Blog Post 15 – An Introduction to Pow-wow, Part II

Welcome back!  Today I’m continuing with a bit more of the history of Pow-wow, as well as some of its cultural connections.  It’s a lot of information, so I’ll spare you a long introduction and get right to the point.

So why is it called “Pow-wow?”

That’s a good question.  After all, the term “powwow” is associated with Native Americans, not with Germans, right?  According to Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author of The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft:

“The term [Pow-wowing] was derived from the settlers’ observation of Indian powwows, meetings for ceremonial or conference purposes.  Much of the Germans’ witchcraft centered around cures and healing.  The settlers enlisted the help of the Indians in finding native roots and herbs that could be used in their medicinal recipes” (p. 270)

So early on, the connection between the marginalized German settlers and the marginalized natives was established, and an exchange of information shaped the magical practices found among the settlers.  This is that distinctly American flavor I mentioned earlier—the syncretism of Old World techniques with New World resources.  I think it’s important to note that this syncretism was not done willy-nilly, but rather was born of specific needs.  Herbs were not substituted based on intuitive feelings, but based on shared botanical properties.  Hence an old-world root like mandrake might find a substitution in the form of a potato (another member of the nightshade family and one which could be used to make vegetable poppets for sympathetic magic).  Or, it might be replaced by the mayapple, due to its chemical properties (both share certain levels of toxicity which can make them psychoactive in small doses and deadly in larger ones).

Are there still Pow-wows in America?

Oh my yes.  There have been dozens of books written on the subject (many of them fairly recent, and sometimes unfortunately rather misrepresentative), and famous Pow-wows were known as little as thirty or forty years ago.  There are great resources written by fairly contemporary authors like Lee R. Gandee, Jack Montgomery, and Karl Herr, as well as some lesser-known works (such as the text by Chris Bilardi previously cited).  And, of course, Hohman’s Long Lost Friend is still available in print, too.

More than just books, though, there is a living tradition, often fairly hidden to outsiders, within various PA-Dutch communities.  Sometimes complete curing traditions are intact, sometimes only a few charms survive within a family.  Often one can find magical recipe books or almanacs like the ones circulated in the 1800’s sitting near family bibles in modern Pennsylvania-German homes.  Speaking of the Bible, that brings me to the next topic…

Is Pow-wow Christian magic?

This is a bit of a sticky wicket for a lot of folks.  Most certainly, as it is practiced now, Pow-wow is highly dependent on Judeo-Christian religion for its symbols, names of power, etc.  It has its roots in older practices, but tracing those roots is often a murky bit of business.  Rather than asking you to believe me on the subject, though, I’d like to present a few quotes from those more in the know than I am:

“Powwowing has survived into modern times.  Some of the charms and incantations used date back to the Middle Ages, probably to the time of Albertus Magnus, a magician, alchemist and prolific author whose feats were often called witchcraft.  Powwowing charms also include Kabbalistic and Biblical elements” (Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, p. 270)

“The roots of Bruacherei are indeed quite long, some of which can be traced to pre-Christian Germanic heathenism.  Other roots are equally pre-Christian and stem from older forms of Judaism and the many strains of religion and medicine of the Roman Empire.  Without overreaching too much, the sometimes blurry lines between what constituted a ‘Germanic’ tribe versus a ‘Celtic’ tribe or a ‘Slavic’ tribe, make it quite possible there are Slavic and Celtic pre-Christian elements in Bruacherei.  The truly unique thing about Bruacherei is that it is a wholly Germanic synthesis of all these cultural strains.  Anyone looking for a purely heathen Germanic healing-way via Bruacherei is in for a major disappointment.  To take Bruacherei and reshape it in this manner is to make a brand-new practice out of it.  Therefore it would no longer be Bruacherei as it has been practiced for nearly 900 years and most certainly not as it has been practiced for the past two centuries in America” (Bilardi, The Red Church, p. 73)

“Once, when I showed him [famed Hex/Pow-wow Lee R. Gandee] several items I’d purchased from a mail order occult catalog, he smiled and said, ‘Do you really think that stuff will help you?  Don’t you realize by now that the magic is coming from within you and from God?  You are the catalyst!  In you, the power will either arise or fall flat.’” (Jack Montgomery, American Shamans, p. 77)

What I gather from this and other sources is that if one studies Pow-wow, one needs to be comfortable with Judeo-Christian ideas.  Note I don’t say one has to accept them all, but if learning to use a charm with the words “Jesus” or “Mary” or “Holy Ghost” in it is a problem, Pow-wow may not be the way to go.

