The Once Unknown Familiar offers an introduction to both physical and spiritual animal familiars and takes the reader through a series of basic shamanic techniques for finding and working with them. This is a reprint of the 1994 edition of the book, and not a new edition.
Mr. Roderick begins by defining what a shaman is in functional terms: one who learns directly from the gods and experiences the sacred in the natural world. I can certainly work with that. He points out that Wicca (the path he follows) has moved away from the wilder elements of older European pagan practices, which may make the idea of a familiar seem not terribly relevant to modern pagans. With this in mind, he seeks to honor the European shamanic heritage and bring the familiar back into play, a goal that I applaud. He also notes that he would like to dispel some of the myths surrounding the concept of the familiar, from Christianity’s demonization of familiar animals to Disney’s annoying and disrespectful diminution of them to cutesy talking companions.
The whole book is strongly formatted towards Wiccan practice so it is a great way for Wiccans to transition into the shamanic experience while still feeling like they’re on familiar ground. You could reasonably call the style of the author’s rituals and activities ‘Wiccan shamanism.’ The downside is that the Wiccan-style ceremonialism may feel confining or awkward for those whose spiritual practice doesn’t normally run along those lines. For pagans with a few years of experience under their belt, it wouldn’t be difficult to tweak the format so it’s less ceremonial but still works the way the author intends. Fortunately, the concepts at the core of all the rites and activities are accessible regardless of the reader’s individual path or tradition, and the book is well worth the read just for those concepts.
For most of the book, Mr. Roderick focuses on the spiritual familiar, which is an animal spirit guide of sorts. He does eventually get to the concept of the physical familiar, but his main focus is on building a relationship with the spiritual familiar first. His discussion includes a roundup of worldwide traditions about this kind of familiar, showing the similarities across cultures and throughout time. I found this helpful to get my bearings in terms of what the author expects from a relationship with a familiar. As a psychologist, Mr. Roderick approaches the familiar in the form of what he calls the Familiar Self – the animal within, so to speak. According to Mr. Roderick, getting to know the Familiar Self helps us to understand ourselves better.
The majority of the activities are essentially guided meditations. The author suggests having someone read them to you or recording them to play back to yourself. The text even includes helpful suggestions such as when to pause when reading the meditations out loud. The Once Unknown Familiar is a workbook as well as a text, so there are questions at the end of each section with space to write down your answers. I found it awkward to actually write in the book (it wouldn’t lie flat) so I used separate paper, but having those blank spaces staring at me certainly provided some motivation to answer the questions. Mr. Roderick also encourages the reader to keep a dream journal as they work their way through the book, in order to look for any symbols or other information that may come through in relation to the familiar.
The process of finding and working with the familiar begins with exploring the concept of the animal: how animals move, feel, and respond to the world. This is an excellent way to ‘tune in’ to the animal world, both physical and spiritual, and begin moving down the path. Then the activities move on to creating an animal fetich (Mr. Roderick uses the antiquated spelling to differentiate the word from the sexual connotation of the spelling ‘fetish’) and exploring techniques of ecstasy for connecting with the Divine Within in the form of the familiar spirit.
The author’s discussion of drumming explains the quantum physics concept that all matter is simply vibrating energy, created from that first drumbeat that we call the Big Bang. He also reminds the reader that life is full of rhythm: heartbeats, days, seasons. His explanation of different beat patterns and the kind of energy each one provides is useful in a number of different ways. I especially like the way he leads the reader to figure out which rhythm evokes their Familiar Self. He also includes information about dancing to a drumbeat, including helpful suggestions for learning to reach a mild ecstatic trance state through movement. His ‘sitting dance’ variation is useful not just for those who don’t have the room to dance where they live, but also for those who are not easily mobile, such as those with arthritis or who are confined to a wheelchair. The final exploration of ecstatic techniques involves learning to figuratively transform into your familiar in order to experience its consciousness.
In addition to finding the basic Familiar Self, Mr. Roderick provides instructions for seeking out and working with additional spirit familiars. He also delves into working with physical animal familiars, including how to make a pet you already have into a familiar and how to call a new animal into your life as a familiar. The activities include some fun ones such as doing divination with your animal familiar using tools such as herbs or birdseed, and the book includes spells the reader can undertake with the help of their physical familiar.
This is a thorough book. The epilogue includes the author’s thoughts about the emerging paradigm of sacredness in the physical world and how working with a familiar fits into that paradigm to help us re-sacralize the world and ourselves. I hope more people will move along the path towards recognizing the sacred in the material world. An extensive set of appendices includes a long list of animals with traditional magical and metaphysical attributes; a list of animal correspondences with times of day, herbs, incense recipes, and oils; a basic circle casting and banishing; and an interesting collection of animal-related folklore from around the world.
All in all, I would say this is a very worthwhile book. Looking past the Wiccan structure, which can certainly be adapted for those who don’t follow that path, this is a comprehensive introduction to basic shamanic techniques. It provides a sound method for discovering and working with animal spirit familiars as well as physical familiars, and it offers plenty of information for the reader to pursue the path further on their own.
~review by Laura Perry
Author: Timothy Roderick
Llewellyn Publications, 1994/2015 (reprint)
pp. 218, $14.99