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On Familiars

(From Mage Alys Kinnear's forward to On the Elevation of Species, by Wizard Hollis Ellister)

Familiars are a fascinating subject, about which many, many scholarly works have been written. And yet, I suspect that most of the people who wrote those treatises, studies and textbooks never had a familiar of their own. They are, every last one, singularly cold and formal works, leaning heavily towards the theory and practical aspects of the magic that binds familiars to their owners…and never once addressing the profound depths of the bond itself.

When I was an apprentice, I studied the theory of the Familiar Binding spells and rituals extensively. The idea fascinated me to no end, and I had decided before I’d finished the second year of my apprenticeship that someday I was going to have a familiar. I discussed the matter with Jonathan Tremane, my master (and, later, step-father) at great length, and was not dissuaded by the idea of sharing my thoughts and emotions with another sentient creature.

I should note here to anyone who thinks the idea sounds frightening: it isn’t, and I’ve not regretted one moment of the bond I share with my beloved sisters.

But, as Jonathan pointed out to me more than once, every scholarly work must perforce begin with cold, hard facts. Therefore, when discussing familiars, a few questions need to be answered before we can get to the heart of the matter:

First, what is a familiar? Briefly – because this book will go into considerably greater detail later – a familiar is an animal (usually a mammal) which has, through magical means, been granted greater than normal intelligence and then bound to a spellcaster. Nearly every magical tradition around the world practices some form of the familiar magic, but none more profoundly than the Hermetic and Shamanistic traditions. Being a Hermetic wizard myself, I’ll be focusing on how we accomplish it.

Next, how does one prepare an animal to become a familiar? There’s actually a fairly large market for animals which have been prepared to be familiars, and the magic is sufficiently similar across traditions that familiar menageries can be found in almost any metropolitan area. But the spells themselves are complicated enough that most spellcasters never learn more than the theory behind them.

What the magic does sounds simple enough: It raises the animal’s intelligence to near-human levels (personally, I’m inclined to say that more than a few of the familiars I’ve met are as smart as or smarter than their owners) and molds their minds so that they want to be bound to a spellcaster.

Before you complain that such a thing sounds barbaric – bending the mind and heart of an animal to want to be bound to a human – I should note that the familiar magic doesn’t work on all animals. Of any given species, less than half of its members will be compatible with the elevation and binding spells. If an animal is incompatible – or, perhaps, if the animal genuinely doesn’t want it to happen – the spells simply fail and the animal is returned to the wild.

Finally, once the necessary spells have been cast and an animal has been prepared to become a familiar – a process referred to as priming – the method of binding them to a spellcaster is considerably easier. By the same mysterious elements which cause some animals to be completely incompatible with the familiar magic, a certain compatibility must exist between spellcaster and familiar for the magic to complete.

When that compatibility exists, an unbound familiar will be able to communicate telepathically with the spellcaster. I’ll never forget the moment when I met my Artemis, running down the Thames Docks in London trying to find someone to help her and her sister. Her eyes met mine from half a block away, and it was like an out of tune wireless broadcast suddenly connecting with a receiver – the reception wasn’t perfect, but good enough that she was able to communicate with me and I was able to understand her.

The permanent connection is made in a highly symbolic way, and was likely designed that way on purpose. The spellcaster collars the animal and marks the collar with their personal sigil…and thus the bond is solidified and made permanent. At that point, telepathic and empathic communication becomes effortless.

It’s a cold and impersonal description for a profound and life-changing event. I have often compared the moment when Athena and Artemis became my familiars to a blending together of three souls. We had been three separate beings…then we were one being with three independent minds and bodies. I can think of no better way to describe how close we are and how easy our relationship has been.

Familiars retain their personalities when they’re bound to a spellcaster, which is perhaps one of the deciding factors in which animal will be compatible with a given person. But they’ll also take on aspects of their owner’s personality, and more than a few people have taken on elements of their familiar’s personality. It strikes me as a perfectly natural extension of the magic that binds them together.

That brings us to Elevated familiars. The Elevation ritual is an extremely complex and potentially exhausting one for even a power spellcaster, which is why Elevated familiars aren’t as common as normal ones. On the street, perhaps one in twenty familiars will have been Elevated, and that’s in a heavily populated area.

The Elevation ritual raises the familiar up from being an animal into something very nearly human. The end result is usually a humanoid figure with some clearly defining animal traits. My Athena, for example, looks a great deal like me - but has a very fine layer of short snow leopard-patterned fur, a tail, cat ears, and slitted feline pupils. She also has retractable claws on her fingers and toes, and the soles of her feet are more like the pads of a cat’s paws than human soles.

