A few weeks ago, I spent an oft-delayed yet pleasant afternoon and evening with Patrick Donmoyer. Patrick is the site manager of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, not to mention the translator of The Friend in Need, another charm book by Hohman which I’ve reviewed previously. We spent most of our time viewing multiple impressive collections of magical books, talismans, and other magical items. Before I left, I picked up the second book in the Center’s new series – Donmoyer’s own Hex Signs.
From time to time, I’m asked if The Long-Lost Friend has anything to do with hex signs, those beautiful star and flower figures that decorate the barns across much of eastern Pennsylvania and adjacent areas where German settlers made their homes. The answer is, “Not really,” with a follow-up about the possibility of a mystical link that might or might not be present. Hex Signs provides us with answers to these questions, and much more.
So, were hex signs intended to protect the barn magically, or were they decorations? Donmoyer’s answer is that these have no apotropaic sorcerous qualities, as far as it relates to history. The belief seems to come down to one researcher’s interview with a single unspecified Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, which no one since has been able to duplicate, and the term “hex signs” seems to have been a creation for outsiders. Donmoyer goes on to document the progression of these symbols from stone keystones found in the sides of early barns, along with their parallels to barn decoration in the Old World, and the many variations of patterns throughout the region.
At the same time, however, hex signs are not merely decorative elements. Within their bright colors and eye-catching whorls and points are elements of celestial and numerological significance. Similar motifs turn up on decorations elsewhere, indicating that these symbols are expressions of important cosmological and spiritual practices among the Pennsylvania German.
Those interested in the occult are also in luck. Even if magic cannot be found in the hex signs on the barn, it may yet lurk inside. Within are walls covered with graffiti, including magical phrases on the walls, talismans tucked within the rafters, and drawings of the Elbedritsch, a mythical horned bird. We are treated not only to descriptions, but pictures of these discoveries.
Finally, the book discusses those artists who have brought the hex sign into the present and seek to preserve these creations that tell so much about Pennsylvania history. This is where magic re-enters, as the popular discourse about signs has had its effect on the attitudes and practices of those who design them today.
All of this is richly illustrated with copious photographs that highlight the author’s arguments. In fact, my only criticism is that the book might be better served in a large coffee table format, which would allow us to view the signs on a larger scale.
Hex Signs is available through the Heritage Center, and is certainly worth it for those interested in folk art, folklore, or folk magic.