Powwowing: A Persistent American Esoteric Tradition

David W Kriebel, Ph.D.

Powwowing, or brauche in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, is a magico-religious practice whose chief purpose is the healing of physical ailments in humans in animals, although it has had other aims as well, such as conferring protection from physical or spiritual harm, bringing good luck, and revealing hidden information. The practice has been present on this continent since the first German-speaking settlements were established in Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century, although it has its roots in much older German esoteric traditions (Yoder 1976).
My research focused on powwowing as it has existed in south-central and southeastern Pennsylvania today throughout the twentieth century, with emphasis on the present day. I performed ethnographic fieldwork in Adams, Berks, Bucks, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Schuykill, and York Counties. Tracking down existing powwowers and powwow clients was difficult for three reasons:

1. There is a perception within the culture area that powwowing is no longer practiced and less than half of the people I spoke with had even heard of it;
2. Former patients and practitioners are afraid that others will label them crazy, or at a minimum, old-fashioned and “dutchy”; and 3. There is sizable religious opposition to the practice, particularly among Conservative (Eastern) Mennonites, many of whom consider powwowing and other esoteric traditions to be the work of Satan.

Accordingly, my fieldwork involved a great deal of detective work, tracing consultants through people who knew other people and so forth. Much of it was sheer luck (walking into the right business establishment or farm and catching the right people in, having people overhear me as I performed documentary research at historical societies and libraries, and so forth). However, I was able to obtain information on at least seven living powwowers in southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania, and have reports that 8 to 12 others also exist in that region. Two of these, a Mrs. May in Lebanon County and Jenine Trayer (aka Silver RavenWolf) are open about their powwow practice. The former advertised her powwow practice on a placard outside her business at least as late as 1999 and the latter, a popular contemporary neo-Pagan writer, has

published a mass-marketed primer on powwow (RavenWolf 1997). The others are known to potential clients through word of mouth and do not depend on their powwow practice for their income. The interest in the practice shown by children and grandchildren of active powwowers suggests that the practice will persist in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in some form for at least two more generations.

However, my research was also concerned with exploring other issues, such as whether powwowing is effective as a healing practice and how beliefs are created and sustained. There is not space enough to fully address these questions here. However, I will present some tentative answers, bearing in mind that the study was, by its nature, exploratory and all analyses must await confirmation through the drawing of random samples of the population. These tentative conclusions are based on 98 twentieth century cases collected from the culture area (65 from interviews with consultants, 29 from documentary sources, 4 from participant observation), partial information on powwowing which did not meet the criteria for cases (roughly datable, known ailment, known outcome of treatment, and minimal detail on the treatment), and 42 returned survey questionnaires.


Principal Written Sources of Powwow Cures and Other Spells
Most contemporary powwowers on whom I have collected information memorize the rituals they use, making it difficult to trace specific rituals to specific written sources. The living powwowers I know use a strictly oral means of transmission. Furthermore, many powwowers who practiced earlier in the century used recipes copied into notebooks, ledgers, diaries, and other repositories of personal writing. This is probably still the case, although I have been unable to document it, except in the case of sharing recipes for herbal mixtures and the like.
With this caveat in mind, the following works are considered the principal published sources of powwowing rituals, and most orally-transmitted rituals probably have their origin in them. They are listed in decreasing order of importance.

1. The Bible
The Bible is by far the most common source of powwowing incantations. Many of my consultants cited the use of the Bible by powwowers as evidence that the cures must come from God, rather than the devil, as some critics have alleged. The fact the cure was “taken out of the Bible” has also been used to explain why a powwower should not request payment (Reimensnyder 1982, 49).
Certain verses are considered effective for specific ailments. The most famous is Ezekiel 16.6, which is said to be usable and effective by anyone, not just practicing powwowers. It is also said to be effective over great distances. The verse as it appears in the King James Version is most often mentioned (Reimensnyder 1982, 62):
And when I passed by thee and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.

2. The Long Lost Friend [1]
The Long Lost Friend, or Der lang verborgene Schatz und Haus Freund, in the original German, was written by John George Hohman in 1819 and first published in 1820 in Reading. It has been reprinted in numerous German editions and twice translated into English, once in Harrisburg (1850) [2] and once in Carlisle (1863), the latter under the more accurately translated title The Long Hidden Friend (Yoder 1976, 236). All subsequent English editions derive from these two independent translations, but the Harrisburg edition is the only one still in print. A bookstore in Lebanon, PA checked with its distributor and informed me that the latest edition of the book was published in 1993 [3].
The Long Lost Friend is a collection of recipes, spells, and procedures, most of them involving some sort of supernatural power. Hohman, an 1802 German immigrant who was himself an occult healer, borrowed heavily from other sources, especially the German charm book Romanusbuchlein, the “Romanus” book.(Yoder 1976). He also borrowed from Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets and other sources. Other than the Bible, The Long Lost Friend was the most common source of powwowing incantations. Hohman also claimed that the book itself could serve as an amulet of protection for its possessor and in one case (the York Witch Trial) its destruction was supposed to lift a hex placed on another by its owner. While this book was used regularly by powwowers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have uncovered no definite cases in which it was used after the York Witch Trial (1929) in which the book figured so prominently.

