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Hex and Spellwork: The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch

Hex and Spellwork: The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch

by Karl Herr

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In Pennsylvania Dutch country, among the Old Order Amish and the strict Mennonite congregations who live their lives parallel to modern society, there remains the remnants of one of the oldest European magical practices found in America: Hex, or Hex und Speilwerk, or Pow Wow. In Hex and Spellwork, third-generation Hexenmeister Karl Herr teaches the


In Pennsylvania Dutch country, among the Old Order Amish and the strict Mennonite congregations who live their lives parallel to modern society, there remains the remnants of one of the oldest European magical practices found in America: Hex, or Hex und Speilwerk, or Pow Wow. In Hex and Spellwork, third-generation Hexenmeister Karl Herr teaches the actual practices and examines the history of the Swiss-German traditions from which Hex and Pow Wow are derived.

Hex work echoes the magical arts that reach back to the earliest beginnings of human civilization. Evoked to assist people in health and earthly prosperity and to achieve what they legitimately desire in life, or to counteract the negative spell of a witch, hex is positive magic, never used for evil. Hex work is firmly founded in the Christian religion, with a liberal dose of Swiss-German folk superstition. The Bible is a great influence on all Hex work, which originates in the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ insists that all people of good heart and a pure soul could perform miracles.

Karl Herr is bound and determined not to let the oral tradition of hex vanish from the face of the earth. Among the many practices he's written down in this book are: verbal charms for healing, considered by many to be folk prayers; the magic of stones and other natural objects; folk remedies, such as using dried chickweed to stave off colds. Discover himmelbriefs, "heavenly letters" written either to God, or to gain the assistance of someone who is in heaven. Plus instructions for creating hex signs that can be used to reduce anxiety and control spiritual forces.

Contains illustrations of traditional hexes, plus diagrams illustrating how to draw one's own.

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Red Wheel/Weiser
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Hex and Spellwork

The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch

By Karl Herr

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2002 Karl Herr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-265-6


The Tradition and the Work

I understand that among modern witches there is a great deal of consideration given as to just what a tradition consists of and to which one they belong. There is apparently a great deal of debate about which traditions are more authentic than others. There also seems to be a question as to who has the right to lay claim to a "real" witchcraft tradition.

Now, all of this came to my attention when a very slender young man and an equally slender young woman came up to speak to me as I was sitting on my front porch one Saturday afternoon several years ago. They began by asking me if I was the hexenmeister. I said that I was. I have a small sign on the gate to my house that says so. This makes it easier for some first-time visitors to identify my house from that of others on my street. These young people then proceeded to ask me about my "tradition," and about how I came to be a hexenmeister.

As it happened, I had been thinking about these things myself, as my birthday was not all that many days off. I was comfortably reviewing the affairs of the past year in my mind as I was sitting and relaxing on my porch. In my own thoughts, my one great concern was whether or not the Lord God was pleased with what I had done over the past year. When this pair of youngsters interrupted me, I had not come to any real conclusions, but I had not found any grievous faults in any of my actions over the past year either.

The young couple asked me if I was a Gardnerian, which I told them I could not identify. Then they went on to ask me if I belonged to a coven. After I assured them that I did not belong to a coven of any kind, they proceeded to tell me what a Gardnerian was. They told me quite a lot about their own version, or as they said, their tradition, of witchcraft. They said enough to convince me that they were quite harmless.

I gathered that they basically worshiped our mother Earth. I told them that I supposed that was a good thing for them, but added that I was a Christian. I believe that it is a good thing to honor the Earth, as there are too many people today who seem to think they can harm the Earth forever without it ever taking any vengeance on them. I believe that if you cannot find it in your heart to worship the Lord God, you might as well worship his marvelous creation. The two of them sat with me on the porch for some time, talking to me about their ideas of witchcraft and the things that their version, or rather their tradition, of witches did.

I heard them out, and then I told them that I was a hexenmeister, which meant that I was a spell master. I pointed out that this is often interpreted to mean a witch master as well. I added to them that it was my task in life to remove spells and curses that an evil witch might put onto people. We spoke, and I later said that it was also my task to assist people in gaining what they legitimately desired in life. I told this interesting couple that through this work I exposed those who came to me for assistance to the glory of Almighty God and the many blessings that the Good Lord sends to all those who sincerely ask for them.

They were quite surprised to find that I was not only a believing and churchgoing Christian but was also very active in the various affairs of my church. They were even more surprised to find that the pastor of my church knew of my being a hexenmeister and even counted it well that he had me as an active member of his congregation. When I told them that my father had been a hexenmeister, and his father before him, they asked me about the hexerei tradition again. They were quite disappointed to find that being a hexenmeister did not often pass down in the family line.

My son is not a hexenmeister, and has no desire to become one. Instead he completed college and is working with computers, doing something that I do not understand at all. He gave me the computer I am using to write this book. It is much easier to type on than my old manual typewriter. My daughter studied anthropology in college and is now married to Jacob Post. I will say that Jacob could be a hexenmeister if he really put his mind to it because he, unlike my son, has the ability. Unfortunately, he does not have the calling, which comes from God, not from the desire of man.

