical to surmise that any prolonged and/or intimate involvement with the fairies, such as that enjoyed by the cunning woman, may have been considered to increase the possibility of such a fate and also to surmise that the issue of the soul's final resting place could have become a "bargaining chip" in such a context. Even if the spiritual interpretation of entry into fairyland, and associated beliefs, were not consciously involved in a witch's fairy/familiar experience, it is not difficult to envisage how they could have been brought into the equation by an interrogator searching out the "Faustian Pact."

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:39 AM
The familiar's demand that the witch renounce her Christianity, though not as frequent as the demand for her soul, appears quite regularly in trial records throughout Britain. Essex witch Hellen Clark, for example, claimed in 1645 that her familiar (in the form of a white dog called "Elimanzer") "appeared to her in her house ... and bade her deny Christ, and shee should never want" (Howell 1816, 4:839). Occasionally a trial confession, such as that of Scottish witch Bessie Dunlop in 1576 (Pitcairn 1833, 1:49-58), will feature a fairy, or a spirit closely linked to the fairies, demanding a similarly overt renunciation of Christianity. The strong likelihood of elite interrogatorial intervention on this point, however (as with the promise of the soul), means that such records are not trustworthy evidence that explicit renunciations were a traditional feature of human/fairy encounter beliefs. A conscious but implicit renunciation, however, is likely to have been an integral part of many human/fairy negotiations.

Any spirit of pagan provenance which had escaped wholesale assimilation into the Christian pantheon was officially defined as an "evil spirit" by most contemporary theologians. In this context, any dealings with such spirits were theoretically a betrayal, or in other words, "renunciation" of the true faith. Such a negative equation was intensified by the fact that fairies, on their part, were often considered hostile towards Christianity. An anecdote recorded in Scotland at the beginning of the eighteenth century describes how a brownie was displeased when his master read the Bible (Martin 1970, 392). Robert Kirk describes this fairy hostility in more detail, claiming that the fairies have:

no discernible Religion, Love, or Devotione towards God the Blessed Maker
of all. They disappear whenever they hear his name invocked, or the name of
Jesus ... nor can they act ought at that time, after hearing of that Sacred
Name (Sanderson 1976, 56).

Many early modern individuals must have been aware, to a greater or lesser degree, of these mutual hostilities, and if they wished to avail themselves of fairy powers they must have circumnavigated this problem in some way. Their solutions may not have differed greatly from those used in later centuries by people who believed in fairies. In the nineteenth century, for example, when at sea, fishermen on the Moray Firth:

would never mention such words as Church or manse or minister. Any
utterance suggestive of the new faith would be displeasing to the ancient
god of the ocean, and might bring disaster upon the boat (McPherson 1929,

By their silence the fishermen were, for the duration of their journey, making a superficial show of putting aside their Christian allegiances in return for the protection and goodwill of "the ancient god of the ocean." It is not difficult to imagine how, in a different century and different context, this and other types of diplomacy towards non-Christian powers could have been interpreted as a direct renunciation of Christianity. In 1670 Edinburgh witch Jean Weir claimed that she had performed a simple ritual at the bidding of "ane little woman" (almost certainly a fairy) in order that all her "cross and trubles goe to the door." Jean also claimed that she had given the woman silver and subsequently discovered that she had gained miraculous spinning powers. This discovery, however:

did so affright the declarant, that she did set bye her wheile, and did
shut the door, and did stay within her house for the space of twentie dayes
or thereby, and was exceedinglie trubled, and weeped becaus she thought
what she had done in manner forsaid was in effect the renuncing of her
baptisme (Law 1818, 27. My italics).

