New Worlds: What was it like growing up in a hereditary tradition?
Raven Grimassi: I grew up not really knowing that the things I was learning had any particular name. They were just the things we did. When I was older I began to understand that this was Witchcraft, or at least that other people would call it Witchcraft. We just called it the Ways, or the Old Ways. It developed in me the worldview I now hold, and it made me understand that everything, every creature, and every person is connected. What we do to the Earth, and to each other, we do to ourselves.
NW: Can you describe for us your family tradition?
RG: It is an Italian system of Witchcraft with roots in Tuscany. The system therefore has Etruscan influences. Like the Etruscans, we worship divinity in the form of a god and goddess couple known as Tagni and Uni. We see nature as animated and maintained by a host of spirits. Some are elemental beings and some are fairy-like beings known as Lasa. We believe that everything in nature has a consciousness because it has a spirit dwelling within it.
NW: Tell us a bit more about Stregheria.
RG: In Italy it is called La Vecchia Religione, the Old Religion. We believe it to be a pre-Christian European Mystery Tradition, one that has preserved the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors. Many of the concepts held within our tradition were touched upon in the writings of Charles Leland during the second half of the 19th century. For example, Leland wrote of Italian Witches gathering at the time of the full moon, worshipping a god and goddess, working magick, and concluding the rites with a celebration of cakes and wine. Gerald Gardner wrote of these same concepts over half a century later in his books on Wicca.
In 1897, folklorist J. B. Andrews noted in volume three of Folk-Lore: Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society that Italian Witches performed knot magick, created medicinal herbal potions, constructed protective amulets, and engaged in the arts of healing. The Witches he interviewed said that their knowledge was entirely traditional, and was "given by the mother to the daughter."
The ancient Roman poet Horace in his Epodes of Horace, written around 30 B.C., told of Italian Witches who had the power to call the moon down from the sky. In the Journal of Social History (volume 28, 1995) Sally Scully (San Francisco University) relates information drawn from 17th century Witchcraft trials in Venice, that Italian Witches of this period were using hand written spell books and copying from the Key of Solomon. These and other aspects of the Old Religion are covered in my new book Hereditary Witchcraft.
NW: Isn't this information sworn to secrecy? Why are you revealing this to the world?
RG: I think there is a real danger of this material becoming lost to future generations because of secrecy. In my tradition the primary oath is to do whatever is necessary to preserve the Old Religion. Among my relatives in Italy, the youngest person still actively involved in the Old Religion is 78 years old. It is necessary to make this material more widely available or lose it forever. It would be a real shame for it all to end now after so many generations.
NW: How does Stregheria compare to Celtic, or other forms of Wiccan practice?
RG: I personally believe that the occupation of Celtic lands by the Romans for more than 400 years caused a great deal of Italian Paganism to merge with the indigenous beliefs in northern Europe and the British Isles. Therefore, I see more similarities within all our traditions than I do differences. The primary differences are cultural terms and varying names for deities and heroes. But the messages and teachings contained within the myths and legends are essentially the same.
I look at Celtic traditions and other traditions as individual facets on a large gemstone. Each one reflects a beautiful flash of light when you turn to it. To me, each Wiccan tradition is an important part of a greater truth, which is why I've been involved in other traditions as well as my own. We can all learn from each other, and I believe it is wise to do so.
NW: What does Stregheria offer to those of us not of the blood?
RG: It offers essentially the same thing: the keys to integration with the Mysteries. I've heard that some people feel one has to be Italian in order to practice Italian Witchcraft. That's simply not the case.
NW: What does Stregheria offer the future?
RG: I think the Earth has become ill from pollution and the abuse of its resources. The ancients knew how to return energy to the Earth, how to revitalize the soil. Ancient rituals were about abundance and fertility, and they were about living in common cause with Nature. Italian Witchcraft has preserved these and other keys, and I believe it can help to see us all through *e challenges that await us in the future.
NW: Tell us more about your background and training.
RG: My training began with learning about herbs and communicating with spirits. The were actually inseparable. In my childhood I was taught that to invoke a spirit, you whisper its name, then slowly inhale the scent of its plant or flower. This was a type of calling ritual and also involved peering through a stone with a hole bored through it.
In my teens I was trained in moon magick, burning herbs and incense in a large metal bowl. The herbs were first dipped in sea water and allowed to dry. I was taught various forms of folk magick during this time as well. During my late teens and early twenties I was taught a more formal system of ceremonial magick.
I was introduced to Wicca in 1969 and trained with several traditions including Brittic and Pictish-Gaelic. During and after this time, I branched out on my own and studied with the Rosicrucians for a few years. I studied Shamanism under some American Indians I met and received the name "Laughing Crow" in a sweat lodge they had constructed on a reservation near Alpine, California. I also went on to study the Kaballah, Golden Dawn material, the works of Crowley, and became involved with a system based upon the writings of occultist Austin Spare.
NW: What led you to become a teacher?
RG: I became a teacher because people kept bugging me to teach! But I do enjoy helping people with whatever I can through the experiences I've had. I first began to teach in a formal sense back in 1979. I was asked to do some Wicca classes at a local shop in San Diego called Ye Olde Enchantment Shoppe. Since then I have been pressed by others to hold classes of one type or another.
NW: Is it true that Scott Cunningham was once a student of yours? What do you think of his work, and how would you compare your work to his?
RG: I first met Scott when he attended one of my classes - I believe back in the fall of '79. He came up to me at the end of the class and expressed an interest in learning more. Scott and I quickly became friends, and he was later initiated into the Aridian Tradition. He studied with me for about three years, and then he eventually moved on in favor of a more self-styled form of Wicca.
Scott was a challenging student and was never afraid to ask questions or openly disagree with something. He had a passion for inserting horrible puns at every opportunity and his sense of humor was always on hand. But Scott also had a serious side and spent a great deal of time copying material and studying the Old Ways. He was our coven expert on herbs for quite some time.
Scott, of course, went on to become a popular author. I think his books are very good for someone new to Wicca, someone beginning to explore alternatives to Judeo-Christian religion. His books Magical Herbalism and Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs are perhaps his best traditional works. Most of his other books reflect a less-structured philosophy. I think this is where my work differs from Scott's. I tend to favor older teachings, what I call "time-honored" or "time-proven" material. Scott seemed to feel a stronger connection to intuitive practices. I think each philosophy has its own value; perhaps a blend of the two would be even more empowering.
NW: What motivates you to write, to teach, to share this with all of us?
RG: I think saying that I have a passion for preserving the Old Ways probably best sums this up. I often think back on those who endured the Inquisition and other forms of persecution that followed, and is still with us today in one form or another. Our ancestors risked everything in order to pass on the keys that they believed were essential to our spiritual path. I believe in honoring their courage and their memory. So, for me, my books are there to fan the embers of our sacred flame, and keep the fire burning for yet another generation that will extend the Path on before us.