Athena is unusual in that when I cast her Elevation ritual, she was in critical need of complex magical healing. As such, I poured quite a bit more Anima than usual into the ritual and had to work harder than normal to reshape her body. The end result is that – feline features aside – she and I look tremendously alike in body shape and facial features. Her eyes are even the same distinctive bright golden color as mine.

Most spellcasters are also thankful for the fact that the familiar spells and rituals bind the familiar’s life force to theirs. Why is that important? Because it allows the familiar to live the full span of their owner’s life. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, you’ve never even owned a pet. I, for one, am deeply grateful for the fact that I can count on Athena and Artemis being by my side until the day I die, however far in the future that may be.

I'm also told that the Elevation ritual deepens the bond between familiar and spellcaster profoundly. I suspect that this is largely anecdotal…it’s extremely unusual for a spellcaster to have more than one familiar, let alone one Elevated and one normal, so there’s not a large body of empirical data on the subject. Personally, I’ve never noticed my bond with Athena being any different than my bond with Artemis. Both are equally deep, allowing instantaneous communication and perfect understanding with no effort at all. I’ve spoken to my mother about her bond with Apollo, her snowy owl familiar, and her description of their bond sounds nearly identical to the bond I share with mine.

I suspect that what people mean is that there is a difference between the way you can relate to them. After all, an Elevated familiar has a considerably more human mindset, thought processes and vocabulary. Normal familiars naturally think more like animals and have a somewhat limited vocabulary, which can make them interesting to communicate with. As close as I am to both of my sisters, even I have to admit that there are times when I find it easier to relate to Athena, and she to me.

Mind you, that’s not to suggest that our bond is anything less than profound in and of itself. My familiars and I know one another more perfectly and intimately than I know anyone else in my life. It is tremendously hard for us to hide things from one another…not because it’s difficult to do (it isn’t, not really), but because doing so feels spectacularly unnatural. It’s like trying to hide something from yourself.

Which says a lot about the psychic bond that exists between familiar and spellcaster. It is, as I’ve indicated, difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. From a purely mechanical perspective, it allows the communication of thought, emotion and sensation instantaneously over a very long distance. I’ve known a wizard whose familiar was in another country (another unusual thing), and they could still communicate effortlessly and with perfect clarity, though the distance was apparently a mild strain on them both.

Any telepathic communication literally occurs at the speed of thought. Unless a conversation is more than a couple of sentences, it happens so quickly that most people wouldn’t be able to notice unless they were looking for non-verbal tell-tale signs. Likewise with emotions, and the sharing of sensations.

There is, of course, a downside to this. More than pleasant thoughts, emotions and sensations are shared, which can occasionally be very distracting. Pain can travel over the bond, which can be startling and – depending on its severity – even crippling. And while it isn’t possible to sever the bond while both familiar and spellcaster are alive, it is possible to disrupt and attenuate the bond to the point that communication becomes impossible.

Athena, Artemis and I had that happen to us once, and I can say without a doubt that it was one of the most deeply disorienting and disturbing experiences of my life. It made it incredibly hard to string coherent thoughts together for long. I’m told that training can alleviate the disorientation, and will be looking into that at my earliest convenience.

Which brings me to a discussion of the odd assortment of laws, legalities and unspoken societal mores regarding familiars. And there are many of both.

For example...Although Elevated familiars have the same social standing and obligations as their owners, they are still considered animals and legally the property of the spellcaster they're bound to. They aren't allowed to marry one another or humans (this may have something to do with the fact that the majority are - like most hybrid creatures - unable to reproduce), and while it's not actually illegal for a human to have a romantic relationship with one, it is frowned upon socially. In regions where very conservative religions hold sway, the 'sanctity of marriage' is frequently brought up as a reason, and some religions even prohibit the creation of Elevated familiars.

Based on delicately phrased conversations with some of my colleagues, it's not at all uncommon for spellcasters to...shall we say, 'experiment' with their Elevated familiars. Nor is it uncommon for an Elevated familiar to have a place in a romantic relationship between their owner and their owner's boyfriend/girlfriend.

There are a number of laws preventing the abuse of familiars, which seems redundant to me. I can't imagine anyone who owned a familiar being able to abuse them, since their owner would be able to feel the pain and distress caused by the abuse. As far as I know, those laws are rarely called into use. And since familiars are property, their owners are responsible for any damage they might do and can be held responsible for crimes committed by their familiars.

I'm given to understand this last was implemented because some unscrupulous spellcasters were getting around murder and grand theft charges by having their familiars do the deed.

It is perfectly legal - and accepted - for a properly bound familiar to act as proxy on behalf of their owner, especially Elevated familiars. It's a common sight to see animal familiars delivering documents and small packages, or picking up such things for their owners.

