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Powwowing and the Pennsylvania Germans

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Here is a story about something that my Pennsylvania German ancestors may have used or even practiced at some point.

A blessing with a Star of David, crosses, INRI and a winged angel with a burning heart and crown (Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center)

Powwow, also called Brauche or Braucherei in the Pennsylvania Dutch language, is the term used for a form of traditional medicine and folk magic originating in the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans. Blending aspects of folk religion with healing charms, "powwowing" includes a wide range of healing rituals used primarily for treating ailments in humans and livestock, as well as securing physical and spiritual protection, and good luck in everyday affairs. Although the word "powwow" is Native American, these ritual traditions are of European origin and were brought to colonial Pennsylvania by the German-speaking people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Powwow has tricky roots in the sense that prior to it becoming a Pennsylvania-born folk magic tradition, it was known in Southwest Germany as "Brauchen". The verb brauche means "to use, to employ, to make use of, to need," (brauchen or gebrauchen in modern High German) while Braucherei implies a collection of traditional ways, related to "Breiche – of customs, traditions, rituals, ceremonies." In modern High German, Brauch means "tradition" or "folklore".

The roots of Powwow can be reliably traced back to the medieval Catholic period when the Reformation was beginning and the clergy used folk adaptations of liturgical blessings for everyday purposes, sacred objects and inscriptions for healing and protection. Many grimoires of magic were published between the 1400 and 1600's. One of which was The Cambridge Book of Magic, written in the early 1500's. Many of these old grimoires became the foundational works for what would one day be known as "Braucherei" or "Powwow". The tradition is old and its roots can be traced back approximately 500 or 600 years, with those foundations being even older, dating back to the days of the Coptic Christians. So essentially, Powwow became the modern iteration of a magical Christian tradition that is about 2000 years old. These folk traditions continue to the present day in both rural and urban settings, and have spread across North America.

A practitioner is sometimes referred to as a "Powwower" or "Braucher" (if they are male or "Braucherin" if they are female), but terminology varies by region.

The majority of the early ritual traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch were rooted in German language, but the term "Powwow" became widely used by speakers of English by the late 18th century. "Powwaw" (in one of its early spellings) was appropriated from the Algonquian language by 17th century missionaries in New England, where it originally described a healer, derived from a verb implying trance, or dreaming for divination or healing purposes. Evidence suggests that the term was applied to the Pennsylvania Dutch out of a perceived similarity in ritual healing, consistent with its borrowed meaning in English for "conjuration performed for the cure of diseases and other purposes."

Later, at the turn of the 20th century, the term "powwow" became associated with the title of the English edition of a celebrated manual of ritual procedures, entitled Pow-Wows; or, Long Lost Friend, written by John George Hohman and first published in German as Der Lange Verborgene Freund (literally "The Long Hidden Friend") in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820.

The Pow-Wow practitioner was more closely allied with theology than medicine and felt that he was a mediator between the patient and God. Among the Pennsylvania Germans, the "plain folk," such as the Amish, Dunkers, and the Mennonites, as well as among the Lutheran and German Reformed church members, powwowing and the Braucher had a significant following.

The Bible is considered the most important book of the powwow, and no practitioner would work without their Bible on hand. The theory was that healing magic comes from God, and therefore use of scripture for healing is the only truly Christian way to practice magical folk remedies. Many charms and spells included in powwow have their origins in the practice of the medieval European Catholics, who often used them to protect themselves again malevolent witchcraft.

Charms and spells found in powwow include some of the following:

  • To protect cattle, mix up a blend of wormwood, asafetida, and other herbs with soil from your stable and some salt. Combine these in a fabric pouch and bury it under the threshold to your barn where the cattle enter and exit. This will keep them safe from theft and disease.

  • To treat a fever, turn your shirt inside out for three mornings in a row. As you do, say, "Turn thou, shirt, and fever likewise turn. I tell thee this in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." After the third day, the fever will subside.

  • If you are going to court and want a favorable outcome, write the words "I appear before the house of the Judge. Three dead men look out of the window; one having no tongue, the other having no lungs, and the third sick, blind and dumb" on a piece of paper. Carry it in your pocket as you go to court, and repeat the incantation before you see the judge.

  • To stop bleeding, breathe upon the injured person three times, and recite the Lord's Prayer three times, stopping when you get to the words upon the earth.

  • Powwow practices can also be used to cure warts and burns, prevent theft, or even compel a thief to return stolen goods. In addition, homes and people can be protected from harm.

Traditional powwowing is passed along as part of an oral tradition, taught from male practitioners to female and vice versa. Many of the prayers, rituals, and charms were memorized rather than formally written down, and most experienced powwowers would only share them with those who feel called to use their God-given abilities to heal and protect their community. In general, powwow practices were only taught to students who plan to use them to help others.

A current Pennsylvania Dutch Braucher says there are a few rules in the tradition that must always be followed. First, no powwower ever reveals the name of the person who brought them to powwow. He also says that if you do not believe in the Christian God or follow the Bible, powwow probably is not for you. After all, its roots are in Judeo-Christian theology. Finally, he says that there's a taboo against accepting payment for work.

Knowing the traditions that our ancestors followed allows us to get closer to understanding them and what their daily lives may have been like.


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