The Hex Factory
The Following is an excerpt from the book, 9 Worlds of Hex Magic , 2013 by Hunter M. Yoder
It is a privilege to have an opportunity to ask my fellow Berks County Deitscher, Dennis Boyer a few questions. Dennis is of course a well known writer and folk story teller. Among the many books Dennis has written, the one of interest to the myself is his "Once Upon a Hex: A Spiritual Ecology of the Pennsylvania Germans" which should come as no surprise since on the cover of the book is a Hex on Dennis's barn on his farm in Wisconsin that he himself designed and painted.
Grew up in Hereford Township, PA, early years on a small farm near Huffs Church (die Hoofa Karrick immer so!).
As a child/young man I was acquainted with fraktur artist/Deitsch columnist Clarence Reitnauer, Deitsch columnist Carl Arner, PG artifact collector Clint Moyer ( an occasional guest on Boyertown radio dialect programs), and many of the exhibitors/demonstrators at the old Kutztown festival (where I was an occasional fill-in helper, churning butter, pressing cheese, peeling apples, or just being a gofer in bib overalls).
I had an elderly family member who was known as a "pow-wow lady". Knew several other practitioners through her. This is the most relevant point to your inquiry, I think.
Spent 3 years, 8 months, and 28 days in the military, including one year in Vietnam and lesser amounts of time in other unfriendly locations in southeast asia.
Graduated from Kutztown State College and studied under Bob Ensminger (the cultural geographer with the strong interest in all things Deitsch and author of books on the venerable PG barn). Have other graduate level education not particularly relevant to anything PG.
Former board member of the Friends Max Kade Institute of German America Studies (at UW Madison) and for quite a while was their primary PA Deitscher.
Studied Midewin Way "medicine" practices under Ojibwe spiritual elders, trained in cross-cultural shamanism of the Michael Harner variety, participated in Native American Church practices, lived a one-year intensive medicine wheel practice of daily exercises and devotionals, and ceremonial participation with many native lineages in Midwest, Southwest, Mexico and Central America.
1. Dennis, are we experiencing a renaissance of the Pennsylvania German kultur today?
In some ways it sure seems so. On others, not so much. This might reflect patterns I've seen elsewhere when there is gradual assimilation of a distinct culture.
My feeling is that cultural preservation in these assimilation settings takes hard and devoted cultural preservation work. So to the extent there is an "upsurge" it is due to artists, folklorists, and writers willing to keep the PG collective consciousness alive and bring "value" to the memories, archetypes, and imagery of PG culture for those who might "feel it in their bones", but who did not have any direct experience of it as a lived folkway.
This means of course that seems aspects of PG culture get more attention than others. Some end up finding niches or markets. That means this is less organic continuity of some folkways and those might disappear entirely.
2. You have direct experience with the 'indigenous tribes' from your work in the Midwest. Coming from Huffs Church in Berks County, what can you say about Lenape influence on Deitsch kultur? The University of Pennsylvania's Archeology Museum recently featured a show, Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania in which early German settlers supposedly intermarried with the Lenape, Oley is sited as being ground zero for this interface. We see this time and time again, Germanic Europeans exchanging information with the 'indigenous' as in the Saami and the Norse in northern Scandinavia. This true particularly in the area of folk magic.and in agriculture. I acquired some snow white sunflower seeds from a tribal seed bank, specifically from the Tarahumara in the Chihuahua desert who acquired them from Canadian Mennonites who settled in the region. So it isn't a one way street as is the general assumption.What are your thoughts?
In story collecting over the years I found many references to Lenape influence in Deitsch Folklore and medicine practices. In pow-wow I've always felt this connection added a very interesting dimension to the"charms and prayers" traditions brought from Europe. I can't help but think this dimension is part of what enriched pow-wow with practices related to North American plants and North American animals.
OF COURSE IT IS DIFFICULT TO DOCUMENT THE TRANSFERENCE OF SUCH PRACTICES FROM LENAPE TO DEITSCH. PARTLY BECAUSE THE CHIEF RECORDERS OF INFORMATION IN THE EARLY YEARS WERE CLERGY WHO WERE NONE TOO FOND OF POW WOW OR THE LENAPE PEOPLE.
IN MY INTERVIEWS WITH OVER 80 POW WOW PRACTITIONERS, OVER HALF ATTRIBUTED SPECIFIC PRACTICES TO LENAPE (OR A SMATTERING OF OTHER TRIBAL REFERENCES) ORIGINS. IN A HANDFUL OF CASES DEITSCH FAMILY CONNECTIONS TO LENAPE DID HAVE SOME LEVEL OF DOCUMENTATION (MOSTLY ENTRIES IN FAMILY BIBLES AND CHURCH RECORDS).
THESE CONNECTIONS VARIED FROM AREA TO AREA, MOSTLY DEPENDING IT SEEMS ON THE FRONTIER ERA RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DEITSCH AND LENAPE.
