The Hex Factory
Patrick Donmoyer, Berks County Hexologist and Scholar
The following interview is an excerpt from the book, by Hunter M. Yoder, Heiden Hexology, Essays and Interviews, 2012
Today in continuation of our "Interview Series" We have a fellow Berks County Hexologist and scholar on the subject, PATRICK DONMOYER. Patrick has recently graduated from my old Alma Mater, Kutztown University with a BFA in Fine Arts, as I have myself. And he has a minor in the new PA German Studies Program. He has distinguished himself with his Kutztown University Honors Thesis & Historic Hex Sign Survey of historic hex signs throughout Berks county and has an impressive resume of giving lectures on the subject.
1. Patrick, Give us some information on your extensive survey of Berks County Barnstars. Is the resource going to be available online or what plans do you have for publishing the results?
In the Summer of 2008, I began the process of driving all agricultural and rural roads in Berks County to document and photograph all visible examples of decorated barns. I did this with the generous support of the Peter Wentz Farmstead Society, who funded my project with a research scholarship. I mapped the locations of every site I documented, and photographed the barns, their decorations and any other features that seemed relevant to the search, including graffiti, interior decorations, and architectural features. In only about 20% of the documented sites was I allowed or invited to explore the interior of the barn. Despite this difficulty, I was surprised to be able to collect an immense amount of data from the interiors of barns taken from within only a small sample of my total survey results. In total, I collected photos of over 400 barns. I was pleasantly surprised by the number and diversity of the designs. My work has also to a lesser degree extended into Lehigh, Northampton, Bucks, Montgomery, Lebanon, Lancaster, Schuylkill and York Counties. I've taken thousands of photographs since I began. I've been offering lectures to historical, civic and educational organizations which are comprised of 45 minute photographic presentations outlining the results of my survey through the context of Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore.
I've also teamed up for continued field work and presentations with Eric Claypoole of Lenhartsville, the most prolific Barn Star Painter in Pennsylvania. Eric is single-handedly responsible for the vast majority of Berks County's historical repaintings as well as countless original works in Berks, Lehigh, & Montgomery Counties. Eric and I work to continue the process of documenting not only the historic evidence of the tradition, but I also make a point to document his activities as an artist because his work is exceptionally important for future generations. Very few historic photographs exist today showing a barn star painter of the past at work.
A sample of my research and artwork is available on my website www.paedrigdesign.com, and some are available through Kutztown University's Library at the Keystone Library Network's digital database located at http://klndigital.passhe.edu/. More of my work will be available in the future at the Research Library of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.
After the first of the year, I will in earnest resume the writing of my collected work. I'm preparing a documentary volume that highlights photography of hundreds of locations along with a new assessment of the implications of the artistic tradition. It seems to me that only half of the story of their existence, use and meanings has been available to the public in a collected format. I'm interested in presenting a diversity of potential interpretations rooted in folklore rather than exclusively supporting one perspective. If there is one thing that I know for certain about the Pennsylvania Dutch, it is that there are always ideas and beliefs that remain unspoken, and no two people will offer exactly the same story.
2.What is your preference, Barnstars or Hex Signs and what are the differences?
