Size / / /

No witch is complete without her black cat.

Macbeth's weird sisters call upon Paddock, Harpier, and Grimalkin, traditionally a toad, an owl, and a cat, in the first scene of the play. These three canonical animals have entered the "mythology" of magic, along with the term to describe them, familiars or familiar spirits, so much so that it's hard to imagine modern magical fiction without the idea. For instance, T.H. White gave his Merlin an owl, Archimedes (unlike the Merlin of older stories).

To take a perhaps more familiar example, they're everywhere in the Harry Potter series. They've been tamed somewhat in the Rowling tradition, made into pets without serious magical talents of their own, and given, for the most part, human names (Errol, Hedwig) or mythological names (Hermes). Rowling has the gift of names, and a few of her animals do have amazingly evocative monikers -- Crookshanks, for instance, with its Dickensian evocation of physical characteristics, and Pigwidgeon, which evokes both a minor fairy, and a sense of whimsical flight.

The name "Pigwidgeon," originally coming from thieves' cant, is also similar to the name of the fairy knight Pigwiggen in William Drayton's 1627 "Nymphidia." There's something about the name that evokes a sense of wonder that feels "right," which is perhaps why Pigwidgeon has already become a popular character among fans. Through this article, I want to discuss why "Pigwidgeon" feels right, by tracing the history of the idea of the familiar and the effect of a name on the imagination.

A short history of the familiar

Before the late 1500s, animals weren't closely linked to the practice of magic. Magicians were known to be able to command spirits, and to use these spirits to allow themselves to perform great acts; but the spirits were bound in objects like rings or necklaces. King Solomon was famous for his spirit-binding prowess, and two books, the so-called "Greater" and "Lesser" Keys of Solomon, circulated during the early Renaissance, purporting to list the true names of various entities which could then be called upon by an enterprising wizard to accomplish various goals. Although spirits could be called down to appear in animal forms, so as not to injure the summoner with their baleful or overwhelmingly splendid appearance, they didn't spend a lot of time in animal form.

It took a goodly amount of time for the idea of the familiar to creep into the common imagination. In 1486, with the witch-hunting craze in full bloom, the clinical, horrible book Malleus Maleficarum ("The hammer of witches") was written by the German monks Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, who had been deputed by Pope Innocent VIII as "inquisitors of heretical pravity." A manual for witch-hunters, the Malleus lays out in great detail both dogma and practical tips for Inquisitors.

While the Malleus does mention an incident in Strasbourg where witches assumed the shape of cats to harass a workman, and relates a story wherein a wicked Satanist spits out her communion wafer into a pot with a toad in it in order to make magic with the ensuing "dust," that's it for the animals usually associated with magic. No owls, and no conception that witches had a relationship with particular animals.

In fact, the familiar was mostly a British and Scottish contribution to witch lore. The first incidence of the term "familiar spirit," meaning a servant entity (from the Latin famulus) comes in 1565, and the term pops up in various British witch trials. In one of the earliest trials, three witches, Elizabeth Francis, Agnes Waterhouse, and Joan Waterhouse, were accused in 1563 with worshipping the devil in the form of a cat; the devil later turned into a toad. While in these animal forms, the devil fed from the blood of the witch. The idea of a demonic animal feeding on the witch's blood continues throughout the English and Scottish tradition, even up to the royals.

James VI of Scotland and the witches

King James VI of Scotland blamed witches for two unlucky sea voyages and an assassination attempt. His bride-to-be, Anne of Denmark, was prevented from reaching Scotland's shores in 1589; and he himself encountered heavy storms at sea in 1590. Overseeing a trial of the witches "responsible," he became convinced that they were plotting to kill him with wax dolls and sympathetic magic.

In response, he became an avid witch hunter, even publishing his own treatise, Daemonologie, on the subject. Within its pages, James uses the word familiar, although in its old sense, saying of witches: "that they can suddenly [have] brought unto them, al kindes of daintie disshes, by their familiar spirit: Since as a thiefe he delightes to steale and as a spirite, he can subtilie and suddenlie inough transport the same."

