powwowing are the oral traditions of magical and spiritual healing concentrated in German-American Pennsylvania culture. German settlers who colonized the interior of Pennsylvania in the 1700s and 1800s brought with them their Old World beliefs in witchcraft and Magic. The Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch is a corruption of the German word for “German,” Deutsch) clustered in the verdant rural farmland of York, Dauphin, Lancaster, Schuylkill, Carbon, Lehigh, Berks, Bucks and other surrounding counties, which reminded them of their former homeland. They kept to themselves, retained their German language (which became mixed with English over time to form the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect) and remained suspicious of outsiders. The healing practices became known as “powwowing.”
The term was derived from the settlers’ observations of Indian powwows, meetings for ceremonial or conference purposes. much of the Germans’ practices centered around cures and healing. The settlers enlisted the help of the Indians in finding native roots and herbs that could be used in their medicinal recipes. They discovered that, like themselves, the Indians used Charms and incantations. They were intrigued by the powwows conducted to drive out evil spirits. They adopted the term powwow to apply to their own magical healing.
Powwowing has survived into modern times. Some of the charms and incantations used date back to the middle Ages, probably to the time of AlbertusMagnus, a magician, alchemist and prolific author whose feats were often called witchcraft. Powwowing charms also include kabbalistic and biblical elements (see Kabbalah).
The most skilled practitioners of powwowing are born into it and inherit such paranormal abilities as clairvoyance and precognition, as well as the ability to heal by a laying on of hands. Both women and men are powwowers; in fact, some of the most powerful are men.
According to tradition, the seventh son of aseventh son inherits unusual powers. The offspring of powwowers are schooled verbally in the lore only by family members. In some families, the knowledge is passed from one gender to another, while in others it is passed along the same gender lines.
The apprentice powwowers may “try for” their first cures while still children. Other names for powwowers are hex doctor, witch, hexenmeister and braucher. A hexenmeister deals in spirit-conjuring, spells and hexes, while a braucher deals with healing.
Powwowers consider themselves staunch Christians who have been endowed with supernatural powers, both to heal and to harm. “Divine Truth” is considered the active ingredient in all healing.
Most powwowers work quietly, attracting clients by word of mouth. many run their powwowing as a side business, seeing clients in the evenings and weekends; others work at it full-time. most accept “voluntary offerings” and suggest certain amounts for various kinds of services. They will help clients who cannot afford to pay anything, perhaps in the certainty that the grateful clients are bound to return when funds are available. Some charge for their services.
Most of a powwower’s business concerns minor health complaints, such as removing warts, “stopping blood” (stopping bleeding by touch) and relieving a host of infections, aches and pains. Other common complaints include a malady called “the liver grow’d” and opnema, a wasting away usually due to malnutrition. Some powwowers treat cancers and diseases of the organs.
Powwowers also offer charms for protecting the household, livestock and crops from misfortune, witchcraft and evil spirits, and for success in virtually every kind of endeavor, from hunting to games to lawsuits to love.
Another power is the casting and removing of hexes (see hex) or spells. In superstitious areas such as Pennsylvania’s “hex belt” (as the areas heavily populated by Pennsylvania Dutch are called) it once was common to blame bad crops, illness, bad luck and other misfortunes on hexes, or Curses cast by enemies. A person who believed he was hexed consulted a powwower, who identified the person responsible for the hex and then offered a charm for breaking the spell.
The power of a hex rises and falls in direct proportion to the reputed power of the witch who casts it. A powerful spell can only be broken by a powerful witch. Sometimes, several visits to a witch are required before a spell can be broken. (See Pellar.) Powwowers memorize their charms, incantations and recipes. Several books have served as important sources.
The most significant book is Pow-wows, or Long Lost Friend (1820), a slim volume written by John GeorgeHohman, a powwower who lived near Reading. Hohman and his wife, Catherine, immigrated to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1802. He was a devout roman Catholic and a great believer in faith healing, but he proved to be mediocre as a practitioner of it. He also failed at farming. He finally achieved modest financial success by collecting various charms and herbal remedies that had existed for centuries in oral tradition and publishing them as a sort of handbook.