3. Albertus Magnus, or Egyptian Secrets
This is one of the main sources for The Long Lost Friend. Its putative compiler is the Swabian Dominican monk Albertus Magnus (A.D. 1200-1280), a saint in the Roman Catholic Church and known as a scientist, philosopher, and theologian. Albertus Magnus was known for bringing ancient Greek philosophical works, particularly those of Aristotle, from the Islamic world into Europe. While the author (individual or corporate) remains unknown, the book does derive from European magical traditions [4].
The 1900 edition of which I have a copy is laid out much like The Long Lost Friend, containing “sympathetic as well as natural” remedies based in “white and black art.” According to Yoder (1978, 242) the first American edition appeared in German in Pennsylvania in 1842, under the title Albertus Magnus bewahrte und approbirte sympathetische und naturliche egyptische Geheimnisse fur Menschen und Vieh, [5] and the first English edition was published at Harrisburg in 1875.
4. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses
The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses [6] is considered a more problematic text than the others and is associated with black magic, because it contains procedures for conjuring spirits. Few powwowers will admit to owning one or using it in their practice, and it is often considered a hex book. One consultant recalls that when she was a little girl (1930s) her neighbor (who was regarded as a witch) had a copy of the book and loaned it to her. When my consultant’s grandmother found out about it, she angrily returned it to the neighbor. Geraldine, a Pennsylvania Dutch woman who is also an amateur historian, has read some of the Albertus Magnus work, but is afraid of this book, and she told me:

I’ve never read the Moses book—frankly, I’m superstitious enough that I will not touch it, and I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I do consider that...that there are powers on this earth that I don’t understand and I’m not going to mess with something that I figure I’m too ignorant to mess with.


There is also a volume called The Eighth and Ninth Books of Moses, but I have not been able to examine it. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, like the Albertus Magnus work, derives from European magical traditions [7].
In nearly all other respects, however, this volume is quite unlike the others books in this section. While the others are fairly straightforward (if sometimes hard to implement) instructions and recipes, this book has the obscurity characteristic of many magical texts, both ancient and modern. It is geared toward what today would be called a “ceremonial magician,” with many depictions of magic circles, seals, incantations, and other diagrams supposedly drawn from the Kabbalah, the Key of Solomon, and other ancient magical texts. The inscriptions and incantations include many of the mystical names of God, archangels, demons, and celestial bodies. My version also contains a treatise on “The Magic of the Israelites.” The language of the ritual instructions is mostly English, with some Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The plates contain mainly Hebrew inscriptions, with some Latin characters. However, many of the characters are neither Hebrew, Latin, nor Greek. Some resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs and I have recognized characters from demotic Egyptian, a late form of the indigenous hieroglyphic Egyptian language [8].

5. Secrets of Sympathy
This work is one of a number of smaller charm books used in powwowing and may be considered representative of such works. Its author was William Wilson Beissel of Leck Kill (Northumberland County) in 1938. It was originally published as a 16-page chapbook and republished in 1998 as a section of the book Powwow Power, by his great-nephew James D. Beissel of Willow Street (Lancaster County). I own a copy of the latter work. The spells (“sympathies”) in this book resemble those in The Long Lost Friend and all have some explicit Christian referent, mainly from events in the life of Jesus. It also includes a himmelsbrief (a ‘Holy Fire-and-Pestilence Letter” to protect from illness and fire), which “the author” considered “the most important part of this entire booklet” (Beissel 1998, 33).
Yoder (1976, 248 no. 24) has identitied the “sympathies” contained in this book as translations from another Pennsylvania Dutch work, Dr. G. F. Helfenstein’s Vielfaltig erprobter Hausschatz der Sympathie; oder, Enthullte Zauberkrafte und Geheimnisse der Natur. This book was published in 1853 at Harrisburg by Scheffer and Beck in a joint edition with Der lang verborgene Freund. Like Hohman’s work, this book claims to be itself an amulet of protection from harm for its possessor.

Pre-Twentieth Century Powwowing
Powwowing has been practiced in Pennsylvania since the first German-speaking Protestant settlers arrived in the eighteenth century. Prior to the twentieth century, powwowing was practiced routinely by the descendants of these European settlers. Don Yoder considers powwowing to be based on ancient religious healing traditions sanctioned and even blessed by the Roman Catholic Church, but driven underground among Protestant populations, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and placed into the hands of lay practitioners (Yoder 1990, 95).