THE RICHEST CONNECTION OF THIS TYPE THAT I AM AWARE OF IS THE OLEY VALLEY, WHERE IT APPEARS THAT LENAPE AND SOME REMNANTS OF OTHER NEARBY TRIBES HAD LANDS THAT THEY CULTIVATED AND USED CEREMONIALLY UNTIL QUITE LATE IN THE COLONIAL PERIOD AND PERHAPS INTO THE FIRST YEARS OF THE NEWLY FORMED UNITED STATES. THEY DISAPPEAR AFTER THAT, WITH MY GUESS BEING CHIEFLY INTERMARRIAGE AND ASSIMILATION. THEY LEFT A SIGNIFICANT MARK ON STORIES AND PRACTICES IN THAT AREA.
AMONG THE POW WOW SIGNPOSTS IN THE OLEY VALLEY THAT POINT TO THE LENAPE: RITUAL USE OF TOBACCO, SMOKING OF OTHER PLANTS, AND TRANCE-STATE SEARCHING FOR APPROPRIATE REMEDIES. SUCH FEATURES IN POW WOW ARE RELATIVELY RARE ELSEWHERE, BUT FAIRLY COMMON IN THAT AREA OF BERKS COUNTY AMONG PRACTITIONERS I WAS ABLE TO TALK TO.
I SHOULD ALSO MENTION THAT I HAVE RUN INTO SOME INDICATIONS THAT DEITSCH PRACTICES ALSO CROSSED OVER TO SOME TRIBAL PRACTICES. THIS SEEMS PARTICULARLY THE CASE IN TRIBES THAT DEVELOPED A "DEFAULT" CHRISTIAN COSMOLOGY. I'VE ALSO RUN INTO SOME "OUTLIERS" OF BLENDED PRACTICES, SUCH AS MENTION OF A "GERMAN LADY" TRADITION AMONG THE STOCKBRIDGE MUNSEE. MORE FASCINATING TO ME WAS MY ENCOUNTER OF A HYBRID TRADITION IN SW PA, WESTERN MARYLAND, AND NORTHERN WEST VIRGINIA.
EXPLORATION THERE REVEALED SOME REMNANTS OF A "WILLOW LODGE", A CIRCLE OF PRACTITIONERS THAT HAD A MIX OF BRAUCHEREI, CELTIC, AND NATIVE PRACTICES THAT WERE ATTRIBUTED TO MOSTLY SHAWNEE ORIGINS, WITH A FEW REFERENCES TO THE SENECA THROWN IN. APPARENTLY THIS NETWORK WAS FAIRLY ACTIVE UNTIL THE 1980s. A FEW WERE STILL LIVING WHEN I ENCOUNTERED THEM IN THE 1990s. A FEW MAY STILL LIVE, BUT MY MAIN CONTACT IS QUITE INFIRM AND NOT PARTICULARLY COMMUNICATIVE.
I DID MANAGE TO RECORD SOME WILLOW LODGE STORIES AND THEY WERE ONE OF THE BEST TRADITIONS OF FOLKHEALING FELLOWSHIP THAT I HAVE RUN ACROSS OUTSIDE OF TRIBAL TRADITIONS. IT MADE ME FEEL LIKE I WAS EXPERIENCING SOMETHING LIKE WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED WHEN SHAMANS FROM DIFFERENT TRADITIONS ENCOUNTERED EACH OTHER 10,000 YEARS AGO. WHAT RICH EXCHANGES MUST HAVE RESULTED FROM THAT.
THESE ALL TOO FRAGMENTARY ENCOUNTERS WITH THIS "POW-WOW, CUMBERLAND MOUNTAIN-STYLE" LEFT ME WITH TWO RITUAL PRACTICES THAT I HAD NEVER HEARD OF (MUCH LESS EXPERIENCED)IN ANY TRADITION CONNECTED TO POW-WOW ROOTS: TWO FORMS OF SWEAT LODGE PRACTICE, ONE FOR INITIATION AND ANOTHER FOR THE TRANSMISSION OF KNOWLEDGE. I IN TURN TRANSMITTED THESE PRACTICES TO TWO BERKS COUNTY BRAUCHERS AND ONE FINNISH SHAMANIC PRACTITIONER HERE IN WI. I HAVE A "WAIT LIST" OF ABOUT A HALF DOZEN WHO HAVE ASKED TO BE TRAINED IN THIS "POW-WOW SWEAT", BUT IT"S QUITE LABOR INTENSIVE FOR ME AND I'M NONE TOO PERKY AFTER MY INJURIES.
3. You have written about the Germans' love for farming. Growing up in Pennsylvania and now Wisconsin which sounds very similar, what can you say now about this Landwirtschaft Geist?
The Deitsch seem to feel deeply about the connection to nature and to the concept of LAND. Of course having the opportunity to own land is what brought so many from the Rhineland. That was natural enough for almost all peasant stock Europeans who prior to immigration lived essentially as sharecroppers for the aristocracy.
