Before the Gardnerians: Rhea W. and the Feri Tradition

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 beem 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 first 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; they functioned like Communist Party cells, in that 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, candle 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 she who later trained Lady Galadriel (Jodi Monogue, 1956-2006) and Lord Athanor (d. 2012), founders of the Unicorn Tradition in Georgia

The Harpy Coven and Feri Tradition

The most important of the pre-Gardnerian witches I have known was certainly Victor Anderson, a founder (or, as he said, a transmitter) of the Feri Tradition. Victor was born May 15, 1917, in New Mexico; his family moved to Bend, Oregon, when he was quite young. He claimed that he underwent a sexual initiation by an old woman at age nine. According to the research of Valerie Voigt, long-time coordinator of the Pagan, Occult, and Witchcraft Special Interest Group of American Mensa, one story that Victor repeated fairly consistently was that he was initiated into the Harpy Coven in Ashland, Oregon, in 1932; the High Priestess and High Priest were Maybelle and Jerome Warren, and other members included Jim Murdoch and Patricia Fern. The coven was quite eclectic, mixing Huna with varieties of folk magic more common in the continental United States. He said that the coven’s emphasis was on practical magic; there was little concern with worship, theology, ethics, or ritual. They did celebrate the Sabbats by getting together to work magic on them, but the only time they met in a circle, Victor said, was when they were eating—and yet this ordinary-looking meal was for them, he says, part of the celebration of the Sabbat.

The Harpy Coven broke up during World War Two. In 1944 Anderson met and married his wife, Cora, who came from a Southern family that practiced a folk-magic variety of witchcraft. They moved to San Leandro, CA, in about 1948. Cora worked as a hospital cook and was often asked to prepare her healing food for patients who were not responding to conventional treatment. Victor was legally blind, but could read with a magnifying glass. He was also a professional musician, somewhat of a virtuoso on the accordian.

Victor was greatly influenced by Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in the mid-1950s and began to think about founding a coven based on his and Cora’s traditional knowledge. He was encouraged to do so by several Craft correspondents, including Leo Martello in New York. In about 1962 Victor acquired his most important student, Thomas DeLong, who later wrote under the pen name Gwydion Pendderwen, when Tom befriended the Anderson’s son in junior high. Tom became a friend of the family and was initiated into the Craft. During the 1960s Victor and Gwydion collaborated on writing the Feri Book of Shadows, using the basic Gardnerian format, but with added traditional materials.

About 1970, when Gwydion initiated Alison Harlow (1934-2004), who had been married to the science-fiction writer Randall Garrett, the Andersons formed the Double Helix coven. Gwydion’s wife, Cynthia, was also initiated into the coven. Gwydion had been in touch with Joe Wilson for some time and was invited to be a member of the Pagan Way “Committee of Correspondence.” About 1970 Gwydion and Alison founded Nemeton (“sacred grove” in Welsh) in Oakland as a networking organization allied with the Pagan Way. It had about a dozen  regional secretariats around the United States in the early 1970s. In 1973-1974 Nemeton published three issues of Nemeton magazine. The contributors were a cross-section of American Paganism, and indicate how much interaction there was among the various Pagan and Wiccan groups. They included Susan Roberts, Poul Anderson, Penny Novack, Victor, Joe Wilson, Harold Moss, Mikel Clifford, Ed Fitch, Tim Zell, Dan Norman, Lady Theos, and Tony Spurlock, about many of whom I’ll have stories to tell later on.

I had met Gwydion in 1971, and we became very good friends during the next five years. Through him I and Alta met Victor and Cora in late 1971 and became friends with them also; we accepted Feri initiation in 1975. I did not receive any formal training by Victor; what I learned was while just occasionally hanging out with him, by, for example, taking him to his Eagles lodge. He was not easy to work with. To contradict him was to be banished. He lived in mythic time and was utterly unconcerned about observing a “foolish consistency,” although he could drop into ordinary time when necessary, as when I once took him and Cora down to argue with the Social Security Administration about a supposed overpayment. Some people believed all his stories; some did not; but I knew him well enough to be sure he was not just making everything up. In some ways, it was a lot like working with Castenada’s Don Juan. I tell much more about them in my Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches. Once nice aspect of blogging is that I do get to mention my books.

Gwydion died in an accident in 1982. Victor passed away in 2001, Alison in 2004, Cora in 2008. I lost track of Cynthia after she and Gwydion separated in about 1973. I still miss them all.

  • Dave Burwasser

    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.
    Might not there have been common influence from the Western occult culture?

  • Robert Mathiesen

    Here’s some background for some features of Rhea W.’s Lousiville group, from my own family history:

    God as both mother and father was something I, too, grew up with as a part of my mother’s family’s magical pantheism in the San Francisco Bay area in the ’40s and ’50s. They took it from the New Thought (including Christian Science) movement that developed from 1875 onward, and rooted itself strongly in California at an early date. I think it was originally characteristic of the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, whence it passed into many varieties of Spiritualism also.

    Sending energy, drawing energy from the sun, rhythmic breathing, an emphasis on natural foods and herbs (sometimes even on vegetarianism), and visualization were also characteristic of that milieu at that time, but may have a different origin. I think they entered the SF Bay area alternate religions from the practices of the Delsarte movement, of which Genevieve Stebbins (who also strongly influenced the Church of Light) was a leading proponent.

    In my own family, my great-great-grandmother Nellie was the first to move to the Bay Area, in the mid 1880s. Her scrapbooks show that she was interested in Spiritualism, New Thought, and energy work (via a now forgotten SF Spiritualist and Healer, Nellie Beighle). Her only child, Alice, and her only grandchild, Zena, inherited these interests from her. Alice’s husband, Newton, was an active gymnast within the Delsarte school of movement, which is probably how the Delsarte system got into our family’s traditions. Alice herself was also passionately interested in her ancestors, and had a custom of remembering and honoring them at Hallowe’en, using photographs of them and a real human skull that she had gotten in the 1910s or 1920s from a doctor friend. She seems also to have done some scrying, and there was a family story about her use of opium. She also kept an open table for gypsies that traveled through Berkeley.

    Zena added other popular esoteric ideas to the blend, which she learned not from any teacher face-to-face, but from the esoteric novels of Marie Corelli — whose influence on all alternative religions at the time was enormous. (Corelli was probably the natural daughter, and certainly the adopted daughter, of Charles Mackay, author of _Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds_.)

    None of these women ancestors of mine would have called themselves Witches, or even thought the word would describe them accurately, but that was due to the pejorative character that the W-word had at the time. But women like them were very common, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’m sure some of them eventually came to call themselves Witches.

    All this sounds somewhat like what Rhea W. encountered in Lousiville, KY, in the ’30s, though it’s rather different from the New York group that initiated her in the ’40s. It’s a long way from California to Kentucky, but the sources that my ancestors drew their magical pantheism from were available everywhere in the US, and were popular everywhere with people who were dissatisfied with mainstream Christianity — so why not also in Lousiville. I’m pretty sure you could have found similar groups of women in other cities at the time, too.


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