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In my story's world, witchcraft is a respected institution, with the most powerful practitioners being at the top echelons of society. Due to this, society traces its lineage through matrilineal lines. There are five types of magic that spells revolve around:

Enchantment Spells – These are spells designed to capture cosmic power within a crafted item, so that its power can be called upon in times of need.

Scrying Spells – These are spells designed to allow a user to perceive in ways that go beyond his fve senses.

Protection Spells – These are spells designed to ward a user, object, or location against a variety of possible harms

Transmogrifcation Spells – These are spells designed to fundamentally alter or control another being

Transmutation Spells - Changing the makeup of different materials or combining them with others to make new forms of matter.

A witch has the power to summon a familiar by using her body as a conduit between the mortal and ethereal plane. These powerful spirits are forever linked with their master, and used in a number of ways, such as magical batteries and amplifiers, repositories, or for battle. They also give one a depper and more intuitive sense of magic, allowing them to understand and perform spells that were difficult or impossible for them before. 

Familiars are created through an advanced, complex spell that requires various actions and takes the form of a year long ritual. It begins with a spell that infuses the witch with ethereal energies which gestates into a spirit. Over the year, the witch performs multiple steps to mold and shape the familiar into the form she wishes it to be. The ritual culminates with a ceremony in which the daemon is birthed into the world. Familiars are prized in society, and are a symbol of status and power in the world. They represent the expertise and devotion of the witch to her craft. However, they are very rare among witches.

The stipulations for this spell:

  1. The witch in question must be of childbearing age and must have never given birth before.

  2. The witch must have accumulated enough mana over the years to perform the spell. Mana is accumulated in life through age, as well as training in the use of magic.

Based on these parameters, why would witches choose not to create Familiars? What would be the cost for this type of magic?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Aify, Trish, Logan R. Kearsley, James Jun 29 '18 at 16:13

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Familiars are supposed to assist their summmoners in various practices. If the witch is powerful enough to work without a familiar, she won't need to summon one. Also, familiars are not necessarily evil spirits: they are guides, even a benevolent animal spirit can do. $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 25 '18 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ people answering this question seem to be using a dark connotation for the word 'witch' while ignoring the fact that other than in mass-produced media 'witches' are meant to be good. And while your question alludes to a 'witch' being female that shouldn't be the case either as there are/ were such things as male 'witches'. so i have to ask will their be male 'witches' and how would the familiar process work for them? $\endgroup$ – The Last Remnant Jun 25 '18 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ @The Last Remnant there are no male witches, but shamans. Although they can't use magic directly, their blessing can amplify or power up a spell for a limited duration. $\endgroup$ – Incognito Jun 25 '18 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ In real life, some women are completely terrified of pregnancy and childbirth. In many works of fiction, different schools of magic are correlated to personality types (see: impulsive and aggressive fire mages in Warhammer Fantasy, Avatar's peaceful and soft Aang having difficulties with fire- and earth-bending). If in you case "Witches [are] the dominant force in society" does not necessarily mean "there are a lot of witches", then you can simply make being a witch correlated with fear of pregnancy and childbirth. Deep-seated phobias are hard to break and don't yield to reasoning. $\endgroup$ – Dragomok Jun 26 '18 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ If familiars are anything like shikigami, they can be incredibly dangerous to the summoner. $\endgroup$ – forest Jun 26 '18 at 20:58

16 Answers 16

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You only get one shot

Because of the intimate connection and lifelong nature, a witch can only ever have one familiar. If she makes the decision hastily and does anything wrong during the process, doesn't choose a good spirit to bind, summons and then loses a familiar because she is too inexperienced to protect it, etc... then she has just lost her greatest potential asset forever. Because of this, witches wait until they are extremely confident in their abilities, status and personal preferences before using their single chance.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a good potential story arc for a character! +1 $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jun 25 '18 at 18:48
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It's a liability

Witches don't have familiars because they endanger the witch in some direct way. Perhaps familiars are demons which only agree to come to this world in servitude because when their masters die, they're free to do as they please. This makes the relationship precarious. Perhaps the contract states that the demons may not disobey the master, however, they seek to inflict harm on their masters in any way possible which isn't disobeying their master, either through deceit or by setting a trap unless a more clever witch has thought to tell them not to do so. In fact, witches which are capable of spawning a familiar, tired and weak as they may be, must still be very much on alert as the summoned familiar has not been directly told not to inflict harm on his or her master.

