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The Hex Factory

Hex Signs and Barnstars

From Introduction to “Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans” Edwin Miller Fogel, 1915

Almost every phase of activity is represented in the superstitions of the following pages. It is quite natural that childhood, marriage, death, Iuck, medicine and the weather should be so well represented. That Saints' Day are comparatively poorly represented is to be accounted for from the fact that Catholicism has never had any any appreciable influence among the Pennsylvania Germans and that the early German settlers came from Protestant territory. A few of the superstitions can be traced back to Germanic heathendom. In tracing these survivals much valuable information has been derived from Golther's Handbuch der Germanischen Mythologie, Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, Meyer's Germanische Mythologie, Meyer's Mythologie der Germanen, and Wuttke's Der deutsche Volksaberglaube der Gegenwart. These books are mentioned here so as not to necessitate the constant repetition of citations.

Tuesday, named for Tiw, Ziu, Tyr, and Thursday, named for Thor, Donar, are the favorite wedding days in

most of the Pennsylvania German counties, although custom varies in this respect in different localities.

Donar’s hammer, mjölnir, is reflected in the superstition "for insomnia put a räkschtē under your pillow." The “rikschte” is a roundish stone found lying on fenceposts and is the Pennsylvania German interpretation of the Donarkeil or belemnite. Red objects such as the houseleek, the mountain ash, rowan-berries, the oak with its red bark, animals having a red color, even red objects, such as stockings, bands, garters, coats, wax tapers, etc., were sacred to him. Collar gall may thus be prevented or cured by putting the skin of a weasel or opossum under the collar. It is probably for the same reason that red flannel underwear is worn to prevent rheumatism. Since Donar was the god of marriage

and since everything red was sacred to him, the tying of a piece of red flannel around the leg to stop puerperal hemorrhage is a direct survival of the old paganism. "In British superstition a piece of red tape was tied round one of the thighs of a woman in childbed, as it was supposed to mitigate the labor pains and to prevent mishap." The tying of a piece of red wool or string about the finger to stop nosebleed, and the passing of red cord over the parts aflicted with erysipelas belong to the same category, notwithstanding the claim of those who maintain that they are based solely on the old similia similibus curantur. Because Donar was the god of the hearth and the family,the kettlehook was sacred to him. Herein lies the source of the superstition of looking into the chimney to prevent homesickness.

The Anglo-Saxons picked the herbs which they used for medicinal purposes on Thursday, and in al the Penn-

sylvania German counties it is customary to eat some greens, such as spinach, dandelion, etc,, on Maundy Thursday to prevent fever. For “livergrown'" creep under a vine or bramble that has taken second root, or pass the “livergrown" child through a horse collar or through a rent or hole in an tree, In pagan times sick children were

passed through a hole in an oak tree, or ash tree, or hip tree (Rosa canina) on three successive Thursdays.

The reference to the horse collar is interesting because the horse was sacred to Wodan. Thor's image was put on the prow of the boat, the sailors in this manner imploring Thor for favorable winds. After the introduction of Christianity the image of Thor was supplanted by the crucifix and now the crucifix is replaced by allegorical figures, in other words, a return to paganism.

In early times cattle were driven to pasture for the first time on Thursdays, and in most Pennsylvania German

counties you will not find a moving on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, and the place taken by cattle in the moving is likewise interesting. Eating something green on Maundy Thursday to pro-

tect one's health or using an egg laid on Maundy Thursday to reduce hernia, combine in them pagan and Christian elements, for in superstition Maundy Thursday is an exceedingly lucky day. On Ascension Day, likewise a Thursday, you may always expect a thunderstorm; you should never sew on this day or frame a house, for lightning will strike anything which is made on this day. Curiously enough, this is the day to go fishing, whereas in Germany rivers are supposed to demand and receive a sacrifice on this day. Picking one's teeth with a splinter from a tree struck by lightning and never using such wood for building purposes or fuel, all reflect the Donar cult, just as do the tooth of the boar and the mouse, for they are the symbols of the flash of lightning. Shrove Tuesday has taken over some of the features of the festival in honor of Donar, for, at this time,

the heathen Germans celebrated a preliminary festival in honor of the coming spring and the end of winter. The

cakes which were eaten at this time are closely related to the Easter cakes in honor of Ostara, the goddess of the light of spring. This explains why one should eat a doughnut on Shrove Tuesday in order to live a year longer. Nor should any work be done on this day.