It is possible that many overt renunciations found in confessions for witchcraft mask the more implicit renunciations common to those negotiating with the fairies. Whoever recorded the confession of Essex witch Elizabeth Francis in 1566, as it appears in a pamphlet, wrote that Elizabeth was advised by her grandmother to "renounce God and His word, and to give of her blood to Satan (as she termed it)" (Rosen 1991, 74). The bracketed phrase "as she termed it" strongly suggests that Elizabeth's version of events may have been rephrased into something more demonologically coherent by either the prosecution or the pamphleteer. The argument for the implicit renunciation, of course, also strengthens the case for the explicit. To entertain the possibility that some individuals may have openly verbalised the normally tacit renunciation, particularly in the context of a believed visual encounter, is not unreasonable. In 1588 Alesoun Peirsoun of Fifeshire claimed that "thair come ane man to hir, cled in grene clathis, quha said to hir, `Gif scho wald be faithfull, he wald do hir guid"' (Pitcairn 1833, 1:163). Alesoun only needed to say "yes" and we easily have, according to prosecutorial perception at least, an explicit renunciation.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:40 AM
Comparison with fairy beliefs can throw some light on two specific demands which, though sometimes found in Scottish sources, have been predominantly associated with the English animal familiar. The most notorious of these was the request for permission to suck the witch's blood. This demand, and the witch's agreement to it, became a stock indicator of the depraved relationship between the witch and her animal familiar. In 1646 for example, Huntingdonshire witch Ellen Shepheard claimed that four familiars in the shape of grey rats promised her "all happinesse" and that in return they demanded, among other things, to "have blood from her, which she granted, and thereupon they sucked her upon and about her hippes" (Davenport 1646, 9-10).

In later fairy sources there is evidence that some fairies were believed to suck human blood. Evans Wentz, for example, records a nineteenth-century anecdote from the Isle of Man:

At night the fairies came into a house in Glen Rushen to bake. The family
had put no water out for them; and a beggar-man ... heard the fairies say,
"We have no water, so we'll take blood out of the toe of the servant who
forgot our water." And from the girl's blood they mixed their dough (Evans
Wentz 1981, 127-8).
This belief was also found in Scotland of the period, Campbell recording that "the reason assigned for taking water into the house at night was that the Fairies would suck the sleeper's blood if they found no water to quench their thirst" (Campbell 1900, 20).

Although these examples are nineteenth-century Manx and Scottish, there is one relatively early witchcraft confession which suggests that a very similar belief was held in early modern Essex. [8] In 1582 Margery Sammon claimed that her mother had given her some animal familiars in a wicker basket (in the form of toads called "Tom" and "Robin") and instructed her on how to use them. The trial dittays state that her mother "bade her keep them and feed them. This examinate [Margery] asking `wherewithal?' her mother answered, `If thou dost not give them milk, they will suck of thy blood'" (Rosen 1991, 128). This witch's warning to her daughter about the dangers of familiars sounds little different to warnings likely to have been given by nineteenth-century Scottish or Manx parents to their children about the dangers of the fairies. It is noticeable that in a number of trial records the witch seems to express a reluctance to meet her familiar's bloodthirsty demands.

In The Secret Common-Wealth we find evidence of a different kind of link between the feeding habits of the fairies and the bloodlust of the familiar. Robert Kirk describes:

the damnable practise of Evil Angels, their sucking of blood and spirits
out of Witches bodys (till they drein them, into a deformd and dry
leanness) to feed their own Vehicles withal, leaving what wee call the
Witches mark behind (Sanderson 1976, 97).
Kirk's claim that the familiar sucks "blood and spirits" out of the witch is pertinent in the light of another passage in which he claims that fairies gained nourishment by piercing animals with elf-arrows and then sucking out "the aereal and aethereal parts, the most spirituous matter for prolonging of Lyfe ... leaving the Terrestriall behind" (ibid., 50 and 59-60. My italics). Although here Kirk mentions only animals being consumed by fairies in this way, earlier in the same passage he claims that humans can also be "pierced or wounded with those peoples weapon" (ibid., 59). [9] Contemporary trial records also contain references to humans having been "elf-shot." A later Scottish folktale in which three of four men who encounter a malevolent baobhain sith are reduced to "bloodless bodies" because it had "sucked them dry" resonates with descriptions of both familiar and fairy feeding habits (Robertson 1910, 262; also see Briggs 1976, 16).

