The Long-Lost Friend: A Barrier to Understanding

I think the most serious barrier to previous scholars’ understanding of the Friend has been the inability to appreciate that the book, while American in origin and tone, derives much of its material from German oral and written traditions of charming.

Seems obvious, right?  Yet it doesn’t appear that it’s come to the attention of many scholars.  Most of the writing on the Friend occurs in the context of American folklore, which pays attention to its own milieu but doesn’t dip into the German.  On the other hand, you have a vast corpus of German charms, collected by folklorists across the country, but whose authors never sought any parallels in the New World material.

This is a shame, as the German material has elements that explain some baffling puzzles in Hohman’s book.  I’ve already talked about Hohman’s mouse charm and its German predecessors.  Here’s another one I found.

Hohman begins a charm for fever with these words:

Jerusalem, thou Jewish city,

In which Christ, our Lord, was born…

Now, even if your experience with Christian doctrine is limited to after-school Christmas specials, you should know there’s a slight discrepancy here with the Bible.  After all, Jesus wasn’t born in Jerusalem; he was crucified there.

That’s where the German literature comes in handy.  For example, I was paging through Karl Bartsch’s Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg, where I found another version of this charm.  This time, it refers to Jerusalem in the correct Biblical context.  From this, we might extrapolate that this is an earlier version of the charm which was transformed via oral transmission into the wording Hohman uses.

I’d suggest those interested in these topics take a look at Bartsch’s work.  It has dozens upon dozens of pages of charms, collected from within a single German province.  I know there was at one time a complete collection of German charm material compiled by folklorists and kept at a major university.  I will barely get a chance to scratch the surface of this in my work, yet even a small peek into it is yielding all sorts of insights that I hope my readers will appreciate.

Published in: on July 28, 2010 at 10:20 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] however, is that both books derive their material from the vast corpus of German charms that we discussed previously.  Viewed within that context, we can see that Hohman derives much of his “Egyptian […]

  2. Are you familiar with Christopher Fennell’s discovery of a clay skull effigy in Virginia? He discusses at on this page

    but it, and his follow up research on German-American Hexen is discussed in his book Crossroads and Cosmologies. It’s good stuff

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