A familiar is a creature that has been magically bound to a person in a master-and-servant type of relationship. The actual type of familiar varies greatly; it is typically a small animal (such as a witch's cat) but can be anything, including demons or even human beings. Similarly, the type of bond can vary: in some cases it is nothing more than the ability to understand what the familiar says (if it speaks) while in others the familiar is the source of the character's powers. But there must be a specific bond; just having a magical creature as a companion doesn't count. The "master" need not be a sorcerer, either — many stories have a normal person gain a familiar by accident, often resulting in trouble.
This is based on the medieval belief that Satan granted demon servants (in animal form) to witches as part of their pacts. The idea has since evolved greatly in Fantasy fiction, and even some Science Fiction settings have similar concepts (telepathic pets, for example). Compare Bond Creature, Empathy Pet, Mons, Right-Hand Cat. The familiar usually acts as an Animal Eye Spy to their master.
Not to be confused with the term "familiar" meaning "something known" though sometimes the similarity is used as the source of an Incredibly Lame Pun. It's even worse in Spanish, where "familiar" can also mean "blood relative" (this is also the case in English, though it's more uncommon).
See also Sapient Steed and Mentor Mascot. Because All Witches Have Cats, cats are the most common variant for female magic users. In Japanese mythology, a similar creature is called a shikigami; see Onmyodo for details.
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The talking cats (Luna, Artemis, and Diana) in Sailor Moon may count.
To a lesser extent, Rei Hino's twin crows, Phobos and Deimos. In the manga, they have the ability to transform into Sailor Senshi themselves.
Also, Zirconia's familiar, Zircon.
In Gash Bell, the "mamodos" needed human partners in order to use their spells.
Chamo in Mahou Sensei Negima!. It's kind of a subversion, as they really don't seem to have a special bond, but Negi officially makes Chamo his familiar so the latter has a valid excuse for staying at Mahora.
While animal familiars seem to exist, as Chamo suggested becoming Negi's familiar himself, humans are more often than not the familiars of mages. The pactio system specifically is stated to be exactly this — a master/servant relationship magically connected by the ritual. And while there are tons of people shown to be involved in a pactio, almost nobody has been shown with an animal familiar.
In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Arf, the Lieze twins, Linith, and Zafira, serve Fate, Gil Graham, Precia and Hayate, respectively. Zafira says he is a "guardian beast" rather than a familiar, but Arf retorts that it's the same thing. (Yuuno plays a somewhat similar role to a familiar for Nanoha in the first season, and is occasionally taken for one; in reality, he's a shapeshifting mage.)
Yu-Gi-Oh! subverts and plays the trope fairly straight with its monsters depending on what part of the series you're looking at. The bare basics of the card game implies the player is the master and any mon they summon act as a temporary familiar, although some players don't add any attachment to any particular monster to such an extent and the ones that do don't necessarily add any benefits to the monster in question. The first example of a modern duelist who could see and interact with the Spirits of the monsters in his deck and felt a personal relationship with them was Raphael. (Whether they actually talked back to him when he talked to them isn't known.) In the Pharoah's Memory arc where the monsters and their summoners originated from to make the modern day card game, however, it is played much more straight where the summoners can summon any ka (monster) they can access in exchange for the monster tapping into their master's ba (life energy), but every person also has a primary ka that serves as the embodiment of their soul and is not only much stronger than other kas the summoner can use, but whose well-being also affects the health of the summoner directly. Yu-Gi-Oh! GX also references this by having some duelists share such a strong bond with a particular monster that they become their spirit partners and thus can communicate with their partner from time to time. (The biggest examples are Winged Kuriboh [to Judai], Ruby Carbuncle [to Jonah], and the three Ojamas [to Manjyome], although all three of them can talk to most Duel Spirits in their decks.) Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds also shares this with certain duelists, particularly ones with powerful dragons (such as Luna with the Ancient Fairy Dragon or Yusei with the Stardust Dragon).
Occasionally, some cards are seen making independent choices. In the first series, the very first duel between Yugi and Kaiba, has the later attempt to cheat by putting the Blue Eyes he stole from Yugi's grandpa on the top of his deck, then drawing and summoning it instantly. The dragon immediately self destructs, allowing Yugi to call it back to his own side with Raise Dead (Monster Reborn).
