Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Christian Magic: Hex Signs and Pennsylvania Dutch Pow Wow - Exploding the lines some more

Coptic Christian spell casting, coming from a seemingly distant culture, appears like an archaic and distant Christian magical system. Ok, 4th century Egyptian Christians cast spells, so what? Yet a recent trip with family to Lancaster County reminded me of much more recent - and Protestant - magical traditions from the radical Reformation groups such as Lutherans, Reformed Christian and Moravian churches. All are commonly referred to in our culture as "Pennsylvania Dutch," a loose term for German-descent Protestants who fled to Quaker William Penn's colony, Pennsylvania. And all used the famous and much copied Hex signs for magical protection and spellcasting.

Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs have their roots in the German word, Hexen, for witch. Painters of the Hex signs, and folk healers who use the signs, are Hexenmeisters. (Of course, nowadays, anyone can buy "Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs, currently made in China, and sold at convenience markets all over SE Pennsylvania. . . ) The signs themselves reflect agrarian German folk art: floral and bird designs that originally appeared in family Bibles, marriage and birth certificates. The most central and common element is a hexagonal star-like pattern. Farmers originally hand painted the signs, often on barns and buildings for luck and protection, and it was only in the 20th century that farmers' markets started to mass produce silk-screened hex signs for commercial profit.

Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs relate to another folk tradition agrarian tradition: pow wow healing (not to be confused with Native American pow wows). Pow wow practitioners use Christian spells, hex signs and other folk symbols, and prayer to bring healing. One of the earliest - and most famous Hexenmeister and pow wow healers was "Mountain Mary," or "Barricke Mariche" in Pennsylvania German, who lived in Berks County in the turn of the 18/19th century. "Mountain Mary" used prayer and magical herbs from her garden to heal people, and a statue to her was put up by the American Daughters of the Revolution in Berks County. She remains one of the most famous of early American powwowers.

Modern powwowers still live and practice in Pennsylvania - some from traditional Christian roots, and some from more Pagan and New Age viewpoints. A typical powwower uses German Bible quotes, prayer, small hex signs, and sometimes ritual for curing. Some powwowers request payment; traditionally most did not. A traditional powwower attributes his or her healing success to God, and sees hexology as a gift from God. Hexology and powwow are both faith-based healing traditions that can be entirely Christian in perspective.

Obviously, since Pagans are using hexology as well, Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be used outside Christian practice. However, here we have an interesting paradox: so much of Christianity is borrowed or stolen from Pagans, yet the hexology and powwow traditions are deeply Christian. Here is an opportunity for Pagans to respectfully borrow back, while acknowledging the diversity of practice that is Christianity (hey, not that Christians themselves always do this so well!!!) Pennsylvania Dutch hexology and powwow traditions are unique forms of Christian spell work, herbal lore, and prayer. Christians and Pagans (and any mix thereof) can find common ground in celebrating these marvelous traditions.

The hex signs themselves are beautiful, and easy to find online or throughout Pennsylvania. Stars for luck and good will, oak leaves for strength, distelfinks (goldfinch in English) for happiness, eagles for success, Birds of Paradise for the wonder and mystery of life: the symbols in hex signs relate to magical traditions and Christian beliefs that are easy to embrace. I have tried my hand - not too successfully - at painting my own symbols, but practice makes perfect. Hex signs and powwows are marvelous bridges for the traveller exploring boundaries of Christian and Pagan worlds.

(You can still buy a collection of hexenmeister prayers and meditations, The Long Lost Friend, by John George Hohman, originally printed in German, published in Reading, PA in 1820. An English translation is still being published, Cosimo Classics, 2007).

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I'm kind of interested in the whole pow wow/hexenmesiter idea, especially as it relates to Christianity, ever since I learned from my grandmother that HER grandmother was a "pow wow." I've been trying to find out if these practices were accepted by, condoned by, or rejected by the churches of the time; I know my own church now looks at it all as satanic and evil in the eyes of God.