This week, we’re very lucky to be able to host a new article by the rather brilliant author of The Red Church, Chris Bilardi. The article will be put up in two parts over two days. It’s a thoughtful and well-composed question-and-answer session from a traditional Pow-wow practitioner’s (or braucher’s) perspective. If you enjoyed my introduction to Pow-wow series, have been looking for straight answers on the magical traditions of the Pennsylvania Germans, or just have an interest in folk magic and healing in general, I think you’re in for a real treat.
Now, without further delay, the article:
Questions to a Braucher
Below is a list of questions regarding the present-day practice of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, or otherwise known as Pow-Wow.
How does one find a braucher nearby and contact them?
Traditionally, one finds a braucher by word of mouth. Prior to the so-called York “Hex Murder” of the braucher Nelson Rehmeyer in 1928, there were many full-time, professional powwowers who hung out a shingle and advertised. After Rehmeyer’s murder, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began a sever crackdown on the practice of braucherei. With that stated, it must be said that even prior to the shocking events of 1928, most practitioners did not advertise, charge, or hang out a ‘shingle’ that they were in practice. In fact, the norm was, and still is, that of the private individual, the knowledge of whose powwowing activity is passed by word of mouth, and who practices mainly among family, friends, friends of friends, and so-on. At this point, there are still very few publically known powwow doctors. One who wishes to go to one must still keep an ear to the ground, and then make discrete inquiries. Pennsylvania Dutchmen tend to be shy (or even in some cases hostile) when the subject is broached. These reactions are a mixture of embarrassment (for fear of being seen as “backward”), and disbelief (such as some who see the practice as devil’s work, or just superstitious nonsense). It would also be accurate to say that there are many ethnic Dutchmen today who have never heard of powwowing. Reticence on speaking of a known powwower is also a way of protecting a practitioner’s privacy (and ensuring their safety).
What kind of services does a braucher perform?
What services one can get depends upon the individual practitioner. The way it tends to work is like this: each powwower finds that s/he is particularly good at one sort of activity, and then specializes in that type of activity. For example, some are only good at removing warts; others have a knack for getting rid of inflammations, and so on. There are others who will try their hand at any sort of powwowing with the belief that it does not hurt give it a whirl. Some types of powwowing, such as I was taught, in a way fall into the latter category; in this case, there is only one method that is applicable to all conditions. Services have traditionally included any of the following: pain-relieve, inflammatory problems, colic, fever, warts and other lesions, folk-illnesses such as abnemmes or opnema (“the take off” – a wasting disease), aagewachse (“Livergrown”) and rotlaufa (which falls under red inflammatory conditions); also sore throats, heart disease, persistent cough, and any other physical ailment one can think of. Some brauchers believe that they cannot ‘try’ for congenital illnesses, only those acquired throughout life. Other services can include the preparation of charms and talismans, such as the himmelsbrief or a “fire and pestilence letter” (both are written talismans that bless and ward away illness, evil spirits and catastrophes). Some brauchers are also exorcists; they have the ability to banish ghosts, hauntings, and demonic entities. The reasoning behind these activities is that all Christians are called by Christ to do these things to the glory of God and the good of His children. Not the least of this sort of activity is the breaking of a ferhext (cursed) condition, and the destruction of all acts of witchcraft. Some powwowers have “the sight” and are able to foretell events and find lost objects.
Is this stuff witchcraft?
Short answer: no. Long answer: it depends upon what a person thinks “witchcraft” is. Braucherei is a spiritual, energetic folk practice or modality of healing; traditionally, hexerei (i.e. “witchcraft”) has always been seen as a harmful practice. This is not the witchcraft of Neo-Paganism, or Wicca. The hexe was seen as one whose main purpose for existing was to make life miserable for others: “far die leid gwele”. Fundamentally, hexerei is an abuse of spiritual power. To some people braucherei with all of its seemingly ‘odd’ prayers, hand movements, herbs, and mysterious objects is nothing but dyed-in-the-wool witchery. For the Neo-Pagan it looks from the outside like what they’ve come to know as “witchcraft”; for the Christian who is turned off by powwow, it equally looks from the outside as what they’ve been told witchcraft is supposed to look like. The common denominator in both of these superficial views is powwow’s “shamanistic” approach to the spiritual world. One of the reasons that Dutchmen have been cautious about helping others get involved in powwow is the very real danger of someone getting tangled up with black magic. It is far too easy for a poorly trained person to use their new-found knowledge abusively. Powwow does demand a good degree of spiritual discernment.
