Friday, May 1, 2009

Still Alive After All This Time

While reading the 30 April 2009 issue of The Pendleton Times, my home county newspaper, I came across a news item from the Sugar Grove news titled "German Folk Culture Still Lives Today". This got me to thinking about this topic, and using some information from the aforementioned The Pendleton Times article, I came up with today's post.

When immigrants came to America, their cultural contact was usually broken with the mother country. In the case of many of my ancestors, that mother country was Germany. Within a few generations, the knowledge of the German language and the ability to read and write it waned, and soon a folk culture developed, which encompassed the world of the proverb, superstition and folk medicine. In many parts of the country, “progress” so slow in coming, so this folk culture flourished and became part of everyday life.

While many ways remained that came over from the mother country, most of them were meshed with the new folk culture to form an amalgamation of cultures that, in some areas, remain to this day. While it is beginning to be lost, my home of Germany Valley in Pendleton County is one of these last remaining pockets to cling to the old ways that have been practiced since the early 1700’s.

There are old bits of German poetry that was passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation, sometimes forgotten, sometimes altered. Counting out rhymes were and to an extent, still are popular with young children. As you can see, they are a mesh of the old German language and the newer folk culture. While most (I’d say all, but when a person says all, they can usually be proven a liar) who teach these rhymes have no idea what the German words mean, they have never-the-less remained for around 300 years.

Eins, zwey, drey.
Mommy caught a fly!
The fly died,
Mommy cried;
Eins, zwey, drey!
Hex foot, hex foot;
Toad foot, toad foot!
Long snout, long snout!
Nothing out, nothing out!

Dibble, dobble, thimble head!
Set the farmer on his head;
Who must out, I or thou—
Or miller’s old brown cow
And that are Thou.

Folklore was commonly passed onto the next generations by an elderly member of the family, as in the following:

Hoppi, hoppi, hoppi,
Pony goes galoppi,
Over stock, over stone
Never crack the left shin bone;
Always at a galoppi,
Hoppi, hoppi, hoppi.

Local hexmeisters and powwow doctors provided most of the medical attention in the Pennsylvania Dutch settlements. Hexmeisters cured by using chants and incantations; and by using the power of hex symbols. Many of these hex signs can still be seen today, painted on barns and houses. Many people still believe in the power of the hex signs. (Also, you may not know this, the reason most barns are painted red with white trim, is a direct result of the hexmeister. Red is a power color, and the white trim around doors, windows and openings protected against witches. Also, if you see a barn or outbuilding with white trimmed windows, those are known as “Witch Windows” in Pennsylvania Dutch communities).

An old barn with hex signs on it. The big white circles have a symbol painted on them in case this photo doesn't show it. This symbol is called a rosette, and a sign for basic good fortune and prosperity. This barn is located near Circleville, Pendleton County, WV.

Powwow doctors used a combination of herbal cures and faith healing. Don’t confuse the Pennsylvania Dutch Powwow Doctor with the Native American dance. They are not the same at all. Most powwow doctors used a combination of folk medicine and the Holy Bible. If you believe, there is a multitude of cures for just about any disease or ailment in the first and second books of Moses. The first book of Moses (Genesis) and the second book of Moses (Exodus) can be found in every Holy Bible. That is no secret; the secret is in knowing how to use them. Most powwow and hexmeister secrets were passed on by word of mouth and were kept secret from the masses, lest their powers be used for evil.

Here is a common powwow cure to ease the pain in a child who has hurt himself:

Owley, Owley, keeley hay!
Tomorrow morn it’s all away.

To cure more serious pain, a powwow might use a healing stone on you and repeat three times, starting and stopping each time with the trinity:

Hair and hide,
Flesh and blood,
Nerve and bone,
No more pain than this stone.

Powwowing also assisted in matters that were of importance to the community. Topics of the weather, livestock, gardening and an array of other topics were all in the repertoire of the powwow doctor. Here is another example of something a powwow doctor could assist with:

To keep a bee from stinging you, repeat in an even tone:

Hummler, brummler,
Do not sting
Until devils
Benediction bring.

The following cure was used to stop bleeding:

Auf Christi grab wachsen Drei Rosen,
Die erste is gutig,
Die ander ist nach herrschen viel,
Blut steh still, und wunde heil.

Three roses grow on Christ’s grave;
The first is gracious,
The second would rule.
Blood stand still,
Wound heal!

And here is how to get rid a hex or witching that has been placed upon you or your property:

Take an unwashed jar; take thread spun by a maiden not yet seven years of age; put water (urine) from an animal in the jar. Then take an egg from a black hen, wrap the thread around the egg three times, and speak “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” while doing it. Then put the egg in the water, close the jar, turn it upside down so no moisture escapes and set it near the fire, saying: “Get rid of the witch in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”


Janet, said...

I like this post, Matthew. Do you know what that first poem means? I came across info on PowWow doctors when I was looking up things that my grandpa could do (but he was Scotch-Irish). Ezekiel 16:6 stops blood, also.

Matthew Burns said...


The best that I can figure out, the first little rhyme, "Eins Zwey Drey" is simple saying "One, two, three. Mommy caught a fly...." You know, a really simple counting game.

The second rhyme "Hex Foot, Toad Foot" is a little harder, I think it is referring to how a toad foot was used as pprotection against evil hexes, and long snout refers to the devil, so by saying the whole rhyme and ending it with "Nothing's out" it meant that all was safe, that no evil was out and about. It was a rhyme of protection. Now, thats just my take on it and how I always understood it.

The third rhyme, "Dibble, dobble, thimble head..." was a rhyme used to count out people while you are getting ready to see who is "it". Sort of like, "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe". Also, that is my take on it and how I always understood it.

Yes, my Grandmaw Mary always used Ezekiel 16:6 to stop blood, she also had another bible verse that could take the fire out of a burn. They both always worked. Granny could even stop the blood in livestock but you could never eat that animal after that as it was tainted.

My uncle Joe was accidentally shot back in 1965, and Granny tried to stop the blood from the gunshot wound, it did stop for about a minute or so, but Granny suddenly became violently ill and had to stop trying. He died a few minutes later.

tipper said...

Very interesting post-and comment Matthew! You are just full of fascinating info!

Granny Sue said...

Wow, Matthew. I've never heard of a powwow doctor. Fascinating.

Were these rhymes from your family, or is there a book I can get to read about them? Are there others besides these?

Matthew Burns said...

Granny Sue,

Yes, these are rhymes that are common among many Pendleton County families, I wouldn't necessarily say they were just told in my family.

There are alot of rhymes and riddles of German origin in "German-American Folklore" by Mac Barrick. I have this book if you want to borrow it. My mom has a book with only Pennsylvania Dutch children rhymes in it, I can't recall the name but it is pretty good. That doesn't help pinpoint the title but it does let you know that such a collection exists. There are literally tons of these rhymes.

Also, I highly recommend the wonderful book, "Signs, Cures and Witchery" by Gerald Milnes. Most of his research is based in Pendleton County. There is also an accompanying DVD for this book, it is by the same name. It is great, too. I know the library commission has it.

Also for a great book on powwowing, check out "Powwowing among the Pennsylvania Dutch" by David Kriebel. It is probably the best accounting of Powwow doctors that I have ever read.

Other good books on this topic are "Shenandoah Valley Folklife" by Scott Suter. There is an abundance of Pennsylvania Dutch culture in it. Also, "The Pennsylvania Germans of the Shenandoah Valley" by Elmer Smith is another standard book on the subject. (The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia borders Pendleton County, WV).


Granny Sue said...

Thanks, Matthew. That's a good reading list.