Yoder’s tracing of powwowing to pre-Reformation church practices and beliefs is supported by the invocation of Christian saints in powwowing incantations (1990, 201-203) and the way in which beliefs about saints help define the social identity of the powwowingr. As Yoder notes, healing was often attributed to Christian saints prior to the Reformation. Some powwowers also came to be viewed as saints, such as Yoder’s own consultant, “Aunt” Sophia Bailer, who was known as “The Saint of the Coal Regions” (Yoder 1955). Probably the most well-known of these was the woman known as “Mountain Mary.”

This woman, known in English as “Mountain Mary,” in Pennsylvania Dutch as “Barricke Mariche,” and in German as “die Berg Maria,” was reputedly a hermit and “holy woman” who lived in the Oley Hills about five miles northeast of Pikeville and two miles north of Hill Church in eastern Berks County. Her given name was Anna Maria Jung (Jungin, with the feminine German suffix). Accounts of her life differ, but most agree she was born to a German family in Europe and she fled with them to Philadelphia shortly before the American Revolution. Her legend emphasizes the suffering she faced during the war, including the death of her husband, possibly fiancé, Theodore Benz, the latter having fought in the Continental Army [9].

Mary Young, as she was called after anglicizing her name, never married after Benz’s death. Rather, she lived alone in the mountains tending a “magic” herbal garden and was reputed to have “wide and astonishing knowledge of the medicinal value of her roots and herbs” (White 1938) through which some claim she performed miraculous cures.10 At an early age she became known as a “holy woman” who read the Bible and performed Christian “good deeds.” Prayer was an integral part of her practice as well. Her fame spread far beyond the Oley Hills and she saw patients from distant areas. She did not require payment for her services. Mountain Mary died in 1819 at age 70.

Today, Mountain Mary is considered a semi-legendary figure, in no small part because of the body of literature which has grown up around her, including two poems, an account by Quaker writer Benjamin Hollinshead, a highly sentimentalized 1880 novel by Ludwig Wollenweber, and several newspaper articles.11 In 1934 the Berks County chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument to her (Yoder 1990, 213-217). She is currently portrayed as a “powwow doctor” at the Goshenhoppen Pennsylvania German Folk Festival by Veronica “Ronnie” Backenstoe [12].

While Mountain Mary, whatever the nature of her actual healing practice, has been seen for decades as a kind of archetypal powwower, there were many others who acquired a wide reputation prior to 1901. Among these were John Georg Hohman, who published The Long Lost Friend at Reading in 1819, Peter Bausher, and “Doctor” John Rhoads. The last two lived during the latter part of the ninteenth century.


Peter Bausher [13] lived in a rough-hewn log hut at the base of the Blue Mountains (described in 1895 as “a half century at least behind the times”) in northern Berks County, three miles beyond Strausstown. He was “a famous powwow man” (he called the practice “braucha”) and never charged for his services, although he accepted free will offerings. When he was younger, “it was nothing for him to go twenty miles away into the forest to powwow for some afflicted sufferer.” However, in his later years he rarely ventured from his home. He believed in 1895 that nearly all the good powwowers were dead and feared he would not be able to pass the ability on to anyone else.

Bausher learned powwowing from his father, who learned it from his father. For 150 years, knowledge of powwowing was passed down this way, from father to son. Bausher wanted to pass the ability to powwow on to his eldest son, who wanted nothing to do with it. “Of course, I can tell a woman, but not a man, except my oldest son [14]. Man tells woman, and woman tells man. In this way these powwow secrets are passed from one to another, but must not be written down. You must know them by heart.” The Bausher family’s custom is an exception to the general rule of cross-gender transmission, according to which powwowing ability can be transmitted from any woman to any man and vice versa, regardless of relatedness, and never between individuals of the same gender.
Bausher used no herbs or medicine and stated, “Powwow healing is by faith and prayers. We do it all in the German language.” He cured hemorrhages and burns (“I have frequently stopped a serious flow of blood in a minute after powwowing. Pains from burns I cure the same way”). Bausher also reportedly cured “erysipelas, wild fire [15] , felons [as spelled], lameness, sprains, poison plague, and many other afflictions, such as wasting away of the nerves, quickly disappear with powwowing.” Bausher did not believe that powwowing could cure “typhoid fever, diphtheria, or any dangerous disease like that, then my advice is to send for a reputable doctor at once, and don’t bother with powwowing. But there are some things doctors can’t touch. Powwowing can heal and cure every time.” [16] Bausher claimed to have thousands of proofs of the efficacy of powwowing and cited testimonials of hundreds of the farmers in Berks, Lehigh, and Lebanon counties with “unalterable faith in powwowing.”