Watanuki's familiar is the fox, Mugetsu, in ×××HOLiC.
Tamer-Type Exorcists in Blue Exorcist are able to summon them, Rin has Blackie (A Giant Black Cat), Izumo has two Byakko (Spirit Foxes), Mephisto has Ukobach (The Torchfire Demon) and his Phoenix/Umbrella hybrid, Igor has many, MANY Nausea Fuel inducing-ones, and Shiemi has Nii (A Plant Demon).
While the "mon" or humanoid creatures used for fighting in [C] - Control are called Assets as part of the series' interest in the financial world, it's pretty easy to see them as Familiars, given that the people using them have made a Deal with the Devil, and some of the Assets even look like demons.
In Naruto, Suigetsu, upon seeing Manda the giant demon snake, says "So this is Orochimaru's Familiar..."
In Saint Beast, Pearl is a squirrel/mouse-like creature created out of Pandora's bones who keeps him company and acts as a guarantor of Pandora's loyalty. If Pandora goes away from the shrine Zeus keeps Pearl and can harm it if Pandora tries defying him, rebounding on Pandora.
In Bleach, all Zanpakuto spirits are this on a spiritual level to their Shinigami/Soul Reaper.
The minorDC Comics villain Klarion the Witch Boy has a cat familiar called Teekl. He can transform it into a humanoid form to use him/her as extra muscle.
In one issue of Beasts Of Burden a coven of witches each with a cat familiar moved into town. While most of them were killed along with the witches, Dympha survived and sought revenge on the others, then joined them. She retains some magical capabilities without the witch.
In X-Men the relationship between Kitty Pryde and her pet dragon, Lockheed, fits the trope fairly nicely, despite not being of a supernatural nature.
In the Baldur's Gate fanfic A Tale of Two Mages, an additional rule is established: when a mage casts the Find Familiar spell, the familiar is chosen as the creature maximally "compatible" to the mage in a certain radius. (There's a mention of some poor girl who got her own tapeworm as a familiar...) It just so happens that two wizards — Neutral Good Nalia and Lawful Evil Edwin — cast the spell simultaneously while being in a fairly close proximity... and both become familiars to each other. Hilarity Ensues.
In Sauramud Advice Column for Young Wizardlings, some poor wizard asks for advice about the giant slug which he got as a familiar. Sauramud decisively states:
"In answer to your question, a giant slug is NO GOOD AT ALL as a familiar — in fact MOST familiars are no good as a familiar."
In Hogwarts Retold, most characters can use their patronus as Familiars, Nathan has Leafy-Sea Dragons, Eddie has Squirrels, Elizabeth has Robins, Fang Lei has Tigers, Marc has Chameleons and Rean has Wolverines.
In Queenof All Oni, the Evil Sorceror Lung the apprentice of the by-then deceased Daolon Wong, tries to force Jade into becoming his, so he can command all her forces. Not only does she not submit, but this attempt gets him killed.
Teen Witch subverts this by making Louise's familiar an object: a blue charm which she is told both symbolizes her powers and always find a way back to her from lifetime to lifetime.
Pyewacket, feline companion and familiar to Kim Novak's Hot Witch character in Bell, Book and Candle.
In Steven Brust's Dragaera stories, familiars are one of the few things that witches can receive through magic that sorcerers cannot. Vlad Taltos used witchcraft to obtain Loiosh a jhereg with human level intelligence. He later gains another jhereg familiar. Lazlo, another human witch, also gains two familiars, a dog and a cat that can change into a Big, Badass Wolf and a Dzur.
Played with in the Discworld series. Nanny Ogg has a cat, but he's just a pet; Magrat has tried various animals, but none of them lasted for long; Granny Weatherwax has avoided getting a familiar, for fear it would be too familiar. Mrs Gogol's black cockerel Legba, in Witches Abroad, would be the straightest example, except that she privately admits that he's just for show. In The Wee Free Men, the talking toad hanging around with Miss Tick says he's not a familiar, he's just a bit presumptious.