None of which is to say that familiars are considered the equals of humans. It pains me that to this day, most spellcasters consider their familiars - even Elevated familiars - to be little more than a close friend and companion, like a very loyal and fondly-viewed valet. There is a growing movement in Albion and Vinland which is pushing for Elevated Familiars to have legal status as intelligent beings equal to their owners, and not simply as an extension of their owners.

I am ashamed to admit that - at first - I treated my Athena and Artemis this way, even though I certainly didn't think of them that way. It's common for familiars to call their owner 'master' or 'mistress,' and I allowed mine to do that without giving it a second though. Likewise, I referred to them as 'pet' instead of by their names. Eventually, all three of us realized that it simply felt wrong to have that separation amongst us...Athena and Artemis are my equals, the sisters I never had, and I will never treat them any other way ever again.

That movement gains a little more momentum and support with every passing year.


Afterward - From a Familiar's Perspective

(The following piece was attached to Mage Kinnear's text. As it was written by her familiar, Athena, and speaks to a viewpoint and opinions rarely shared - and with Wizard Ellister's permission - we have included it as an afterward for completeness. We, the Archivists of the Hermetic Order of Wizardry, would like to note that many of the Elevated familiars amongst us share Athena's viewpoint, and we hope that someday their feelings may bring about a change for the better in mankind.)

After helping to edit Alys's forward to Wizard Ellister's treatise, On the Elevation of Species, I felt compelled to add my own thoughts and feelings on the subject. Artemis, true to her nature, shared my interest in doing so...for about as long as it took her to realize I wouldn't be writing specifically about cats. As I write, Artemis is dozing by the fireplace and Alys is downstairs talking to Wizard Ellister about our next job. In that way, amongst others, I feel that normal familiars have it easier than Elevated ones.

Being an Elevated familiar is a tremendous honor, and I would not give up that moment (however painful it was at the time) when Alys reshaped my body and mind for anything. Not only because she saved my life by doing so, but because it brought me closer to her in every way - and contrary to what she says the bond between us is deeply more profound than her bond (or mine) with Artemis.

But my big sister - for that is how I feel about her, though part of me will always think of her as 'mistress' - is, like most humans, exceedingly good at turning a blind eye to unpleasant truths about life. I do not hold this against her in any fact, after several years of observing humans as an Elevated familiar, I think it may be a defense mechanism of sorts, and an important one. A Briton author of whom I'm very fond once wrote, "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." Granted, he was speaking of dark, eldrich things from outside reality...but I think the sentiment can be applied to humanity's blindness to its own faults and failings as well.

In the forward to her treatise, my beloved Alys commented in passing on the way Elevated familiars are treated in certain communities, both religious and secular. She passes over it so briefly that it sounds of little import, but I think it needs to be expanded upon. As with most people who write about racism without it being directed at them, she sees only the surface effects. Again, I do not hold this against her - it is, as I said, a defense mechanism.

That said, let me begin with a statement which many may find surprising: As shocking as it is to be called an 'affront to God,' it is a difficult point of view to argue with...if one proceeds from an assumption that the person saying it subscribes to one of the belief systems which involve an all-powerful singular Creator, who elevated one species above all others and made them special.

Consider it from that perspective for a moment: the Creator has raised up your species - humanity - to be the special, dominant form of life in the world. Suddenly, here come spellcasters with the power to elevate animals and make them special too. It is undeniably the very definition of trespassing on the Creator's domain - what some refer to as blasphemy. I think some humans react so negatively towards familiars - Elevated familiars especially - because our existence makes them feel less special. It's the same reaction some deeply religious people have in relation to the science of evolution, just more blatant and obnoxious.

That said, belief in religion does not excuse discrimination in any manner - no more so against familiars than against a human born of another racial phenotype. Of course, that doesn't stop truly determined humans from making a spectacularly ill-advised effort to make the rest of their species look bad.

Before I'm accused of pointing a finger at religion, let me add that it's just as easy for humans without a particularly religious background to be uncomfortable around Elevated familiars. In the more cosmopolitan areas - perhaps 'enlightened' would be a better word, though I hesitate to use it for fear of misunderstandings - you rarely see such sentiments on display. But if you're aware of the attitudes, if you're the target of them, you see it all the time.

I suspect that humanity will, in time, outgrow these negative sentiments towards familiars, except in hopefully isolated pockets where ignorance is cherished above knowledge. In the meantime, I am thankful that my beloved sister Alys is blissfully unaware of some of the things her fellow primates believe - she has quite enough on her plate without bearing an unnecessary burden on our behalf. Artemis and I - like most familiars - are perfectly capable of ignoring such slights and insults when we encounter them...after all, we bask in the undiluted, direct love of our creators every minute of every day.

Perhaps it's jealousy that drives such small-minded people to belittle us.