James also links witches to certain types of animals, which are forms that the Devil takes to tempt them into misdeeds: "For as to the formes, to some of the baser sorte of them he oblishes him selfe to appeare at their calling upon him, by such a proper name which he shewes unto them, either in likenes of a dog, a Catte, and Ape, or such-like other beast; or else to answere by a voyce onlie." The "proper names" that these animals use are unusual ones, used to confuse the unwary, who do not realize that they're dealing with the devil when he uses a clever pseudonym.

It's because of James that the bizarre names of these creatures became known to us all. Macbeth was written to cater to James' tastes, after he became James I of England. The mythical progenitor of the House of Stuart, Banquo, comes off very well in the play, and Shakespeare works some prophetic praise of the Stuart kings of his day into the text. The witchy scenes, including a passage involving Hecate and possibly lifted from another popular play, seem perfectly suited for a king with an interest in the occult. So Greymalkin, a name to conjure with, enters the popular argot, due to the fascination of a witch-hunting monarch and an eager-to-please playwright. A showman of a different, more sinister sort also helped popularize the familiar.

Matthew Hopkins and the Third teat

Matthew Hopkins was known as the "Witchfinder General." During the years from 1644-1647, he instituted a succession of high-profile witch trials throughout England that resulted in the deaths of more people for witchcraft in two years than the entire century before his beginning. According to some accounts, he made as much as a thousand pounds for his efforts, being paid by various municipalities to rid them of the scourge of witchcraft, in the midst of the puritan fervor of the English Civil War.

Hopkins operated through a combination of theatrical methods and effective psychological torture: he deprived his suspects of sleep in order to gain a confession, and also engaged in the lurid occupation of searching for a "devil's teat." A common practice in continental witch-hunting was to look for the "devil's mark," a patch of skin which was rendered numb or decayed by the devil, as a tangible mark that the witch had forfeited her soul. Hopkins took this a step further: instead of looking for a mere numb patch, he would search for an "extra teat" which the witch would use to suckle a demon familiar. The familiar would often take the form of a common barnyard animal, or even an insect. It consumed the blood and flesh of its mistress through this third teat. No doubt his public searches for strange growths on women's nude bodies added to the lurid appeal of his spectacular trials.

Hopkins worked in a time when the pamphlet was an effective and ubiquitous tool, and he printed his own pamphlet "The Discovery of Witches, for the benefit of the whole kingdome." Among the amusing portions, like the passage where he explains how to distinguish a devil's teat from a hemorrhoid, is a vivid section on the witch's familiars.

Matthew Hopkins Witch Finder Generall

A suspected witch, who had been kept without sleep for four days, called out for her familiars, telling them which shape to appear in. These shapes included

"Holt, who came in like a white kittling.
Farmara who came in like a fat spaniel without any legs at all
Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg'd Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe
Sack and Sugar, like a black Rabbet
Newes, like a Polecat."

But after these relatively prosaic beasts came a splendid batch of Imps whose names were "Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizel Greedigut, &c, which no mortal could invent." The sheer nonsense nature of these names suggested to Hopkins that only the Devil could've come up with them, probably, as James suggested, to fool the gullible witches into thinking that they were not dealing with dark forces.

Some of these names have lived on. Grizel Greedigut has served as the basis for characters in the movie Ghoulies and a great panther in some fiction surrounding Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher." Pyewacket hit the big time, though. From a British folk band (with extra "t" at the end) to some restaurants to a boating firm, Pyewacket is a relatively common name.

It was Pyewacket[t] that started me off on this jaunt through witchcraft. Years ago, I'd run into a couple of people who used it as their online alias, and after spotting a reference to Hopkins' "Discovery" I couldn't believe that an ancient term from an obscure witchcraft book had resonance in the present day. The familiar, I suggest, has taken off from James' and Hopkins' gobbledygook names. The movie Bell, Book, and Candle used the name Pyewacket for its familiar, bringing itself back to the source; but the splendid job that the author did naming its creation allowed for the popularity of the creature.

Evidence for the ubiquity of the idea comes with a similar theme in the musical "Cats," which was based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Eliot gives each of his cats a splendid, obscure name, "a name that's particular,/ A name that's peculiar, and more dignified [?] Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,/ Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum -- / Names that never belong to more than one cat." But above and beyond that, there is the mystical, "effable/ Effanineffable/ Deep and inscrutable singular Name" which no human can ever find out. Once an idea, such as the one that cats have odd, inscrutable names, enters a popular musical, you know it's become folk wisdom.