The Long Lost Friend, as it became known in powwowing country, was not a book of hexes, Hohman emphasized. It was for healing, not destroying. While the book did not make him rich, it remains in print to the present day. The Long Lost Friend mixes magic and healing formulas from a variety of sources dating back to antiquity,
including Germany, the British Isles and Egypt. It also includes wisdom from the GypsIes and the kabbalah.
Hohman includes his own testimonials of successfully cured persons and notes in his introduction:
There are many in America who believe neither in a hell nor in a heaven; but in Germany there are not so many of these persons found. I, Hohman, ask: Who can immediately banish the wheal, or mortification? I reply, and I, Hohman, say: All this is done by the Lord. Therefore, a hell and a heaven must exist; and I think very little of any one who dares deny it.
Hohman also promises his readers:
Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drowned [sic] in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me.
To prevent witches from bewitching cattle, or evil spirits from tormenting people in their sleep at night, Hohman offers the following charm, to be written down and placed either in the stable or on the bedstead:
Trotter Head, I forbid thee my house and premises; I forbid thee my horse and cow-stable; I forbid thee my bedstead, that thou mayest not breathe upon me; breathe into some other house, until thou hast ascended every hill, until thou hast counted every fence post, and until thou hast crossed every water. And thus dear day may come again into my house, in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
To stop blood, Hohman recommends consulting the first book of Moses, second chapter, verses 11–13, for the names of the four principal waters of the world which flow out of Paradise—Pison, Gihon, Hedekial and Pheat—and writing them down. “You will find this effective,” he states. Another important book of powwowing is the anonymous Sixth and SeVenth Books oF Moses, drawn from material from the Talmud, kabbalah and Old Testament.
According to this book, one may break a hex by wearing a special Amulet that consists of herbs wrapped in specially prepared parchment inscribed with Bible verses or charms. Another method directs the hexed to avoid direct sunlight, stay indoors when the moon is full, hold the ears at the sound of a bell and absolutely never listen to the crowing of a CoCk. One does not have to be a powwower to possess or use these two books. They were once a staple in Pennsylvania Dutch households.
But the charms were believed to be most effective when prescribed and recited by a bona fide powwower, followed by the requisite three signs of the cross. Powwowers use a variety of techniques in their craft. Some clients may require only a laying on of hands, a murmured incantation and the sign of the cross. Others may be given special potions or powders.
A well-reputed powwower at the turn of the century, Charles W. rice, who lived in York, specialized in curing blindness with “sea monster tears,” which he dispensed at $2.50 per drop. One of the most common charms once was the Himmels-brief (“heaven letter”), a verse or guarantee or protection which the powwower writes on a piece of parchment or paper, to be hung in the house or barn or carried on the person. Himmels-briefs protected homes against fire, lightning and pestilence, and persons against murderers, robbers, mad dogs and all assaults with a deadly weapon, in war or peace.
Doubters were told, “Whosoever doubts the truth of this may attach a copy of this letter to the neck of a dog and then fire upon him, and he will be convinced of its truthfulness.” Himmels-briefs cost anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars, depending on the reputation of the powwower and the purpose of the charm. They were popular with soldiers in World War I, who carried them into battle hoping for protection from injury and death. In earlier times, some powwowers were known to advocate violence, even murder, as the way to break a hex when charms and doses of dove’s blood failed.
A number of murders in the history of Pennsylvania have been attributed to witchcraft, even the murders of witches themselves, such as the 1928 case of Nelson rehmeyer, the “Witch of rehmeyer’s Hollow,” and the 1934 case of Susan mummey, “the Witch of ringtown Valley.” Powwowing is declining, replaced by other forms of healing and complementary medicine.
See also :
- John Blymire
- Power Doctor
- Hohman, John George. Pow-wows, or Long Lost Friend. 1820. reprint, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Fulton religious Supply Co.,
- N.D. Gandee, Lee r. Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
- Kriebel, David W. Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007.
- Lewis, Arthur H. Hex. New York: Pocket Books, 1970.