I explained to the young couple that the whole idea of being a hexenmeister was rapidly falling out of favor. Every year it seems that there are fewer of us in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, or anywhere else that I know of. Then the boy said something that I eventually thought over and decided was very sensible. He said that I should write about the hex work so that other people would have some idea of it. He told me that if it was dying off, other people should get a grasp of how this work was actually done. The girl suggested that because my daughter was studying anthropology in college, she could help me in the writing of it.

I told them I would think prayerfully about their suggestion. Eventually, after praying about it and talking to my daughter at some length, I decided to write this book. It has taken me some years to get started, but with my daughter's help, I am finally on my way.

I gave the two of these young witches a glass of lemonade, and after a bit more interesting conversation, they left. I have not seen them again from that day to this. They gave me a lot to think about, however, and I thank them, and the Lord God, for their visit.

I had heard of these modern witches, who dance around a circle as naked as the day they were born. I had never expected to meet any of them in my life. I had not known that there were so many traditions of them, apparently being different denominations, just as the Amish, the Mennonites, the Lutherans, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians were all descended from the Catholics, and are all Christians. I thought to myself that there must be a similar set of witch denominations. Accordingly, there must also be some original witchcraft sect from which all of these many traditions were descended.

I resolved to write about my own tradition, such as it is; although it is just a tradition in the sense that there have always been hexenmeisters among the Pennsylvania Dutch. There is no initiation or other ritual by which one becomes a Hexenmeister that I know of. All you need is the burning desire to be of help to other people and the God-given talent to be able to do so. A hexenmeister is an instrument of the Lord God, assisting those people who come to him in their path of life. He tries for their illnesses and attempts to assist them to health and earthly prosperity. In bringing them aid, he also does a little of what usually passes for magic. It is my calling, and I do what I can with it. I suppose that it could be called my "tradition," but until I met those two young people, I had never thought of it in that way.

Now here I must tell a bit about a few of the truly evil witches I have known, for they were very unlike those two very pleasant young people whom I spoke with on my porch that late, summer afternoon.

The first, and the worst, was a woman who I truly believe was as evil as God is good. She lived in the same town that I live in, not very far from York, and she had a daughter about twenty years older than my own daughter. She herself was at least twenty years older than I, being much closer to my father's age.

My father, who is now deceased, first met this woman's work in a professional way when he and my grandfather were called upon to break a curse she had placed on a boy to whom she had taken a romantic inclination. The boy was a Mennonite, and he and she were still in school at our local high school. The girl was a year younger than the boy, but her youth did not stop her evil inclination. She had tried to bind the boy to her with an evil spell. I believe that she felt that his father was better off than he really was. My father and grandfather broke the spell and identified the young spell caster. I was not born at the time and knew nothing of the affair other than what my father and grandfather told me about it much later on when I was learning from them.

This setback did not stop the woman from continuing to work evil, however. In the course of time both my father and grandfather had a great deal of her work to undo. There was probably also quite a bit of her evil work that was not called to their attention. This woman was remarkably successful with most of her work. She did this evil work consciously and deliberately, through casting black spells, knowing full well what she was doing. She was not just giving people the evil eye, harming them through her envy and jealousy, but both as a girl and later as an adult woman, she manipulated things to suit herself and used her magic to control all things around her as well as she could.

When she was through high school, she married a man and tied him to her as tight as she could. He did well, but he died young, leaving a big insurance policy to the witch when their daughter was still in grade school. There was a great deal of suspicion among the hexenmeisters in our town that she had murdered him with her foul magic. None of us would say so, however, and such a belief is not evidence in any court in the land. This lady lived her whole life in the ways of evil magic, but her daughter fortunately, through the great grace of God, turned against her mother's evil ways at an early age.

Another witch woman, who lived out in the country, was married to a simple farmer. She became evil when her first and only child died of the croup when it was three or four years old. It was said of her that because of her grief she sold her soul to Satan.

Some of this woman's neighbors said that she would even go into the back field of her house to couple with Satan on the night of the full moon. She was about ten years older than I, and I can remember one of my schoolmates inviting me to go out to her farm and see her couple with the devil on a night of the full moon. My father, hearing of this proposed expedition, forbade me to go, and so I did not. My schoolmate did not get to attend the event either, as his father, also hearing of it, kept him home as well. A few of the ne'er-do-well men in our town went out on one occasion to visit what they thought was to be a show of some kind. They came to no good end from doing so. Some of them told people in town that they had been quite horrified at what they had seen in their night's expedition.

This woman was famous for cursing other women to be sterile, and so she and her husband were soon left all alone. They were never invited to weddings or any other joyous affairs or celebrations. Living in the country, this can be a very lonely thing. In time, they completely left the church, although her husband used to go to church on Christmas and Easter. It was said that he had to overcome his wife's strong opposition to do so.