Alternatively, since the familiar is born from a piece of the witch's soul, if the familiar is killed, the witch's life is greatly shortened if the witch is not outright killed themselves. And in a coven in which witches may backstab one another, a witch's familiar would be a great weakness, with a witch being unable to constantly guard their familiar while they sleep.

The process changes the witch who summons it

Perhaps a witch able to summon a familiar must be of a certain dark mindset, and either a witch is unable to for lack of having a darker mindset or the witch must do despicable things to achieve that dark mindset. Maybe the ritual itself darkens the mind, as the familiar carries a piece of the underworld with it, and it poisons the soul of the summoner.

Many witches would rather get by making a decent living without taking the unnecessary risk that it would require to obtain that next rung in the ladder of power, as no doubt magic would be a lucrative trade without being that powerful. Only the power-hungry push themselves to obtain a familiar, and are thus seen as immoral and to be feared.

Politics of being a witch

Perhaps the hierarchy is well-established amongst the guild of the witches so that, like the days of the masters of a given trade, only some witches are considered adept enough to control a familiar and are given the express permission to try. While they'd say it is a matter of being given a boon before a witch can pursue this course, it would be nothing more than a method of control over the witches so that only select witches can become that powerful.

In this, an elite group of witches would determine who can have familiars and who cannot, and more likely than not, it would boil down to a question of money and power amongst the elite witches. Dedicate your house and your service to the guild of the witches, and we shall give you the boon so that you may obtain a familiar! Of course, this may not stop witches from trying to obtain one without the express permission of the guild. In this case, they are likely outcast from the guild entirely or worse still, lynched as a heretic to the respectful and law-abiding guild of the witches.

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    $\begingroup$ I can totally see a "Three Rules of Familiars" style story like those in I, Robot $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jun 25 '18 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ Witches have no leader, but we all know they look to Granny Weatherwax (mayhersoulhavemercyonthegods) $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Jun 26 '18 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ivanivan that's now my favourite sentence of all time $\endgroup$ – Mirror318 Jun 26 '18 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Mirror318 credit to Sir Terry, and fanfic author AA Pessimal (good stuff worth reading) $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Jun 26 '18 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ Really like the "process changes the witch" idea. A couple options that come to mind, based on the fact that familiars need to be born: - Birthing a familiar causes the witch to become barren? - Birthing a familiar cannot be done if the witch has already birthed a child (or is not a virgin?) $\endgroup$ – Qami Jun 26 '18 at 19:44
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  1. You have just laid a reflection of your soul bare for all to see. Similar to A portrait of dorian grey the familiar reflect the soul. If the witch is cruel the familiar is demonic/twisted in shape warning everyone close to her.

  2. You have just made a lifelong commitment to have it close to you so you need to be able to live with the reflection and not everyone would find themselves good company.

  3. While the familiar is bound to serve the witch it too grows in power and can potentially grow to overpower the former master at which point the master is now bound to serve the familiar.

  4. Familiars have a will of their own and aren't easy to control, don't need to sleep and resent being ordered around too much. As magical beings they can cause quite a bit of havoc even without violating any direct orders.

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    $\begingroup$ n.1 is a good suggestion and it could add flavour to the worldbuilding. Since the familiar "reflects" the witch's soul, having one could disclose too much personal information to the general public (or at least to similarly talented witches). $\endgroup$ – Liquid Jun 26 '18 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ No.1 has some awesome narrative hooks. Especially if it doesn't work precisely as you'd expect... $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jun 26 '18 at 10:22
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Because a witch who summons a familiar is not only using magic - they are becoming, irrevocably and eternally part of magic. This is a bond they can't put down once it's taken up - and much like having children, it can be a very scary prospect.

You stipulate that having a familiar is a mark of prestige - and that familiars are highly prized - but though anyone can do it if they wish to take the time to learn, it might be a question of what one gives up in doing so.

Either

  • by losing one's own identity - as the bond changes the way the witch sees the world now essentially having a second viewpoint which is utterly -inhuman-

or

  • By the familiar becoming more important than the Witch's other personal relationships. Priorities are different - perhaps romance is difficult (imagine the trauma of catching yourself in the act of lovemaking via the literal point of view of your offspring).

or lastly

  • Like childbirth during that time - perhaps it carries an element of danger. If 50% of familiar summoning births goes wrong - and carries a high mortality rate - it would certainly be understandable that there are few familiar-witch pairings in the world. Some don't want to make the leap because of the danger, and some did, and didn't make it.
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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, blueFrog! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 25 '18 at 15:00
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Witches by nature are anti-social. The ritual required takes more than just the members of your own coven. Given the mistrust and thirst for power, the situation rarely presents itself when you can get enough witches together to help just one of them obtain a familiar. This only happens when there is a direct need by multiple covens and one specific witch is deemed worthy and trustworthy enough to be bestowed with this gift.