For my purposes as a researcher, both of these terms are problematic from the very beginning. They are strictly anachronisms which bear little resemblance to the terminology used by those who came before us. Nevertheless, I prefer the words "Barn Stars" because the terminology is somewhat comparatively clear: I study illustrations of abstract celestial images painted on barns. I generally use the term Barn Star for the work actually painted on a barn. I make a distinction between this and commercial disks. I like the idea of referring to the images as "stars" because we know of only a few terms used in the Pennsylvania German Dialect for the designs, such as "die Blumme," "die Schtanne," and "die Blummeschtanne," meaning respectively, "flowers," "stars," and "flower-stars." Both of these terms reference the geometric content of earthly and celestial observations. Words such as "die Hexezeeche" and "die Scheier Schilder," when applied to barn decorations are all twentieth-century adaptations of English phrases. The terms cannot be found in any primary sources over one-hundred years old, and they have no historical connection to the tradition of painting stars on barns. "Die Hexezeeche" is a Pennsylvania Dutch adaptation of a earlier European German phrase which refers more directly to small-scale images created either for the purpose of protecting an individual or building from witchcraft, or smale-scale images created for the purpose of witchcraft. This type of activity can be seen in some markings found inside barns, homes and outbuildings, but it cannot be applied in a comprehensive sense to the large-scale designs on barns. To apply the term in this way would imply that the designs served a single standardized purpose, rather being a living tradition which communicates to the viewer on many levels. The designs on barns both historically and today have a diversity of meanings, and the idea of witchcraft-protection seems to be a comparatively recent interpretation of the designs. Ideas like blessing, fertility, and spiritual protection seem far older, and these implications can be traced to similar traditions in European vernacular architecture. The first documented case of the word "Hex" being used in conjunction with the designs is highly controversial. Wallace Nutting, a New Englander, coined the term "Hexefuss" in 1924, claiming to have heard it from a single source in Lehigh County. Nutting did not understand any Pennsylvania Dutch dialect in the slightest bit, and his story is therefore questionable. A common word used for the design of the six-pointed rosette in Germany is "die Sechstern." Another way of saying six-sided star in Pennsylvania is "sex-foosich Schtann." Could "sex-foosich" and "hexefoos" sound similar to an untrained ear? It is certainly possible. It is also possible that the farmer with whom Nutting was speaking was referring to something entirely different from the designs. I have heard the word Hexefuss used by older members of the PA Dutch community to describe a symbol of runic origin used for protection, also called a Gensefoos or Gruttefoos, as well as a popular tradition of making triangular cut-outs on door lintels which was believed to counter the entry of dangerous intruders. Never have I heard the word Hexefuss used by a native Pennsylvania Dutch dialect speaker to refer to the designs on barns. Another primary reason that I struggle to accept the word "Hex" in relation to the designs is that it carries a serious negative connotation in the Pennsylvania Dutch community. I do not believe that these designs would have been named after a negative force if they were used for protection. The words I have heard used to describe the stars taken from verbal accounts of Brauchers and Powwow practitioners are words like "Scheier Brauch," "painted prayers," "visual prayers." These are all terms aimed at a beneficial purpose. The only references to the word Hex in these discussions with powwow practitioners always carries a negative connotation, namely referring to a practitioner of Hexerei responsible for some ill-intention. Today, many people today use the word "hex" to mean any magical or shamanic activity. I have no problem with this use of the word as long as it is in a contemporary context of mutual agreement. Historically, it was simply not used the same way, and so it makes it difficult to communicate about the subject except in an anachronistic, anecdotal sense. If I went to an elderly powwow practitioner in Berks County and told him or her that I was interested in Hexerei, I would probably be turned away because the word carries a negative connotation. I try to seriously distinguish the difference between traditional paintings and hexerei in my own language.
3.Are they "Chust for nice"?
For some people, this is the only level that the designs can appreciated, and it is a persistent belief today. The only issue I have with the phrase is the "just" part, implying "only," which means they have no purpose other than their nicety. I have observed however, that there are a variety of beliefs present in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, some of which are simple, concrete, decorative interpretations, while others acknowledge beliefs, customs and rituals which are inter-related with the same symbolism. It appears to me that a generalized explanation simply cannot satisfy our culture's desire for clarification. My own approach to the subject is that I adhere only to a desire for clarification of ideas, based upon visual documentation and supportable terminology. I do not support one idea to the exclusion of all others. I have no problem acknowledging the fact that contradictory ideas exist within Pennsylvania Dutch culture. It is part of a culture's identity to have contradictions. These contradictions do not have to mean that someone is wrong and someone is right. It simply means that different people have different experiences with the same material.
4. And although Milton Hill is attributed with the above quote, what can you tell us about that great Virginville Hexologist?