It seems to be the fate of men who are married to these evil witches to die early. The husband of this witch died early as well. He passed away in the field one summer day. A neighbor discovered him slumped over his tractor, the horn blaring away. By the time I started in the hexenmeister practice, he was long dead, and the witch woman lived alone on her untended and overgrown farmland.

It was said that a few people from town and even from the outside world used to visit her in her loneliness. Their visits were not social, however, as they came either to have their fortune told or to have this evil witch cast spells on others. This woman apparently earned at least a scant living by doing evil, both for herself and others.

There are male witches as well as female, but in my experience, the women seem to be more numerous, while the few men I've met seem to be more powerful. In this work we call a man who is a sorcerer a Zauberer. This does not necessarily mean that he is evil, but usually it does mean that he is skating pretty close to the edge of being evil. These men summon spirits of the dead and do other things that no hexenmeister would ever consider doing.

One such man, Mr. Harkness, lived on the end of the city block on which I bought my house. He never bothered me, but he did have his own practice and his own style of working. I will say that his style was one that was far different from my own. My father told me that he was fundamentally a good man but that he had always desired power above all other things. He certainly got a great deal of power in his lifetime. He was known all through the Dutch country for performing almost miraculous feats.

Mr. Harkness made a great deal of money from selling magic cups to people. These are cups that are used in a particular way to grant the wishes of the person using them. While it is not unknown for a hexenmeister to make one, it is unusual. No hexenmeister would ever make them in quantity or offer to sell them to just anyone. Later on I will tell how they are made and used. In any event, he practiced his art in his own way. He was known to occasionally put curses on people for money as well as to take curses off people for money. He was known for doing hexing, or laying curses with magic, as well as praying for curses to be lifted.

He lived alone in his house after his wife died until he was in his middle or late eighties. Then one night, without being sick at all, he died suddenly. He was not particularly a churchgoing man, but I suppose that in his own way he feared the Lord God. After he died, his ghost was seen for quite some time around the house he had lived in. Then one day it was just gone.

I once wondered how he would report his work to the Lord when he stood before him for his judgment. I asked my late father about this once, and he told me that it was not our place to judge others in this way. I thought about it and decided that I would heed the words of scripture, "Judge not, lest you be judged" (Luke 6:37). For I do indeed fear the judgment of the Lord God.

There have been several other witches, both male and female, whom I have come across in my life, but these three were the most powerful of all of the witches I have known. The first caused great misery for her daughter, as well as for any others who crossed her path. The second rendered many fine women unable to bear a child and did evil work for others as well. The third did many strange things that are best hidden away in secret. At least he did not do them openly.

If any of these three had associates in their evil, I did not know of it. It was rumored that Mr. Harkness had been the master of a coven of witches in his younger days. But that was well before I was born, and I was never told of it by anyone whom I considered to be really reliable. My father, who knew him well, often referred to him as "old Amos." When I moved onto the same city block that Mr. Harkness lived on, my father would sometimes refer to him as my neighbor, always with a sly smile.

How I Came to Become A Hexenmeister

Now, how it came about that I became a hexenmeister was in this way. My grandfather was born in 1902, the fourth living son to his father, who had fought in the war against Spain. My greatgrandfather had a small pension from his army service because he had been wounded in the Philippine Islands. He also had a small shop in town, where he made simple furniture as well as caskets. He sold these goods mostly to the plain folk, the old-order Amish, and the strict Mennonites. These good people were more plentiful than they are now.

My grandfather was lying in his crib in the shop one day when Miss Ann, who was well known as a hexenmeister, came into the shop. She was also known as a devotee of the Lord, and was respected by all who knew her, including the Amish. She prophesied over the crib that my grandfather would be a great hexenmeister. Then she said that she would be pleased to teach him all that she knew. My great-grandfather, knowing what store the plain folk held for this kind of child, told her that he agreed to this. He then asked her when he should send my grandfather to her. Without missing a beat, Miss Ann said that she would take him into her own home when he was ten years old.

And so when my grandfather was ten years old he was sent to stay with Miss Ann. He lived with her in her house, studying with her and doing domestic chores for her, until he was almost twenty. All this time she taught him all of the work of a hexenmeister and all of the secrets of the art that she knew. She also taught him to pray and to fear the Lord God far more than he had before he went to live with her.

Miss Ann then arranged quietly for my grandfather to marry the daughter of Elias Gerry. Mary Gerry was only sixteen at the time. Now, when he lived with Miss Ann, he would come home every Sunday morning to go to the Lutheran church with his family. Miss Ann was a strict Mennonite, but never tried to change his church affiliation. My father told me that the first time my grandfather came home with Mary Gerry, whom my great grandfather knew from our church, the family thought it was a great scandal. They were afraid that he might have seduced her.

Excerpted from Hex and Spellwork by Karl Herr. Copyright © 2002 Karl Herr. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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