The Hex Factory
Introduction to Der Zauberschpiggel, the Magic Mirror
Introduction to Der Zauberschpiggel, the Magic Mirror
My interest in signs, symbols has led me to writing this intro to my sixth book. I was attracted to the way a sign could instantaneously communicate to the viewer from a great distance. I could also view certain signs on multiple levels. I would be attracted to some signs and not to others, many times without having a conscious prejudice.
As a visual artist, you develop intuitive responses, you like this, you don’t like that. You could make this even better if you do that and so on and on. You hook onto a vibe and you try to extend it. I’ve transferred this approach to putting my books together. In each book, the attempt is to get closer, more specific to that feeling, that vibe. And there is power and energy that far exceeds any scholarly research in that feeling. Is it spiritual? I think so.
Much of the material that I have included here is from, an era gone by. It was written at a time closer to the source of origin. In most cases a documentation first hand of life on the farm in Berks, Lehigh, Montgomery Counties. I felt a strong connection to this material. I grew up on a farm. It was 88 acres in Greenwich/ Richmond Township, Berks County. So as a young kid I would take my dog for a walk when I was very young, maybe 5 years old. We would just walk up over the hills. So there were certain plants that I came in contact with, magical plants, like Jack in the Pulpit, Datura Stramonium, Skunk Cabbage, mugwort, I know this because I remembered their smell in later life when I was able to put a name to the plant. The most important thing about growing up on that farm was my relationship with the stream, the Saucony stream. Saucony is Lenape for a little bear. Anyway, there was this whole continuum, with the stream, the flow the direction, you know it would flood in in the spring and in the winter it would freeze over and my brothers and I would be able to ice skate for miles. Sometimes the ice would be thin and clear and I could see the fish through it. There was all the life connected to a stream, like freshwater shellfish. We saw the great blue herons. They would be there after the little shellfish. We fished the stream for sunnies, bass, catfish, rock bass, carp. There were water snakes. There were certain parts with frogs, and then there would be little connecting brooks that I could follow up to their source. And then eventually when I got a little bit older, we would raft down the stream when the water was high. If you take the Saucony stream far down enough to Virginville, it connects with the Maiden Creek. And so that becomes a larger creek that went to Lenhartsville later it connects to the Schuykill River which goes down to Philadelphia. So it was this sort of connection with water and the land and the hills and in life that abounded by the stream. It was like almost living in a swamp. SE Pennsylvania has this real swamp aspect to it. In the summer the undergrowth is very heavy. You have to be able to know how to navigate through the wetlands and I'd always impress my townie buddies, or even at camp, because I had been exposed to so much poison ivy on the farm that I was basically immune to it so I would impress them by picking poison ivy and eating it. Living here in the town though, I think I lost my immunity to it. But that's how it worked. With the stream all sorts of wood would come down with the floods. The aftermath of Hurricane Agnes which hit Pennsylvania pretty bad, foundry forms from the Kutztown foundry over four miles away came floating down and were a high quality wood. I made all sorts of things. And my mother was a very good artist, very different from the style I developed. She would paint with palette knives, and she had a very textural aspect to her painting and did landscapes from life. And we even collaborated, I would stretch burlap over frames that I made for her and then have to gesso it like crazy to fill the gaps. She actually painted the old mill there where Steve Sheridan lives across the street from Weaknecht Archery by a covered bridge. She used my burlap stretchers on that. The framers had a fit because of the odd sizing I guess. And then she would always do linoleum cut Christmas cards.
And so I would help her with that and it was like making cookies. And then I started doing wood cuts which I really like to do. I would do wood cuts of strange trees in on the countryside and along the creek. So that was sort of my orientation. I remember one in particular, of a sycamore tree, where I reversed the usual black tree on white, instead the white tree on a black background. It’s something I do today all the time.
Yes, Virginia E. Yoder. She recently passed away. She had five children. And she was married to my father, Dr. Robert Yoder. My father also had a lot of art in his background. His sister, Betty Wolf was a very well known in the Berks Guild for dried floral arrangements. And he ended up doing paintings towards the end of his life and to help pay for medical bills. So it's on both sides pretty much and I think the Pennsylvania Germans, Pennsylvania Dutch, that’s really what they're known for, their handiwork and you know, they would always be constantly creating something for everyday use. And now you see it in museums.
Virginia was quite the beauty, too. She was known as the purple lady in her time, and she dressed all in purple, and had a purple purse, purple lipstick. She drove in a purple station wagon and she drove around buying purple things. And so she was kind of like, basically a good witch who taught Sunday School. I know she put a charm on me because it's just not possible for me to put anything on my body like a tattoo, and I'm pretty sure she put a charm on me that's still pretty strong. So she had that kind of reputation.
