I reached out to author Christopher Penczak to discuss Raven Grimassi’s last book, “What We Knew in the Night”.
1. I just want to acknowledge up front that it feels so weird to phrase this in the past tense, but here we are. For any of my readers who may not be familiar with him, can you tell them who Raven Grimassi was?
I completely understand. I was talking about Raven to a new friend the other day, and she said, “I thought he passed.”
“He did,” I responded.
“But you are talking like he is still here.”
“He is.” And I truly believe that. She was new to Witchcraft, so it took her a bit to get what I meant by it, but I still sometimes forget he’s not physically with us when I want to call upon the phone and hear his voice. It’s been a weird year trying to get used to that, and remembering I can still talk to him, but in a different way.
You can learn all the formal stuff about Raven anywhere online. He was a prolific award winning writer and teacher, and an experienced occultist with a focus on Italian Witchcraft and his own tradition called Ash, Birch and Willow, but that doesn’t convey to everyone that Raven was, in this incarnation, an extremely loving and fun man, with a devious sense of humor, who enjoyed a glass of sloe gin and tonic, would give great advice and was deeply passionate about the mysteries of life and magick, which were one in the same to him.
Despite the humor and fun, Raven was deeply dignified, and could hold both that warm and that nobility of the Craft as a priest of the Craft. Throughout his illness, he held a sense of deep dignity, regardless of what was going on with his health. It was this presence of self I saw shine through in his classes and rituals and he held that in all how he lived and in how he died.
Raven wasn’t one to tout his prowess magically or psychically, but he was an excellent medium with a clear gift to talk to the spirits, and many magickal things would just occur around him, just in everyday life. He could see and point out the magickal around you with a keen awareness. The faces of creatures within the trees and land around him, that you might swear were not there until he pointed them out, always astounded me, and they were not just tricks of the eye, but had a presence he was sensing.
Raven was deeply concerned about the preservation of the mysteries, of the essence of the Craft and what it means. I think sometimes people misunderstood that passion, but it was deeply rooted in the wisdom of the ancestors, the desire to help people connect to something bigger than themselves, and to serve a greater good.
2. You, and the Temple of Witchcraft, had a close relationship with the Grimassis, how did that come about?
I was very lucky to be befriend Stephanie and Raven early in my own writing career. I believe we met at the Book Expo America, or BEA, in Los Angeles in 2003. I got to meet a lot of amazing people that year. I had met Donald Michael Kraig earlier, in 2002 at the Llewellyn offices, but we got to spend time at BEA and he was an old friend and former student of Raven’s, so I got some quality time with them both and Stephanie. I started my friendships with Ted Andrews, Richard Webster, and Kala Trobe on that trip. We got more time together at International New Age Show, or INATS, just a month or so later in Denver. I found out at one point that my publisher was touting me as the “next Scott Cunningham” to retailers, and both Raven and Don heard that, and were curious to meet me. I met a lot of Scott’s friends and family around that time, which was weird, though I didn’t know that was how I was being billed. Scott was also a student of Raven’s, and thankfully we all hit it off. Raven remarked that it was surprising how quickly the older generation of authors were welcoming to me years later, and I’m very grateful that happened. On my first major book tour for “The Outer Temple of Witchcraft”, Stephanie and Raven graciously opened their home to me, as I was on a budget. My last night of the tour in San Diego area, they hosted me, took me to dinner and then to the event and we hung out for two days. They were just starting work on “The Well Worn Path” card deck and I got to see Raven’s original sketches and the preliminary art with someone who wasn’t actually chosen for the project in the end. After that, we were at several festivals together and they kindly took me under their wing and showed me the ropes for festival work, as I had no idea what I was doing, or of the Pagan cultures beyond New England. We attended Pantheacon, Heartland, and the Florida Pagan Gathering together, along with a few more INATS.
