A Look Back in History: Practice of witchcraft among PA Dutch rarely accurately portrayed to public

Family occult copy of the dreaded 6th and 7th Books of Moses.
Family occult copy of the dreaded 6th and 7th Books of Moses. Submitted photo
There were two copies discovered, one in English and the earlier one in German, along with other PA Dutch occult culture paraphernalia.
There were two copies discovered, one in English and the earlier one in German, along with other PA Dutch occult culture paraphernalia. Submitted photo

The occult practice of witchcraft among the Pennsylvania Dutch, despite its longevity, has rarely been accurately presented to the public. There is, undoubtedly, no other field of folklore where the Pennsylvania Dutch folkways have been more misunderstood, than in the practice of Hexerei. From the earliest years of the 18th Century to the present day, Hexerei has remained an underground belief and practice, and only in the last 40 years has enough evidence been collected to present detailed study.

Pennsylvania Dutch witchcraft has been traced to Europe, and is typical to that which was popular in medieval times, but its persistence among the “Dutch” in America is due in part to the publishing of various occult books and the efforts of several people to make a living from believers in it. In almost every community, existing side by side with the practice of Braucherei was the cautious belief in Hexerei. The most astonishing fact though about black and white magic among the PA Dutch is that it did exist prevalently, and that it actually worked. Cases upon cases are recorded from all parts of the PA Dutch Country where the powers of black and white magic have been successful. It is this success more than anything that has kept these two supernatural forces alive in the culture even in today’s world.

In parts of the Dutch Country today though, Powwow and Hex Doctors are non-existent who once derived a livelihood from performing services for the believers of these arts, and are more hobbyists, but effective no less. However, it is much more possible to find a percentage of these Germanic people who will be alarmed over the mentioning of the “cursed” 6th and 7th Books of Moses. The subject of witchcraft is a sensational one in any civilized culture but among the Pennsylvania Dutch its once commonplaceness and unchallenged realism have been so interwoven in the culture, there are still some older folk in the backcountry prone to believe that Hexerei (witchcraft) is a normal phenomenon. In almost every phase of Pennsylvania Dutch folkways, there is recorded influence of this ancient art, from incantations to exorcising a witch from a butter churn to the more romantic, love potion.

Furthermore, the religious nature of the Pennsylvania Dutch has sustained these beliefs up to the present day more so among any other people in America. One folk practice most confused with Hexerei is Braucherei or Powwowing. The art of Powwowing is a form of faith healing practiced popularly by laymen in the culture who derived their power from God. Although most Powwowing is performed for domestic ills, occasionally, a Powwow doctor will break the spell over a verhext (bewitched) person. The hex (either man or woman) that casted the spell is usually a neighbor in a community who wishes to make trouble for another neighbor for a variety of reasons.

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Within the culture, there are various occult books which constitute a body of knowledge for those wishing to practice the art. One such book is the infamous, “6th and 7th Books of Moses,” so powerful that mere possession of it will bring the owner good fortune. The most circulated book in this field, however, was John George Hohman’s “The Long Lost Friend” printed in Reading as early as 1820. Next in popularity to this volume was the three-volume book compiled by Albertus Magnus titled “Egyptian Secrets” printed in Allentown in 1869. As witchcraft is not one of the more pleasant subjects, and since much of it is kept secret, it is not very frequent that one encounters any reference to Hexerei in a conversation.