In legend, a familiar or familiar spirit is a supernatural being that helps and supports a witch or magician. Traditionally, it is an animal, but some are said to be humanoid. Familiars often have special powers of their own. When witchcraft is portrayed as a type of communication or alliance with evil forces in order to gain magical powers, this being may be considered a type of demon.
The stereotypical familiar in Western culture is the black cat. Because black cats are strongly associated with witchcraft, there are a number of superstitions regarding them. One crossing a person's path is said to be a portent of doom, for example. A familiar may be nearly any animal, however, and other common forms for it to take are a dog, an owl, and a toad.
In the days of widespread persecution of witches, every witch was believed to have a familiar, and close animal companions were sometimes considered proof that a person was a witch. In addition to animals, humanoid creatures were believed to serve in this role; sometimes, they were said to look like regular people, and othertimes, they were said to be odd in appearance, having some deformity or resembling stereotypical images of demons. Legends of this period also often attribute the habit of drinking blood to familiars. They were considered at least as dangerous as witches, as they were thought to be supernatural beings that looked like normal animals and could spy or wreak havoc for their witch without being easily detected.
While Christians traditionally interpret familiars as demons, to Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, they are more like the Christian concept of a guardian angel. A witch's familiar can be his or her closest companion, offering moral support, special knowledge, and/or physical healing. Wiccans may seek one through meditation or divination, but most do not believe that they can be summoned, contrary to traditional Western legend regarding witches and black magic. Author Phillip Pullman offers an interesting take on the idea in his His Dark Materials trilogy, in which every human has a "daemon" in animal form that has parallels to various cultural interpretations of the soul.