Milton Hill is credited with being responsible for some of the most complex designs which can be found in Berks County, primarily in Winsor Castle, Edenburg, Virginville and the Hamburg area. His work normally features star patterns of alternating contrasting colors, receeding towards a central point, and bordered by complex overlapping arcs. His borders appear to form a lattice of diamond shapes which are often colored in a graduated scheme from darkest at the interior to lightest at the outermost edge. It is obvious to me however that Hill could not possibly be responsible for all of these designs which many people today call "Hill Stars." I know of a photograph of a barn in Windsor Castle from 1902, with the exact designs which later became Hill's signature arrangement. Hill was born in 1895, and he couldn't have produced these early examples. Hill is however responsible for making these designs flourish, and for re-combining the geometry in complex and innovative ways. Eric Claypoole of Lenhartsville has repainted and restored numerous designs believed to have been originally executed by Milton Hill because of the scribing technique used in the original layout. Milton Hill was a complex individual, and his contribution to the tradition in Berks County is unmistakable. I also find it exciting that his orientation is vastly different from my own, in that he saw the designs as purely decorative, yet his work stands out to me as some of the most captivating. I have an immense amount of respect for him as an artist.
5. Is Johnny Ott's work still visible today?
Only in the Deitsch Eck, and on masonite disks which can still be found hanging outside in some areas around Lenhartsville. I've only ever seen one or two of his disks on exterior architecture. They are too valuable to hang outside and weather away to nothing. Johnny Ott never actually painted a single barn. He painted disks that later were hung on barns, but very little evidence of his work exists outside of private collections. Ott's story is somewhat problematic historically. News articles from the 1950's refer to his work as being "Cabalistic Marks" - yet I study the Kaballah and some medieval diagramatical works illustrating sacred concepts and there is no relation between the Kaballah and Ott's work. Yet Ott claimed his work had a magical intention. Having studied the history of occult and ceremonial diagrams, I do not see much of any similarity at all between his work and the work of occultists. His work appears to be largely derived from his earlier artistic work which was decorated tinware - tolepainting. He is responsible for transforming the tradition of star painting by incorporating non-geometric elements, such as birds, and some of the less-geometrically oriented floral embellishments which normally appeared on tinware. And yet... he never claimed that his tinware had any magical content, nor has anyone suggested that his tinware was covered with "cabalistic marks." I'm not entirely sold on every aspect of his legendary persona. I might feel differently if I had met him in person, but I'll never know. I'm sure he must have been a very interesting person, to be sure. Usually, I am less attracted to his work than I am to other painters who focused more extensively on geometric pattern. His work is also less relevant to my study, as he never painted directly on any historic barns. Although, my favorite piece of Ott's is an abstract painting entitled "The Wild Lettuce Feeding It's Young." This piece is the only work that I know of which appears to have an occult dimension. It was featured on an old postcard which is a part of my friend Eric Claypoole's private collection, but the original Ott painting seems to have vanished...
6.How do you feel about the much more recent practice of silk screened reproductions? I know that Ivan Hoyt licenses his work out in that way.
I don't have much of an opinion about it, because it accomplishes a completely commercial aim: the process is intended to mass-manufacture something to sell to tourists. Tourism is important to our local economy, so I respect it. But I also think that silk-screened designs are inferior fundamentally to hand-painted designs. I own an excellent Ivan Hoyt original that I keep in my car, but I never would have purchased it if it had been silk-screened.
I'm less critical of the silk-screened disks than I am of the literature that usually accompanies the disks in tourist shops. Much of the literature makes the false claim that the highly embellished floral and bird motifs are traditional designs painted on barns. This has never really been the case. Most of this work has more in common with painted tinware, while the oldest of the Barn Stars are all geometric. The Tourist literature also misleads the unknowing consumer into believing that the Pennsylvania Dutch created elaborate symbols which could be summed up in simple quaint phrases such as "good luck" and "love and romance." I know that today many people who collect these disk designs use these terms to differentiate the most popular of the post-1950 designs, and this surely makes sense in this context. For instance, the popular "Irish-hex," "the Daddy Hex," "Love and Romance" are titles used by Jacob Zook and Johnny Ott for very specific designs, and they were also some of the same titles used by Johnny Claypoole as Ott's student. These titles really only existed after 1950. I would not use the same terms to describe the historic designs. I tend to think that the explanations are far more complex.
7.It appears that you view Barnstars/Hexology as a form of cosmogram. What leads you to that interpretation?
I see cosmological implications as being the fulcrum of my research, and I attempt to understand it from two different perspectives. From the perspective of folklore, I've found loads of evidence to explain the use of astrological concepts in agricultural life, and I see this as the basis for explaining the significance of celestial activities to the Pennsylvania Dutch cultural context. I think this avenue has its limitations, however, as the designs rarely reference specific celestial bodies, but rather, they favor an astrological aesthetic, that is, the designs reference an interest in the celestial, and a reverence for the celestial. The designs are cyclically abstract, regular, and radially symmetrical. These attributes make them visually interesting and especially attractive to people whose beliefs favor the idea of an ordered universe. No matter what we believe today, we have to remember that the Pennsylvania Dutch in the past were mostly Protestants with a folk spirituality which was often interwoven with mystical beliefs. This set of beliefs can be used to inform our observations of the historic designs. I do not believe however that everyone who painted these designs on barns, or carved similar designs on tombstones, or decorated their furniture with geometric designs was conscious of this process.
8.Besides your expertise on Barnstars, you also are well informed on the subject of the architectural development of the PA German Bankbarn. What other marks have you found inside or out on these great structures?
I've found a number of different interior designs which closely resemble the exterior paintings. These range from the simplest of scribed rosettes to far more elaborate painted designs. Many of these are located by areas of transition, next to doors, or windows, or the entrances to granaries. I've also found a range of unexplained geometric designs which I am to this day uncertain of their implications. For these examples, to assume that I could re-assemble a meaning from my own set of modern-day attitudes would be misleading. I can't arbitrarily assign a meaning, even if I have a hunch of what something might mean. Many of them appear to be within the realm of Christian iconography, but there is a margin of doubt. I'm interested in ritual markings as well. I've photographed the historic use of crosses in groups of three, and sometimes the initials of Christ. I've also found crosses combined with other geometric and religious designs. Occasionally, I've found designs of a runic nature, however, I must warn that these designs are never found in context with other runes, only in isolation. This leads me to believe that the runes did not survive in a complete, cohesive system, but rather as ideograms which are isolated from the system as a whole, and therefore their meanings have changed somewhat. I've also found illustrations of animals, usually birds, occasionally livestock. I've seen illustrations of people, sometimes farmers, occasionally Indians. The most common things to find are tally-marks used for counting grain sacks, marriage marks (numbered hatch marks) to show how the various members of the timber frame are assembled, and initials of the barn owners and workers.
9. Any thoughts on the Northern European versions of Hex signs?
It would appear that nearly every culture of the world has some tradition of using geometric signs and symbols on their dwelling places, agricultural buildings, sacred sites and monuments. The designs used by the northern Europeans are no exception. I've never been to Europe - the information I've gathered comes from pictorial research from printed sources, as well as photographic examples given to me by fellow historians in the US and Germany. In general, I've found that European historians have less of a problem admitting possible pagan associations with their decorative traditions. Especially prior to WWII, German historians had some interesting interpretations of their folk art. Many of these scholars emphasized the runic origins of some of the forms, as Germanic culture was experiencing a resurgence in interest in its mythology. Unfortunately the National Socialist movement usurped many of these designs for political emblems. It's no longer polite to talk seriously about the origins of some of these symbols. In many European countries it is illegal to use emblems such as the swastika, which were once very common in a folk context.
Nevertheless, the places that many of these early designs can be witnessed on folk architecture are in alpine regions of Switzerland, Germany, Austria. I've also seen similar designs in sources from Eastern Europe, the British Isles and Scandinavia.
10. Practitioners of Hexerei, or PA Germanic witchcraft energize a particulat object (Hex Sign) with a particular intent. This is done in various ways including the usage of bodily fluids especially blood. This view allows for only that particular object to carry the charge.
Hexologists on the other hand would use red paint instead of blood and make the Hex so very good that its intent will travel throughout the 'universe' through any means including reproductions and the internet. What views do you have on this difference?
My experience with traditional geometric paintings has never led me to see such a distinction as you mention. I've certainly never heard of a painter or a powwow practitioner mention this distinction or conflict between the use of blood and paint in the context of traditional motifs. I've heard people say that the red paint represented the blood of Christ, but I've never heard of the question of comparison for efficacy in Hexerei. This is because the vast majority of folklorists, powwow practitioners, and painters I've encountered have never connected the designs specifically to hexerei. They have in many cases connected the designs to healing, dreams, and non-ordinary experiences.
In reference to the question of materials however, I've always assumed that within the philosophy of sympathetic magic, materials which appear to have like qualities are assumed to function in a similar way. I'm also aware that even in the situation of authors like Lee Gandee or Dennis Boyer, both of whom mention specific accounts of the traditional motifs as braucherei tools, it is assumed for both writers that literally everything and anything a braucherin or powwower does has the potential to carry the prayerful intention of the practitioner, whether it is a verbal prayer, a gesture, a written blessing, a ritual wafer, a knotted string, a chalked or painted design, or even common everyday activities such as baking bread or starting vinegar. The materials add content and subtlety, but they are mere vehicles and considered secondary to the intention. I am familiar with the idea of the use of blood for ritual purposes, and often it was used by common, everyday folk and was not considered witchcraft. For instance, several PA Dutch folklorists talk of painting doors of homes or barns with either lamb blood or pig blood for the purpose of protection. Whether this practice was pagan in origin, such as with the swine blood, or biblical in origin by means of the Passover sign, we can't be sure in these syncretic circumstances. I have seen markings on historic buildings that were quite possibly painted in blood, but never any circular geometric designs in blood.
11. What is your interpretation of the PA Germanic usage of the "Fyrfos" or the Hook Cross on their barns?
The whirling-swastika, or Hokegreitz as it was called for some, is one of the oldest designs found on barns and other folk art items. I've never heard Fyrfos used in a PA Dutch context, but rather within the Scandinavian model. Some have called it a Flyfoot in Anglo-Saxon. When I consider the form of a geometric design, whether I know the specific mythology behind it or not, I consider it from a variety of interpretive qualities. The number of radial arms, the orientation of its members, its direction of motion - all have an immediate effect on the viewer and suggest universal certainties. Many of these qualities transcend cultural associations. I think of the Hokegreitz as representing a universal axis, just as an equal-armed cross, whether it is vertically oriented or diagonally oriented, a point of conjunction between equal members. I think of the four members as suggesting the directions of the earthly plane, and the movement as suggesting cyclical motion, perhaps the passage of time. The directional qualities of motion are entirely perceptual. I've experimented with this, and when I ask people which direction a design appears to move, it is usually divided 50/50. Some think of the smaller, rounded edge of the tear drop to lead, others see it as trailing behind. Typically, some historians have dubbed the counter-clockwise motion passive, while the clockwise is active, and this follows the astrological and hermetic notions of polarity. The problem lies in which way the design moves apparently, and this changes from person to person. Many PA Dutch sources have referred to this idea as the Four Seasons, yet I am unable to locate any written or verbal source that actually uses Deitsch terminology for this seasonal idea. I think the historical ideas of this design have been explored ad nauseum by scholars, many of whom had biases because of their wanting a certain culture to claim its point of origination. Some credit Greece, some India, some the pan-continental migrations of "Aryans." I find it all somewhat suspect. Nearly every culture of the world has used the design, and while the PA Dutch may appear to fall distinctly within the Germanic context, it does not necessarily have to relate to the same concepts of Germanic culture which are held by enthusiasts today. Much of what people today believe about Germanic culture is derived from Scandinavian reconstruction and Aryan metahistory. In short, the PA Dutch have been internalizing and creating designs which might fall into a Germanic context, yet they were undoubtedly completely unaware of the history of the Indo-Aryan connection and it did not affect their thinking in the same way it does for Nordo-Germanic enthusiasts today. The self-awareness of our ancestors was completely different than our awareness of history today.
12. I was told "back in the day" that the droplets between the star rays were called Yods. What is your experience with that term?
I'm curious about the source of this bit of folklore, and how far back in the day this can be traced. It almost certainly references the Hebrew Letter Yod, the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, or the highest unutterable name of God. It fits into a Judeo-Christian context, but it is hard to determine what portion of that context. Many people of today automatically assume anything unusual and Hebrew found in Amero-European culture has a connection with the Hebrew Kaballah, however this has a great deal to do with the popularity of the Kaballah in recent years, and the assumption cannot so easily be made. The problem lies in what the person who mentioned this idea had in mind for the connection between the tear drop and the Yod. The letter carries with it very distinctly Hebrew cultural associations, and it would be difficult to assume that a PA Dutch perspective is entirely compatible. Even when we look to Hebrew words, phrases and ritual practice in undercurrents of PA Dutch mysticism, such as the Feuersegen of Ephrata, the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and the occasional use of the names of God in protective charms and amulets, it is difficult to make generalized assumptions about the intention of the individual using the ideas. My own research has only turned up written references to Hebrew mysticism, and not all of it can specifically be called "Kaballic" on account of a lack of delineation of a cohesive system. There is no evidence to indicate that much of anyone in PA Dutch culture could speak Hebrew fluently, except in the occasional circumstances of theological and scholastic adherents. This is especially the case in a folk scenario, as this knowledge would be incredibly obscure outside the realm of high-education. In many situations, I'm curious whether the person who wrote the charms could read Hebrew at all, or whether the lure of symbols from extra-cultural sources were believed to be inherently powerful because of being unfamiliar and obscure, and therefore were passed down through generations. Even in communities such as Shaefferstown, which was believed to have a substantial number of Jewish inhabitants, there is almost no trace of the population, and some have even questioned, perhaps unfoundedly, whether or not this community ever existed in that location. As for the implications of Yod, we could make assumptions based upon what we know of the concept today, but I feel that this would be a premature assessment. The person who mentioned this to you might know more about the orientation of those who held this connection in common. However, this certainly is an interesting and suggestive bit of folklore, and if your informant gave more specifics, it could potentially be an incredibly valuable piece of information concerning the cross-cultural connections.
13. Of what symbolic significance is the Rossette?
The rosette, like the majority of PA Dutch symbols, is an ancient symbol which has been used extensively in Judeo-Christian and pagan contexts. Some have compared it to the Iota-Chi, the monogram of Christ, while others point to the Hagal rune in later runic alphabets. Both of these connections are inconclusive, as there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that both meanings have had an effect upon the culture that eventually became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. However, neither of the explanations can be found to have a specific place in Pennsylvania Dutch culture. These are not the explanations of the folk, they are the explanations of the scholastic movements, and few scholars agree. The design has been used extensively in Pennsylvania on Barns, on churches, on tombstones, taufscheins, butter molds, tinware, graffiti, grain sacks, summer sausage bags, ... pretty much everything within the PA Dutch culture that would normally be decorated has been the site of this ubiquitous symbol. I think to understand a folk perspective of the design, we have to think about how the design was made in the plainest of circumstances and why. Farmers used to scribe the designs on mowstead walls with two-tined hayforks used as a compass. The design is created using the inherent properties of the circle as the basis for the geometry. A circle is formed by a continuous line on which every point is equidistant from the origin. These qualities are timeless and have been observed in nearly every culture, and the human reaction to these qualities is predictable: the circle is significant as a symbol for continuity. The circle references both the things we can see with our eyes, as in the sun, the moon and the dome of the heavens, but also things we have to see and interpret with our minds, such as the annual cycle of the year, and the orbits of the stars. These designs reference internalized observations. The rosette is something specific, but it is also universal in this sense.
14.The prevalent attitude coming out of Berks County is that our Hexology is a dying, fading phenomena that needs to be preserved before it is gone completely. The Germanic Heathen community tends to disagree with that assessment. What is your opinion?
I think there is a resurgence in interest in traditional designs throughout Berks County. I've spoken with a large number of people as a result of my research and I'm convinced that the tradition isn't something which will easily pass away, regardless of what name people call it, or how they internalize the designs. I think variation in philosophic orientation is a good thing, it ensures the survival of the traditional designs. The problem lies in the attempt by some to standardize the meanings into something which restricts their living interpretation to a single definition. This has happened to some degree in nearly every fractional group that has wished to lay claim to the iconography, whether the individuals are scholastic, Christian, neo-pagan, commercial, or in the extreme -fascist. Symbols which are distilled by intellectual constraints into a single meaning lose their symbolic qualities, because a symbol is not the same as a word. It cannot be defined by verbal statements, only described. When a symbol can be summed up in a single word or phrase, it becomes a mere sign with a one-dimensional meanings, and it loses its dynamic, universal nature. The survival of these designs depends upon a vested cultural interest in re-investigating, revealing, and re-inventing ourselves.