One of my early mentors, a guy named Bumbaugh had a used bookstore with antiques, and herbs in an old storefront on East Main Street, which at the time was kind of the rough part of Kutztown. And she stopped in there. He was, besides being a “Braucher,” He was also kind of a dirty old man. So I guess he made a pass at her, which happened a lot with my mother. And so she diverted his attention by putting me onto him as an apprentice and so I have at an early age the experience of collecting ginseng and golden seal which he would gather and sell along with animal hides he’d buy from us that we trapped in the winter to go along with his used book business. He ends up being a big guy and is mentioned by William Boys Weaver. I had mentioned this when I had some brief affiliation with the Three Sisters Centre For Healing Arts. And they like freaked out. “Oh my god. We haven't heard anything good about him and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.” When any women would venture into his shop, he would ask, “Would you like a kiss?” and of course they didn’t with the smell of alcohol and body odor he wore as a cologne. He’d then pull out a plate of Hershey kisses. But I have great memories of my Mother in the 60s when she had her eight track stereo and her purple station wagon. She would get on one of the new interstate superhighways, turn on the music, usually Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and she would get into the moment so much that she’d forget to get off at her exit.
When I left college I worked for a time painting billboards in the Allentown area mostly on Route 22 at the time now it's 78, there are lots of billboards. I worked for FKM advertising. And it was pretty rough. They painted a lot of them in the house and then you'd take them out, put them together. But a lot of them were repaint jobs or new paint jobs we did on location, I remember working January, February in long john's freezing my butt off. And then there's the rig with two large pulleys on either end and a platform you'd have to tie that off properly because you’re pretty high-up in the air. And the paint was Mobil Oil, that was the paint they used and so I grabbed a couple gallons before I left there and went to New York to make some real money.
I got involved with construction and renovation in Brooklyn, while working doing transportation for the Motion Picture and Fine Art Galleries. I was evolving, you know, you start off being a painter, then a sculptor, but the ultimate art form is architecture, a building. I still have a couple buildings and then as things got a little bit easier I started getting involved with shamanism and using plants and I was particularly interested in South American shamanism, especially the highland Peruvian stuff using San Pedro cactus. I used some San Pedro myself because it was reminiscent of my use of Peyote back in the early 70s. So through that experience, while tripping I was instructed to return to Berks County, I was told that the shamanism that I sought was back in my own culture and so that was kind of an epiphany for me. So I started exploring what that could possibly mean and doing a search on shamanism/ Pennsylvania Dutch, and Braucherei came up. So I got involved with groups that were discussing Braucherei, powwow magic and and then I came across the work of Lee R. Gandee.He was using hex signs, he was using them with magical intent, which was something a little different than my experience with them growing up in Kutztown. So that was very intriguing to me as soon as that happened, I started putting magical content into hex signs it sort of just took off from there. And there was an audience for it. Contemporary art seemed really alien. And, I don't know… contemporary art seemed to be very prejudiced in a certain way. So anyway, once I got involved with folk art, it was like letting the fox in with the chickens. It’s been a ball!
The difference really with between folk art and contemporary art is this, I'll do the same motif over and over and over and over. And it's kind of like musicians, they play the same song over and over and over again, it's always a little different every time you play it. It's always a little different every time we do it, but it kind of adds to it. You're going through the same sort of ritualistic practice. You become very familiar with it and so you can really focus in on it. Contemporary art has never been the same after the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, when Abstract American Art was King!
I use a lot more of the sacred geometry. than Art School would allow. The professors would scoff at it. So I always put a little red dot right in the center and that in the Hindu it's called the Bindu. And, honestly, the whole germanic flow of culture, our ancestry, it all flows from India, And so a lot of the Hexology I use is from Yantra. The idea of the sacred enclosure. That aspect of it is what really intrigues me about hex signs, Hexology and using the word “hex.” It’s double or triple meanings. That being six, the number six. Hex is witch in German, the hex sign, which is sort of a geometrical construction. It feels right. Just like the color black there really is only one color. Yeah, but you know it's not actually a color….It's a way of life.
The gods and goddesses are very important and my gateway into their pantheon was through the, the Elder Futhark of runes. And again, in Brooklyn, I had a really good friend who was a rabbi and we started talking about magical alphabets. And, of course, Hebrew is a magical alphabet. Greek is another one. And the runes, the Germanic runes are magical. Magical alphabets double not only as letters to make words, they also are numbers. The earliest form of numbers So when I was introduced to the runes, I felt like immediately an affinity, it is something that you can't really describe or rationalize, you might consider it to be a genetic memory. So as I introduced them into the hex work, something happened it was almost like a thermonuclear explosion. I started putting bindrunes and runes, or a Runic ring as a border on hex signs. I wrote an article for a magazine that came out of Portland, Oregon called Hex Magazine about my practice. It came out in 2008 and the Heathen community really, really connected with it. I came along and introduced this new content into hex signs, it revitalized, recalibrated, heathenized this folk art form. If it wasn't for the runes I don't I don't think I’d be a hex sign painter. So it's always there. it really is like putting gas in a car. It's the focus, the repetition and the striving for the completion. People that have bought my work talk about meditating on it. They relate their experiences as basically the mental process I went through making it. I'll look at one and I'll be thinking always thinking about taking it further, seeing something I never saw before in it.
