Early Pennsylvania was a melting pot of various religious persuasions, as William Penn’s promise of religious freedom opened the doors for many Christian sects: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, German Reformed Catholics, and all manner of religious mystics and free-thinkers. It is from this blending that the Pennsylvania German Pow-wow tradition was born. Despite the appropriation of “pow-wow”, taken from an Algonquian word for a gathering of medicine men, the tradition is actually a collection of European magic spells, recipes, and folk remedies of a type familiar to students of folklore. Although the name was taken from the Algonquian term for shamans, Pow-wow relates directly to the European culture from which the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants came. While immigrants from the Netherlands did make their homes in Philadelphia, the term Pennsylvania Dutch actually refers to immigrants from the Rhine region in Germany (the name being a corruption of the word ‘Deutsch’). These peoples fled religious persecution at home and settled in and around Philadelphia in the late 17th and early 18th century. The moniker has expanded in modern times to include a broader variety of immigrants from the Germanic region in Europe, especially those who cling tightly to their traditional religious perspectives, as it is a magical tradition that combines Catholic prayers with intonations or inscriptions of mystical words, folk rituals, and recipes to create cures for various ailments and illnesses. While modern Pennsylvania Dutch most often profess little to no belief or practice of the culture’s ancient magic, the traditions have not been entirely lost, and it is still possible to find devotees of the old ways in the city to this day.
Modern patients and practitioners of Pow-wow are often very close-lipped about their activities and beliefs. This is, in part, because of a tightening against the ‘ancient ways’ (including anything that might be construed as magic) by modern churches of most denominations since the Industrial Revolution. Many fear that they will be seen as simple-minded, superstitious or even insane if they admit to their beliefs, or fear retribution from more conservative members of their religious community (or outsiders) who may believe such words to be ‘of Satan’ or just plain evil. Much Pow-wow magic is based on or taken from Bible passages. Others originate in a text called The Long Lost Friend, which was originally written by John George Hohman in German in the early 19th century. One of Hohman’s primary resources was a book long familiar to dabblers in the occult: Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets. Compiled in the 13th century by a Dominican monk, the book details all manner of holistic, religious and ritualistic cures that were adopted into the Pow-wow repertoire. High among the magical items valued by hexmeisters (practitioners of Pow-wow) and their devotees was a magical letter called a Himmelsbrief (heaven’s letter) that purportedly fell from the sky, written by God or an angel. Those who carried a Himmelsbrief (either an original or a copy) were protected from death, injury and other bad luck. These letters (and their malevolent counterparts, Teufelsbriefs, which were used to bestow curses) are thought to be the earliest precursors of the modern chain letter. Today, hexmeisters with sufficient skill can, through use of a Himmelsbrief or Teufelsbrief, bestow good or ill fortune upon whoever bears the bespelled letter.
Among the other folkloric magic the Pennsylvania Dutch brought with them to North America were hex signs. Originally painted on homes, barns and other outbuildings, these simple geometric and folk art signs utilize primary colour schemes and basic symbolism dating back to early Germanic culture, to bless a particular location with certain (normally protective) attributes. Regardless of their supernatural potential, hex signs have no power while mobile. They must be affixed in place on a horizontal or vertical surface before being activated. Their power will end automatically if the relic is moved, although it can be reactivated once the sign is placed again in an fixed location. Like many originally magical symbols, hex signs have been adopted as a rustic decoration or folk tradition by mainstream society. Portable versions of hex signs are mass marketed for use in homes all across the world, and of course, most have no supernatural power whatsoever. Occasionally, however, a hex sign painted by someone with ‘the gift’ will be unearthed and in these rare cases it is sometimes possible to activate the sign for its original purpose. As well, rumours have cropped up over the past few centuries of those who have inherited the knack for creating supernaturally potent hex signs. Without fail, these individuals can trace their bloodlines back to the original Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants who brought this form of magic to North America in the first place.