Bausher noted, “I use no medicines; only words, said silently. The words I know were handed down from father to son. They were never written. All must be memorized. I think my great-great grandfather handed down the words I now use. What they were when he first used them, I don’t know, but they have changed, no doubt.” He attributed this to mistakes in pronunciation and memorizing and believed some of the words had changed completely by his time. One requirement was that the powwower must be “near the person and see him when you powwow for him or her…Sometimes burns or injuries are blown upon when we powwow, or the hand is passed over the injury lightly, during the operation of braucha.” Bausher held that the patient must strongly believe in powwowing for it to work.

Bausher absolutely denied performing hexerei, or black magic: “I only try to cure people and help the afflicted. Heaven knows there is enough suffering in the world.” He did believe in evil spells and spirits as a cause of illness and that powwowing could combat these, saying, “Many a person declining to the grave under a strange, unknown spell is helped, and the consuming evil spirit within him is driven out by prayer or powwow alone.”


John Rhoads, [17] known as “Doctor Rhoads” had a large powwowing (“pow-wow”) practice in Berks County during the latter half of the nineteenth century. He was the subject of a newspaper article in the Reading Eagle a century ago. (“Magic Healing Among Berks County Rocks,” 1895-1899). Rhoads lived on the side of a mountain off present day Route 73, between Pleasantville and Shanesville in Rockland Township, Berks County. His home, a small shanty with a rough kitchen addition, accommodated a large family, although it was unclear from the article how many of his thirteen children still lived with him and his second wife, the first having died childless and at a young age. Rhoads encouraged the reporter who interviewed him to take his photograph, but the newspaper printed an ink sketch, rather than the photograph.

Rhoads’s mother, a renowned “practicer of the magic art,” as the article describes her, in Rockland township, taught her son how to pow-wow. Hundreds of people in eastern Berks County would visit her for relief from all sorts of diseases. According to Rhoads, the mode of transmission was from mother to son. Only one son could learn the art [18]. He said he never charges: “People are expected to give as much as they can afford or what they feel they owe me…I could make lots of money by putting some of my articles on the market, but I don’t believe the gift was given to man to use as a means to make money, and consequently I will never do it.” He also believed he would probably lose his “power” if he used it to make money. The payment he did receive for “medical services” was insufficient to support his family and he worked as a laborer much of the time.

Rhoads also stated that he was called away at all hours of the night to distant places and that he always dropped what he was doing and went. He believed that if he refused to go, he would probably lose his power. Rhoads would refuse to powwow for anyone whom he knew had ridiculed the practice in the past and claimed that no amount of money could cause him to alter this policy.
According to the article, “(Rhoads’s) word is the supreme law in that section. His alleged curative power causes his offspring to look upon him with an awe so poorly concealed that a man with half an eye can readily grasp the humor of the situation.” Rhoads claimed to have saved his children’s lives on several occasions by powwowing.

Contemporary Practitioners and Rituals
Powwowers may be either non-professional (the housewife, older relative, or neighbor whose clients are limited to those in his or her family or circle of friends) or professional (whose clients may be drawn from the general population). Professionals are further subdivided into those who charge for their services (which I term “entrepreneurial” powwowers) and those who do not, but who may accept free-will “offerings” for healings performed. Professional powwowers, are sometimes referred to as “doctor” or “professor,” while non-professionals use kin terms (“mother. granny, grandpa, aunt, uncle”) or simply common modes of address (“Missus, Mister”). Professional powwowers typically treat a wider range of ailments (usually in a specially designated treatment room or area) and employ more elaborate rituals than non-professionals.

Powwowing rituals involve the use of one of more acts which I have classified as verbal (incantations), somatic (gestures and body position), and material (manipulation of physical objects) components. Every living powwower I have interviewed has his or her recipes committed to memory and none of them uses any of the charm books described above or other written sources historically employed by powwowers. It can be speculated that the decline in the use of such books is a result of the 1929 York “Witch Trial” and the subsequent calls for “superstition” to be eradicated by the introduction of scientific education [19].


Three distinct ritual genres may be distinguished, which I refer to as Type I, II, and III rituals. Type I rituals are simple, easy to learn, and almost always used by non-professionals. Type III rituals are complex, difficult to learn, and always used by professional powwowers. Type II rituals form an intermediate class, comprised of relatively simple rituals which are quick and easy to learn, yet are used by professionals and non-professionals. There is a direct correlation between professional status and increasing genre number (p=0.001).