Does one need to pay for braucherei treatment?
Another short answer: no. Unfortunately, there is a long answer here too. In the past there were practitioners (the “professionals” with their shingles hanging outside) that did charge a set fee for healing, despite claiming that their power came “from Jesus”. Some readers of this article will doubtlessly know of some folk healing traditions that demand the exchange of money (“crossing the palm with silver”) in order for it to work. In no uncertain terms, please understand that braucherei is not one of these traditions. By tradition, if one goes to a powwow doctor, s/he might leave a donation. The powwower will not ask for a donation. I was taught that a person can leave some money underneath the powwower’s Bible. Some practitioners will, in turn, not keep this money, but donate it to their church or to a charity. As I made note of in The Red Church, there are some activities to which there are legitimate charges, such as the creation of a himmelsbrief or fire and pestilence letter – especially if it entails calligraphic fraktur work. In other words, any activity that demands the time and resources of the powwower can be legitimately charged to the client. However, the bulk of a powwower’s time is spent in healing work, and one is to never charge for healing. It is God who is the real doctor on these occasions, and no human being can take credit (or remuneration) for that work.
That’s it for Part I. Tomorrow I’ll put up the rest of the article, which will deal a little more with the philosophy of the practice, and advice on getting started.
Thanks for reading!
5 thoughts on “Blog Post 35 – Questions to a Braucher, Part I”
is it fair to make a braucherei equivalent to a new world shaman? both are community based, are endowed with curative powers by powerful spirits or a deity, and often combat sources of evil (supposedly the source of illness)
i also seem to hear alot about people with the same qualities of braucherei in Russia.- i couldnt find anything about them online (saw them on tv documentarties)but i did find a book about a volga german’s practice in the dakotas, which i just might have to read.
i actually live in a volga german community in the plains, established the late 1800’s -the language and old country vibe is alive and well, and i havnt heard a peep about this practice out here, for obvious reason, unless it died out early. this could get pretty interesting….
scholarly book blurb
I like that, Anica! I think you’re onto something in terms of brauchers being like New World shamans. I’d probably be more inclined to use the term “witch-doctor” myself, because I tend to think of shamans as those who go into the Otherworld, and brauchers are channeling that otherworldly power into this world…but then, I’m not a braucher so I don’t know that *they* wouldn’t consider themselves shamans. Maybe Chris will be able to pop in and give his two cents on the matter.
At any rate, you definitely make a great point about the traits of an Indo-European shaman and a braucher being very similar. Good call!
Vocationally they fulfill the same function in their culture as a shaman would have theirs. The fact that they do not “fare forth” would be the difference for me as well. Same with the conjure doctor of the south.
In my personal practice I do the “waking state” sorcery, or mildy tranced, as well as full on jumping the fence. I’m in no way representational of other conjurers, in the same way I am not a representative for other traditional witches either.
One difference in the conjure worker and the braucher is that usually there is dealings with both hands. Though some choose to be one or the other sometimes, this isn’t the standard.
yes – at least to the community, a shaman works for the good of the people, and not for any other percieved gain (though i’ve seen a bit of debauchery too from this group), less mobility.
also – are you saying braucherei work normally in the waking state?
Brauchers do not have to enter into a trance state in order to work. Although some might debate that by pointing out that anytime someone begins to go into a prayerful mode is a form of trance, albeit a light one. Traditional brauchers would definitely not define themselves as “shamans”. Personally, I’m not that fond of the word. “Witch doctor” might come closer, and even that’s not a great fit either.
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