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  • $\begingroup$ What's wrong with this answer, why the downvote? $\endgroup$ – ChP Jun 25 '18 at 21:40
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Possible reasons:

1) Giving birth to a familiar destroys a woman's ability to give birth to children the normal way - this is intended: witch has to make a sacrifice of both body and soul to make the bond possible and give the familiar a physical form. So they tend to do that once they already have a family or have no intention of getting pregnant the normal way.

2) Having a familiar may affect the witch's ability to care about people, even their parents, husband and children, let alone friends, because they already have a perfect companion ready made for them.

3) You did not say how much these witches battle each other. Do they live an urban life where "witch" is a profession like "computer programmer" or is this a world where they are constantly fighting? If the latter is the case, a witch's familiar may be too week to protect initially and when it is caught, the witch can be blackmailed to do anything in order to keep it safe.

4) While familiars are a sign of power and well-respected among witches, the process of begetting a familiar has made it sort of taboo among non-magical people (whom I assume still exist and make up the majority of the society) - mostly because they see it as indecent. A witch appearing alongside her familiar when she goes down to the shop for milk and bread is akin to her showing up in full BDSM slave getup being led around on a collar. Imagine attending your parents' 50th anniversary that way. So the kind of witches who still want to be a part of normal society (I'm guessing witches aren't necessarily only born to witches but into normal families) try to avoid that, not in the least because having raised among non-magical people the taboo is also ingrained to their thinking.

ETA (based on sirjonsnow's comment but not quite the same):

5) A witch can only make a familiar while they are still virgins. (= in a magical sense: they had no sexual contact with another person.) However, a large and popular branch of witchcraft is sex magic and most witches tend to choose to practice that to gain power rather than remain virgins until the ripe old age when they know enough and are confident enough in their powers to attempt creating a familiar.

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  • $\begingroup$ No.1 is an excellent idea :) $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jun 26 '18 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ You could also add the reverse of #1 - that having a child first may make them unable to then have a familiar. $\endgroup$ – sirjonsnow Jun 26 '18 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @sirjonsnow good point. $\endgroup$ – Real Subtle Jun 27 '18 at 6:49
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In general, there are two categories of reasons.

Creating a familiar has some cost to the witch

If there is a price to pay for having a familiar, not all witches will be willing to pay that price

Creating a familiar has some prerequisite that not all witches fulfill

This can either be a prerequisite that nobody has at birth but can be gained (i.e. sufficient mastery of magic), a prerequisite that everyone is born with but can lose (Part of the ritual to summon a familiar requires all your baby teeth, so if your parents threw them away you are out of luck), a prerequisite that some people have but others don't (the ritual only works if you were born on the night of the full moon, within three feet of running water), or any combination of the three.

Specific ideas:

Creating a familiar causes the witch to start aging backwards

This is actually a blessing if you are very old, but it's a curse if you are very young. So witches generally wait until they're getting on in their years before trying to summon a familiar.

Creating a familiar removes the ability for a witch to have a family

Perhaps a woman who has given birth is no longer capable of creating a familiar inside her, but the process of giving birth to a familiar renders a witch infertile. A witch who has a familiar could not possibly have children, which is part of why familiars come with such prestige - it indicates a powerful dedication to the art. (You could also go with the stronger prerequisite that creating a familiar requires that you've never had sex, but that's messier as you have to define what 'sex' is.)

Of course, the existence of the Catholic Church proves that there are many people willing to give up their chance for a family to follow their calling, so if you went this route you should also include a strong social imperative towards witches having families (perhaps magic is inheritable?) to explain why this cost is considered so high.

Having a familiar limits what magic you can perform

Creating a familiar gives you great power and skill in your primary branch of magic, but it cuts off your access to any other branches. A witch who specializes in healing will become a genius healer, able to perform pinpoint magical surgeries and cure every ailment they ever encounter - but they lose the ability to light candles with a snap of their fingers, or fly on a broom, or telepathically chat with their friends.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea that the witch becomes infertile once summoning a familiar. This will lead to great restrictions on who may summon one, for if everyone does it then the race will die out as no one can procreate $\endgroup$ – ChP Jun 25 '18 at 21:37
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What happens if their familiar is killed?

