Dogs were the first animals to bind their fates to humans. Some neo-pagan types have a hard time forgiving them for that, putting cats forward as the eco-feminist companion animal of choice. Despite growing up with cats whom I loved dearly, and having plenty of neo-pagan, eco-feminist leanings, I confess that I always wanted a dog.
Alice Walker’s book, The Temple of My Familiar, was one of those books that came into my life exactly when I needed it. It called to me across a library floor in Victoria, BC, a turquoise jewel on a book rack. Reading it helped me find my way back to myself during a particularly dark time. As I remember it, the only aspect of the book that didn’t captivate me, was Walkers’ dismissal of dogs.
In popular culture, witches have been accompanied by familiars since, oh, the Middle Ages. Nowadays, the word “familiar” conjures up the image of a black cat. However, cats have not always been so singled out. In fact, history even counts a certain white poodle named Boye, companion to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, amongst the ranks of influential familiars.
In folklore, familiars were conceived of as supernatural creatures that connected people to the spirit world. Walker and other contemporary authors have re-interpreted familiars as animal companions who re-connect people to the rest of the natural world. There definitely is a certain magic in living closely with a non-human other. Puppies belong more to the wild than to the human realm. Much of what fills my time these days is training Piper into being less of a wild creature so that he can live safely among humans and their artefacts. Much of Piper’s time is spent luring me out of my human habits, showing me the world hidden in front of my eyes.
One late night of house-training, Mike texted me to tell me they’d seen a hedgehog scuttle along the pavement outside our front gate. The next night, when it was my turn to be on duty, I too encountered the hedgehog, this time he was squatting on our garden path. We’ve lived in this very urban neighbourhood for 4 years and I never knew we shared it with hedgehogs.
Besides needing multiple outings to relieve himself, Piper is also less than interested in walking at a steady people pace. At the slightest provocation, he’s apt to sit on the ground and stare. Thanks to this particular habit, last weekend I found myself standing in one place on a bridge over the Water of Leith for long enough to see a flash of iridescent blue and to witness a kingfisher diving.
Piper rips open the human trappings of my life with his sharp little puppy teeth and lets the wildness in. Is there any other definition of familiar worth having?