Faith Healing, Pow-Wow and witchcraft (Hexerei) has been part of Pennsylvania culture and lore for quite a long time. This culture of welcoming those who are outside the norm to PA started with William Penn, and according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission:
“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 would be free to worship and 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 the most open minded to the most conservative. Yes, Pennsylvania is a state of extremes…..
We are also known for having the largest Amish population, along with other sorts of religious groups such as Quakers, Dunkers and even Mennonite. Even one of the oldest of the revived Rosicrucian movements – the “Fraternitas Rosae Crucis” which has its headquarters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and the three pyramids they built are still standing today.
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!)
Pennsylvania has had a proud history of folk magic, occult practices and witchcraft for a few centuries now. The systems most common in Pennsylvania from that time, and still existing today, primarily fall in to two camps and are typically called: Pow-Wow and Hexerei/Witchery/Witchcraft.
A few years back, Thomas White had published a wonderfully documented book on historical witchcraft and folk magic in Pennsylvania that I was happy to see called “Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History & Lore” and describes some of these practices. The book primarily describes the facts, history and legends of faith healing, Pow-Wow and Hexerei 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, or hear about the practice of Pow-Wow and other forms of faith-healing. So let’s start with the practice of Pow-Wow that is most common among the Pennsylvania Dutch, and then we’ll jump into Hexerei.
The exact and most concrete origins of Pow-Wow are 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 practitioner in the techniques used. I also can fall back on local legends and tales of the folks that had practitioners of Pow-Wow and other forms of folk magic in their families passed down. It’s not uncommon for folks that are born and bred in this area of Pennsylvania to have someone who practiced some of these arts in some way …. in fact, it’s more common than what you may realize.
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 many 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. Some of these practices of the pre-reformation may be described as superstitions and/or typically a middle ground road where sympathetic magic crossed with faith/belief/religion.
Practitioners of Pow-Wow in Pennsylvania and now in other areas 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; along with written and verbal charms reputed to have miraculous effect for those that believe. Some of these charms may be written on paper and carried on the person, secreted away in a location or even consumed by drinking a liquid in which the charm was fashioned and then dissolved in a liquid so that the person needing the charm can “take in” the power of these magical words.
Pow-Wow also seemed to include a form of hands on healing. 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, various Occultists and Wiccan groups alike. Hands-on prayer for the purposes of healing seems to be one of those universal practices found in many parts of the world. The effect of consensual healing touch cannot be discounted – hence why many massage therapists and other forms of therapies that exist today can have quite a thriving business.
Certain practices found in Pow-Wow seems to follow the European grimoire traditions as well, 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, and even other older books, such as “The Romanus.”
Most of the old Pow-Wows did not believe they had the power to do the healing themselves. They believed their ability to heal (and other things too – it wasn’t only healing, but also protection magic against evil or physical harm was common too) was seen as a gift from God, and because of these blessings, 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. Typically it was a very active and engaged prayer that had more engagement than what someone does at their foot of their bed before going to sleep and employed various actions and mystical passes along with the supplications that the person be healed or a resolution to whatever problem ailed the client.
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 with the coming Age of Aquarius in which togetherness and Inclusive Fraternity and Sorority of humankind is expected to 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 beauty in our differences.
I think the suitability to work such a system as Pow-Wow or even Hexerei 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 if 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, from other cultures as well.)
To many, the practice of Pow-Wow was thought to be a calling, and not something just everyone picked up. They had to feel they were called or chosen to do the work. These signs or callings do not necessarily address religion in itself other than the fact that God, or the Supreme Being pre-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 – particularly within families, it was common to pass down the teachings.
Occasionally, it is theorized that Pow-Wow was a survival of pre-Christian pagan or witchcraft practice. We have absolutely no evidence of that, and what evidence we do have is often counter to these claims.
You could go to a local “white witch” for an herbal potion, a charm, and an incantation; or 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. It could be likely that some of the folks tried to duplicate what they saw the Priests doing in Europe that was deemed so magical – the hocus pocus of the day.
The Pow-Wow practice primarily relies on word charms, altered Biblical verses, the spoken word, mystical passes, lore and objects that have been prayed over to provide the healing or other requests in the name of God, speaking and working through the Pow-Wower. 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 pictured above 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! Even today, some witches I know have even picked up old copies of the book at yard sales when someone cleans out their attic!)
Also, by looking at the cover of the book with the image of a witch on it – there seemed to be a very fine line with what the 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. Just whether it was faith-healing or witchcraft was determined by the various opinions depending on whom you were speaking with.
