The Pennsylvania Dutch are a melting pot of many European cultures that settled in America. In 1683 "the Pennsylvania Dutch" people were founded by Germans, Dutch, Swedish, English, Scottish and Irish descendants. Much folk medicine, later known as white magic was practiced among this group. Folk medicine rituals were to ward off spirits and to cure the sick among them. As an example, if one of the members had pain in their head, buckwheat would be placed on their head to remove the pain. Many thought these rituals and superstitions were ridiculous, many of this folk medicine has grown to others throughout the centuries to many cultures in America.
Some examples of the superstitions that were started by the Pennsylvania Dutch are summarized below.
The first that comes to mind is the hanging of a horseshoe in the doorway and floor joists of your home to bring good luck and protection. They believed that since the horseshoe is iron, and human blood has iron in it, that the horseshoe symbolized a life source that humans needed to be around. The horseshoe would be used, not new if the charm was to hold any power. It must be found, and not purchased or gifted, criteria making it difficult to acquire. Some say the open end must point up, others say it must point down, but what all agree upon is that the horseshoe must be nearby for the homeowner to touch it frequently to refresh the good luck and protection.
Another common superstition is the Hex Sign or the Hexerei which is folk art that is said to ward off black magic. Ironically enough, even though this hex sign is to ward off black magic it was created from witchcraft and derived from black magic itself. Many would paint this symbol on the outside of their home as a form of protection to those who dwell inside. The Hexerei is bright geometric patterns that usually form some type of a star and can be found in all shapes and sizes. This symbol has been found on sides of homes, barns, furniture, pottery, jewelry, legal documents and more. Many of these hex signs will have the word Willkom or what we know as Welcome to invite only the good into the home. Colors also play a role when interpreting a hex sign, such as red for emotion and green for growth, very similar to witchcraft corresponding colors today.
Note that there are two different types, the Fancy Dutch and the Plain Dutch. The Amish and Mennonite communities are considered Plain Dutch and did not participate in these Hexology as early as the Fancy Dutch settlers did. In general, it is not wise to ask the Amish about Hex signs even to this day - even though they use them frequently. Fancy Dutch groups are more open to the Hex signs and are more willing to discuss and share the history of them and their purposes. Some of the Fancy Dutch communities are located in rural Pennsylvania such as Reading, Allentown, Lebanon and York.
Here are some of the Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs and beliefs:
- The Distelfink, which is a gold finch, which will inherently bring good luck and happiness to a marriage. This term was taken from the Germans and was originally called the Thistlefink as the gold finches would eat thistle, but over the centuries the word has become Distelfink. Two Distelfinks have the meaning of double good luck.
- A Bird of Paradise means welcome, symbolizes beauty, wonder, and mystery of life on earth.
- Signs with Hearts and Tulips are for luck and happiness.
- Lambs also symbolize wonder and innocence and are commonly painted with Distelfinks and Tulips for luck and hope.
- The heart represents everlasting love.
- Snakes represent temptation and can be found on hexes near Tulips or Distelfinks on marriage hexes.
- The Hereford Cow protects farm animals and the homeowners pets.
- The Horse symbolizes protection for farm animals and pets from lightening and disease.
- Lambs represent children and is commonly used as child blessings with the childs name enclosed in a heart.
- Unicorns can also be found to be completely white with a lion's tail. They symbolize virtue on Dutch Hex signs. When two Unicorns are placed together that symbolizes fpeace and harmony. They are often decorated with hearts and tulips, representing contentment and peace. The Hex sign of two Unicorns is often placed in the hope chests of young women, and the superstition is that when these animals are confronted by a maiden they become tame and would lay their head in her lap.
- Doves represent peace and friendship in a marriage and were originally referred to the Doves of Peace. When doves are turned away from each other this symbolizes trust.
- Eagles symbolize strength, protection and courage. Double headed eagles are also used in marriage signs. A older, rarer version of the double headed eagle is the Albanian Eagle which represents German heraldry.
- Roosters also symbolize courage and strength.
- Leaves represent long life, nature and strength. Oak and maple leaves most commonly on the Dutch Hex signs and are often seen with acorns. The Oak leaf represents strength in the body, character and mind and can be referred to as masculine.
- Pomegranate is a rare symbol that represents fertility.
- The Shamrock represents the luck of the Irish.
- The Tree of Life usually contains many branches holding many different symbols referring to the earths bounty.
- Tulips represent hope, charity, faith and also represent the Holy Trinity. When shown in three, it represents Faith in yourself, faith in what you do and faith in your fellow man.
- Wheat represents abundance.
- Stars will represent luck and protection. There is the 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12 pointed star and they all have different meanings mostly relating to religion.
Colors are predominately used in these Hex symbols and their meanings are as follows (again, meanings similar to witchcraft):
- Black: Protection, Blends & Binds Elements Together
- Blue: Protection, Peace, Spirituality, Calm
- Brown: Earth, Friendship, Strength
- Green: Growth, Fertility, Success, Ideas
- Orange: Abundance
- Red: Emotions, Passion, Charisma, Lust, Creativity
- Purple: Royalty, All Things Sacred, Religion
- White: Purity, Moon Power, Free Flowing Energy
- Yellow: Health, Love, Sun, Connection To God