Despite the sensationalism of promising the soul, renouncing Christianity, and sucking blood, the most common payment given to the English animal familiar (often in conjunction with payment in blood) was ordinary food. Sometimes familiars demanded what could be seen as some sort of sacrifice like a live chicken, however on a daily basis they generally required nothing more than a bowl of bread, milk, ale, water and so on. This tradition is particularly evident in trial records from the southeastern counties: Essex witch Elizabeth Francis claimed in 1566 that she had been given a familiar called "Satan ... in the likeness of a white spotted cat, and [that her grandmother] taught her to feed the said cat with bread and milk" and in 1582 another Essex witch Elizabeth Bennett claimed to possess two spirits "one called Suckin, being black like a dog, the other called Lierd, being red like a lion" and said that "many times they drank of her milk bowl." In the same region over eighty years later Margaret Moone was accused of feeding her "twelve impes" with "bread and beere" (Rosen 1991, 74 and 122-5; Howell 1816, 4:847-8 respectively). The familiar did not usually explicitly, verbally contract for this form of payment, but it seems to have underpinned the witch/familiar relationship, being employed on a continuous basis rather than in exchange for a particular deed done.

Many fairies were fed in precisely the same way. Like the familiar they were partial to the odd animal sacrifice, but most commonly expected simple foodstuffs in return for their services and goodwill. Substances such as ale or milk were often poured on springs, trees and rocks sacred to fairies, while bowls of bread, milk or water and suchlike were left in the kitchen overnight for the domestic hobman or visiting trooping fairies. Aubrey records that the fairies liked a "messe of milke sopt with white bread"; Robert Burton that they required "a pail of clean water, good victuals, and the like"; and Reginald Scot that the hobman Robin Goodfellow needed a "messe of white bread and milke." This food and drink was not usually verbally contracted for and seems to have been given on a regular basis, as it was to the familiar. According to Scot, Robin Goodfellow's "messe" of white bread and milk was his "standing fee" (Aubrey 1972, 203; Burton 1977, 193; Scot 1972, 48 respectively).

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:40 AM
It could be assumed that, no matter how many similarities can be identified between the fairy and the familiar, they emerged in the period as two distinct phenomena for one prominent reason--the fairy was believed capable of helping humans, while the familiar was believed to be only concerned with harming them. In relation to popular culture, however, the argument that it was by the moral nature of their actions that the familiar and the fairy could be clearly distinguished is untenable. Looking at their capacities and predilections for good and evil alone it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the familiar and the fairy.

There is considerable evidence from witches' confessions that many of the spirits defined there as familiars were believed capable of doing good. The familiar described by Dorsetshire witch John Walsh in 1566 (appearing "like a gray blackish culver, and sometime like a brended dog, and sometimes like a man in all proportions, saving that he had cloven feet") seems to have performed only beneficent acts, John claiming that it "serveth for no purpose but to search out things theft-stolen" (Rosen 1991, 70). Other familiars seem to have behaved in a more ambivalent manner, exhibiting a capacity for harm but nevertheless performing many beneficent acts. Scottish witch Agnes Sampson confessed in 1590 that her familiar (described variously as a dog and a man and whom she seems to have invoked by calling "Elva") taught her how to perform malevolent magic and encouraged her to help him raise winds in order to cause shipwrecks. However, Agnes was also a healer of some repute, and she maintained that in the process of curing the sick she "sought her haill responses" from this same familiar (Normand and Roberts forthcoming). Even those familiars accused of great malevolence could sometimes be seen to perform some good, even if it was only towards the witch herself. In 1566 Essex witches Elizabeth Francis and Agnes Waterhouse claimed that the largely malevolent familiar they shared found time, for example, to kill one of Agnes's hogs for her and bring sheep into Elizabeth's pasture (Rosen 1991, 74-82). The fact that the familiar was believed capable of beneficence was not lost on elite commentators, who considered the familiar's affability a deception. The preface to the pamphlet documenting the trial of the Windsor witches in 1579 laments that:

the fondness and ignorance of many is such that they succour those devilish
imps, have recourse to them for the health of themselves or others, and for
things lost, calling them by the honorable name of "wise women." Wherein
they know not what honour they do to the devil (ibid., 84).