Pow-Wows also created herbal remedies as well from what I have seen. From what I have seen and witnessed and survived from back in the day, they didn’t have huge collections of material written down in books, as they used the herbal remedies they had available or had learned. 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. Charms and written prayers to protect livestock and the barn were common as well.
In the old practice of Pow-Wow, typically it was taught between people of the opposite sex. Most of the teaching was how to perform 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.
You also have to remember that Pow-Wow was a practice of the everyday working people, and at one time in our history here in Pennsylvania, well-known Pow-wowers would have people lined up or visiting at all hours of the day or evening. These visits could have been for a multitude of purposes 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 or even getting rid of warts and a number of other sundries. 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.
Hexerei & Witchcraft:
There can be some cross-over between the practices of Pow-Wow and the practices of Hexerei, at times, but it was seen by many to be a very different type of practice. 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 than it once had.
While Pow-Wow magic heavily used the practice of faith-healing most of the time and protection from harm, Hexerei on the other hand was specialized and decadent magic. At times it could have a sinister take, or served in the role as that of trickster.
Hexerei means witchery or witchcraft and Hex means witch, 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 Hexerei.
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 some of the English witches along with other books such as the old Reginald Scot’s “Discoverie of Witchcraft.” Places like in France had a solid tradition of magical books as well, such as the famed “Le Petit Albert.” 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 and working with elemental and planetary energies.
This book also teaches you how to make and inscribe a magical circle on the ground for use in conjurations, whereas, magical circles were either not used, or very rarely used in Pow-Wow or faith-healing.
As stated earlier, Pow-Wow was typically used for everyday problems – the charmer who could stop blood, blow out a burn or divine who stole your property.
Hexerei, 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 in her pregnancy. 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 and applied to the body.
The practice of fortune-telling was common as well among witches or Hexers. One famed witch, the “Witch of Marietta” (Nellie Noll) who lived in Lancaster County is well-known, for in the 1920s, she was the Witch that John Blymire, who was a Pow-Wow practitioner, went to visit to have his fortune told to discover who he thought had hexed him. As we know, Blymire along with Curry and Hess were responsible for the 1928 murder of Nelson Rhymeyer who was a local Pow-Wow and farmer in York County because they believed Nelson had cursed them. It was a terrible tragedy that occurred, and this murder exposed witchcraft and Pow-wow in Pennsylvania to the whole country since it made national news that the people of Pennsylvania are deeply involved in the practices of witchcraft and conjuring!
Another interesting fact is on the topic of initiation of witch. Unlike Pow-Wow, where there no known initiation, and indoctrination into the practices came from teaching and demonstrating the charms, Hexerei, on the other hand, seems to have many 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 Hexerei 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 in this act which symbolizes the breaking of conventional chains of society in order to receive power.
There are some middle-ground grimoires that seemed to be used by both Pow-Wowers and Hexers, and one of them is: “Egyptian Secrets” that is shown here in the photo below. My copy pictured here from the 1930s is a combination of Pow-Wow like charms and also other practices that can border the arts of Hexerei. I know for absolute fact that people used many of these charms in the book because I have had the privilege of seeing charms in local historical societies that were written in PA Dutch and donated by deceased relatives. When the charms were translated, many of them came directly from Egyptian Secrets.
The practices of both Pow-Wow and Hexerei from Pennsylvania was very influential as well in the development of other forms of magic and witchcraft found in other locales. For example, amongst folks that practice American Hoodoo, many of the techniques that were common in Pennsylvania was added to the Hoodoo pot of practices as well; along with the use of the amulets and talismans found in The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses. Big publishers such as the old DeLaurence Company out of Chicago were influential in spreading these books first published in Pennsylvania to other areas of the country and the world and made them more widely accessible.
Even further, some of these practices also were added to the practices known as the Obeah, which is a unique style of Caribbean Witchcraft that combines practices such as what we have talked about in this blog along with African and Native practices of their locale.
This adapting and borrowing has always been common in the practice of magic and witchcraft of many forms. At the end of the day, witches and those who practice folk magic have a great deal of common ground with each other: mainly because no matter where you live, what culture you come from or grew up in; those who visit faith-healers and witches all come with the same concerns they hope to be fixed: to receive magical healing, to be told the future through fortune-telling, for magical protection, for love, lust and money and many more. As humans, most of us what very similar things.
We hope that you have enjoyed this exploration and expedition into the practices of faith healing, folk magic and witchcraft in Pennsylvania. Like many of you, each culture and society seemed to have it’s own magic that flavored their own locales and at times, we can all find similarities.