There are definitely illustrations of pre-Christian origins for many of the modern Pow-wow charms and spells (I’ll be including one in this series to demonstrate these differences), but as it stands now, this system is tied to its centuries-old Christian heritage.  It is my opinion (and mine alone) that it is possible to work with Pow-wow without any Christian elements, but that if one does so, it is advisable to be absolutely sure that the names, prayers, charms, etc. one uses are intimately connected to their historical roots.  Using strictly Germanic spirit and deity names in this system strikes me as the only practical way to accomplish this (although I’d be willing to entertain the idea of using Native American stand-ins as well, due to the connection between the two cultures through Pow-wow).  The odd tendency in modern magic to use “correspondences” and tables of mix-and-match deities and forces seems somehow improper to me.  One wouldn’t assume that one could play the violin with a drumstick just because both are musical instruments, yet people feel absolutely no reservations about dropping an Egyptian goddess into a Germanic, post-Reformation charm.  Now, a person can play a bluegrass tune or a strain of Bach with the same bow, so I do think that once a person has mastered the basics of the instrument, the specific form and style he or she plays (or in the case of Pow-wow, the specific charms employed) can vary.  But as for outright cross-substitution between very different traditions, I don’t think that still qualifies as Pow-wow.  I suppose if one subscribes to the “all gods are one” hypothesis I might be able to understand that point of view, but that’s not a perspective I follow, so it doesn’t work for me.

All of that is a lot of typing just to say “Yes, Pow-wow is sort of Christian.  Mostly.  More or less.  But not always.  But mostly.  I think.”

That’s it for today.  I should point out that the opinion presented here is my own, and not that of the authors I cite.  Please refer to their works for their specific opinions.  And feel free to engage in a lively and civil debate if you like!  I’d love to get other perspectives!

Oh, and I promise there are some practical things coming up soon, so stick with me for those.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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3 Comments on “Blog Post 15 – An Introduction to Pow-wow, Part II”

  1. Anica Says:

    loving these posts!! i was always amazed by the profusion of fests and holy days in Bavaria. mainly because the germans still clung to gothic folk traditions. the passion plays began as a sort of plea (dare i say form of magic) to god – performed to protect villagers against the plague in the middle ages. because it worked, these plays are still practiced today.

    walpurgisnacht celebrated the coming of spring with bonfires (and with witches,and saints against bad magic in mind),

    springerle cookies which we usually see around christmas and easter were once baked as a sort of christianised offering during yulfest instead of the usual pagan animal sacrafices… this was also a form of weather magic too! – the sacrafices were meant to ensure a good season for the coming months.

    as well, my very catholic german godmother also had no trouble telling a little 5 year old girl about the pagan backstory of the holidays either.

    these are a people who somehow retained their prechristian roots while transitioning to a christian world view. so… i guess i finally understand too, why my history teacher says the barbarians converted to the ‘wrong type of christianity’…


    • Thanks, Anica! I’m glad you’re enjoying them!

      I remember seeing similar pagan vestiges when I lived over in the Czech Republic. On Easter the men would take willow switches and chase the women and girls until the girls gave them eggs and shots of plum brandy. There are cakes baked in the shape of a lamb (much like the sacrificial animals you mentioned), too.

      Christmas was also a surreal blend of pagan and Christian elements, with presents delivered by an invisible flying baby Jesus (called “Jizicek” and a horde of angels). But there was also a Father Frost-type figure. All the doors in the home are left unlocked and an extra place is set at the table in case someone shows up unexpectedly and needs food and warmth. It has a strong bent of the hospitality culture of the ancient pagans.

      And I love Walpurgisnacht. The celebrated that with hilltop bonfires in Prague. It’s one of my main holidays, too…we’ll probably go into that whenever we do a “holidays” episode.

      That’s great about your grandmother, too! My mom would explain certain pagan origins, though she would always sort of present it as though it were a prefiguring of the Christianity that eventually arrived.

      Thanks for reading, again! And for commenting!
      -Cory

  2. Anica Says:

    – so, with this powerful background in mind, we are speaking of a tradition which dates to the birth of christianity – i would be uncomfortable using any other tradition to supplant its initial references because it is also a complete form without this sort of need, (except when we speak of native american introductions which were vital to continuing german folk magic in america). but, this is just my intuitive sense of the conflict of expanding the definition of powwow. i also dont know much about powwow either and so cant speak for others –


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