The early modern fairy, conversely, was clearly considered capable of malevolence. Fairy nature was believed to span the moral spectrum: some being completely malicious, to be avoided by humans at all costs, and others (a tiny minority) being totally benign. The majority of fairies however (including most of the rather inaccurately named "good" fairies), were considered to be morally ambivalent, capable of both virtue and evil in varying proportions. Scottish fairies were generally believed to be more prone to malice than the English, Kirk recording that "they are ever readiest to go on hurtfull earands, but seldom will be the Messengers of great good to men" (Sanderson 1976, 56). Fairies were associated with a wide range of human misfortunes, and the commonest of these were generally indistinguishable from those misfortunes which were most frequently associated with the familiar i.e. sickness and death (in animals and humans) and the disruption of domestic and farming processes. The domestic hobman, for example, despite being one of the fairies most intimate with man, was notorious for being touchy; later sources suggest that, like the familiar, he was particularly feared outside his own home and quite capable of helping his human master at the expense of someone else (Briggs 1976, 45-9). It was fear of inciting the malicious aspect of the domestic hobman's nature which made their "standing fee" of bread and milk often seem more like an insurance policy.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:41 AM
It would not be unreasonable to argue, on the basis of this brief look at early modern fairy beliefs, that in popular culture of the period it was considered both logical and beneficial for an individual to believe that they fostered a close and contractual relationship (whether non-visual or, less commonly, visual) with a supernatural entity which was often ready to do harm, frequently hostile to Christianity, and theoretically had the potential to appropriate the human soul and, in some cases, suck human blood. From this perspective it would seem likely that whatever role elite ideas may have played in the creation and promulgation of the familiar stereotype they were affiliating themselves to a coherent and dynamic matrix of indigenous folk beliefs. By the same token, the fact that the believed relationship between witch and familiar corresponded so closely to this relatively ubiquitous and (on a popular level) culturally conservative matrix of fairy belief suggests that psychological analyses of the phenomenon offered by some scholars (that the familiar beliefs of the general population were sourced in a paranoid sensationalism fuelled by elite demonology and that the witch's supposed relationship with her familiar was pathological, stemming from her mental instability) are far too simplistic. Finally, the extent of the similarities listed between familiar and fairy on a popular level prompts one to question how far the familiar actually existed as a phenomenon separate from the fairy in both the popular and elite mind. The concluding part of this paper will attempt to enlarge upon these points by suggesting some ways in which familiar and fairy beliefs may have interacted in the period.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:42 AM
According to elite demonological theory, the familiar was completely malicious, and when looking for its closest fairy counterpart one might expect to find it in the wholly malevolent fairy. As we have seen, however, on a popular level the familiar possessed far more in common with the ambivalent fairies than with the purely malevolent ones. It is the ambivalence of such fairies, and the way that the popular mind accommodated this ambivalence, which gives us some insights into the interface between familiar and fairy beliefs.

The ambivalent fairy was believed to shift from benign to malicious because it was angered or mistreated in some way. People consequently took pains to avoid fairy displeasure, and their efforts to please the capricious spirits could be rewarded with great loyalty, particularly from the intimate hobman. Katharine Briggs wrote of the brownie (as found in both early modern and later sources) that "where he was well treated ... and his whims respected, a brownie would be wholly committed to the interests of his master" (Briggs 1976, 47). This comment suggests that, like a devoted dog who attacks anyone its owner orders it to, the well-nurtured brownie would conform to its master's desires, whatever their direction. This "litmus paper" quality of the fairy nature is well expressed in this popular rhyme which, although recorded in the early nineteenth century, is likely to be much older:

Gin ye ca' me imp or elf,
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca' me fairy,
I'II work ye muckle tarrie;
Gin guid neibour ye ca' me;
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca' me seelie wicht,
I'II be you freend baith day and nicht
(Chambers 1870, 324).

