In European folklore the ‘familiar’ is a supernatural being that would act as a witch’s assistant, providing a young witch with protection as she came into her powers. They often took the form of an animal - most commonly small animals, such as cats, rats, birds, toads, and hares. The familiar could be compared to an alter-ego, not resembling the witch, and sometimes even invisible. The motif has found its way into fairy tales such as Puss-in-Boots and the Frog Prince. Women and animals are also often shown together in art, recalling the close ties of the witch and her familiar.
John Collier painted Lilith –the Jewish mythological figure and first wife of Adam in the bible - in the style of the pre-Raphaelites. Over the years Lilith has gained a reputation as a femme fatale, having been cast out from Eden for her disobedience. Here she is shown entwined with a serpent, maybe representative of that which tempted eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The close embrace suggests that the serpent is also symbolic of a part of her nature, like a spirit animal. In Michelangelo’s ‘Fall of Man’, he took this one step further, representing Lilith as a snake/human hybrid.
A nude girl reclines over the back of a chair with her eyes closed, playing with a grinning cat. The relationship appears natural – both creatures are completely comfortable in the presence of the other. The interior is sparsely furnished, like a stage set for the interaction to play out. Animals are often featured in art for symbolic meaning – relating to the inner qualities of the person beside whom they are depicted. In Balthus’s work, cats are contrasted with supposed feminine innocence, possibly standing in for the artist himself. As an animal they are associated with self-absorbtion and trickery. There is a traditional symbolism tied to many other animals as follows:
Dogs – fidelity
Snakes – the fall of man
Toad/frogs – shape shifting, fertility
Doves – innocence/peace
Lions – power, wisdom, dignity
Fish - death, destruction, cunning, sinfulness
Foxes - Cunning, intelligence, feminine magic, wildness
Sometimes the link between human and animal in art is so strong that the two merge to become one hybrid creature – as found in mythology. The woman-animal combination is often associated with the femme fatale, suggesting that animalistic features were seen as the antithesis of the appropriate behaviour expected of a woman, and a threat to order.
John William Waterhouse was interested in the darker mythology of the mermaid – a siren who was said to lure sailors to their death through their singing. This mythology corresponds to the symbolism of the fish. His mermaid’s tail ids painted with shimmering silver scales suggesting observation from a real fish. Having a tail in the place of human legs means mermaids would be incapable of living amongst men. Waterhouse’s imagining of the mermaid focuses more on this aspect of tragic loneliness and isolation. She sits on a rock gazing off into the distance whilst combing out her long hair.
Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx features the hybrid creature from Greek mythology with the head of a nude woman, lion’s body and vulture’s wings. She grips onto Oedipus with lion’s claws yet looks into his eyes with those of a woman. These features characterise the sphinx according to its merciless reputation. It may be seen as a form of femme fatale – combining the power and wisdom of a lion with the greed, corruption and ruthlessness of the vulture.