They are visual charms, that’s what I’m doing. Charms have a way of working. Like the three hares. Three hares that share three ears, in a continuum, and that's the charm. I'll do an Algiz rune, using the rosette. And I'll just eliminate two of the lower pedals, left and right. Keith Brintzenhof, asked me once where are the other petals? I said they're there. You don’t see it? Better get your eyes checked.
My father worked with his hands, He was a woodworker. And He would say that dentistry, is a lot of working with your hands. It's true. So as kids, my brothers and I would break into his wood shop that he kept locked up, and we would use all his power equipment. So we were making submarines and airplanes and working with seriously dangerous saws. We made models we made all sorts of models they don't do really do that anymore. We would glue it all together and paint the airplane. We still made balsa airplanes, the ones that are covered with tissue paper and powered with rubber band motors, a serious rubber band that you windup the propellor and they flew and that I think that was way more important to my aesthetic development than any Studio Art course I took at the University .
And then there is the garden and cooking and cooking away things from the garden. Cooking is a form of magic.
The birds love the garden and the birds seem to keep coming into the picture because in almost all the work that I do, it's always flowers and birds. If back in in the day, if someone would have told me that, ‘Oh, yeah, you're going to be doing flowers and birds.’You gotta be crazy. I know. That's all I do. flowers with a few other animals I live in that environment. with my family.
I have to thank my late distant cousin, Dr Don Yoder, for providing me with an ethnographic perspective on the Pennsylvania Dutch ‘hex signs’ and barn stars I totally oppose. Not only oppose, but in doing so he has provided me with the motivation to understand exactly what our differences are. Here in his own words
"The solid contributions of scholars like Edwin Fogel and Preston Barba to Pennsylvania Dutch linguistics and cultural history far outshine their yielding to symbolist interpretations of hex signs. At least their infection with the continuity ideas was mild. They were certainly free of racialist bias that stained the work of European symbolists, and they did not insist on the radical sun=symbolism of European scholarship.
Barba's"sermon" on hex signs does however, reveal, in its curious emphasis on the "Northland" a derivation from European Germanic continuity writers who found "pure" Germanic traits among the "Nordic" cultures of Scandinavia. After all, they did give us the Yule tradition, which Barba refers to as "those holy nights in December.”
Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning
By Don Yoder, Thomas E. Graves
The “Symbolist interpretations of hex signs” is Hexology! It’s the only reason I can think of that anyone would paint them. Of course they mean something! Of course the symbols came from somewhere in the culture. And if the culture is from Northern Europe predominantly from Germany it’s not a stretch to realize that they are rooted in the Germanic North.
In my previous book, Der Volksfreund, I featured the work of Preston Barba, first from his vast newspaper column, ’S PENNSYLFAWNISCH DEITSCH ECK, from the Morning Call, Allentown, PA a piece entitled, Unser Scheiere or Our Barns, a paper read at the Berks County Versammling, Reading, PA, 1948. Also his work in Pennsylvania German Tombstones, 1953 on the Sun!
This book includes Edwin Miller Fogel’s introduction to his iconic, BELIEFS AND SUPERSTITIONS OF THE PENNSYLVANIA GERMANS, 1915 which is an extraordinary ethnographic history of the Pennsylvania Dutch and including their strong connection to the Germanic gods and goddesses. Its beyond wonderful! Its like coming home again or as Cornelius Weygandt, would say,”Good bye, proud world! I’m going home.”
This perspective was cancelled as we see with Don Yoder. It was censored not only by him but also the finger could be pointed at Alfred Shoemaker, Ph.D., both of whom made wonderful contributions to Folk Studies in general, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Culture in particular.
Why did they do this? They were not alone in their condemnation of symbology, in a piece included here by Henry S. Borneman, 1937:
Do Pennsylvania German Illuminated Manuscripts contain symbols of the occult? Do we find designs which have a mystical or magical implication?I make immediate answer, not by way of argument but as a definitive statement of that which I conceive to be the fact. I have examined hundreds of these manuscripts and I find that so far as they have any message to convey through design or symbol, it is distinctively religious in character. The truth intended to be taught in these manuscripts is to be found in the Bible and it does not lie in the occult. The symbols which are used typify Christianity and do not have a magical or pagan implication. They openly express the Christian faith and no one need look for symbols which indicate an unrevealed and subterranean faith in witchcraft and in influences that are weird.