When Raven and Stephanie decided to move out to New England, we visited more and did more local events together. When we began the Temple of Witchcraft, they were our first guest speakers and not long after that, were keynote speakers for our Templefest summer gathering. They have been tremendously supportive in our establishment and success, and offered great advice when things were difficult and how to handle tough situations and people. The community loves them and really feels the loss of Raven. We have fostered bonds between the students of Ash, Birch and Willow and the Temple, and one of their initiates, Julia Radford, even had a main part in our Qabalistic ritual at Templefest, along with Stephanie. We held a memorial altar for Raven at Templefest, and Stephanie shared an ancestral honoring song from their traditions with us.
3. Following Grimassi’s death, it was left to you and his spouse Stephanie to do the final edits of his last book. What was the experience of editing someone else’s work like?
While I have edited other people’s work, this was entirely different. To be of aid to a friend and mentor’s last book was humbling and while I’d like to say I had a clarity at the time about it, I am not sure I did. Although due to his health his passing wasn’t unexpected, I think I was still in shock at the reality of it and our deadline was literally the two weeks after his death, so editing came amid making funeral plans and helping host friends and family coming out for the services. Stephanie did the majority of it with him, and most of it was done the day before he passed. The rest were follow up queries. Much of that part was done together, in front of one computer or print out, going over the edits while Steve, Adam and I were staying with her, and other times Stephanie and I were on the phone, going over the file. We were often having to come to agreement that, yes, that is how Raven would want it, particularly when answering questions and queries from the in-house staff editors. Honestly, I’m giving myself a bit more time before I sit down and read it again cover to cover now that it’s in print. I have it on my “to read” pile and keep looking at it, but I’m not ready.
Tremendous thanks goes to Judika Illes, who was a guiding light, support and stopped us from freaking out too much, particularly about references we could not look up, as much of Raven’s library was still packed up from the move back into the main house after their fire. When we had to stop, to deal with funeral arrangements, Judika took over the parts we could not go further to do. I am deeply grateful as it felt like we had a lot of balls in the air to be juggled and were afraid to drop one. Folks at Weiser in general were just lovely to us both during that process.
4. I feel like this book, “What We Knew in the Night: Reawakening the Heart of Witchcraft” was Grimassi’s most honest, truest expression of his craft. Would you agree with that?
I really love the book, though I love most of his books. But I think “What We Knew in the Night” reveals a Raven Grimassi who is quite honestly out of fucks to give. And by that I don’t mean he doesn’t care about the book, quite the opposite, but he’s writing from a place where he has nothing to prove to anyone, just to share what he has known, lived, and seen.
I remember the first conversations about it. He asked me on a road trip to do some shopping in Northampton, MA, if I had heard about “x,” a little-known technique. I hadn’t. Then he told the story of how he learned it, and a strange world of quiet occultists and Witches, sharing knowledge if you were in the right place and the right time. His telling of this youthful stories reminded me of some of the chats and teachings I would receive just hanging out with him at the house, or by the fire at a Pagan festival. After a few stories, he told me he was thinking about writing about these things, and what they meant to him, how he used them and asked me if younger Witches would be interested. I was, so I did think so, and he began the book. The vision morphed a few times as he worked on it, but that was the essence of it.
While his other books, perhaps until his Weiser books, were heavy on the academics as a reference, he began a process about sharing more intimate practices. I think the DVD “Ever Ancient, Ever New: Witchcraft by the Hearthside” helped him get into a new mode of writing, as that hearthside experience was mentioned a lot with this book and the origins of the material when he was a young Witch in California, being introduced to these unusual Craft folk by others in the community.
While he planned it to be his last Witchcraft book, he had a lot of ideas for other books on occultism, history and spirituality on his mind and I am sad that they won’t be in the world and I won’t get to read them.
5. What separates the witchcraft discussed in the book with other witchcraft titles?
This book has a level of grit, or realness, to it because the focus is not on providing an academic argument as a foundation for understanding. The foundation was in a time that some would think is past in the craft, a time of study with elders, and learning mouth to ear that Raven is preserving by this important work. While having his own experience with the material, it’s also not his own pure gnosis, but set in a foundation of what came before, yet conveyed in that very earthy, tactile way that speaks to the soul of the Witch. He describes it through his own eyes and use, in his own poetic style that was evident in his rituals and music. He even takes on the concepts of academics head on in preparing you for the material of the book.
