The German Braucherei of Pennsylvania
As a boy still in short pants, I had the privilege of experiencing some of the “finer things” in life with my Oma and Opa (grandparents). Like outhouses. Running through twelve inches of snow and putting your cheeks on that cold board was a real “eye opener.” Another thing was those porcelain beauties known as “chamber pots” in the upstairs bedrooms. The “pots” saved you the inconvenience of running to the outhouse in the dead of night. You emptied them the next day. You see, my grandparents did not have inside plumbing until I was fifteen save for the cold water spigot in the kitchen. Hot water was provided when heated on the stove. When I was older, one of my chores was to bring coal upstairs from the coal cellar for the stoves. This job did not take long but I was constantly covered with coal dust. Hours later my nasal mucous was still black. Another thing that was discussed but never in detail were the Brauchers.
William Penn, a Quaker, founded his Penn’s
(Penn’s Woods) in 1681 based on the ideal of complete religious freedom. At that time in Sylvania Europe, not adhering to the official creed (varied where you lived) was cause for you to be branded a heretic and even a traitor. So the Germanic peoples, the Brauchers among them, came to Penn’s colony to escape religious persecution (Brauchers, i.e. cunning men and women).
The official German term, “Braucherei,” is a form of faith healing that involves prayer, incantations, herbal remedies, lying on of hands, amulets, and talismans. Although based in Christianity, these healers strive to channel spirit energy into their patients so the person becomes more in “balance” with the Divine and the resultant creative, sustaining life force.
At this time in this essay I must point out sometimes the term Brauchers and Hexenmeister can be interchangeable among many of the people and the practitioners thereof. Hexenmeisters appear to do more of what we term magic than Brauchers. The confusion comes when Hexenmeisters are sometimes labeled as practitioners of the black arts. This is a perfect example of the knowledge being neutral and intent being negative. (Well, some of the Brauchers and Hexenmeisters did do some strange stuff. I’ll get into one particular instance later in this essay.) A practitioner of these arts does not charge for healing, but will accept a form of “free will offering.” There may be charges involved for amulets and/or talismans. (Let me add that sometimes these folks are referred to as “Pow-Wow doctors.” This term is derived from the Native American Algonquin Lenne Lenapes with whom the early Brauchers had some social intercourse with.)
The Germanic Goddess Holle or Frau Holle, guardian of the underworld, plays a part in Braucherei. She is represented in the Hollerbier, the Pennsylvania German name for the Elder. The Celtic, Germanic, and Norse cultures considered the Elder sacred. It is said her spirit resides in the Elder. Tradition has it if you stand beneath an Elder on Mid-Summers’ Eve, you just might see the Faery King with his minions. The Church could not get the various peoples to give up their beloved Frau Holle so they made her into a Witch Queen. In the practice of Braucherei Frau Holle is used in her physical attributes (the berries, bark) for sore throats, and upper and lower respiratory ailments.
The driving thrust of Braucherei is balance; keeping the physical, mental, and emotional bodies in attunement with the creative and life sustaining energies for positive health (gee, sounds almost like Reiki-well, kind of ). Often in the practice are mentioned “The Three Sisters.” They can be seen as the Wiccan Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The Brauchers and Hexenmeisters that are practicing their craft today are not Wiccans/Witches and might be highly offended if called such. However, a Wiccan/Witch could become a Braucher/Hexenmeister in similar fashion as I and others became a Reiki Master (naturally, the same would apply for Brauchers and Hexenmeisters if so desired). As in
Europe, these “cunning folk” competed with each other to the point the local police were afraid of them. Thus, superstition fanned fear in the countryside. When a series of things went wrong, you just had to be “hexed.” Let me discuss the terms “hex,”hexe,”and “hexen.”