Type I rituals have the following features:
- use no more than two ritual components, usually only one
- do not use verbal components
- typically limited to one ailment (most often warts)
- ailments never potentially life-threatening
- never any payment
Examples of Type I rituals are passing a child around a table leg to cure livergrown, wart removal by rubbing with a potato or penny. In the typical Type I performance, the powwower will ask the patient what the problem is and without many preliminaries begin a simple ritual to cure it. The rituals often include a material component, but rarely a somatic one. Material objects used are most commonly potatoes, pennies, string, or, in the case of livergrown, a table leg. Ailments are typically minor, the most serious being livergrown. There is no payment, not even a donation. Most often the patient and powwower are either relatives or neighbors.

Type II rituals have the following features:
- use no more than two ritual components (except in rare circumstances)
- typically include a verbal component
- typically limited to a single class of ailment (e.g. skin diseases, bleeding problems, problems caused by poor circulation)
- rarely any payment
Examples of Type II rituals are the “all-purpose” rituals used by some powwowers to heal a variety of injuries, blood stopping using the well-known verse from Ezekiel (16.6), and burn healing. In the typical Type II performance, the patient is seen by the powwower in a special area or treatment room. The powwower asks the patient what the problem is, then lays hands upon the affected area and murmurs a simple subvocal incantation. The entire ritual takes a few minutes. There is no payment.

Type III rituals have the following features:
- no limitation on use of ritual components
- no limitation on ailments to be cured
- payment is often expected, but not requested, unless the powwower is of the “entrepreneurial” type
Examples of Type III rituals are the healing rituals used most professionals whose primary social identity is oriented toward the role of powwower. In the typical Type III performance the client is seen by the powwower in a special room of the house separated from the main living quarters. This may be an enclosed porch or a small room close to one of the entrances. The powwower asks the patient his or her full name and what the problem is, if the patient hasn’t volunteered the information already. The patient then sits in a chair, or lies down, depending on what the problem is. The powwower runs his or her hands over the body of the client, usually lightly touching the client’s body, with special focus on the area of complaint. The powwower is speaking subvocally all the while so that the patient cannot hear what he or she is saying, even when the powwower’s lips are inches away from the patient’s ears. Each movement is performed three times. After running his or her hands over the patient, the powwower will make wringing motions with them in order to shake off the affliction removed from the client. At various points of the ritual, the powwower may draw signs of the cross on the patient’s body. At the end, the powwower will run his or her hands over the entire body of the patient.


The ritual typically takes between 15 to 20 minutes, but can be longer if many specific areas of the body are affected. Once the ritual is completed, the patient will typically leave money for the powwower, although the powwower may not request payment.
Most accounts followed the typical pattern identified above, with some variation. Daisy Dietrich (pseudonym), a Schuylkill County powwower, not only repeated the movements three times, but also the entire sequence of actions, so her performances lasted three times longer than the typical one. Her ritual also differed in that the client (myself) was instructed to face east and to hold a Bible, and that when she “wiped off” the affliction (my idiom) she did it after each time. Daisy also made considerably more elaborate use of drawing symbols on the body of the client than the example above. Before treatment, she asks if the patient believes in God. In addition, she claims to be able to feel if there is something else wrong with the client—fortunately she detected nothing seriously wrong with me [20]!
Anita Rahn (pseudonym), who powwowed me for arthritis and migraines, did not use any verbal component that I could detect at all. For slightly over half the time she worked behind me, but when she faced me and I could see her lips, I noticed they were not moving. This is in contrast to Daisy, whose lips were moving all the time, emitting a barely audible indistinct whisper. Anita may also be able to detect illness in the body—I asked her when I left if everything was okay and she said it was. Anita learned her method from her husband, who learned from his father. Her father-in-law used spirit “Indian guides” in his healing, but she would not reveal anything about her practice. Anita departed from the traditional method of accepting payment by taking the money directly from my hand at the conclusion of our session.

As for the efficacy of powwowing, there are numerous accounts that the practice has been effective in accomplishing its therapeutic purpose. Out of 89 cases in which the outcome of the treatment was known, healing is reported to have occurred in 80 of them, a success rate of 90 percent. While it is impossible to test the veracity of every such report, I can say that those which derived from interviews are unlikely to be the result of intentional misrepresentation or some sort of hallucination. Memory errors may certainly have occurred (reported events took place as long ago as 1910), and although I have tried to reduce ramification (information added after the experience) as much as possible to recording the cases, it is difficult to eliminate entirely. Still, the high success rate requires explanation. Possible explanations include the following:
1. Spontaneous remission;
2. Placebo effect (effect of belief upon the body);
3. Effect of concurrent (but unreported) biomedical treatment; and
4. Healing through supernatural intervention.

