The Pow-Wow Tradition
The Pow-Wow Tradition is a classic example of this melding of “The Old Ways” of the Europeans and local Native Indian beliefs. Though some claim that the Pow Wow Witchcraft is German in its origin, it is more an adoption of local traditions of theAlgonquin peoples by the early German and Dutch immigrants of pagan heritage who settled in the Pennsylvania region of the United States.
Observing the Algonquin’s powwows, the pagan immigrants discovered that like themselves, the Natives used charms and incantations for healing. Impressed with their methods of driving out evil spirits, they adopted the term “powwowing” to refer to their own magickal healings. As their practice of magick was also centered on herbs and healing, they learned from the local people about the native roots and herbs for use in charms and healing.
As stated earlier, the term Pow-Wow comes from the Algonquin word ‘pauwau’”, meaning ‘vision seeker’ and the Pow-Wow Witches encompass shamanic like rituals of healing through visions and the application of traditional medicines, which are often accompanied by prayers, incantations, songs, and dances. The Pow-Wow Tradition places great significance on the vision seeker as the nexus of tribal activities and rituals.
Written and compiled by George Knowles
During the 17th and 18th centuries there was much migration from continental Europe, when whole families seeking to flee the hardships, famine and poverty of their own lands, set their sights on the adventure and prosperity offered in the new lands of hope and glory called America. Many of the German settlers who colonized the interior of Pennsylvania also brought with them their Old World beliefs in Witchcraft and Magick. Due to the lands resemblance to their former homes in Europe, many of them settled in the rich rural areas of York, Dauphin, Lancaster, Schuylkill, Carbon and Reading, which over time became commonly known as the counties of the Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch, a corruption of “Deutsch” meaning German).
The early Pennsylvania Dutch peoples were a proud family orientated folk-people, deeply religious, and fiercely defensive of their traditional ways of life. They kept to themselves and were suspicious of outsiders, and even retained their German language. This over time and through necessity became mixed with English to form their particular Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. They also continued to practice their own form of traditional Witchcraft and magick. As much of their witchcraft and magick was centered on herbs and healing, they enlisted the aid of local Indians to learn about and find native roots and herbs for use in medicinal recipes.
Observing the Indians powwows, their meetings for ceremonial dance and conference purposes, they discovered that like themselves, the Indians used charms and incantations for healing. Impressed with the Indians methods of driving out evil spirits, they adopted the term “powwowing” to refer to their own magickal healings. Powwowing has survived through the advance of time and is still practiced today, and while some of the charms and incantations used date back to ancient times, many contain Biblical and Kabalistic elements that can be adapted for modern-day use.
Of the old pioneers to emigrate from Germany and settle in Pennsylvania, John George Hohman is of particular interest concerning powwowing. Hohman and his wife Catherine immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1802 and settled near Reading. He was a devout Roman Catholic and a great believer in faith healing, however he proved to be a mediocre practitioner and also failed at farming. Facing financial ruin he began to collect various charms and herbal remedies, as well as collating those passed down through centuries of oral tradition, and published them in a handbook called “The Long Lost Friend”. This allowed Hohman to achieve some modest financial success, for it quickly became one of two “Bibles” on powwowing (the other being an anonymous book called the “Seventh Book of Moses”), both of which could be found in virtually every Pennsylvania Dutch household.
In “The Long Lost Friend”, Hohman mixed magick and healing formulas gleaned from a variety of sources, including Germany, England and Egypt, some dating back to antiquity. It was not a book of “hexes” Hohman emphasizes, (a “hex” was a spell, curse or bewitchment cast by a Witch, commonly with evil intent, though it could be use for either good or bad purposes) and should be used for healing not for destroying. In it he also included the wisdom of the Gypsies and the Kabbalah, as well as testimonials of his own successes. In his introduction he states:
“There are many in America who believe in neither hell nor heaven, but in Germany there are not so many of these persons found. I, Hohman, ask: Who can immediately banish the wheal, or mortification? I reply, and I, Hohman, say: All this is done by the Lord. Therefore, a hell and a heaven must exist, and I think very little of any who dares deny it”.