Although Granny Weatherwax is temporarily adopted by a phoenix in Carpe Jugulum
In The Hollows novels, people using ley-line magic can use animal familiars to help them in handling the energy of the line safely. This is somewhat hard on the familiar as an accident in handling the energy will hurt the familiar instead of its master.
Demons use sentient beings such as humans, elves, witches or even other demons for their familiars. This is considered to be a Fate Worse Than Death and is often a result of making a Deal with the Devil. Demonic familiars are slaves to their masters and suffer physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Even worse, the Black Magic used by the demons creates harmful "smut" that can pollute their aura, but the demons transfer this to their familiar instead.
Discussed briefly in Fate/Zero. Most Magi use familiars, which leave a magical trail so they can be detected. However, Kiritsugu also uses normal cameras attached to bats as they do not leave a presence nor can a camera be tricked with magic like the brain of a familiar.
Mouse Harry is Harry's Mouse's canine human Familiar.
Also, Harry refutes the idea Bob, the spirit of intelligence he has, is his familiar. The reason is, he pays Bob with raunchy romance smut.
Harry Potter: The only pets allowed at Hogwarts are animals traditionally thought of as familiars (owl, cat, rat or toad). They don't appear to have any special magical connection to their owners, though. Owls, like Harry's, can be very useful however; wizards tend to use them to deliver messages to other wizards.
Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes, is a familiar in the more traditional sense.
Voldemort's snake, Nagini, though she is also a horcrux.
Strangely, the animal that most closely matches the traditional role of a familiar is Filch's cat, Mrs. Norris. This loathsome creature prowls the school grounds for troublemakers, and apparently has the ability to summon Filch to her location when she finds them. This is odd, as Filch is a squib, and apparently lacks the magical talent to create such a bond.
Haplo's dog in The Death Gate Cycle is somewhere between a familiar and a Soul Jar, being Haplo's soul given independent form. There's probably some deep philosophical meaning behind the fact that Haplo's soul will run off and pilfer sausages if Haplo neglects it, but the books don't go into that.
In Kraken, the wizards of London regularly use familiars to accomplish magical tasks. At least, they do as long as the familiars don't go on strike. The Union of Magicked Assistants is a force to be reckoned with.
Naturally, the titular witch in the H. P. Lovecraft novel Dreams in the Witch House has a disturbing one, the human-faced, mean-spirited rat Brown Jenkins.
In Faction Paradox, the prototype sapient timeships adopt the forms of animals rather than humanoids, bond with their pilots in the standard timeship manner, and are referred to as familiars.
In Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series, Tarma and Kethry end up with a unique version of this. Kethry cast a spell to summon a familiar, but when Warrl responded to the call, he chose to become Tarma's familiar instead, much to Kethry's chagrined amusement.
In Septimus Heap, dragons are familars to their Imprintors (i.e hatchers), as is the case with Septimus and Spit Fyre.
In Enchanted Forest Chronicles Morwen has a large number of cats, all her familiars. This is frowned upon by more traditional witches because not only is one cat more traditional, but none of her cats are black. The cats can communicate with her and she can channel their energy for spells.
Zoo City refers to these as Animals. They appear to someone who's suffering from trauma-induced guilt, usually but not always relating to someone's death. It seems that their owners always feel affection for them—at the very least, the "animaled" will suffer severe panic attacks if they're ever separated from their Animals. Animals can live indefinitely while their animaled lives, and will survive for several months if their animaled dies, but if an Animal dies, a mysterious darkness will appear and swallow up the corresponding animaled. (The animaled also gain a supernatural power, but this power may or may not have any relation to the Animal.)
In Vernor Vinge's proto-cyberpunk novella, "True Names", the "wizards" (hackers) of The Other Plane often have small, specialized programs appear as animals that they call their familiars. When Virginia, the federal officer in charge of Mr. Slippery's case, comes online, she takes a frog form and pretends to be Slip's familiar.
The short story The Innkeeper's Solution by Steven Piziks is set in a world where everyone gains a familiar at adolescence. It's generally held that the bond is stronger if it happens naturally, which doesn't stop some people forcing a connection with impressive animals rather than risk getting a weak one. The main character's best friend disappears while trying to bond with a dragon. It turns out any sapient race can claim a lesser creature as a familiar, and for dragons that includes humans.