Each of these explanations must be considered. The first explanation is most likely in the case of minor ailments, such as warts, which are known to resolve themselves spontaneously in regions outside the culture area. Of the cases collected, 16 percent involved the treatment of such ailments. The second explanation can be discounted in cases in which the patient either was unaware that he or she was being treated or had no prior belief in the efficacy of the treatment. Nor can it be used to account for cases in which animals were reportedly healed by powwowing. However, it cannot be discounted in other cases, particularly when the ailment is culturally-defined (such as “livergrown,” or aa-gewachse, or “the take-off,” or abnehme). Culturally-defined ailments were treated in nineteen percent of cases collected. The third explanation is less viable than the first two, since it assumes that information has been withheld by the consultant, whether through errors in memory or deliberate omission of facts. If no other reason exists to assume that information has been withheld, the third explanation must be rejected as an argument from negative evidence. Many researchers would discount the fourth explanation without further evaluation under the assumption that spiritual intervention cannot occur or if it does occur, cannot be substantiated or distinguished from other causes and is hence beyond consideration by science. However, to do so would require acceptance of either one of these claims, which themselves are really untested (and perhaps untestable) assumptions. For now, the most prudent approach appears to search for other explanations first and in cases where these seem improbable or impossible, leave the question of causation open, to admit (but not claim or attempt to prove) the possibility of spiritual intervention [21].

Beliefs about Powwowing and the Pennsylvania Dutch Cultural Model of Healing
Belief in the efficacy of powwowing appears to be correlated (p=0.05) with experience as a powwow patient, while those who were never powwowed for an illness have significantly less belief. Prior belief in the efficacy of powwow appeared to have no influence on judging the success of a given powwow ritual (p=0.10)22 . This suggests that belief may arise from experience, rather than producing the experience. Hufford (1996) found a similar phenomenon when analyzing other supernatural beliefs, such as the Old Hag in Newfoundland (Hufford 1982).


Older consultants showed greater belief in the efficacy of powwowing than younger ones (p=0.10), probably as a result of greater exposure to the practice. Cultural factors which might be expected to produce greater belief in the efficacy of powwow, such as low education and use of Pennsylvania Dutch dialect as a first language, showed no significant correlation with belief in powwowing.
While belief in the efficacy of powwowing appears to be generated by personal experience, rather than cultural factors, beliefs about powwowing (why it works, how it should be performed, the role of God) fit within a larger cultural model of healing present among the Pennsylvania Dutch. I constructed such a model based on a survey distributed to consultants and others identifying themselves as Pennsylvania Dutch and living within the culture area. Respondents indicated their reactions to a series of propositions using a 5-point scale (strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, strongly disagree). The propositions were based on statements from various consultants which I had collected in the course of my fieldwork. I assigned numerical values to the responses, tabulated them, and divided the range into quintiles. Propositions whose aggregate response fell into the two highest quintiles (representing “agree” and “strongly agree”) were included in the model.

Since cultural models, as defined by D’Andrade (1998) are a type of cognitive schema, they are hierarchical in structure [23]. The highest, most inclusive level, is worldview, the basic cultural assumptions of the society. Each proposition on every level must be consistent with the propositions at all higher inclusive levels. I refer to propositions shared by two levels at “linking beliefs,” so that, for example, the belief that “God is the source of all healing” is a linking belief between the cultural model of healing and the Pennsylvania Dutch worldview.

All propositions with an aggregate response of “strongly agree” were placed at the level of worldview. These were all beliefs about the nature of the cosmos, divinity, and humanity, such as “God exists,” “Jesus Christ in the Son of God,” “The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is correct.” Propositions with an aggregate response of “agree” were placed in lower level models nested within the worldview.
The diagram below depicts the principal features of the cultural model for healing among the Pennsylvania Dutch, including aspects of the cultural models for powwowing and biomedicine which are directly related to worldview. Other elements, such as the belief in “crossways” transmission of powwow listed above are not included because they have no identifiable (at this time) connection with worldview. However, they do form part of the model since they do not conflict with the worldview.


In this (revised) model, among believers in powwow, the triune Christian God is ultimately responsible for all healing, whether by the intervention of powwowers or physicians, or the spontaneous remission of symptoms. Human practitioners and antibodies, then, are all under God’s control. There is a devil who can act in the world, just as God can, but neither he nor his evil spirits cause most disease. Thus, the Pennsylvania Dutch have what Foster (1996, 1978) refers to as a “naturalistic” system of disease causation, although there are personalistic elements in the form of hexing. However, God acts more directly, in some cases using people of faith as channels of divine healing power. Such individuals, including powwowers, cannot be paid because they are not using their own power (or skill) to perform the healing. A physician may, however, be paid because he chooses how he uses his skill (this implies a belief in human free will), even though the skill itself is God-given. God also answers prayers, by which anyone can obtain healing.