Hohman also promised his readers that:
“Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible, and whoever has this book cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drowned (sic) in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me”.
In the book he offers the following charm to prevent witches from bewitching cattle, or to stop evil spirits from tormenting people in their sleep at night. It should be written down and placed either in the stable or on the bedstead:
“Trotter Head, I forbid thee my house and premises, I forbid thee my horse and cow-stable, I forbid thee my bedstead, that thou mayest not breathe upon me, breathe into some other house, until thou hast ascended every hill, until thou hast counted every fence post, and until thou hast crossed every water. And thus dear day may come again into my house, in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen”.
The second “bible” of powwowing is the “Seventh Book of Moses”. This is a mixture of material take from the Talmud, Kabbalah and the Old Testament. It explains how to break a hex by wearing an amulet containing specially selected herbs wrapped in parchment paper inscribed with biblical verses or charms. In another method it tells how the hexed person should avoid direct sunlight, to stay in-doors when the moon is full, to cover the ears at the sound of a bell, and to never listen to the crowing of a cock. Most family households in the Pennsylvania Dutch “hex belt” (as these areas became known) had copies of both powwowing “bibles”, and anyone could use them. However the charms were believed more effective when prescribed or recited by a “bona fide” practitioner.
The most skilled of powwowing practitioners are born into it, inheriting such occult abilities as healing, clairvoyance and precognition. According to tradition, the “seventh son of a seventh son” inherits special powers, and is thought to be the most powerful, but both men and women can be practitioners. Powwowers start their training at an early age, and are taught only by family members of the opposite sex. They use a variety of techniques to help their clients, such as the laying on of hands, incantations and signs (such as the sign of the cross). Some specialize in charms and amulets, while others may use special herbs, potions and powders. One well-reputed powwower from the turn of the century was called Charles W. Rice. He lived in York, where he specialized in curing blindness with a potion he called “Sea Monster Tears”. This he dispensed at $2.50 a drop.
The most common of the powwower’s charms are the “Himmels-briefs” (heavens letters). These are basically a guarantee of protection written by the powwower on a piece of parchment paper in biblical verse. It is then hung up in the home or barn, or carried on the person it was written for. They can be written to protect the home, animals and people from all sorts of harm and disaster, be they natural or un-natural. Disbelievers were told: “Whosoever doubts the truth of a Himmels-briefs, may attach a copy of the brief to the neck of a dog and fire upon it, he will then be convinced of its truthfulness”. Himmels-briefs typically cost from $25.00 to hundreds of dollars depending on the power and reputation of the powwower and the specifics of the charm. They were particularly popular with the soldiers of World War I, who carried them into battle for protection against injury and death.
Most powwowers work quietly and attract their clients by word of mouth and reputation. Some work at it as a sideline to their main business, seeing clients only in the evenings or at weekends, others work at it full-time. To many it is considered unethical to charge fees for their services, and instead accept “voluntary contributions” though they may suggest appropriate amounts for specific services. Most will also help those clients who cannot pay, trusting that grateful clients will return when funds are available.
Today the secrets of Powwowing remain very much a Pennsylvania Dutch family tradition. However, Silver Ravenwolf a modern day neo-pagan, author and founder of the Black Forest Circle and Seminary, is also a trained practitioner of Pow-Wow, and has published her own version of Powwowing in a book called: Hex Craft: Dutch Country Pow-wow Magick (Llewellyn Publications; 1st edition – May 1995).
The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft – By Rosemary Ellen Guiley
An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present – By Doreen Valiente
A copy of the “The Long Lost Friend” can be downloaded free from here:
First published on the 04th March 2007 © George Knowles – Updated on the 18th May 2006