YORK, Pa. (AP) - John Blymire couldn’t eat or sleep and he felt himself wasting away.
Believing he had been hexed by a hexmeister, Blymire and two accomplices brutally murdered the man, Nelson Rehmeyer, on a cold November night in 1928, bringing international media attention to York County.
If instead Blymire had sought out a powwow healer, the practice of Pennsylvania Dutch hex magic might still be more widespread. Experts and modern practitioners agree traditional Pennsylvania magic has more to do with healing people than hurting them, but the infamous killing tarnished powwow’s reputation and drove practitioners underground.
“It wasn’t discussed,” says Casey Brown, a York native and teacher of powwowing and other holistic healing techniques. It was viewed as rank superstition. That started with the hex murder and that’s sad.”
But every time you see a star on the side of a barn, or a distelfink, one of those brightly colored birds that adorn Pennsylvania-Dutch art and souvenirs, you’re looking at a symbol full of magical significance to powwowers. And modern practitioners say with today’s more open-minded attitudes and the acceptance of traditional herbal and spiritual healing practices, powwowing could be poised to make a comeback.
Christa Shusko, a professor of religious studies at York College, points to research in the last decade by anthropologist David Kriebel, who did his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on modern powwow practices, found that powwow magic was still practiced in rural Lancaster County, and reported remarkable success rates in the treatment.
Still, the traditional academic view is that powwow is a waning superstition, superseded by education and better access to medical care, said Dick Beam, a professor emeritus at Millersville University and an expert on Pennsylvania-Dutch practices.
But Brown, who has a master’s degree in education, bristles at any suggestion that powwow is confined to the back woods or to the illiterate. She points out that pharmaceutical researchers now study the natural remedies of native peoples, including powwowers, and many modern miracle drugs have their roots in herbal medicine.
“You can regard it as superstition, and that’s fine, I’m not offended,” Brown says. “A lot of it is faith, no question about it. Do you believe in nature and the power of nature to cure?”
Known as “braucherei” in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, powwowing is a set of magic and religious practices brought to America by the earliest German immigrants centuries ago. Many of Pennsylvania’s settlers were escaping European religious persecution and the quasi-magic practices of powwow were accepted in this climate of religious toleration. Powwow practices can be found among the Old Order Amish and Mennonite, but also in the more-mainstream “Fancy Dutch” denominations such as Lutheranism.
Focused mostly on healing, powwow also includes spells for protection against spiritual or material harm. Powwowing is closely linked to Christianity, and powwowers use biblical verses as charms, known as Himmelsbriefs, to be worn around the neck in a red flannel bag for protection.
The second powwow bible is “The Long Lost Friend,” a spellbook by John George Homan published in the early 19th century. It was this book Reymeyer’s killers were looking for.
Homan’s book is mainly a collection of spells and recipes, such as a spell to protect oneself from malevolent spirits, or another to keep safe from “ball and powder,” as early firearms were often known. Many of the spells deal with the care of livestock, finding water, or the treatment of minor ailments, reflecting the conditions and concerns of early American settlers.
The practices were handed down in families or tight-knit church communities, from a man to a woman or a woman to a man, but never to a person of the same gender.
The name powwow itself is Algonquin in origin and likely refers to the similarities between powwowers and shamanistic Indian medicine men. Brown said she believes early practitioners must have shared secrets and recipes and that many of Homan’s spells seem to come from Native-American traditions.
But powwow also has within it a tradition of darker spells, and even of such things as conjuring demons. Kreibel found that many of the practitioners he talked to were aware of this tradition, but insisted they would never use such magic. Brown, too, says she is familiar with these more esoteric texts, practiced by “hexmeisters.” But she said that as that as a believer in karma, she would never do hex magic.
“Take them off, yes,” she says. “Put them on, no.”
Shusko says it is all too common for a single bad event - like the Hex Murder - to be used to discredit the religious practices of others, to label them witchcraft or evil power.
But she says the real traditions of powwowing might have real modern relevance. She notes modern medicine has a new emphasis on treating the whole person rather than just the disease, and that traditional healing methods like powwow focus as much on the spiritual and emotional as they do the physical.
“Powwowing can maybe tap into some of those holistic aspects of the whole being,” she says. “It’s a source of cultural wisdom that we can still draw on.”
Five hexes that could come in handy
A good remedy against calumniation or slander: If you are calumniated or slandered to your very skin, to your very flesh, to your very bones, cast it back upon the false tongues. Take off your shirt, and turn it wrong side out, and then run your two thumbs along your body, close under the ribs, starting at the pit of the heart down to the thighs.
A sure way of catching fish: Take rose seed and mustard seed, and the foot of a weasel, and hang these in a net, and the fish will certainly collect there.
To prevent bad people from getting about the cattle: Take wormwood, gith, five-finger weed, and assaf tida; three cents’ worth of each; the straw of horse beans, some dirt swept together behind the door of the stable and a little salt. Tie these all up together with a tape, and put the bundle in a hole about the threshold over which your cattle pass in and out, and cover it well with lignum-vitæ wood. This will certainly be of use.
To attach a dog to a person, provided nothing else was used before to effect it: Try to draw some of your blood, and let the dog eat it along with his food, and he will stay with you. Or scrape the four corners of your table while you are eating, and continue to eat with the same knife after having scraped the corners of the table. Let the dog eat those scrapings, and he will stay with you.
To compel a thief to return stolen goods: Early in the morning before sunrise you must go to a pear tree, and take with you three nails out of a coffin, or three horse-shoe nails that were never used, and holding these toward the rising Sun. You must say:
“Oh, thief, I bind you by the first nail, which I drive into thy skull and. thy brain, to return the goods thou hast stolen to their former place; thou shalt feel as sick and as anxious to see men, and to see the place you stole from, as felt the disciple Judas after betraying Jesus. I bind thee by the other nail, which I drive into your lungs and liver, to. return the stolen goods to their former place; thou shall feel as sick and as anxious to see men, and to see the place you have stolen from, as did Pilate in the fires of hell. The third nail I shall drive into thy foot, oh thief, in order that thou shalt return the stolen goods to the very same place from which thou hast stolen them. Oh, thief, I bind thee and compel thee, by the three holy nails which were driven through the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, to return the stolen goods to the very same place from which thou hast stolen them. The three nails, however, must be greased with the grease from an executed criminal or other sinful person.”
- From “The Long Lost Friend,” recently republished by Llewellyn and available at New Visions Books and Gifts, 2594 Eastern Blvd., Springettsbury Township.
Information from: York Daily Record, https://www.ydr.com
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.