In the Temps short story "Someone To Watch Over Me", "familiar" is the traditional term for what the DPR now calls a semi-autonomous psychokinetic energy field. According to Gentleman Wizard Loric, they can be cats, but the one that appears (or rather, doesn't) is just an invisible emotional force.
The witches in City of Devils have familiars, from Hexene's toad, to the songbirds of the Salem Sisters.
Live Action Television
In the 2000 Arabian Nights mini-series, the sorcerer who recruits Aladdin to retrieve the lamp for him has a raven as a familiar.
Charmed, of course. Familiars guide new witches until they can fend for themselves. The sisters had a feline familiar, who was turned human because she guided good witches. Inversely, an evil familiar got turned into a warlock when he killed his witch.
One episode of Masters Of Horror, based off of H. P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House", dealt with the protagonist vainly trying to protect a baby from a witch and her familiar, a giant rat with the face of a man.
On The Mighty Boosh Bollo is Naboo's familiar, although most of the time they're just pals. Also, in one episode, Noel Fielding briefly plays the character "Barry", whose familiar is a bat named Chrissie.
Dungeons & Dragons allowed wizards to acquire a familiar by using a spell. Most were animals, but there was a small chance you could get a weak monster.
Third edition made this a class feature of wizards and sorcerers. Any member of either class with 100 gold and 24 hours could summon a familiar.
Fourth edition changed it to a feat that any arcane class can take. The list includes small animals, weak monsters, and... Things. By fourth edition familiars are not real animals, but solid "spirits" that can die and be brought back as many times as you like.
A wizard character in the game who is advanced enough in the Alchemy Skill (or who can pay someone who is) can also create a magical servant called a homonculus. This is not technically a familiar (and a wizard can have both a familiar and a homonculus if he wants), but it serves much the same purpose.
Pathfinder, being based on the 3rd edition of D&D, also has rules for familiars, though they are now optional for wizards and sorcerers in the core rules (wizards get an "arcane bond" that can either be a familiar or an object, such as a magic amulet, weapon, or wand, and only one type of sorcerer gets this same ability). However, witches (a Pathfinder-specific class) MUST have a familiar, which acts as a link to the mysterious patrons that grant witches their power.
Warhammer 40,000. Cherubim◊ are vat-grown infants who have mechanical wings and propulsion devices installed, as well as bio-programming to make them intelligent enough to take orders. Controlled through their master's Mind Impulse Unit, Cherubim are used to help carry equipment, ferry messages, sing devotional hymns, spy on their master's enemies, or just flutter around and be decorative symbols of purity. Unless they go feral, that is — their bio-programming is partially derived from pigs and other animals, so there's a small chance a Cherub will flip out and start lunging at throats. Yes, it's not enough that they're lobotomized clone-babies, they may also kill you.
Other types of Familiars in 40K include Servo Skulls (skulls of particularly loyal seravnts of the Imperium fitted with an antigravity generator and a machine spirit so that they can continue to serve even in death) and Psyber Eagles or Ravens (cybernetically modified birds that share a psychic link with the owner). Chaos gets daemonic Familiars, mutated creatures and the likes. Eldar psykers are sometimes accomanied by Gryxes, which are catlike creatures that are sensitive to psychic energy, but it's not quite clear whether they're Familiars or just pets.
Given that the Eldar Farseers are in many ways likened to witches (In fact, that's what the Imperium calls them) the "witches cat" ought to be a familiar.
Mage: The Awakening features Familiars for the title mages, creatures that are actually manifested spirits capable of using Numina (spirit powers) at will. Those with a good knowledge of the Spirit Arcanum even have the ability to summon temporary familiars at will.
Changeling: The Lost likewise has Hedge Beasts, animals touched by the strange magic of the Hedge. They're capable of human speech, smarter than the average animal and have the ability to use Contracts.
In Rifts, when a magician tries to summon a demon, they fail to maintain control over it, and control actually reverses the relationship, making the summoner the familiar of the demon.
Considering that Fenrus is himself a wizard of comparable power and skill, it's worth noting that he claims Erasmus is in fact his Familiar.
Zara from the first game has a winged demon-like creature as a familiar called Damiano.