The implication is that the definition of the spirit was up to the human. In other words, the human could choose to employ the same fairy to either good or evil ends, suggesting that it was the moral position of the spirit's user, rather than that of the spirit itself, which determined the spirit's moral status at any given time. Many comments in witches' confessions suggest that something like this may have been the case. In 1619 Leicestershire witch Joan Willimot confessed of her fairy familiar that "neither did she employ her spirit in anything but only to bring word how those did which she had undertaken to cure." The fact that Joan pointed out that she had "only" employed her spirit to perform beneficent acts suggests that Joan may have assumed that, were her intentions less benign, she could have employed the spirit to do harm. It is notable that in many trial records, rather than offering its services specifically to do harm, the familiar offers to serve the witch in more general terms. For example, it might promise "to do what she would command," "do for her what she would have him to do," tell her that "she should have anything that she would request" or claim to "lerne her to ken and sie ony thing she wald desyre" (Davenport 1646, 12; Rosen 1991, 76 and 358; Black and Thomas 1903, 112 respectively). Familiars' offers of freedom from want, a living, or even riches, like similar offers from fairies, were not in themselves to be as morally questionable: in order that the human might achieve those ends, the familiar or fairy put its powers at their disposal and it is possible that immorality only entered the equation if the witch or cunning woman chose to employ those powers in a negative way.

Defining a spirit by the moral status of its human "master," however, would not have been a simple matter in the early modern period. Although some magical practitioners may have been considered wholly malevolent or wholly good, it is evident that many were considered ambivalent as their supernatural allies. Defining such a woman's moral nature would have depended upon the way her actions were interpreted both by herself and others, and these interpretations would have been very subjective. An act which was considered good by one individual may have been considered bad by another. In 1590 Scottish witch Agnes Sampson was sentenced to be burnt as a witch, however she had clearly been practising as a cunning woman and was locally known as the "wise wife of Keith" (Law 1818, xxxvii). When a woman came to Agnes complaining that a man had "done her great wrong" Agnes claimed to have obliged her by employing maleficium against the man (Normand and Roberts, forthcoming). It is highly likely that although Agnes's legal prosecutors condemned the act, others in her community, including of course the client, may have judged the act differently, bearing in mind that it was performed in a culture where revenge, the ancient form of justice, was still considered honourable despite the availability of the law and the teachings of the Church. A more straightforward and self-centred ambivalence was exhibited by Orkney witch Jonet Rendall, who claimed in 1629 that her familiar spirit, "Walliman," told her that:

thair was nather man nor beast seik that wer not deadlie be the hand of God
bot she getting almiss and praying to Walliman he would haill thame, and if
she got no almiss he wald be angrie and mak thair beastis die (Black and
Thomas 1903, 108-9).

It is quite possible that throughout her social career such a woman would have moved up and down the good/bad continuum depending on how her acts were judged by her neighbours and overlords. When seen to perform beneficent acts, she would have been defined as a "good cunning woman": but when performing malevolent acts, she would have been defined as a "bad cunning woman." The distinction between "bad cunning woman" and "witch" must have been a small one, if it existed at all. According to this hypothesis, whatever the definition of the cunning woman, her fairy familiar would have been tarred with the same brush. A good cunning woman's spirit would have been seen as a fairy familiar employed to do good, and a bad cunning woman's spirit as a fairy familiar employed to do harm. The distinction between "fairy familiar employed to do harm" and "witch's familiar" must have been as fine as the distinction between bad cunning woman and witch. Whatever the definition of a given spirit on a popular level, however, if and when circumstances conspired to bring its mistress to the dock and define her as a witch before a prosecuting elite, the fairy's transformation into the wholly malicious stereotypical demonic familiar could easily have become complete. The woman's perception of herself and her fairy helpers could also then have shifted to correspond with community or prosecutorial perceptions. Such a shift is suggested in the plaintive comment made by Margaret Flower, who was tried and convicted as a witch in Leicestershire in 1619. In reference to a confused meeting with her three familiars (named Rutterkin, Little Robin and Spirit) and a fourth spirit in the middle of the night in Lincoln jail, Margaret claimed that "she never mistrusted them nor suspected herself till then" (Rosen 1991, 382).