When traveling through beautiful south-eastern
Pennsylvania, particularly Lancaster, , Bucks, and Berks Counties, you will see many “Hex Signs” adorning barns and houses; you can also find them for sale. The “Hex Sign” was and still is used as a talisman for love, good luck, good health, prosperity, and protection from evil. Many have a six pointed star as the basic motif. There may be a link between this Germanic art and the Star of David. The Seal of Solomon has the star and some claim the sixth and seventh Books of Moses were Magical books written by German Magic practitioners. Some people claim the word “hex” is derived from the German word “sechs” (the English number six). I think not. Hex, Hexe, and Hexen are all Germanic words that imply spells, incantations, and Witches. Tradition tells us Brauchers/Hexenmeisters would advise people on what kind of Hex Sign to buy and where to place it on their property. On many of the signs appears a strange looking bird called a “Distelfink.” It is considered a good luck charm in the same vein as a four leaf clover or a unicorn is for other folks. Centuries ago Hex signs were hand painted one of a kind original where color played a major role. White represented purity while blue and black were for protection. Red was for passion while orange was meant to bring success in business. Green was thought to bring about fertility and growth while violet stood for all things sacred Yellow was for mind, body, and emotional wellness. Any Pagan who has studied color magic can readily see these colors being correct. With the advent of the silk screening process, Hex Signs are available to the world. Another interesting thing you will see is the Pentagram – everywhere. OK, how do these folks practice their craft? In the following paragraphs are some examples: York
Broken bones, colds, sore throats, various infections, snake bites, and fertility problems were and are just a few things the Braucher and/or Hexenmeister are asked to help with. Make no mistake, the practitioners will tell you they are not healers; God is. They are just conduits for the energy (Holy Spirit) to flow. The patient must also want the help. The healing enchantments below are from Braucherei practice and supposedly similar to ones used by the cunning folk of Germanic Europe:
For sprains/broken bones----
“Then charmed Wodan/Christ
As well He knew how,
For bone sprain
For blood sprain,
Bone to Bone
Blood to Blood,
Limb to Limb,
As though they were glued.
This enchantment is repeated three times accompanied with lying on of hands. Herbs can then be administered for pain and to speed healing.
To Stop Bleeding---
Apply a clean cloth to the wound with pressure and say three times,
“I walked through a green forest,
There I found three wells, cool and cold.
The first is called Kind,
The second is called Good,
And the third is called Stop the Blood!”
It appears the practitioners are skilled in advanced visualization techniques. To visualize the cure complete is part of the practice. Now from John George Holman’s’ book, “Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend” we have-------
Words to be spoken while making Divinatory Wands (page 23)………
“In making Divinatory Wands, they must be broken as before directed, and while breaking and before using them, the following words must be spoken:
“Divining rod, do thou keep that power,
Which God gave unto thee at the very first hour.”
“For Dysentery and Diarrhea (page 30)……………..
“Take the moss off of trees and boil it in red wine, and those who are affected with those diseases drink it.”
“How to Fasten or Spell – Bind Anything (page 41)………
Say, “Christ’s Cross and Christ’s’ Crown, Christ Jesus’
Colored Blood, be thou every hour good. God the Father
Is before me; God the Son is beside me; God the Holy Ghost is
Behind me. Whoever now is stronger than these three persons may come
By day or night to attack me.” This is said three times. Then recite the
Lord’s Prayer three times.”
These are just three of the many potions/spells contained in Holman’s book. Even with the Judeo- Christian texting, in my opinion, Braucherei is the practice of Old World Magic. It would seem to fit, when the origins of Solomon’s seal are taken into consideration.
Another book worthy of mention is “Hex and Spell work – The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch”, by Karl Herr, a self-proclaimed Hexenmeister. (The term “Dutch” has nothing to do with people from the
. It originated as a misspelling of the German word “Deutsche”). Herr lists and describes many verbal enchantments and folk remedies. He also explains the differences between Hexcraft and Witchcraft, (as viewed through his filter) how Braucherei is passed on and something called “Himmelbriefs.” Netherlands
Directly translated, “Himmelbrief” means “heaven letter.” They were written as magical charms for love, safe passage, protection, and a variety of other needs (they can be looked upon as a spell or talisman).According to Herr, during the Thirty Years’ War (Europe: 1618-1648) both Protestant and Catholic combatants carried Himmelbriefs to bring them safely home. In a good portion of his book, Herr discusses in detail the possible origins of the written word and how writing was used to control the masses for political and religious hierarchies. The thing that he mentions that really grabbed me appears on pages 21 and 22 of his book… “However, the most valuable book of all is the one that the Hexenmeister makes up from his own experiences. This is a book that contains the charms and spells he learned from those who instructed him in his art. It also contains those additional charms and spells he has learned from other Hexenmeisters, usually over a long period of time. It is upon this book of experience that the Hexenmeister must place his greatest reliance when he works with his clients.” (Karl Herr- “Hex and Spellwork ………..”). If this “book” the author refers to is not a Book of Shadows, I do not know what is! To think these practices have been going on since the 1660s’ in what is literally my “backyard” just blows me away. And not to mention this wonderful heritage that comes to me from my mothers’ side of the family. This is really great! However, in 1929 the world unraveled for the Brauchers/Hexenmeisters (Now I get to the strange stuff I mentioned before).