There you have it! Witchcraft, the bane of the traditional Church People and the Pietists alike!
And they fear the Zauberer to this day. The Pagan roots of our symbols equals witchcraft. So its no surprise that Dr Shoemaker favored the Barnstar painting of Milton Hill who famously stated that his ‘Hex Signs’ a term he never used were, “Chust for nice” And so his were and most of his work has faded from contemporary popularity with the exception of his “Hill Star” And right he was, the painting on the Pennsylvania Dutch barns is decorative and too overt to have any magical significance. However, it’s no surprise that the Kutztown Folk Festival, founded by Don Yoder, Alfred Shoemaker, and William Frey, as well as Kutztown University stand firmly behind this position regarding symbology in all aspects of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Don Yoder’s immensely popular Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning, was published in several editions, in part due to the beautiful color reproductions, of the Pennsylvania Dutch farmland.
And so on the establishment position goes, however there has been a recalibration as noted by David Kriebel in an essay, “Medicine” in a very scholarly book, PENNSYLVANIA GERMANS AN INTERPRETIVE ENCYCLOPEDIA, published by John Hopkins University. Kriebel, noted author of POWWOWING AMONG THE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH, has conceded that although Braucherei is a very Christian practice, in recent years it has transitioned back to its pagan/heathen origins. This is visible through the publications of Silver Ravenwolf, a legitimate Braucher turned Wiccan and Urglaawe, or ‘Original Faith’ in the dialect, a Germanic Heathen group, led by Robert L Schreiwer, Braucher, and Heathen who has appeared in my DER VOLKSFREUND.
Similarly, the establishment media supported the position, that Hex Sign painting was a dying folk art form done by the last of a line of artisans as in the New York Times piece, For the Pennsylvania Dutch, a Long Tradition Fades, July 2006.
This was about the time I included runes and bind runes in my Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs after reading Edred Thorsson’s Operant Hexology, in his book NORTHERN MAGIC. The Germanic Heathen community responded very enthusiastically and here we are fifteen years later, six books and an ever widening audience. So much for the fading of a long tradition…. the New York Times had no idea how long this tradition is however it goes as least as far back as the Iron Age in Europe as seen in the Zierscheiben of the Alemanni, our forefathers before Christianity in Southern Germany, the Rhine Valley.
So in this volume I have attempted to include in its totality, a sense of the Pennsylvania Dutch, their literature with works by Elsie Singmaster’s,The Belsnickel a short story from a collection of her stories, Katy Gaumer and other Stories from Millerstown from a publication of the Macungie Historical Society, many thanks to Dale Eck, an excerpt from Cornelius Weygandt’s, The Red Hills, an excerpt from Dennis Boyer’s Once Upon a Hex, and an excerpt from Peter Bertolet’s Fragments From the Past. The latter two take place very close to me situated in the Oley Valley and Hills, Bertolet relates the history of my own ancestors, Hans and Jost Yoder. Both he and Boyer describe the Lenape presence and influence on the early German/ Huguenot settlers. Also included is a lengthy dialog with Nancy Wisser who has present day knowledge of the state of affairs with the Lenape and their sacred sites here in the Deitscherei.
The many magical aspects of the culture are included with a special thanks to the late Richard H. Shaner and his wonderful treatise on Hexerei, John Joseph Stoudt’s intro to his translation of Mountain Mary and his Decorated Barns, my own brother, Russell Yoder’s Evoking the Flowers: the Conjoining of Red and White in Tantra, Alchemy, and Radical Pietism. My brother’s connection to the Ephrata Cloister and the Cloister at Snow Hill as the last ordained Elder is well documented here. The early American illuminated manuscripts also known as Fraktur is included here with an excerpt from Pennsylvania German Illuminated Manuscripts A Classification of Fraktur-Schriften and An Inquiry into their History and Art, by Henry S. Borneman, 1937 which is very telling in its denunciation of the pagan/heathen as witchcraft.
Throughout I have included many Hex Signs and displays of the same that I have done since the last book.
A special thanks to Ben Rader who painted my portrait, a detail of which is included here.
Finally, and just in the nick of time to make inclusion in this volume, The truth about many of the designs of Jacob Zook’s silk screened hex signs including the most famous one of all currently on coffee mugs from Starbucks. They were actually designed and produced by Edward Buchak! A silk screener from Gilbertsville, a stone’s throw from where I stand. I include this eye opening information thanks to his eldest daughter Julie (Buchak) Longacre, who has written a piece for this book. The silk screen era in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art spanning from the WPA in the Thirties well into the Sixties and Seventies is fertile ground for the next book……
Hunter M. Yoder, Winters Night 2021