Yes having a familiar is a fantastic boon to magic-use, but it's also a massive risk. What happens if your soul-bonded familiar is killed? You must live the rest of your life as a magic-less half-soul pitied and pitiable.

As such, it's a risk only the old tend to take. They haven't much life left as it is, so the risk of living it in purgatory is a fair trade for the boon to their villages.

Of course there are those who desire power at a far younger age, but the risks are clear and drummed into witches from a young age. Morwenna, however, wasn't presented with a choice. When the salt-king demands something of a slave, it complies. Even then, she couldn't have imagined the horrors he had in store for it.

So here she stood. Newborn familiar in one hand, ironfist slicked with king's blood in the other. Throne guard hammering at the door.

What in the eight hells was she going to do now...

...launch into story

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    $\begingroup$ Upvote! I can't believe this obvious response wasn't offered immediately. Especially with the wealth of RPG rules & scenarios which present exactly that sort of risk. (Familiar dies, wizard loses X hit points, suffers effect Y, etc.) $\endgroup$ – JDM-GBG Jun 28 '18 at 22:10
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Real historical example (tl;dr? Skip to "Actual Answer")

Imagine the political situation of the late 19th/early 20th century. Germany and Japan grew in power disrupting the balance that has grown between the other global powers in existence. Japan started to compete with Russia in eastern asia, defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, becoming the first Asian nation to defeat a European great power solidifying their own state as great power, which of course gave the Russian Tsar quite a big heartburn, losing his influence in the Manchuria and the plans to set up the trans siberian railway to connect western Russia with the region and also the option of gaining control over a military port free of ice during the whole year (Wladiwostok is not free of ice in winter - or was, I don't know). Prussia on the other hand formed lesser Germany with several smaller states after defeating France in the French-Prussian war and annexing Alsace-Lorraine from France. In the decades after, emperor Wilhelm II. gained control over several colonies in Afrika threatening the balance of power between the two biggest world powers in existence, France and the UK. Germany tried to raise rivalries between France and the UK in order to take one's side and profit from the loss of the other side's power but failed and in turn was isolated politically by France, the UK and in the end Russia, who formed the Triple Entente. All allied forces Germany had left were already declining in power, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman empire and even Italy, that didn't even take Germany's and AH's side in WWI, so Germany made plans to attack Russia before those could renew their military. Then the Austrian prince got executed and we all know how this ended. None of the powers in existence wanted the rivalry of an ambitious new power cutting off theirs.

To some extent this also counts for WWII with the big difference that the German elite pre WWI wanted to lead a war of conquest creating a self sufficient empire spanning from the atlantic coast to the Ural mountains, while Hitler mostly lead a war of extermination, getting rid of the "lesser" races and gaining world domination. Also the rivalries between France and the UK have declined greatly.

Actual Answer:

So, the simple answer is just this. The few witches in political and magical power do not wish the competition of young and ambitious witches gaining the highest magical power a witch can get. So they mostly forbid the ritual, and they can do so being the most powerful witches. They may rival among each others but would lay their resentments aside if another threat to their power turns up. Only in few cases one of the witches in power may be able to raise another protégé to power, either as successor or political ally, by gifting the other witches in power essentially buying their approval or threatening them enough to not oppose it, always in hope the tradeoff is worth it and not get politically isolated themselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good idea and example, but could probably benefit from some organization and simplification. TBH, I skipped most of the first paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Cain Jun 25 '18 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I thought it was interesting and gives a better insight on how the political squabble could be elaborated. I did add a hint that the first part may be skipped if desired as it's not part of the true answer. Thanks for pointing that out. $\endgroup$ – Otto Abnormalverbraucher Jun 26 '18 at 7:59
  • $\begingroup$ Agree that it's interesting! +1 after the edit $\endgroup$ – Cain Jun 26 '18 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of the ritual being like a beacon others can see, and it taking so long and being so politically (in Witch politics) disruptive that generally its worth the time and trouble for anyone who already has a familiar to show up and disrupt the summoning. Kind of like getting nukes in the modern world. "Sure, I may have The Familiar, but it would be super unsafe to let just anyone who wants to get one." $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Jun 26 '18 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ That might be their arguing, yes. Though I'd say their true intention is just the conservation or rise of their own power. $\endgroup$ – Otto Abnormalverbraucher Jun 27 '18 at 15:00
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Because Familiars make it, relatively, easy to work magic, so if you really want to show off your prowess you do your workings solo. This would result in Familiars being coveted by middling witches, those who are powerful enough to summon and bind a useful familiar them but still need a boost to work the really powerful magicks. Meanwhile the true powers of the magical elite ignore them as a crutch for the less gifted.