an historic murder and trial took place involving Witchcraft and spell casting. John Blymire, a Braucher, confessed to and was sentenced for the murder of Nelson Rehmeyer, another Braucher (as an aside, Rehmeyer was a relative of Blymire and he cured him of a problem when Blymire was a young boy). As an adult, Blymire suffered from poor health and a string of really bad luck; he was convinced he was hexed. After some investigation involving other Brauchers, he found (or at least he thought he found) his tormenter in the person of Nelson Rehmeyer. In theory, all Blymire had to do was get the Book and a locket of Reymeyer’s hair, burn them, then bury the ashes six to eight feet underground ( the “Book” was Rehmeyer’s copy of Hohman’s “Pow-Wows…….” ). Blymire visited his nemesis twice; the first time trying to use Magic to obtain the Book and hair but failed. The second time Blymire was accompanied by two associates. The trio attacked and killed Rehmeyer. To cover their trail, the three tried to burn down the house but failed. As of this writing, I can find no evidence they found the Book. Not long after the murder, Blymire and his associates were arrested. During his confession, Blymire admitted to being at peace now that he killed the “Witch.” In 1934 his associates were paroled and moved back to the York area. Blymire was paroled in 1953 and worked as a janitor in York County . Truth is stranger than fiction. The resultant effects of this cruel deed were just as bad with lasting repercussions. York
The news services of the time picked up the story and created a feeding frenzy. The public was informed a practicing Witch was murdered. Reporter from all over the world jammed into south eastern
to get the latest line. Even the renowned attorney, Clarence Darrow was interested. The stories printed by the media were lurid. They talked constantly of the murder, Witchcraft, and Voodoo two hundred years after the Salem Witch trials. All of this negative attention pushed the practice of the Brauchers and Hexenmeisters underground; or so it appeared. Pennsylvania
Jesse Tobin, an Herbalist with a shop in nearby Kutztown PA., wants to bring the practices back into the open. Tobin feels the practices got a “bad rap” with the murder and the subsequent world pouring into the area. This global attention made the Pennsylvania Germans look obtuse, backward, and superstitious. The Brauchers stopped practicing for fear of persecution. Tobin has studied with a few Brauchers. However, fear is still primal in this part of the world. The folks do not speak freely for fear of being declared heretics. Even now in the twenty first century the label of heresy still raises its’ ugly head. When spoken about it is usually done quietly, sometimes in the Pennsylvania German dialect. At one time according to Tobin, there were as many Brauchers as one room school houses (we have many of these still in operation – mainly by the Amish).
As Jesse Tobin is reviving the Braucherei tradition, she uncovered some interesting things. Braucherei not only involved herbs, enchantments, amulets, talismans, and laying on of hands but also “sweat lodge” practices for a type of vision quest, agricultural techniques, and many ideas on medicine and magic. This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, mostly in an oral tradition. Only within the last two hundred years (Hohman’s book; circa 1820) do we have any written public knowledge of the practice.
Braucherei has undergone vicious assaults since the Empire days of
. Isaac Bonewits has made note the Rome Roman Empire did not fall; it just “changed management.” Any knowledge that challenges what is doled out by the governing authority always will be
considered a threat. So it is and was dealt with in various manners – many bloody. The Church is no different from the Empire. I mentioned how Frau Holle was dear to our Ancestors. By demonizing her as a Queen of Witches, the Church did to Frau Holle what they did to Diana. However, history has vindicated both. When I recently spoke to Tobin she said many of the older Pennsylvania German Brauchers feel it is time for the practice to come out of the shadows; the tradition must survive. I could not agree more.
Another young Braucherei practitioner, Matthew Sicher, has put out a call for male Brauchers. Braucherei is passed from one gender to the other; that means females teach males and the males teach the females. The purpose of this is to balance the energy between the sexes. As in all things pertaining to Braucherei practice, balance is key. As of this writing, there are more female to male practitioners by a margin of three to one. Sicher has found men unwilling to take up the cause for fear of being vulnerable emotionally. Like the Marines, Sicher is looking for a few good men.
Growing up within your ancestral culture you tend to take things for granted. So many rich tapestries of life in front of you yet go unknown. The “Big Picture” provided by technology and modern life can blind one to what was and can be today. My ancestral heritage, deeply rooted by the Pennsylvania Germans and the Germanic peoples of
Europe is one of balance, renewal, and sustainability. In today’s’ world of waste and fraud, the poor state of the environment, and how poorly people are treated, we can learn many lessons from the Old Ways. It may be as simple as standing beneath an Elder on Mid-Summer’s Eve, to see clearly, what was there all along.