It's hard to find a reference to the idea that the familiar is an evil spirit in animal form; these days, they're just benevolent helper figures, and gone also is the idea of the devil's teat by which they gain sustenance. Instead, they eat like any other beast. But they remain vital in the popular imagination, unlike other aspects of the witchcraft tradition (the third teat, for instance) that have not made it to the present day.

Names, familiar and unfamiliar, in science fiction and fantasy

The power of the fantasy name remains with us today. With the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, I expect to meet lots of young Legolases and Arwens in a few years. Of course, this isn't a new phenomenon: I went to college with a Tirian Strider (whose family mixed their authors; tsk tsk!) and a Mary Luthien. And, of course, to bring us back to cats, I now know a cat named Valia, after Tolkien's word for divine authority.

Tolkien's creation of an evocative new language opened the path for naming things after him, not just because of the way his names tripped off the tongue (or klunked; it's just hard to say "Finarfin" without grimacing) but because of their evocation of a shadowy realm, because of their distance from reality, the sense of unearthliness and imagination.

It's a plane that fantasy regularly reaches for and rarely grasps. Ever since Tolkien hit it big writers have been imitating him, and we have this to thank for a lot of the pseudo-elvish floating around the web, or incorporated into the Dungeons and Dragons mythology. It's hard to name an elven character without acknowledging Tolkien's naming conventions.

But even well before Tolkien, fantasy authors went for the name-estrangement effect. David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus takes a Bunyanesque approach with oddball names like Maskull, Nightspore, Panawe, and Spadevil. In The Worm Ourobouros, E.R. Eddison features Lord Goldry Bluszco, Lord(!) Spitfire, and the Gorice family. Lord Dunsany, a master of the lyric, features the title character Lirazel, Alveric, the witch Ziroonderel, and the troll Lurulu in The King of Elfland's Daughter.

Fantasy novels nowadays have a tough line to walk: too close to a fantastic world brings them into Tolkien-parody territory; and too close to reality means that they lose the Pyewackettish gift of whimsy. A common alternative includes changing common names just slightly to make them other (Le Guin's Ged, for instance).

The robot, on the other hand, has never attained that elevated state of naming so common in fantasy literature. There are a few baroque exceptions, such as Iain Banks' ship nomenclature in his Culture novels, but there's nothing evocative that's burst out into the public. Perhaps it's because the most famous early literary and cinematic presentations of robots gave them prosaic names; there was no tradition of imagination to fall back on. In Karel Capek's "R.U.R.," the first occurrence of the term, the robots have classical names like Sulla, Marius, and Helen. In Lang and Harbou's Metropolis, the robot never gets a name, but she's called Maria after the woman she resembles. The most famous later robots have been named Robbie and H.A.L.

Perhaps the best evidence that there is no "mythology of robots" is the trouble, or alternately the freedom, that computer technicians have in naming their machines. Anything is an appropriate name for a server or a computer; it can be an object, a person, a historical event, or an in-joke.

In this result, I think, something has been lost. There is no easy way to invoke the figure of the robot with the power of a word. There is no Pyewacket for the robot, nor even a Pigwidgeon.

And that is a shame.


Copyright © 2003 Fred Bush

Reader Comments

Fred Bush is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.

Further reading

Some websites that I found useful while preparing this article:

Fred Bush was Senior Articles Editor at Strange Horizons.
Current Issue
18 Sep 2023

Ama’s arm rested protectively around the girl’s shoulder as the giant bird glided above, its head angling right to left. Violet-black wings soared across a cloudless sky, blocking the sun’s midday rays and swathing sections of the village in deep shadow. Given its size, this argentavis was one of her first, but too far above for her to differentiate by name. Even across the distance, Ama could feel its heartbeat synced to hers, their lives intertwined until death.
She is leaving the world that is pink with desire, on her gray cardboard rocket ship.
Issue 11 Sep 2023
Issue 4 Sep 2023
Issue 28 Aug 2023
Issue 21 Aug 2023
Issue 14 Aug 2023
Issue 7 Aug 2023
Issue 31 Jul 2023
Issue 24 Jul 2023
Issue 17 Jul 2023
Issue 10 Jul 2023
Load More
%d bloggers like this: