Folk magic and witchcraft (Hexeri) has been part of Pennsylvania lore for quite a long time. This all started with William Penn, and according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website:
“Pennsylvania is a national leader in religious diversity and expression.”
The vision of a spiritual and religious utopia was the plan for Pennsylvania so it would become a place where all is free to practice the religion of their choosing. This experiment and effort was then marketed to Europe in order to invite anyone suffering from religious or spiritual persecution to come and settle in Pennsylvania.
When mapping out and discovering the lay of the land, you will be surprised to find such extremes in Pennsylvania – from right wing fundamentalist/conservative to the most liberal minded of folks and all manner of persuasion and thought in between. You may find yourself in any particular town that is an open and thriving center of open and liberal thought, only to drive immediately outside of that town (possibly evenless than ½ a mile) and come into folks expressing fundamentalist thinking on social and political issues.
Yes, Pennsylvania is a state of extremes…..
We are also known for having the largest Amish population, along with other sorts of groups such as Quakers, Dunkers and even Mennonite. Even one of the oldest of the revived Rosicrucian movements that is even older than the AMORC movement of the West Coast – the “Fraternitas Rosae Crucis” which had its headquarters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and the three pyramids they built are still standing today – although, with prominent no trespassing signs.
A group of astrologers and alchemists started a closed of community in Ephrata to study the mystic sciences in Pennsylvania. (Another blog article for another day!)
The religion of witchcraft, or the Wicca, was brought to Pennsylvania in the mid 1960s (teaching of the founding members occurred in the Spring of 1965, with formal establishment of a full complement of members in less than two years) and PA can boast that our coven system has been in continual operation in PA, practically unchanged since – and being at least the 3rd or 4th English coven of the Wicca established in the U.S., with less than 2 years after Raymond Buckland started his coven in Long Island.
But much older than that, Pennsylvania has had a proud history of folk magic and witchcraft for well over 200 years. The systems most common in Pennsylvania from that time and still existing today primarily fall in to two camps: Pow-Wow and Hexeri.
While the religion of witchcraft, the Wicca, is much more prominent and well known about in PA than folk magic and Hexeri, it is still here if you know where to look.
Recently, Thomas White has published a wonderfully documented book on historical witchcraft in Pennsylvania called “Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History & Lore.” The book can be found at any online or brick and mortar retailer. My local Barnes & Noble has it always on display up front at all times of the year with all the other ghost hunting and monster chiller urban legends of Pennsylvania.
The book primarily describes the facts, history and legends of faith healing, Pow-Wow and Hexeri in Pennsylvania along with many witch-legends. He has also published another book as well that I have yet to read but it is on my list and is called: “Supernatural Lore of Pennsylvania: Ghosts, Monsters and Miracles.”
If you are interested in magic, the supernatural or witchcraft and live in Pennsylvania, it will not take you very long to come across the practice of Pow-Wow and other forms of faith-healing. So let’s start with the practice of Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-Wow, as it is primarily known and then we will come back around to discuss Hexeri. (Also, if you wish to learn Pow-Wow and do not live in Pennsylvania or know a Pow-Wow, I have listed at the bottom of the post a resource in which you can learn from a distance.)
The origins of Pow-Wow are very unclear and much speculation and theories have been put forth by scholars and amateurs alike. In this blog, you will find my own brief, but amateur tale of what I know and discovered so far. I am not an anthropologist or specialized in religious studies – so I can only share what I know from living in the middle of what is known as the “Hex Belt” of the country as an interested observer and occasional participant in the techniques used.
Some folks have called Pow-Wow a simple form of witchcraft, others have called it faith healing, and others have said it is a Christian form of prayer. So what is the truth?
It seems that most people are in agreement that most of Pow-Wow practice seems to be at the very least rooted or gained a great deal of inspiration from the pre-reformation practices of Catholicism. That means, the folks practicing this particular system carried on maintained what was once “sanctioned by the church practices” and things that, before reformation times, priests typically performed. Some of these practices of pre-reformation practice may be describes as superstitions and/or typically a middle ground road where sympathetic magic crossed with faith/belief/religion.
Healers that practiced Pow-Wow in Pennsylvania may have carried these traditions of faith-healing practice from Europe and may have even believed certain objects carried the ability to heal, or assist the Pow-Wow as they prayed on behalf of others, themselves or their families. They also heavily used Biblical charms, such as the Psalms of the Bible in their faith-healing.
Pow-Wow was a form of hands on healing as well that was very common in pre-reformation Christianity. Even today, hands on prayer is still used by many charismatic churches, those who practice Rosicrucian healing techniques, followers of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science movement, the Curanderos of Latin America and Wiccan groups alike. Hands-on prayer for the purposes of healing seems to be a universal practice. While the words, socioeconomic background and ethnicity may be different, a base similarity can be found within many of the diverse traditions handed down.
Some arguments exist that to practice Pow-Wow techniques that you must be Christian. And while I definitely agree that it is most likely that a majority or close to all practitioners at one time of Pow-Wow were Christian, the fact today shows us this is modern Practitioners may follow a wide variety of religious beliefs or traditions. To me, this seems perfectly acceptable, as many strains of Pow-Wow seems to follow the European grimoire traditions of middle-ages and in fact, I have personally seen old Pow-Wow charms written in old PA Dutch and translated only to be found in one of the three books below
The Pow-Wows did not believe they had the power to do the healing. They believed their ability to heal (and other things too – it wasn’t only healing, protection magic against evil or physical harm was common too) was seen as a gift from God, and because of their spiritual gifts, God would be more apt to intercede on behalf of a person if a particular person that was doing the praying or charm was a Pow-Wow.
One argument says that old-time Pow-Wow practitioners would ask if one believes in God before they would agree to teach them the techniques. You most definitely can believe in God and not be of the Christian faith and I point to a particular quote that is from one of my favorite books on Psychic Healing called, “The Psychic Healing Book” that was written by Amy Wallace and Bill Henkin in 1978 and published by Delacorte Books that says,
“Many healers say, “God works through me – I don’t know what I do.” It is not necessary to know what you do.”
Then a few sentences down, they add:
“When a healer claims to be a channel for God, it is his or her own personal God – whether that is a God in heaven or the God of his or her own heart.”
This modern and inclusive message by Wallace and Henkin resonates well the new Age of Aquarius that we have entered in which togetherness and Inclusive Fraternity and Sorority of humankind will occur. We are leaving the age of “Us vs. Them” and entering the age of “We.” The message that we can experience the Divine within us and also the stranger – that even if the religion or spirituality of another differs from your own, you too can recognize the divine within them and yourself and find connections and similarities between them.
I think the suitability to work such a system as Pow-Wow or even Hexeri is more so predicated on other signs of the ability to do the work, rather than religion itself. Take for example this:
Lore of people born with a caul or even of they were a 7th son of a 7th son would be considered to have extra blessing to perform the work. (This belief was also common among other folks that were not Pennsylvania Dutch)
Typically, the practice of Pow-Wow was a calling, and not something just everyone picked up. They had to feel they were called or chosen by God to do the work.
These two “callings of God” really do not address religion itself other than the fact that God, or the Supreme Being per-determined you for the work by signs that would be either recognizable to other practitioners or would lead the person towards the direction of interest.
Occasionally, it is theorized that Pow-Wow was a survival of pre-Christian pagan or witchcraft practice. Much of this is theory, and we have no evidence of that. Also, much of the thought behind the “pre-reformation Christianity” connection is also a theory as well, although, it is one that we have the strongest theory on because of the similiarity of practice can be seen in common with what Priests and Pow-Wows were doing.
Did pre-Christian pagan or heathen religion influence and carry over into the practice of Pow-Wow?
Personally, I believe the answer is a possible yes and no.
Did it directly pass from pagan priesthood into the populace’s hands?
I think we have more support that the pre-reformation Church practice copied a great deal of esoteric practices and made it their own. So instead of going to your local cunning woman for a herbal potion and an incantation, you went to your local vicar and they said a prayer from the Bible and touched you with a holy object or relic that maybe touched another hundred or so sick people that day. (the cunning woman or cunning men of England for example, seemed to practice a mixture of religion, science and chemistry. The herbal potion given, many times we have found, to actually be proven to have some effect on the body, whether or not an incantation was muttered over it – whereas, the pre-reformation church did not practice the science or chemistry side of it and relied on superstition of some relic or bone of a saint. So who was more logical here?)
Incidentally, if you want to find out more information on the esoteric side of what the church has used or copied from the old pre-Christian priesthoods, C.W. Leadbeater’s book: “The Science of the Sacrament” may be of help to you in discovering how the trappings and rituals of former religions were introduced into Roman Catholicism and in the book, is used to add into “The Liberal Catholic Church’s” liturgy to make or revive a more mystical form of Christianity per the influence of influential members of the Theosophical Society. You just have to look deep for the real essence.
It is most likely that people tried to make copies of what they saw the Priests doing that was deemed magical, rather than a direct survival because of the similarity between Pow-Wow and Pope-ish charms. In terms of Hexeri, that is a different story though.
Survival of pre-Christian magical practices, a left-over of pre-reformation Catholicism, something in between? I guess at this point, we just don’t know. All we know is that we have a solid history of its prevalence here in Pennsylvania.
The Pow-Wow practice primarily relies on word charms, altered Biblical chants and objects that have been prayed over to provide the healing or other requests by God speaking through the Pow-Wow through divine intervention. The most classical of these charms can be found in the famed book, originally published in Pennsylvania in 1820, called “Pow-Wows: Or the Long Lost Friend.”
This particular book was published in the very late 1920s, early 1930s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and called “The Pow-Wow Book.” The last chapter of the book contains the entire 1850s English translation of the original 1820s “Long Lost Friend” in it. (As a side note: The Long Lost Friend has probably the best selling grimoire in history!)
Also, by looking at the cover with the image of a witch on it – there seemed to be a very fine line with what the mass-public constituted as witchcraft and what was considered Pow-Wow. Obviously, the actual practices of both would be seen as vastly different if you examined them, but it is obvious that many in the public was “just not so sure” at times.
Pow-Wows also created herbal remedies as well from what I have seen. They typically wouldn’t have tons written down in books, as they used the herbal remedies they had available. Various salves were common and typically manufactured ahead of time each year for when they were needed – such as for bumps, bruises, skin disorders, etc. Herbal tisanes and potions were more common among the English witches and cunning folk than the PA Dutch, although, that doesn’t mean that tisanes were not used. Much of the herbal remedies they had made also may have been remedies for their cattle and horses, such as to keep bugs and pests away and other disorders that may affect them.
One thing in particular that is a common and curious belief that is shared by both British Traditional Wiccans and also Pow-Wows is that “only a man can train a woman and only a woman can train a man.” Now, in British Wicca, they refer to this in the matter of initiation, but in the practice of Pow-Wow, their is no initiation ceremony that was ever used (that we know of) – as you were either born to work Pow-Wow or chosen by God, no initiation is necessary to make you something you already are. So in Pow-Wow, typically what is taught between folks of the opposite sex is how to say the particular charms with the expectation that you memorize them. How to mix the herbal salves, the prayers that are used, how you can tell if someone else has been blessed with the gift, etc.
Most Pow-Wows of history were probably religiously devout Christians. That is not to say that all Pow-Wows were Christians in the least, but that was and is still the most common religion and for most folks that is all they knew and had access to.
You also have to remember that Pow-Wow was a practice of the everyday working class people. It was done in hopes that a solution would be produced in the here and now, such as stopping blood or blowing out the pain of a burn. It was simple charming and in most cases has absolutely nothing to do with what we know as witchcraft, and in some cases, many charms required no special skills and were charms that anyone could learn to do, gifted for the work or not.
What about the practice of using Hex Signs?
Probably most folks that have heard of the subject of Pow-Wow have heard of Hex Signs and may or may not believe they were painted, or now today: hung, in order to provide some sort of “painted invocation” to God or to the land in order to obtain some sort of supernatural effect.
There are folks on both sides of the fence that believe the above, and other folks that say that is nonsense. We have no record or concrete evidence in history that Hex Signs were painted or used in any way or for any form of faith healing or magical practice, but as of the 20th century, almost everyone seems to associate them with some form of positive blessing and they hang or paint them as a silent and standing invocation as if you were hanging a talisman or an amulet for some type of effect. So regardless if they were used in “magic” in the past or not in a talisman-like fashion, they are most definitely used for talismanic effect as a form of “painted invocation” today – I just wanted to be clear that we just don’t know if they were considered to be magical or not in the past.
Now, let’s talk about Hexeri and how it is different than Pow-Wow and also address how it is like Pow-Wow, as their is a bit of crossover. First, I must say that most folks that practiced Pow-Wow historically considered themselves followers of the Christian religion. To them, being called a witch was a “bad thing,” whereas today, the Wiccan religion has given witchcraft a more respectable appearance.
While Pow-Wow magic was very much “push button A, and then push button B in order to obtain result known as C,” Hexeri on the other hand was specialized magic, and typically magic of the learned men and woman. It could be similar to what we may call “Priestly magic,” meaning that you have to be very specialized in order to perform the rituals within. Hence, more rare and more specialized.
