“Where is the doctor who has ever cured or banished the panting or palpitation of the heart, and hide-boundness? Where is the doctor who ever banished a wheal? Where is the doctor who ever banished the mother-fits? Where is the doctor that can cure mortification when it once seizes a member of the body? All these cures, and a great many more mysterious and wonderful things are contained in this book; and its author could take an oath at any time upon the fact of his having successfully applied many of the prescriptions contained herein.” -John George Hohman, from the Introduction to POW-WOWS; OR, THE LONG LOST FRIEND
The mysterious folk magic of the Pennsylvania Dutch and their neighbors goes by many names: Pow-wow, Braucheri, Hexerei, “trying,” etc. Depending on who you talk to, it may be an extension of Christian prayer or faith healing, a blend of medieval Cabbala and German folk magic, an inherited family practice, a learned set of techniques, an entirely holy healing tradition, or gray-area almost-diabolical sorcery. There are a range of individual methods to Pow-wow, including written talismans, spoken charms, herbal remedies, and calculated hand-movements. And I’m not even going to touch the controversial concept of hex-signs on barns yet.
In this series of posts (which will probably go up over the course of the next few days), I want to provide a little bit of background on this rich and interesting magical system, with a few little charms and techniques to try for yourself. I won’t be getting into great detail yet, as this is a system which many claim takes a lifetime to fully master, but I will be presenting a bit of the lore associated with Pow-wow and pointing you in the direction of a few really solid resources on the subject.
Where does Pow-wow come from?
Because of the syncretic nature of Pow-wow magic, it’s hard to say definitively that Pow-wow comes from one place and one place only. Very loosely, it stems from German immigrants, but even that isn’t a clear-cut provenance. As Chris Bilardi puts it in his braucherei text, The Red Church:
“The ‘Germany’ of that period [late 17th century] was, in fact, ‘the Germanies’ – many German principalities and duchies under the Holy Roman Emperor” (p. 41)
Bilardi goes on to point out that many Old World central and northern European cultures migrated here under the German banner, including those from modern-day Poland, Holland, and Scandinavia. Still, many of these peoples had certain cultural commonalities. When they came to America, many of these Germanic immigrants pursued unorthodox religious or spiritual paths. Bilardi refers to two distinct groups of Pennsylvania Germans, the “Plain Dutch” and the “Church Dutch” (‘Dutch’ here being a corruption of the word deustche, the word for the German language). There was strong religious diversity in the New World, including groups like the Moravians, the Brethren, the Anabaptists (now the Mennonites and the Amish), the Schwenkfelders, and the Lutherans.
In Gerald C. Milne’s text about PA-Dutch and Appalachian German magic, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, he states that, “By 1776, between 110,000 and 150,000 Germans had come to Pennsylvania, many of whom belonged to nonmainstream sects” (p. 5). This large influx of mystically minded people resulted in a proliferation of distinctly magical practices. For example, there were the Eckerlin brothers – white-robed Christian ascetic mystics from the late 18th century. Milne also points out that many of the Germans arriving in America by the 18th century and beyond were well-versed in astrology, and even planted their crops ‘by the signs.’ (p. 31-33). Old World magical practices, many inherited from grimoire traditions based on dusty tomes like The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus also came across the Atlantic. Home remedies, simple magical charms, and astro-agricultural advice began to be collected in almanacs. The most famous of these was Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (sic), which held such saws as “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Milne notes:
“German-language almanacs were widely distributed on the eighteenth-century frontier. This held secure a distinct occult-centered cosmology in the minds of early German pioneers that went hand in hand with other occult curing and healing methodologies” (p. 32).
The proliferation of these magical pamphlets and almanacs spread the central ideas of what would become known as Pow-wow around the north-central Atlantic coast, the Appalachian mountains, and inland into the frontier-lands. One such almanac was the famous Long Lost Friend, by John George Hohman, which outlined many of the practices still used today. I’ll have some of the charms from this book to try out a little later in the series, but for now it’s enough to know that by 1820 (the date of Hohman’s publication), this form of magic had taken on a distinctly American flavor and had become a key part of the Pennsylvania-Dutch cultural landscape.
Okay, that’s it for today. I’ve got more coming on this topic, so be on the lookout for additional posts this week!
Thanks for reading!