Baldur's Gate (mostly) follows the second edition AD&D rules, but makes the familiar summoning a lot more forgiving. Which familiar gets summoned is determined by the mage's alignment: for example, a fairy dragon for Chaotic Good, an imp for Lawful Evil, etc. Familiar gives the mage a hit points bonus plus some other small benefits; but if it is killed, the mage loses one point of constitution permanently.
While its engine and gameplay are based on D&D 3.0, Neverwinter Nights diverts from the source in a number of ways, familiars being one of them. Perhaps to make gameplay easier, a wizard or sorcerer PC's familiars are largely combat-oriented (save for one which works as a replacement rogue). They're still animals or weak monsters... but this game lets a wizard have a frickin' panther. Or ahellhound. (For the record, the sequel doesn't do this.) You do get a familiar but it can't do much, it is however hilarious to see the grumpy, snarky wizard Sand summon his adorable cat familiar.
Beastmasters in Final Fantasy XI can summon familiars as a replacement pet. Unlike charmable pets, they will never turn against their master. (They may spontaniously vanish after 30 minutes or so, but what can you do?) Summoners can call forth elemental spirits(Elementals), and Avatars (Classic FF summons).
Yukari from the Touhou games has a familiar called Ran, who in turn has a familiar called Chen. Apparently, Yukari is sopowerful that her familiar can have a familiar of its own. The benefit of being a familiar is that, in return for being a servant, the creature in question shares its master's powers.
Len from Tsukihime and Melty Blood is a familiar, apparently of Arcueid. In the pseudo-sequel Kagetsu Tohya, it's revealed that Arcueid isn't actually her master: as a vampire, she can't form a contract with Len, so she's just looking after her. At the end of the game, Shiki agrees to become her master to prevent her death from lack of mana.
Familiars play a fairly important role in Kingdom of Loathing, and certain familiars are vital to complete some of the higher-level quests. This being KOL, they are somewhat stranger than in other fictions (Sabre-Toothed Lime, Blood-Faced Volleyball, Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot, etc.). They have several possible functions, such as restoring your HP and/or MP, damaging your opponent with physical and/or elemental attacks, weakening and/or disrupting your opponent during a fight, increasing the amount of items and/or meat and/or stats you get when you win a fight, or any combination of these. Black Cats deserve special mention, because they create bad luck for the player: they reduce the amount of items and stats you're awarded after winning a fight, they regularly strip you of beneficial status effects and drain your MP, and they usually prevent you from using skills, spells, or items in combat. Basically, they do everything short of attacking you directly. However, using them exclusively can let you permanently unlock Bad Moon, a special harder-than-hardcore difficulty level.
Additionally, pastamancers have a variety of pasta-based entities that they can establish contracts with and summon in combat up to ten times a day, which are probably closer to traditional familiars.
In World of Warcraft there's a minipet called Kirin Tor Familiar. It looks like a small mana elemental. Some NPC mages have familiars, such as cats, dragonhawks or servants. Warlock's demons could be considered Familiars, especially if you spec demonology when they provide various beneficial effects for the master.
Frost mages' water elemental might also fit this, as well as the Death Knight's ghoul.
Galenth Dysley of Final Fantasy XIII has an owl familiar named Mernva, who is often seen with him when he appears. She is actually an extension of his power and he uses her to transform into his true form, Barthandelus. Not only that, she is capable of turning into an airship, as well.
Familiars are the back-bone of the Shin Megami Tensei series, being a Mon series. Generally Demons are obtained by contracting and negotiating with the demon itself instead of being summoned (thought this does tends to happen often enough in the games), and one can combine 2 or more demons with each other to produce a third one. Another difference with the more traditional familiars is that they tend to be stored on computers, and what binds demons to the summoner will is not a spell, but rather a computer program.
In Master of Magic familiars are defined by the Wizard's book picks and colored accordingly: Life gives Dove, Death - Cat, Nature - Snake, Chaos - Imp, Sorcery - Beetle. These serve as announcers of events and appear in the magic research cutscene — that blue beetle is bigger than the man's head, by the way.
Mages in Valkyrie Profile have to wait a turn or two in order to attack with magic, so they have a familiar attack for them. Most of the mages have either a parrot or a dove as a familiar. Mystina, a powerful and high-strung researcher, has a bat as a familiar, while male mages like Gandar and Lezard (who serves as a guest for one battle) have dragons.