Early modern popular (and to a lesser degree elite) culture was still considerably influenced by a magical, essentially monist, conception of life; people would have been more comfortable with the idea of ambivalence in both people and spirits than contemporary Christian teachings might suggest. Pragmatic individuals must have accepted that certain spirits and cunning women had the capacity to act in ways which could deliberately or arbitrarily help or harm them, and have attempted to manipulate them in whatever way was necessary to ensure that they would be the recipient of good rather than bad fortune. The ambivalence of the fairy or cunning woman may not have seemed very different to that displayed by the Christian God and his entourage, whose capacity to punish must often have seemed as great as his capacity to bless.

The same tolerance of contradiction enabled such people to make use of a spirit which was theoretically hostile to Christianity, whilst still believing themselves to be Christians. Such a paradox was inadvertently supported by Church and state. Most theologians officially condemned fairies as demons and yet fairy belief was often tolerated by clergymen on a parish level. Similarly, an Elizabethan statute made the invocation of evil spirits for any purpose a felony, and this was reinforced (to include, among other things, the keeping and feeding of familiar spirits) in the statute of 1604 (Rosen 1991, 23); however, in some courtrooms, especially in the beginning of the period, those who supposedly confessed to such things were allowed to walk free. [10]

Trial records reflect these contradictions. Alongside standard renunciations of Christianity it is not uncommon to find detailed Christian prayers or charms (usually of Catholic origin) which the witch claims to have used for healing purposes, sometimes believing that they had been taught to her by a fairy or familiar. We also find angels and familiars serving the Queen of the Fairies, fairies and familiars serving God and/or urging the witch to a better Christian faith, and even familiars who are called "Jesus" and invoked by calling "Come Christ" (Howell 1816, 4:847-9).

The mental outlooks which generated such ideological hybridisations can only be surmised. The evidence suggests that for those with a particularly obscure grasp of Christian teaching the cosmos would have been peopled by a medley of supernatural figures, of both Christian and pre-Christian origin, with little or no discrimination being made between them, either morally or ontologically. Of those individuals who were conscious of the official antipathies between fairy and Church, many are likely to have mastered the arts of diplomacy, using, and in effect pledging allegiance to, each side in turn or even at the same time. The religious confusions wrought by the Reformation, as Keith Thomas has shown so clearly in Religion and the Decline of Magic, would only have served to encourage such duplicity. It is easy to see how some individuals, struggling to survive in a harsh world, could have clung to any supernatural agency which promised to improve their condition, not caring to question its provenance or moral status too deeply. Ayrshire witch Bessie Dunlop claimed in 1576 to have encountered the ghost/fairy man/familiar Thom Reid when she was in great distress and poverty, her husband and child being sick and herself "at ane waik [weak] point." She was frightened ("sumthing fleit") of the spirit, and yet you can almost hear the weary desperation in her voice as she finally responds to his offer of help, saying that she "wald trow [trust] in ony bodye did her gude" (Pitcairn 1833, 1:52). Similarly the confession of Scottish witch/cunning woman Issobell Haldane in 1623 indicates that, although Issobell was uncertain which spiritual agency had been responsible for carrying her to fairyland several years before (being "taikin furth, quhidder be God or the Deuill, scho knawis nocht"), she nevertheless employed the services of the "man with ane gray beird" whom she met there as a familiar spirit (Pitcairn 1833, 2:537).

A cunning woman stepping out from this ambiguous world of peasant belief into the reductionistic glare of the law courts would have had little chance of escaping the charge of covenanting with Satan. Even if she did not already consider herself to be negotiating with a fairy which could be a familiar which could be a devil which could be the Devil, it would not have been too difficult for an angry community or zealous prosecutor to persuade her that it was so.