Once in PA they quickly developed a strong sense of place and an outlook like that described by conservationist Aldo Leopold as a "land ethic". As I have collected Deitsch stories I get a sense that this sense of place merged naturally with Deitsch folk spiritually. I see this love of the land in everything from Deitsch humor, to legends, to ghost stories. It manifests itself in tales about farming, hunting, secret and sacred places and almost every type of imaginable encounter with the natural world.
4. What are your thoughts concerning the signs and symbols of our Germanic ancestors? Are they 'chust for nice?"
It is easy to see how they eventually evolved into primarily decorative devices over time in more recent usage. But on the other hand, I've never understood the vehement denial that some Pennsylvania Germans, including some "folklore authorities" have about any possibility of historical spiritual context. I personally knew Brauchers who "prescribed" hex signs for specific situations, who related longstanding traditions about such usages, with one repeatedly referring to the signs as "visual prayers".
There probably would not be a large body of symbology and cosmology associated with specific designs if the signs themselves were not meant to manifest intent around outcomes, noting events, and invoking natural cycles. I'm sure there have been "add-ons" that have accrued, but the geometrical associations are so ancient and archetypal that I consider them "ancestor wisdom".
One of my delightful treats in interviewing elder Braucherei practitioners was to see a handmade india ink hex tatoo on the palm of a "pow-wow lady" in Berks County.
5. Dennis, can you share with us your process when creating a Hex?
When I expect it to represent some form of "intentionality" I use what might be most accurately called "shamanic journeying", where I go different levels of "non-ordinary reality". Now to explain the "topography" of these other worlds would take some time if one is not versed in the cultural anthropology of traditional peoples' trance states or in cosmology of actual shamanic practitioners. A modern psychologist or neurologist might say that these "destinations" are either the subconscious or brainwave patterns that are accessed by shamanic practices. I've decided that I don't need to pick between science and spirit on this matter.
Like anything else that involves "skill", shamanic journeying can be improved by practice and focus so that over time the clarity of vision, experience, and imagery allows for more precision.
In pow-wow the references to trance state practices are fairly vague and were usually found among those practitioners with significant herbal practices. This doesn't necessarily mean that they were using psychotropic plants in the sense we have come to see things like peyote or mushrooms. I found that some pow-wow herbalists were so attuned to plant "spirits" that they could invoke them as "allies". When I once asked my primary pow-wow teacher which plants were useful for "dreaming" (her word for trance states), she looked at me like I was a bit slow of wit and replied, "all of them... if you know how"
6. Your Mother's side was Franconia Mennonite. What is the perspective of Hex work in the Plain Community?
It is hard to give one answer to the Plain communities' response to folk medicine in general. There is a lot of variation in the communities I have come to know.
I can say that you are unlikely to see a hex sign on an Amish barn, but I have seen a few on conservative Mennonite structures in the Midwest. Including the largest barn star I have ever seen -- 16 feet in diameter. The large barn star provoked a controversy in that settlement, including an inquiry by bishops and other clergy. I gather the purpose of their visit to that farm was to dissuade the display. The old farmer seemed to outwit them-- he asked them to come at dusk. They stood before the barn star in the dimming daylight while the Evening Star brightened off the horizon.
The farmer simply pointed at the Evening Star, then at his barn star, and told them that his design was just an old man's feeble attempt to render some of the Creator's beauty and be able to see it with his weakened eyes. One smart old farmer I'd say!
On the other hand, I have found Amish and other Anabaptists quite involved in what some of us would call pow-wow: healing touch, prayerful touch, herbal cures, alternative and complementary medicine of a wide range. They just don't call it pow-wow or Braucherei. Apparently to call it those things is the point of trouble, not what actual practices are utilized. I knew one Franconia Mennonite family who expropriated a southern term, "granny doctor", because pow-wow was too hot to handle
7.You interviewed many practicing Brauchers way before books about that form of Pa German healing magic became popular, IE, "The Red Church" Bilardi," Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch," Kriebel, etc. What are your views upon its current popularity and what plans are there for your field work on the subject to be released/published?
I'm pleased to see something of a "revival" of pow wow and more respect for the practice in folklore and academic communities. I have always been very disturbed that the PG professional classes spent so much time in the 20th century ridiculing the practices and making them the butt of "dumb Dutchmen" jokes. Kriebel deserves much credit for reversing that trend. I'm not saying that humor and storytelling do not have a place in both the practices and the preservation of the folkways around them, but a key part of oral tradition is preservation of the wisdom and consciousness of past practitioners. I do feel that some of this content was lost due to cultural negligence. My own relationship to this content is complicated-- I'm amateur folklorist/anthropologist, practitioner, and storyteller. My own notes are preserved and have been catalogued by Jesse Tobin and Lauren Sicher. Thus I have passed the information off to a new generation of practitioners. My future work with the content will likely focus on the "lessons" of Braucherei in story form. We'll see. I'm in my 60s now, with a farm and managed forest, other professional and civic obligations, and things don't get done as fast as I'd like.
Dennis Boyer,JD,MPA Fellow of the Interactivity Foundation 3302 Bethlehem Rd Dodgeville,WI 53533 cel 608 574 5704 www.interactivityfoundation.org