In the entire heathen calendar no day was more sacred than May 1, for it was dedicated to Donar. The night preceding is Walpurgis night, the time when all spirits are freed. Both day and night are the time for charms and spells, and one can now understand why one should wash with dew on the first of May without, however, speaking a word, to get rid of freckles. Under the infuence of Christianity, many of the characteristics of the gods were transferred to the devil.

Thus, one frequently says of a red headed person: “rõte hõr uf em kopp, der deibel im leib,'"

or one says that "either a sorrel horse is tricky or his master is." So also, Judas, the man of Kerioth, is represented as baving red hair and therefore he betrayed Christ, The fiery dragon, which disappears as soon as one speaks, and the cuckoo are also to be referred to Donar.

The last of the major gods is Wodan, and it is for him that Wednesday is named. The Saxons, Frisians and lower Franks adopted the name Wuotanestac, but in High German territory the name Mittwoch remained, and it is probable that the High German tribes did not know of a god Wodan, which corresponded to Mercurius, at the time of the introduction of Roman names for the days of the week. North Germany seems to have been the home of the Wodan cult and it is not until rather late, probably the seventh century, that this Wodan cult reached High German territory.

At all events, we can understand why “Mittwoch is ken dak," because, not being named for a god, it is a day of

bad luck. Nothing of importance must be done on this day and it is extremely rare that a funeral is held on a Wednesday. Wodan had a raven which he sent out each day to gather news for him, and he also summoned his heroes to Walhalla, therefore when a crow crosses one's path it is an omen of bad luck or death. It is also the Wodan cult that is responsible for the superstitions of the horse shoe and horseshoe nail. The horse was sacred to Wodan, as was also the horse head. It is probable that the use of a found bone in curing diseases is closely related to the Wodan cult because bones of horses were used in curing various diseases.

The broom which plays so great a role in witchcraft as well as in cleaning house and barn on Good Friday was sacred to Donar and Wodan because of its relation to lightning. The most important remnant of the Wodan myth is to be found in "Der wilde Jäger,'" the Wild Huntsman,” which survives in "der ěwich jēger" with some non-essential additions and variations. It is quite natural that the period between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6) should be so well represented in superstition. The Wild Huntsman" is supposed to cause storms during this period. Therefore if it is windy between Christmas and New Year, there will be much fruit the coming year. St, Niklas, called "Belznikel" by the Pennsylvania Germans, can be traced back to Wodan. He usually wears a long white beard and distributes nuts, apples, etc., among the children. It is a question also whether the Mummers'" do not hark back to the Wodan cult.The Germanic Venus is Frigg, and dies Veneris is translated into Freitag, Friday. She is known by many names and is hard to delineate in Germanic mythology. As the wife of Wodan she drives in a chariot drawn by cats, the cat is sacred to her. She is a fructifying goddess and therefore sowing should be begun and finished on Friday. Many of the characteristics of Hel are transferred to her, and, as such, the owl is her messenger, and the hooting of the owl is an omen of death.

It will be seen, then, that the days named for the several Germanic divinities play an important rôle in the everyday life of the people. As is to be expected, these gods were worshipped in many forms, and it is to these pagan rites that we can trace some of our present day superstitions.

When sacrifice was made to the gods much attention was paid to the viscera and blood of sacrifices, on the basis of which the priests prophesied. The horse was the most important sacrifcial animal-more so even than human beings, for when human beings were sacrificed it was usually criminals--and thus much significance attached to the neighing of horses. So, the neighing of horses at a funeral is the sign of another funeral soon.

If a child was named for a god it was under the especial protection of that god. So there are compounds of As, Regin, Os, etc., as in Oscar, Reginald, Oswald, etc. It is likely that the same thought is expressed in names like Gotthold, Gottfried, Gottlieb, Gottlob, and Godfrey and in giving a saint’s name to a child born on a saint’s day. 

The Germanic people naturally gave presents to their gods, and they were usually simple in kind, being prin-

cipally food, milk, honey, fruits and ffowers. When the farmer puts hay out of doors on Christmas eve, so that the dews of night might fall on it, and feeds the hay on Christmas day to horses and cattle, so that they may be healthy all the year; or if when one sets out bread into the open air on Christmas day to freeze and later eats such bread to prevent fevers, these practices may be regarded as survivals of the sacrifice offered by the Germanio peoples at the most important period in the entire pagan Germanic calendar, twelfth tide. Here should be mentioned also the Christmas tree with its symbolic decorations, and the general custom among all peoples of Germanic extraction of having a sumptuous dinner on Christmas day, for they are survivals of the solemn sacrificial feasts about the time of the winter solstice. The belief in the speaking of animals on Christmas eve between eleven and twelve o'clock comes from Germanic mythology, as does also the belief that a child born on Christmas day is extraordinarily lucky. The old superstition of water in wells turning into wine for a space of three minutes during Christmas night is likewise pagan in its origin.