It is also very clear that not all folks who practiced Hexeri were Christian, even though they may have used Christian imagery.
Hexeri means witchcraft, and when it comes to witchcraft in Pennsylvania there is no other grimoire more heavily used than “The 6th & 7th Books of Moses.”
This particular edition was printed in 1900, and shows its age since it is well over 100 years old. It was formally owned by someone who practiced Hexeri.
The interesting thing is that when it comes to the Wicca of England, the McGregor-Mathers edition of the “Key of Solomon” was the prized text that influenced English witches. For Pennsylvania Dutch Hexenmeisters (witch-master) and witches, it was “The 6th & 7th Books of Moses.” This book not only teaches you how to summon spirits, but also instructions on the manufacture of talismans and amulets, how to summon infernal demons and also the forbidden arts of necromancy. The other interesting this is, the book also teaches you have to make and inscribe a magical circle on the ground for use in spells and conjurations, whereas, magical circles were either not used, or very rarely used in Pow-Wow folk magic.
As stated earlier, Pow-Wow was the magic typically used for everyday problems – the charmer who could stop blood, blow out a burn or divine who stole your property.
Hexeri, on the other hand, was decadent magic. It was typically not for just everyday concerns, although it could be, and focused more on grandiose type of desires and workings. Probably the most used area of this book is located typically at the back of the book, as it proceeds to give you instructions on how to cast spells using the Psalms. For example, one of the first charms I recall from memory in the book has you making a charm that a lady would wear around her neck that helps her get pregnant. Another charm for a pain in the back uses blessed oil that is used for anointing that has been charmed with the particular Psalm and the correct name of God uttered over it.
Who wrote the Psalms? Biblical scholars have agreed a large portion of them are attributed to King David, and many others were written by Moses and Solomon and many others – but the important thing that you must remember about the Psalms is that they are meant to sung.
Another interesting fact is on the topic of initiation of witch. Unlike Pow-Wow, where their no known initiation, Hexeri seems to have a ton of different ways that you enter the practice and become a witch. In this case, it doesn’t seem their is a hard and fast rule of any sort for opposite sex initiation – in fact, there are ways typically described where it can be done with same sex. Sometimes it may be a “midnight in the graveyard” kind of scene and other times it may be a more intimate encounter. There are also tales of self-induction into Hexeri without someone performing the initiation, such as being willed the power on your death bed. (a legend exists that a witch cannot die until they pass on their power) Another way was the ceremonial passing of one witch’s Spellbook to the pupil. It seems like each witch has their own particular way of making another witch and typically some sort of religious taboo is broken according to lore and legend.
In regards to covens – Pow-Wow practitioners do not practice in groups or with any other person. They only time they worked in the presence of another Pow-Wow was when they were learning from them.
Witches and Hexenmeisters may or may not have a master-pupil relationship where they may typically work with one or two other people. The reason is because the magic is more complex. There are some middle ground grimoires that seemed to be used by both Pow-Wowers and Hexers, and one of them is: “Egyptian Secrets.”
I hope that you have enjoyed my amateur attempt at giving you some further information on both historical witchcraft, folk magic and faith healing in Pennsylvania. There are a lot better writers that have written about the subject than I could ever hope to be that have a ton of research that could be shared with those of interest. I can only provide a simple and condensed insider-views on the subject. Many new books have been released on the subject that should give the seeker many different ideas, opinions and options on the practice.
If you are interested in further exploration of Pow-Wow techniques and want to learn how to perform the charms in an operative way, then I recommend you check out the correspondence course offered by noted author and personal friend, Silver RavenWolf’s Crow Crossroads Etsy Shop. She has lessons up for sale on the subject of Pow-Wow in which you can learn actual operative charms that she has designed after many, many years of interviews throughout South-Central and Eastern Pennsylvania, learning hands on from other Pow-Wows and even tracking down rare books and pamphlets on the subject of faith healing and Pow-Wow as practiced in Pennsylvania. The creation of innovative techniques to use these old fashioned charms, along with all forms of folk magical practices has been one of her passions for a very long time. She doesn’t just write about spells and charms – she tests each one of them before she presents them to the seeker in an up-to-date way.
I must say that even though Pow-Wows did not practice their charms within groups in the past, we live in much more connected times today where it is technically possible where people of any religious persuasion could utilize the techniques together for the purposes of group healing.
If we have the time, we would be happy to put more information up in the future and update this blog post. If anyone finds that I have made a factual error, please don’t hesitate to contact and I’d be glad to offer correction to this blog post.