Because the dominant disease etiology is naturalistic, physicians are able to cope with most diseases. However, powwowing (the exercise of direct divine power through humans) is needed24 to deal with hexes (the exercise of direct demonic power) [25]. The faith of the patient is not required for biomedicine to function effectively, but it is for powwow. In both cases, something harmful is removed from the body when healing takes place, whether that be a disease or a hex. The powwower is generally a respected member of the community, but his status is somewhat ambivalent. This may be due to the power the powwower wields and his or her status as a person chosen by God.

Summary and Conclusions

Powwowing, despite repeated claims of its imminent or actual disappearance during the past century, remains a viable health care option among the Pennsylvania Dutch at the dawn of the twenty-first century. While certain elements (the use of charm books, the use of powwowing for other purposes than healing) have disappeared during the twentieth century, the core of the practice remains the same—the powwower mobilizes and channels supernatural power to heal physical and spiritual illness. The prevalence of powwowing appears to be unaffected by the program of “scientific education” adopted after the York Witch Trial and the attendant stigmatizing of powwowing in the wider region.

To recapitulate, the following key findings were supported by my research:
1. Three genres of powwow performance may be distinguished, from simplest to most complex. The simplest rituals appear to be performed mainly by non-professional practitioners who treat only family, friends, and neighbors, while the most complex ones are performed mainly by “professional” powwowers who typically expect some payment, even if that payment is in the form of a donation.


2. Powwowing is efficacious in effecting cures in approximately 90 percent of cases. Of these, however, 35 percent involved either minor ailments, such as warts, known to resolve themselves over time (16 percent) or culturally-defined ailments which are not recognized outside Pennsylvania Dutch culture (19 percent). This suggests that a combination of culturally-conditioned belief and spontaneous remission plays a major role in at least one-third of all cases of successful powwow healing.

3. The formation of belief in powwowing appears to be related to the individual’s age and experience as a powwow patient (although not a witness to a powwow healing). It does not appear to be related to education or degree of immersion in the culture, as indicated by the acquisition of the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect of German as a first language. Immersion in the culture does, however, relate to whether an individual is likely to have an opinion about powwowing, positive or negative, suggesting that powwowing is recognized by the Pennsylvania Dutch as an important element of their culture.

4. The cultural model of powwowing, abstracted from scaled responses to the survey questionnaire, is embedded in a larger Pennsylvania Dutch model of healing, which in turn is part of a higher-order model which includes deeply-held (“primary”) beliefs about the nature of the world. This higher-order model may be considered to represent at least part of the Pennsylvania Dutch worldview. These hierarchical models consist of beliefs and are subject to adaptation and change through the addition of new beliefs, based in part on experience. I propose that such change in models creates culture change, which may be defined as a shift in worldview, the most general cultural model within which all others are nested.

5. The cultural model of powwowing is consistent with other Pennsylvania Dutch cultural models, including the Pennsylvania Dutch model of biomedicine. Both of these fall under and are consistent with the higher-order cultural model of healing. Neither, however, is consistent with the academic model of biomedicine, which does not posit supernatural causes for either illness or healing.

Contemporary powwow appear to have more in common with healing prayer than with any form of magic, white or black. Powwow no longer requires the use of charm books and rarely use material components. Powwowers speak less of their own power now than they did in previous times and usually are quick to credit God for their results. Yet, there remains much opposition to it in central and southeastern Pennsylvania, particularly from the various Mennonite groups. Some cite their belief that the Devil works the cures, others claim that it conflicts with medical science, and still others hold that spiritual healing is the exclusive province of the church.

Most of the people with whom I have spoken who oppose powwowing do not oppose spiritual healing per se, suggesting that powwowing’s detractors still view it as a magical practice, rather than a religious one, and that they draw a line between the two ways of mobilizing supernatural power. Perhaps this perception is behind the shift away from traditional white magic and toward a more generic type of spiritual healing—the powwower, knowing that he or she may be viewed as a witch by others, strives to eliminate those elements of traditional powwowing (such as material components and the use of spells) which might be seen by others as inconsistent with proper religious practice. It is interesting that the one well-known living practitioner who embraces these traditional magical elements of powwow practice is a self-proclaimed “witch” whose religion is Paganism, not Christianity (RavenWolf 1997). While other living powwowers stress the Christian nature of the practice, she traces it to pre-Christian magical traditions and claims that anyone, of any religious tradition, can learn how to powwow.


Based on my interviews with the families of powwowers, I believe that powwowing will likely persist in some form in central and southeastern Pennsylvania for at least two more generations. Its future is uncertain after that, but I would not want to forecast its disappearance at any particular point. Thus far, to paraphrase Twain, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.