The Germanic peoples held four great sacrifices during the year: when they drove their cattle to pasture in spring, about May; when they rounded them up in fall after harvest, about September; about the time of the summer solstice to secure themselves against damage from hail and thunderstorm, as well as plagues; in winter, for the coming year's crops. In the case of plague among the domestic animals the finest specimen of the flock or herd which was being devastated was selected for sacrifice, and the sex of the animal to be sacrificed was determined by the sex of the larger number of animals that had died. In such cases the sacrifice consisted in either burying the animal thus

selected alive or beheading it. There is an echo of this sacrificial act in the Pennsylvania German superstition of burying the stillborn calf under the sill of the stable door. For our present purpose it is necessary to give some details of the ceremonies connected with Germanic sacrifice. Every one who wished to participate in the blessings of the sacrifice was required to contribute something to the sacrificial pyre, before virgin fire was applied to it. After the fire had died down, the herds were driven through the burning embers: first pigs, then cows and horses, and finally geese. Men and women also ran through the flames, blackening each other's faces with the sacred, health giving ashes.

Fruit trees, meadows and fields were smoked with the burning embers. Some of the embers were taken home to rekindle the hearth fires which had been extinguished before the beginning of the sacrifice.The extinguished embers were placed in the manger to assure the health of the cattle. When, therefore, in all the Pennsylvania German counties, charcoal is fed to pigs to keep them healthy, we are dealing not with a scientifically attested hygienic fact but with a survival of a pagan sacrificial rite.

The ashes of the notfeuer were spread over fields as a preventive against caterpillars and failure of crops.

These ashes were also mixed with the fodder and fed to the cattle. The Christian Easter has supplanted many of the pagan rites of spring, and, therefore, when ashes obtained from fire on Good Friday are spread over trees and animals to prevent lice, and when ashes are thrown into trees on Ash Wednesday; when a twig is cut from every fruit tree on Ash Wednesday, or when fruit trees are whipped on Good Friday, or nails driven into them for the same purpose, these superstitions may likewise be regarded as survivals of old heathen practices.

In another of the sacrifices, particularly that in July, which was more propitiatory in character, the animals selected for the sacrifice were beaten with whips from a sacred tree or bush, intertwined with wild flowers.These twigs and flowers were tied into a sort of brooms which were then tied to the tails of the animals, so that the dew of midsummer night might be collected in their fasces and they thus be endued with greater power. With such a broom the chief herdsman struck the cattle thrice, at the same time reciting a charm. It was thought that in this way all witches and disease-bringing spirits could be driven out.

At the conclusion of the feasts these brooms were given to the farmers and with them they swept their buildings to rid them of all barmful spirits. In Pennsylvania German superstition house and barn are swept on Good Friday to rid them of lice and insure health to the occupants of both. Here the dates do not agree, but the similarity is close enough to warrant us in regarding the superstitions as a survival. The broom plays a very important rôle here, for, while it is on brooms that witches ride through the air, the broom is used as a charm against witches, because of its relation to lightning and thus to Wodan and Donar. The broom is used to thrash bewitched milk and also to discover witches, as no witch will step over a broom.

The holy water of the non-Catholic Pennsylvania German is obtained from the first snow in fall or the last snow in March, and it is good for sore eyes. There is a close connection between March snow water and the celebration in honor of spring. The pagan Germans also had holy water which was taken from the sacred spring after the procession following the sacrificial feast had dropped cakes adorned with flowers into it. This water not only had curative powers but it was used to drive out witches and evil spirits. After the fire had died down everyone rushed into it to search for remains of the sacrificial animals. In their search they had a special predilection for horns and the genitalia of the animals, which were used as charms. This explains why the genitalia of the cow are nailed into the horse stable to keep out witches.