6. “What We Knew in the Night” outlines 5 steps to following the witchcraft tradition Grimassi discusses. Can you briefly outline them for our readers?
Raven described five steps to his idea of quintessence, and they are:
1. Gathering the Virtue of the Moon – this step is drawing to you the beneficial qualities and powers of the Moon through a “V” shaped hand gesture. This teaching has one of my favorite quotes ever from Raven: “Remember that this moon is the exact same one that every Witch from the past once looked upon.” This Virtue of the Moon is the energy of Witchcraft that guides us in the work.
2. Meeting the Wafting – the Wafting of the Night is the pre-sentient energy of the night, of the primordial darkness. It is an awareness that wafts from the trees, giving us an experience of the mystical. Through words of power, we become aware of its presence, and it becomes aware of ours, and shares in our magical work.
3. Aligning the Witch’s Blade – the work of Aligning with the Witch’s Blade is one of uniting the stars and the darkness of the underworld, and uses some often forgotten traditional techniques of heating the blade, plunging it in cold water with herbs and roots, and magnetizing it.
4. Creating the Clay Witch’s Pentacle – the device of the Witch’s Clay Pentacle is one of the cthonic underworld. The pentacle also as an embodiment of the terrestrial world helps create the final link of the circuit between the heavens and the underworld.
5. Making the Witch’s Ring – the ring uses a stone that has two mates, one within the pentacle and one upon the altar as an altar stone, allowing the work of these five aspects of Witchery to be mobile with the Witch at all time, via the power of the ring. The three stones create a “trine” or harmonious aspect with the powers gathered, and allows the deeper alignment of the heavens, earth and underworld, the classic three worlds of the Witch.
It’s really a beautiful system he has shared involving aspects and elements of things he has both talked about and written about for years, but its framed in a very poetic, magickal and evocative way.
7. What is the one thing you want to make sure my readers know about Raven Grimassi?
That he was, and is, a man of deep honor and love.
8. You, along with Steve Kenson and Adam Sartwell, founded the Temple of Witchcraft. How are things going with the Temple?
Things are really good overall. We are currently in our academic sessions for online classes and have a wonderful group of students in study. We are making plans for our community center, seeking approval with our town planning board and generally enjoying the Hallow’s season.
9. What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with my readers?
I am in the process of helping in the work of another mentor and friend, Laurie Cabot, as Copper Cauldron releases Laurie Cabot’s “Book of Visions”, a meditation book, for the yuletide season. I also have three books in various stages of production I hope to have out next year if all goes well.
10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
I know you’ve attended many events in the Northeast and I believe you’ve met Raven. What’s your favorite Raven memory?
I remember one year at Celebrate Samhain, an annual event in New Hampshire, Raven was one of the speakers. I don’t remember the topic of his talk, not even a little. However, the thing I remember was him thanking the audience and talking about his readers. He spoke with such genuine appreciation that it was then I decided I liked him. I’ve seen him speak or attended a class he instructed several times, but him thanking everyone, that’s the memory that sticks out.
You can learn more about “What We Knew in the Night” here.
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About Raven Grimassi:
Raven Grimassi was a neo-pagan scholar and award-winning author of more than 12 books on witchcraft, Wicca, and neo-paganism. He was a member of the American Folklore Society and was a co-founder and co-director of the Crossroads Fellowship, a modern Mystery School tradition. Photo credit: Peter Paradise, Raven Wolfe Photography
About Christopher Penczak:
Christopher Penczak is a modern Witch, teacher, and healer. He is the author of the acclaimed Inner Temple of Witchcraft series and of “Gay Witchcraft”, Weiser Books, 2003. He offers classes and workshops throughout the U.S. Visit him at: www.christopherpenczak.com.