On the Shelf Review – Signs, Cures and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore

We’ve talked about powwowing, the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of healing, a few times in the past. Yet these practices didn’t stop at the state line. Gerald Milnes’ Signs, Cures and Witchery is an exploration of the occult beliefs and practices among the German settlers of West Virginia. The Germans in the area have largely been neglected by scholars in favor of their English counterparts, making this a welcome addition to the literature.

Milnes’ work details a vibrant and fascinating folk culture in which charms from such works as the Romanusbuchlein and the Long-Lost Friend are still in use. These remedies were used to ward off the dangers from witches who used malign magic to harm a person, their family, or their farm, and those who had made pacts with the devil. At least one family had a charm book composed of incantations, largely from the Egyptian Secrets, passed down from generation to generation. In one case, the author visited a house of people involved in a “witch war” and surprised the owner by finding a tiny, inch-wide copy of the Sator square over every window in his house.

Overall, the book illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of folklore. Among its strengths are the in-depth depictions of fascinating individuals who remember parties, bands, recipes, tales, and incantations dating back many years. Among its weaknesses are a lack of broader perspective with regard to the material and the theories utilized. For example, this consecration of the assistants from the Key of Solomon is seen as an initiation “in order to achieve station in the magical arts as a sorcerer.” The author also makes curious statements revealing questionable explanations of broader trends, such as that paganism’s dogmatism led to it being supplanted by Christianity. Nonetheless, the book is recommended for anyone interested in folk magic and the role of charm books therein.

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Published in: on August 7, 2008 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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