Do note the this does somewhat assume a fairly static magic tradition in which what you can do with magic is limited and those limits are well known. In a magical setting where the covens are still working ever more powerful magicks in an attempt to find the limits of what magic can do everyone will want the most powerful familiars they can lay their hands on to help them overcome the limits of their personal talents.

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A lot of practitioners learned their skill due to being the kind of people who would rather study than hang out with others. IOW: they tend to be introverts.

Familiars tend to be extroverts. They won't necessarily like the summoner, and either way will have nothing better to do with their (enforced) time on our plane than chatter and make sarcastic comments. They are like the Eddie Murphy / Gilbert Goddfreid voiced animated sidekick that you cannot get rid of.

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Imagine getting a random aircraft seatmate who won't let you read, listen to music, or sleep, and insists on chattering at you the whole flight. Now imagine it isn't just a 2-hour flight you have to endure, but the entire rest of your life. There are a lot of people who might like that, but there are also lot who would consider it a living hell.

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Because you have to keep the familiar very close, and cannot dismiss them. It is a lifelong commitment to keeping a sentient demon next to you at all times. Maybe most witches just aren't willing to make the trade away all privacy forever for more power.

alternatively the connection to look through eyes, into the minds of them works both ways and if the familiar betrays the witch or is captured and tortured they become a great weakness.

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The entities that you're binding yourself too aren't human and aren't even from our physical reality. And you're creating a telepathic link with them.

Even if the being isn't actively fighting or hostile to you it's still going to be utter chaos. Their values, motivations and idea of morality are going to be completely alien to you. The way they think and communicate is going to be completely alien to you. They're going to be experiencing all of the physical senses for the very first time, all at once. And all of that is going to have an unimpeded expressway straight into your head.

Perhaps the reason they're rare is because most of the people who try to create one end up driving themselves insane.

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Smells Like Daemonic Spirit

Many witches tend to be rebellious contrarian types, especially those ambitious young ones that would see a familiar as a shortcut to fame, riches, power etc. If familiars reflect their mistress' personality, then their loyalty would inevitably come into question. Truly wild ones might even attempt to reverse the mistress-servant relationship at great risk to both.

Sample snippet off the top of my head:

WITCH 1 : Time to clean the cauldron, young imp.

FAMILIAR: Damnit mom, stop telling me what to do!

WITCH 1: Get down here right now! Don't make me come up there and levitate you downstairs!

WITCH 2: Chip off the old block, tee hee

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An associated social stigma

With all the advantages listed, it would seem like there are no reasons not to summon a familiar. Reading through the other answers, there are a lot of ideas.

I suggest that there is a social stigma associated with having a familiar - for example - all who possess a familiar are obligated to fulfill some duty, uphold a specific cause, or otherwise become beholden to an organization or entity (or entities) as a result of the successful summoning. Those who may wish to not be placed under those restrictions may choose to avoid or "fail" to summon a familiar.

It might be interesting if the familiars not only take the form of a creature, but that the witch is in turn literally bound to the source that all familiars come from. Perhaps the spirit is actually a portion of some other being or entity, and by summoning one, they enter into a contract of some kind which they cannot break.

Given that it was historically thought that witches made contracts with an evil entity in order to obtain their powers, this may have interesting historical implications. Especially if the entity or entities in question have not revealed their own orientations, purposes, and goals. There may even be more than one which are in competition with each other.

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You make a deal with a demon and there's a price to pay

A familiar doesn't serve the witch for free. There's a deal the witch needs to make for the demon to serve her will: The demon serves the witch in life and and the witch needs to serve the demon for a certain time in afterlife. And this service won't be pleasant...

Since the familiar's personality reflects the one of the witch, more powerhungry witches need serve their familiars longer.

The more experienced the witch the better the deal she can cut. Learning magic on her own reduces the price the witch needs to pay.

Although witches may prolong their lifespan (maybe even indefinetly) they can still be killed by violence allowing the familiar to collect the debt.

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