New York Times
IT was the night before Thanksgiving, and the Witch Queen of New York was not stirring her brew or flying on her broom.
NAME Rhea Rivera.
WHERE SHE’S FROM The Bronx.
WHAT SHE IS Wiccan, co-owner of the Pagan Center of New York.
Well, she did have her broom, but she was using it to sweep up the Pagan Center of New York, her headquarters in the Bronx, on Webster Avenue and 189th Street near Fordham University.
“Where the heck is that dustpan?” said the witch, Lady Rhea, 60, a Wiccan high priestess who was pulling off a nearly magical level of multitasking: drinking coffee, smoking thin Capri cigarettes and conducting a phone conversation while sweeping.
Lady Rhea is no cartoon witch. She is a no-nonsense Bronx native who drives a Ford Focus and tells it like it is. No black robe and pointy hat here. On Wednesday night, she wore slacks, a sweatshirt and designer glasses and jewelry.
Once, she was invited to appear on a talk show and was told at the last minute that the show planned to dress her in a hokey Halloween costume. That was a deal-breaker.
“I said: ‘Forget it. I’m wearing a nice silk suit right now, and I’m not putting on no costume,’ ” said Lady Rhea, whose real name is Rhea Rivera.
Lady Rhea continued sweeping in one of the rooms filled with altars. Bottles of rum and Goya soda shared space with statues of Roman Catholic saints, as horns and police sirens blared from the traffic on Webster Avenue.
“There are city witches and country witches,” she said. “This witch prefers to do her bonfires outdoors and then, after the bonfire’s over, where’s the Hilton? Hello — I like my luxuries.”
This is the Wiccan wit of Lady Rhea, known as Pagan Mother to hundreds of her “children,” Wiccans she has initiated into the craft as priests and priestesses.
Lady Rhea runs the Pagan Center, a second-floor space above Original Products, a large botanica with long racks and shelves of herbs and amulets used in Santeria, voodoo and other Afro-Caribbean religions. In Original Products, which she doesn’t own, Lady Rhea has her own retail counter, called Magickal Realms.
Six years ago, she and her wife, Sandra Rivera, who is also a Wiccan and is known as Lady Zoradia, opened the center to offer classes in Wiccan topics, to hold witchcraft rituals in a temple there and to observe the holy days of the pagan calendar, including the eight annual Sabbaths.
They celebrate Halloween, or Samhain, by conducting a ritual invocation of their ancestors, and leave food offerings on an altar. In late December, they will gather in the temple for the winter solstice, and in spring they will have a traditional gathering in Pelham Bay Park and dance around a maypole for May Day, or Beltane.
Lady Rhea was born Aurelia Bila and grew up in the Bronx near Gun Hill Road. Her parents, “good Italian Catholics,” she said, took her to church on Sundays and, fearing violence from local race riots, pulled her out of public school after ninth grade and enrolled her in beauty high school on the Grand Concourse. She shopped for hippie-style jewelry at botanicas in the area, and was exposed to Santeria, which was practiced by some of the local Puerto Rican population.
“I saw my first Santeria altar and identified with it immediately,” Lady Rhea said. Her search for a crystal ball led her to the Warlock Shoppe in Brooklyn Heights, where she met Herman Slater, who would open the Magickal Childe, a shop on West 19th Street in Manhattan that became the center of occult life in New York City, and where she later worked.
In 1982, Lady Rhea and a partner opened a similar store called Enchantments, on Ninth Street, and in 1992, the Magickal Realms candle shop in the Village. Starting in 1995, Lady Rhea moved the shop to various locations in the Bronx before settling at Original Products.
The bulk of her business comes from the sale of homemade hand-carved candles scented with custom-blended oils and imbued with spells to achieve things like health and wealth or love and luck. Each candle costs $25, and for an extra $10, Lady Rhea will keep it burning in the temple for weeks.
The candles can help with things like finding an apartment in Manhattan, avoiding parking tickets, finding shopping bargains or staying safe in the Bronx, she said.
Lady Rhea created a spell that helped her lose 65 pounds, she said, but she still has not come up with one to help her quit smoking. She does not guarantee the results of the candles, but she can cite many successes in love and lotto. “I’ve had people buy the money candles and come back saying, ‘I hit the Pick 6 numbers’ or ‘the four-digit straight,’ ” she said.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 27, 2011, on page WE4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Witch Wears Silk Suits.