Below is Lady Magdalena’s recollection and memory of Lady Rhea.
How I Remember Her
by Lady Magdalena
Lady Rhea, otherwise known as Ruby Widner, was introduced to me when I first came to study the Wiccan path in 1979 at the Grove of the Unicorn with Lady Galadriel and Lord Athanor (at that time Lord Elrond). Lady Rhea had taught Jodi Monogue (Lady Galadriel) and John Monogue (Lord Athanor) a few years earlier and had recently initiated them both to the level of Third Degree Priestess and Priest.
Lady Galadriel and Lord Athanor established the Grove of the Unicorn and began teaching interested students in Atlanta, Georgia. I had been taking a variety of esoteric classes and experimenting with different occult paths for several years previously but had never felt complete with them. My Higher Self led me to the Grove where I immediately found my lifelong religious home in the Wiccan Way. I poured myself into the studies and experiences working as fast as I could with my full-time career and children to earn and be initiated into the level of First Degree by the end of 1980. Lady Rhea was at many of the classes and almost all of the rituals, teaching us with her decades of knowledge and blessing us with her elegance during ritual.
I was not close to her since she filled the role of Elder and mentor in the background while Lady Galadriel and Lord Athanor were my immediate teachers and leaders. I learned the Grove’s curriculum from my Priest and Priestess, but I learned how to behave as a Priestess by observing the gravity of Lady Rhea’s regal presence. She was Priestess, Elder, Mother, and Guardian of the Temple. My fondest memory is of the weekend camping trip in 1983 to the north Georgia mountains where Lady Rhea, Lady Galadriel and Lord Athanor initiated me to the level of Third Degree Priestess under the full moon and celestial canopy.
The following is taken from Crafting the Art of Magic: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939- 1964. By Dr. Aidan Kelly, Llewellyn’s Modern Witchcraft Series, Book 1. May 1991. In which, Dr. Kelly shares his research about pre-Gardnerian witchcraft groups in the USA during the early part of the 20th century.
J. Gordon Melton, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.
J. Gordon Melton’s files, in the library of the University of California at Santa Barbara, contain letters from various traditional witches who know what American witchcraft was like before the influence of Gerald Gardner was felt.
Rhea W. corresponded with Dr. Melton in the late 1970s and early 1980s and allowed him to take notes on a conversation with her on June 21, 1980. He very generously allowed me to quote from her letters and his notes in my Crafting the Art of Magic, and I am summarizing that material here.
Rhea said that “There was a very active group in Louisville, KY, in 1934 and long before that. They were my first introduction to the Old Religion.” As a child in the 1930s in Louisville, she was given informal training in meditation, energy uses, visualization, and herbology by a woman named Hannah in her apartment building. Hannah spoke of “following the Old Ways,” and in her apartment, a group met weekly. None of the women in the group cut their hair.
They believed in a divine duality, in God as mother and father; they drew energy from the sun and were particular about natural foods and herbs. The children were allowed to hold hands, do rhythmic breathing, and send energy. She never saw an altar or ritual instruments, but there was lighting of candles and calling on the spirits of the four corners.
Neither Gordon nor I was sure how much credence to lend to Rhea’s stories. However, in 1991, I was living in Eagle Rock, a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, while working as an editor for Jeremy Tarcher. The nice lady who owned the House of Hermetic, easily the best occult supply shop in the Los Angeles basin, had recently moved her shop out there from the chaos of Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. One day, after Crafting the Art of Magic had been published, I was in her shop buying coven supplies. She emerged from the back room and told me that she had known the group in Louisville also, and that Rhea’s description was quite accurate. Some friends said to me later, “My God, she never talks to anybody. She must have really liked your book!”
Rhea said that she was initiated in 1943 by a group she worked with in New York City from 1942 to 1945. Her initiation required a month of preparation and involved a three-day fast for purification. The group had been together for quite some time, and she knew of others… Members were recruited by invitation and sworn to secrecy; they did not call themselves ‘Pagans’ or ‘Wicca.’ When asked what religion they were, they just replied, “We follow the Old Ways.”
“Rituals were not quite as stylized as they are today. There are similarities and differences. We worked clothed (and/or robed). Sex within the temple or circle was taboo; however, there was a very healthy attitude toward sex.” She said that when a Priest and Priestess were “bound together;” the sexual act was used and represented oneness.
Most of the members of the group were Lebanese. They said they had brought the “tradition” with them from Lebanon, and that Kahlil Gibran had derived from their tradition there. The group was not called a coven; its numbers fluctuated, but it was tight-knit. It met weekly and celebrated all eight Sabbats, often at a farm in New Jersey, where many of the members lived.
The members worked magic in terms of the phases of the moon but did not meet specifically at new or full moon; many attended other churches as well. They used the athame but had no grimoires or written materials aside from personal notebooks for recipes. Basic instructions were oral, and all members of the group constituted the priesthood. They believed in reincarnation and practiced both high and low magic.
They worked in a temple room used only for ritual purposes, and no circle was cast. The altar contained male and female statuettes to represent the Lord and Lady, a sword, a chalice, an incense burner, candles of various colors, and earth. Rituals were in English. They observed the elements and corners, and taught meditation, astral travel, work on the planes, and work with elements.
There are a few apparently Gardnerian details mixed into her story, but not so many as to render it unbelievable, and they may have resulted merely from faulty memories. Rhea said that she later met other folk witches, both groups and individuals, in such places as Gainesville, Nashville, and Jasper, Alabama, as well as in Georgia and California. Her impression was that the “Old Way witches” tend to remain underground and separate from the “new witches.”
It was Rhea who later trained and initiated Lady Galadriel (Jodi Monogue, 1956-2006) and Lord Athanor (d. 2012), founders of the Grove of the Unicorn and the Unicorn Tradition in Atlanta, Georgia. Lady Galadriel and Lord Athanor trained and initiated Lady Magdalena (BJ Barrett), founder of the Grove of Phoenix Rising (Austin Texas 1982) and the Temple of the Rising Phoenix and The Phoenix Tradition, (Atlanta, GA 2011).
The following paragraph is from Lady Magdalena’s notebooks. It is an oral lecture by Lady Galadriel in one of her Grove classes on lineage on July 23, 2000.
“There are of course stories of Wiccan traditions being passed down through families and lasting for hundreds of years, or in some extreme cases, thousands of years. Really, quite frankly, we can’t prove a lot of it. Although some of us sure wish we could.
The best I can actually prove to any of you is that I had two elders and one of them was initiated in 1932 as Lord Merlyn and the other one was initiated in 1939 as Lady Rhea (Ruby Widner). So, I know that what we’re doing pre-dates Gerald Gardner.
What I do know is that both of my elders and teachers, were great and wise people, whom I respected. And I know that they were alive and I have material that says here’s when I was initiated, here’s by whom, here’s how it went, and here’s how it comes down to you.
So can I tell you that what you are studying here is old, ancient and venerable? In concept, yes. In reality I can’t tell you it really goes back more than about seventy years. (the 1930’s in the USA). I do know its pre-Gardnerian, so what you are learning here isn’t the Gardnerian tradition.”
Lady Rhea’s Later Years
Lady Rhea served as teacher, Priestess, and Elder to the Unicorn Tradition for the next 35 years. She also served as Priestess, Elder, and Guardian of the Temple to her secret family Order.
Her appearances among us became fewer as she aged, but her regal presence and power during ritual never waned.
Lady Rhea (Ruby Johnson Widner) was born on October 19, 1922, and left us for the Summerlands on June 12, 2016.