The Divining Familiar

The essence of this familiar is that it did not belong to the witch but was an animal which appeared accidentally after the performance of certain magical ceremonies. Forbes puts this quite clearly when describing the contract: 'The Devil on his Part articles with such Proselytes, concerning the Shape he is to appear to them in, the Services they are to expect from him, upon the Performance of certain Charms or ceremonious Rites.'[1] From this statement and from the facts revealed in the trials it would seem that the Devil appointed to the witch, on her admission, some kind of animal or animals by which she should divine, and which therefore represented himself for the time being, for he claimed the power, as God, to know and reveal the future. This explanation accounts for the fact that the witches always spoke of such animals as the Devil and believed that they could foretell the future by his means. The actual method of divination is

not preserved; all that remains of the ceremony are the words and gestures which were used before the appearance of the animal, and these only in few cases. The method was probably such as obtained in other places where auguries by animals and birds were practised, i.e. by the direction and pace of the animal, by its actions, by its voice if it emitted any sound, and so on. The method of making such observations and of translating them when made was part of the instruction given to the witch by the Devil; and was usually employed to discover whether a person were bewitched, the ultimate result of an illness, and the length of life of any given person.

In 1566 John Walsh, of Netherberry in Dorset, who 'knoweth when anye man is bewytched, sayth vpon his oth, that his Familiar would sometyme come vnto hym lyke a gray blackish Culuer, and somtime like a brended Dog, and somtimes lyke a man'.[1] In 1590 Agnes Sampson, the 'wise wife' of Keith, was

'fylit and convict, that the Dewill apperit to hir in liknes of ane dog, att quhom she socht her haill responsis that quhene sche wes send for to haill the auld Lady Edmestoune, quhene sche lay seik, befoir the said Agnes departit, sche tauld to the gentilwemene, that sche sould tell thame that nycht quhidder the Lady wald haill or nocht; and appointit thame to be in the gardin efter supper, betuix fyve and sax att ewin. Sche passit to the gairdene, to devyise vpoun hir prayer, one quhat tyme sche chargeit the Dewill, calling him "Elva", to cum and speik to hir, quha come in owir the dyke, in liknes of ane dog, and come sa neir to hir, that sche wes effrayit, and chargeit him "on the law that he lewit on", to cum na neirar, bot to ansuer hir; and sche demandit, Quhidder the lady wald leif or nocht. He said, "Hir dayes war gane." Than he demandit, "Gif the gentilwemen hir dochteres, quhair thay wer?" And sche said, that "the gentilwemen said, that thay war to be thair". He ansuerit, "Ane of thame sould be in perrell, and that he sould haif ane of thame." Sche ansuerit, "It sould nocht be sa", and swa departit fra hir zowling. Fra this tyme quhill eftir supper, he remanit in the wall [well]. Quhen the gentilwemen come in, the dog come out of the wall, and apperit to thame; quhairatt thay wer effrayit. In the mene tyme, ane of the said gentilwemen, the Lady Torsenze, ran to the wall, being forceit and drawin by the Devill, quha wald

[1. Examination of John Walsh.]

haif drownit hir, war nocht the said Agnes and the rest of the gentilwemen gatt ane gryp of hir, and with all hir [their?] forceis drew hir abak agane, quhilk maid thame all effrayd. The dog passit away thaireftir with ane zowle.'[1]

Margerat Clarke, like Agnes Sampson a midwife of great reputation, was tried at Aberdeen in 1597 for witchcraft, in that, being sent for to a case

'and ane Androw Mar cuming for the, the Devill thy maister, quhome thow seruis, and quha techis the all this vytchcraft and sorcerie, apperit to the, in the licknes of ane horss, in ane how and den, and spak and conferrit with the a lang speace. [Being sent for to another case] and the said guidman of Kincragie sendand his awin best horss, with ane boy of his awin, to bring the to his wyiff; and the said boy on horse cuming to the, and thow beand on the horss behind the boy, att thy awin dure, thy maister Satane, the Dewill, apperit in the licknes of ane gray staig, and convoyit the and the boy fra thy awin houss to Kincragie, and keipit cumpanie all the way with you, with quhome thow haid thy secreitt conference. Vpone Nwris [New-year's] day, thow was att the loche syid besyid Boigloche, and thair thow pudlit be ane lang speace, thy selff alane, in ane deip holl amongis the watter, castand watter, erd and stone oure thi schowlderis, and thair was besyid the thy maister the Deuill, quhome thow seruis, in the licknes of ane hen flichterincg, with quhome thow was thane consultand, and quhais directiounis than thow was taikand.'[2]

In Derbyshire in 1597, 'Whereas Alice Gooderige said her familiar was like one William Gregories dog of Stapenhill, there arose a rumor, his dog was her familiar: Wherefore hee with his neighbour maister Coxe went the next day to examin her concerning this report; and she saide, my diuel (I say) was like your dog. Now out vpon thee (saide Gregorie) and departed: she being further examined, saide she had her familiar of her mother.'[3] Alexander Hamilton, tried at Edinburgh in 1630, confessed that

'haifing ane battoun of fir in his hand the devill than gave the said Alexr command to tak that battoun quhan evir he had ado with him and thairwt to strek thruse upone the ground and to nhairge him to ruse up foule theiff Conforme to

the whilk directioun and be streking of the said battone thryse upone the ground the devill was in use sumtymes to appeir to the said Alex in the liknes of ane corbie at uther tymes in the schape of ane katt and at uther tymes in the schape of ane dog and thereby the said Alexr did ressave reponsis frome him. The said Alexr Hamiltoun coming to the said Thomas Homes house and seing him visseit with the said seiknes declairit to him that he was bewitchet and promeist to cure him thereof Lykas for this effect the said Alexr schortlie thereftir past to clarkingtoun burne besyde the rottoneraw haifing ane katt under his okister and thair wt his said battoun raisit Sathan his maister quha than appeirit to him in the liknes of ane corbie and thair instructit him be quhat meanis he sould cure the said Thomas of his said seiknes and he haifing ressauit that respons fra the devill the said Alexr thereftir cuist to him the kat quha therewt vanischet away.'[1]

Two of the Somerset witches in 1664 had familiars; to Elizabeth Style the familiar came as a black dog, 'and when she hath a desire to do harm, she calls the Spirit by the name of Robin, to whom when he appeareth, she useth these words, O Sathan give me my purpose. She then tells him what she would have done. And that he should so appear to her was part of her Contract with him. Alice Duke saith, that when the Devil doth any thing for her, she calls for him by the name of Robin, upon which he appears, and when in the shape of a Man, she can hear him speak.'[2] This shows that the familiar, or Devil as she called him, was not always in the form of a man. The trial of Margaret Nin-Gilbert at Thurso was as late as 1719: 'Being interrogat, If ever the devil appeared afterwards to her? Confessed, That sometimes he appeared in the likeness of a great black horse, and other times riding on a black horse, and that he appeare sometimes in the likeness of a black cloud, and sometimes like a black henn.'[3]

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