1. Much of the information in this section derives from Don Yoder’s “Hohman and Romanus: Origins and Diffusion of the Pennsylvania German Powwow Manual” in American Folk Medicine, Wayland Hand, ed. Los Angeles: U of California P. 1976. Only the merest outline of Yoder’s research is presented here.
2. Yoder’s article indicates the date of the Harrisburg publication as 1856, but the copy which resides at the William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins bears the date 1850.
3. However, when I ordered that edition I received the 1971 edition instead, twice.
4. For the European background of the book, Yoder (1976) refers the reader to “Albertus Magnus,” Handworterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, I, cols. 241-243; also “Kunst,” V, cols. 817-836.
5. In English, Albertus Magnus Verified and Approved Sympathetic and Natural Egyptian Secrets for Man and Beast.
6. Both the Sixth and Seventh “books” actually appear in a single volume, referred to as The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.
7. For the European background of the book, Yoder (1976) refers the reader to “Das sechste und siebente Buch Mosis,” Handworterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, VI, cols. 584-593.
8. Because I have reading knowledge of ancient Egyptian (including demotic) and some Hebrew, I am attempting a partial translation of certain of the plates. If I am successful, it will demonstrate that this text is a work whose origins are likely no later than A.D. 300, the time of the latest attested demotic text.
9. Some (such as the “The Belles of Berksiana”) claim her family landed with her, but her father died during the Revolution. Others, such as Ludwig Wollenweber’s romaticized account (Yoder 1990, 213), claim her family perished during the crossing to America and she arrived alone.
10. Others, such as Miller (1912, cited in Yoder 1990, 217) omit any supernatural reference when discussing her cures.
11. Yoder (Ibid.) describes these in more detail.
12. Ronnie, a Pennsylvania Dutch woman, dresses in early American garb to play her role, wearing spectacles and holding a corncob pipe in her mouth. In this costume, she strongly resembles the figure in a drawing entitled “The Powwow-Doctor” from Don Yoder’s collection, used as the lead illustration in an article in Pennsylvania Folklife (Dieffenbach 1975, 29). Ronnie performs simulated powwowing cures by using hand movements (see II.A.3.a.i.) and prepares herbal remedies. She originally prepared for her role by reading articles on powwowing.
13. The information in this section, including the quotations are from the article “Peter Bausher—Powwower,” which first appeared in an 1895 issue of the New York Sun and was reprinted in The Pennsylvania Dutchman, vol. 1V, no. 13 (March 1, 1953).
14. This latter mode of transmission also was used to pass the practice from Anita Rahn’s father-in-law to her husband.
15. “Wildfire” is a synonym for erysipelas.
16. I suspect that Bausher may have connected these two clauses as one and they were written down as two, so that he may have said “there are some things doctors can’t touch, (which) powwowing can heal and cure every time.”
17. Rhoads’s surname is Welsh, not Pennsylvania Dutch. However, because he learned powwowing from the mother and given the intermarriage known to have occurred between different Protestant Euro-American groups at this time, it is likely that his mother’s family was Pennsylvania Dutch.
18. Cross-gender transmission is the norm, but it is rare to find it limited to a single family. The idea that only one son can learn from his mother is unique to Rhoads’s account.
19. For more on this trial, which involved the murder of a powwower by another and two other supposed “victims” of the murdered powwower, see The Powwow Book (Aurand 1929) and Hex (Lewis 1969). Complete transcripts of the trial are housed in the York County Courthouse, York, PA. A feature length movie based on this trial, “Apprentice to Murder,” starring Donald Sutherland and Mia Sara, was released in 1989.
20. Although she did correctly forecast a migraine that came on within minutes of leaving her house.
21. For more on assessing evidence for the existence of spirits and the role of experience in forming spiritual beliefs, see Hufford, “Beings without Bodies” in Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural, Barbara Walker, ed. Utah State UP: 1995.
22. Because this was an exploratory study, the main purpose of the statistical tests was to qualify hypotheses for testing in a later confirmatory study using probability samples. In light of this the 0.10 level of significance was used to reject the null hypothesis instead of the customary 0.05 level in order to err on the side of including invalid hypotheses rather than excluding valid ones.
23. For a much more complete discussion of culture models and cognitive schemas, see D’Andrade (1996) and Strauss and Quinn (1997).
24. As indicated above, there is less perceived need now (2002) for powwowers to remove hexes than in years past.
25. The theory of hexing needs further development, but believe that hexing requires its own study to adequately understand it. For now, I speculate that one key difference is that powwowing, or powwowing, is undertaken in the hope that God will respond by sending healing power to the patient through the powwower, whereas hexing is undertaken in the expectation that the hex (spell) will be effective in bringing direct demonic power (from the devil or other demonic beings) to bear against another human, animal, or object. In powwowing, God uses divine power (with the powwower as channel), but in hexerei (hexing), the hex/witch uses demonic power (the source of which is the devil or other evil spiritual beings).



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