In Pop'n Magic, Anise and Lester can summon their Nice Mice familiars Tornado and Feel into battle.
Familiars are fairly common in the Nasuverse and not much notice is really taken of them unless they are exceptional.
In Visual Novel/Tsukihime and Kagetsu Tohya, we get the first introduction to familiars in the Nasuverse: A mage takes a dead body, places a soul inside it and reanimates it by forming a contract. The new being is neither of the two things that went into making it and usually acts as a servant or assistant to the magus, such as being used for surveillance, combat or use of special abilities. A magus generally needs to supply mana to the familiar, which limits how many a normal mage can possess, but Len has adopted some succubus traits and is thus capable of feeding on her own by manipulating dreams.
The Servants in Fate/stay night and Fate/Hollow Ataraxia are technically familiars due to possessing the same type of contract, but the scale is vastly different. A Servant is a legendary hero or villain with even the weakest having powers far beyond all but the most powerful mages or vampire lords. Due to their immense power, they are placed into classes which reduce their burden and are further supported during the Grail War by the Grail itself.
Tohsaka also creates bird familiars out of crystal while Caster uses dragon tooth bone golems. They're both pretty weak.
In Fate/Zero, familiars are briefly mentioned as well as bringing up a certain disadvantage: Magecraft can easily be used to trick or fool one with illusions, so Kiritsugu attaches cameras instead as they are not so easily fooled. Caster also fights entirely through the use of summoned familiars, though they're actually bound to his Noble Phantasm instead of him.
Errant Story: Meji has Ellis, a winged talking cat. While he's referred to as a familiar, he was apparently bought from a pet store and has little to no magical significance. He's also sarcastic and abrasive to everybody and especially Meji.
Technomages in The Cyantian Chronicles have familiars that were formerly animals but had their consciousness transferred into cybernetic bodies after their deaths and are used as power sources by their masters.
In The Order of the Stick, Vaarsuvius has Blackwing. In the beginning Blackwing only appeared when V remembered that he could be useful. In fact, Blackwing didn't even have a name until Haley gave him one. Later on, Blackwing pretty much tells off V for treating him this way. Lately, though, Blackwing has been hanging out in plain view, and V is treating him like an equal. Unfortunately, the moment this happens, the rest of the group pretend to think he is an illusion and V has a screw loose.
Recently, Blackwing got his own Evil Counterpart in the Linear Guild in the form of Qarr the Imp, who's been assigned to be the familiar of the Guild's new wizard, or should that be old wizard?—Zz'dtri.
In Homestuck, familiars are a recurring theme, with John recruiting a salamander NPC and calling it Casey, then accidentally trading pets with Rose when he takes her cat. Rose then proceeds to get a small team of familiars, which she mainly uses for inventory space. The bunnyKind Strife Specibi causes the Uber Bunny to instantly align itself with John in the same vein as a familiar.
Young Justice in the episode "Denial", Dr. Fate and Klarion the Witch Boy are battling:
Klarion: To think Dr.Fate would hurt a poor, defendless pussy cat! Dr.Fate: You and I both knows that creature is not a cat.
Appa in Avatar: The Last Airbender would appear just to be a Loyal Animal Companion to Aang, although that it has been hinted that he's more than this, and that all Avatars have an 'animal spirit guide' to help them in their life. Roku, Aang's predecessor had Fang the dragon, and his successor Korra has Naga the Polar-Bear-Dog. They have the ability for their spirits to communicate with the next Avatar after death, and they appear to be able to share dreams.
Sabrina: The Animated Series. Like the live action series, the younger Sabrina and her family own a wise-talking black cat who was once a powerful wizard. A few episodes had her dealing with an witch-hating enemy whose familiar was a magic sniffing anteater. In the spin-off, "Sabrina's Secret Life", Sabrina's Alpha Bitch witch rival, Cassandra, owns a white rabbit who may also have once been human.
The villain, Mozenrath, from AladdinThe Animated Series is almost always accompanied by his loyal (if constantly bullied) flying eel familar, Xerxes, who happens to speak in a faint Peter Lorre impression.