The simulacra consparsa farinae, mentioned in Indicuus Superstitionum 26, have reference to the cakes baked in the forms of various animals. At the several sacrifces, and particularly the Norse jolfest, it was the duty of every one to contribute something, and thus, not having animals to offer, the baked cakes were allowed as substitutes. Here then is the source of the Pennsylvania German Christmas cakes and the Christmas candies, for it is only at Christmas

that these distinctive candies can be obtained. That they are usually red is also significant, for red and yellow are

the colors of the sun. Nor do the images of lions and other animals in any way militate against or disprove the pagan source of the custom. The presence of the five-pointed star among the cakes and the shepherd's crook among the candies illustrates the oft recurring attempt at injecting into a heathen custom a Christian symbolism, and it furthernore affords a striking instance of the union of heathen and Christian elements. To this category belong also the colored Easter egg and the Easter rabbit. with its red or yellow color-all sorts of colors are now common-is the emblem of life, or, as Wuttke puts it, “da sinnbild des neu beginnenden naturlebens. “ The rabbit, which is supposed to lay these eggs, is the symbol of fertility and as such is sacred both to Ostara, the goddess of spring, and to Hulda or Harke. We can thus see the double significance of the Easter egg. This helps us to understand the superstition that the Easter egg does not rot, why it is used to reduce hernia and, incidentally, also, why so many eggs are eaten on Easter, notwithstanding the price of this staple article of food at Easter time.

In early German times boundary stones were sacred to the gods, and any one who removed such a stone incurred the anger of the gods and could not be received by them. Herein lies the source of the superstition concerning the removal of the boundary stone.

In ancient times the willow was used instead of rope in hanging certain malefactors and in the early Christian

church the willow was used to punish those who did not attend early mass on Easter, so that the willow was, and still is, in disrepute, as we may infer from such formulae as these: whipping a child with a willow causes white swelling, or thrashing animals with willows causes edema.

In early times the implements used by the living were interred with the corpse. The free man was equipped as though going to war; the wife, on the other hand, as though she was going to start married life anew, and therefore she was adorned as a bride. This conception still holds in the custom of clothing a wife in her wedding dress instead of shroud, and thus it has, in the folk mind, some remarkable properties, as it is placed under the child's head to cure it of convulsions.

The superstitions concerning spitting in the fire and pointing the finger at a rainbow probably both have their

origin in the veneration which the ancient Germans had for the nature elements as manifestations of the gods.

Among the trees sacred to the gods was the elder, consequently it still plays a rôle in superstitions, particularly

those concerning medicine.

The superstitions connected with certain days of the week can be traced to the influence which the various Germanic divinities exercised on the popular mind. Thus, a child born on Sunday is lucky because Sunday is named for the sun, the celestial body, which plays the greatest rôle in every primitive religion. The Friday superstitions show greater contrasts than those of any other weekday. Where the pagan conception predominates, Friday is the luckiest

of days, because it is the day of Frigg, the Germnanic Venus. Therefore it is one of the most favored wedding days, as well as the day on which to begin sowing grain. Where, on the other hand, the Christian infuence predominates, Friday is the unluckiest of days, and nothing of importance must be done on the day, not even traveling.

These, then, are a few survivals of Germanic heathendom in Pennsylvania German superstitions, although the list is by no means exhaustive. It might also be interesting to call attention to the content of the superstitions and to show, for example, how custom differs in the several counties in regard to the wedding day or the place of cattle in the moving; or to state that the negation of many of the superstitions is to be found in the same or adjacent counties. Belief in witches has not died out here any more than in Great Britain or Germany, and pow'wowing is still practiced to a greater or less extent. The "himmelsbrief" and its most recent successor, the endless chain of prayer are discussed elsewhere. ef. Bibliography sub Fogel.)

Another curious survival of a former period is to be seen in the use of socalled "bèse bieher," such as Albertus Magnus, Eovptische Geheimnisse; Das Sechste und Siebente Buch Moses; Das Achte und Neunte Buch Mosis; and Homann's Der lang verborgene Freund. The last named book, the subject of a very inaccurate article in the Journal of American Folklore, has gone through many editions and is to be found in both English and German versions on the

shelves of several bookstores. While these books are consulted by many they are feared by others.

The casual reader will conclude from what has been said in the preceding pages and from the superstitions contained in this volume that the Pennsylvania Germans are extremely superstitious. This assumption is hardly correct. Their superstition has simply not taken a form sanctioned by other strata of society, for, in the last analysis, consulting palmists, fortune tellers and gypsies, spiritualism and Christian Science are no better than superstition.

foto Karl Theodor Weigel