Pennsylvania Dutch Witchcraft

Pennsylvania Dutch Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The people who live between the Delaware and the Susquehanna rivers in southern Pennsylvania believe in what they term hexerie, or "witchcraft." An extremely religious people, they are also very superstitious. Among their beliefs, for example, is that a cross painted on the handle bar of a door latch will prevent the devil from entering. From such beliefs has grown an assortment of utilitarian "hex signs"—decorative signs and symbols placed on the sides of barns and houses to cleanse evil; promote fertility, health, and happiness; or even start or stop rain.

These hex signs are not used by the Amish and Mennonites—the plain sects— but by some of the Lutherans, Reformed, Moravians, and others. Different designs have become established over the years. They feature such objects as stars of various types, oak leaves and acorns, hearts, distlefinks (the good luck bird of the early Pennsylvania Dutch settlers; a goldfinch that ate thistle seed and used the thistle down for its nest), tulips, and many geometric patterns and signs. Many of the patterns were found tooled into the leather of family bibles, on taufscheine (birth certificates), and on illuminated manuscripts from the Ephrata Cloisters.

The Witchcraft of the area is also called braucherei (healing without medicines), powwow (healing by words and motions), hexa marrik, and gruttafoos (marks drawn to ward off evil). Some of the same superstitions and magical practices, though not the hex signs, are found in the Ozark region of Missouri and Arkansas.

In the area, if a cow goes dry, it is considered to be bewitched and is butchered. A bottle of asafetida will be hung in a barn to ensure the cows do not give stringy milk. A feather is placed in a child's diaper to stop him or her from wetting. Worts are bought and sold, as are various other charms, spells, amulets, and talismans. Frequent references are made to the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and similar collections of charms published by such houses as Horst, de Claremont, Sheldon, and Dorene.

It is thought that any supernatural power cannot be passed on to one of the same sex, so there are roughly equal numbers of male and female witches known in the area. Poppets (wax images) are common, and many cases of hexerie end up in the local courts.

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