Take a road trip through Berks, Dauphin, York, and Lancaster Counties in PA and you are sure to see some Hex signs decorating the local barns. But what are they? Where do they come from?
It's a pretty good bet that hex signs originated sometime in the mid-to-late 1800's in rural Pennsylvania. We know this is likely because the availability of colored paints was limited prior to this point in time. The earliest examples were probably simple rosettes, as they would have been the easiest to paint; most especially while balancing precariously on a ladder with paint bucket and brush in hand! As time went on, the designs became more and more elaborate and colorful. But the important thing to note here is that they were just decoration.
Here is an interesting site that presents one theory as to the origin of some of the more common hex sign symbols, like the rosette.
We can thank the tourist trade of the mid-1900's for falling in love with the quaint barn paintings of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Speculation about their 'meanings' grew and eventually the locals jumped on the bandwagon and started creating hex signs for things like 'luck' or 'faith'; and the sale of hex signs to the tourists is still a booming business today.
"A large portion of all the geometric designs found on Pennsylvania Dutch barns can be traced to some form of star, or as they would say in the dialect, Schtanna. Starting with the simple unadorned five-pointed star without a circular border, and ranging to sixteen-pointed stars, double and triple star patterns, the careful observer will not numberous decorations in which the star is a basic part of the design thought it is not obvious at a casual glance." -Hex Signs and Other Barn Decorations, 1965, Elmer Smith (Lancaster, PA).
Above image captured from Hex Signs and Other Barn Decorations (1965) drawn by Mel Horst. The caption reads: "The pentogram design has the Greek inscriptions meaning "good for the health" or "wholesome". This design, with five points, is often confused with the six-pointed hexogram which has been worn by peoples in various areas of the world as a protection against attacks from foes and against injury. According to E. Wallis Budge, this same design has been found on early Sumarian pottery."
From Hex Signs by Ivan Hoyt, Stackpole Books, 2008..
"In recent years, meanings have been assigned to many of the hex sign motifs. When attempting to interpret a sign's symbolism, look at the combinations of motifs; one motif alone does not define a hex sign's meaning. The symbolisms here are offered only for your consideration. You may feel, as some also do, that hex signs are "Chust fer nice" or "Chust fer so"---simply meant to be a decorative part of Pennsylvania Dutch folklore and culture.
One of the most well-known Pennsylvania Dutch motifs is the distlefink, a stylized bird that can have many different interpretations. Although it can take on features of other bird species, the distelfink design is said to have evolved from the goldfinch. The Pennsylvania Dutch farmer saw the godfinch bird on the thistle weeds in his field, pulling the down or fuzz from the thistle to line its nest and eating the seed. Notably, goldfinches usually wait to nest until the thistles are in bloom . The Pennsylvania Dutch farmer called the bird a "thistle finch" or distlefink. The bird became a recognized symbol of good fortune by eliminating the thistle as a weed in the fields, thus bringing the farmer better luck with his crops and more profit to his pocket. The distelfink is not always rendered in the balck, yellow, and white of a goldfinch, and this is also explained in a popular PA Dutch anecdote. When asked why distelfinks are so varied and colorful, a Pennsylvania Dutchman will tell you that God made the distelfink with the leftover colors oafter he made all the other bird species.
The symbolism attributed to animal motifs is generally linked to the nature of the animal depicted. For example, cows on a sign symbolize contentment, sheep peace and serenity, horses strength and stamina, and roosters fertility.
Plants also have been assigned symbolism that is often based on their natural attributes. Oak leaves represent the strength of this mighty hardwood species, and acords, the seeds of the oak, symbolize a rebirth or new beginning. Maple leaves represent peace and serenity. The pomegranate motif in the PA Dutch culture is said to represent abundance and fertility because of the many seeds it contains. The symbolism of trilogy tulips is based on their three petals. They are said to symbolize faith in yourself, faith in your fellow man, and faith in what you do. Sometimes they are given a more religious interpretation, meaning God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Others over time have said they represent faith, hope, and charity. Other floral motifs have been given religious interpreatations as well. The doube rosette appearing within a design represents the blossoming tulip as the Lord looks down on it from the heavens above. Its twelve petals symbolize that you will in the grace of God for the twelve months of the year.
Nature figures predominantly in hex signs. The Sunshine and Raindrops pattern may be interpreted as a fertility symbol. Its red and yellow eight-pointed star represents the warmth and energy provided by the sun, and the blue water drops symbolize the life-sustaining moisture of the rain. The sun and the rain brought together as symbols represent abundance and fertility.
Hearts are a universal symbol of love, romance, and marriage.
The borders are also said to have meanings. A scalloped border, with its wavy up and down quality, is said to indicate smooth sailing on the sea of life. The smooth ring border and the eternal chain both represent long life; they are never broken, so your life should never end.
The most authoritative and accurate information can be found in Hex Signs: Pennsylvnaia Dutch Barn Symbols and Their Meaning, by Don Yoder and Thomas E. Graves. The authors point out that whatever meanings have been attributed to hex signs, they have also become powerful symbols of PA Dutch ethnic identity, recognized by the tourist as well as the Dutch. As such, they are widely used to advertise Dutch food and other products."
Here is an article you may like from Amish News, a Lancaster County newspaper. Remember, the PA Dutch know their history better than the non-PA Dutch. If we say the hex sign meanings were created for tourists, we are telling the truth. Does this mean you shouldn't use them in your powwowing? Nope! A lot of us like to incorporate hex signs into our Powwow. It's a matter of personal preference, but with the understanding that it is a relatively new addition to Powwow. READ IT HERE
Here are a few examples of the types of hex signs you will see to this day decorating barns and homes in PA Dutch country, and their modern talismanic meanings are provided as well. This information is purely for fun, and no guarantee of the effects of using these signs for anything other than decoration is intended.
The Triple Star is for good luck, happiness, and success in all endeavors.
The Rain Hex is for, you guessed it, the blessing of rain on the crops.
The Sun, Rain, and Lucky Star Hex is for general blessings of wealth and prosperity.
The Double Trinity Hex. Brings hope, faith and love to the family.
Success Hex. For wealth, success, and happiness.
Eight Pointed Star Hex for abundance and goodwill.
Distelfink. Good luck and love for your fellow man.
HERE IS A NICE WEBSITE that gives more explanations of the meanings and symbols.
An all-purpose healing charm
Heile, heile, Segen.
Drei Tage Regen.
Drei Tage Dreck.
Und jetzt ist alles weg
+ + +
Holy, holy blessing
Three days of rain
Three days of muck
And all is gone.
+ + +
To insure safety from an angry dog
Dog, hold thy nose to the ground;
God has made me and thee, hound.
To cure a person of worms
You are a little worm, not entirely grown.
You plague me in marrow and bone.
You may be white, black, or red,
In a quarter of an hour you will be dead.
A Charm for Personal Safety
Cross of Christ and Crown of Christ and Jesus Christ; red blood, be to me at all times and all hours good. god the Father is before me. God the Son is at my side. God the Holy Ghost is behind me. Who now is stronger than these three persons may come to seize me.
+ + + then follow up with three Paternosters.
To Compel a dog, horse, or other animal to follow you
Casper guide thee, Balthasar bind thee, Melchior keep thee
Three times, utter these words into the animal's right ear.
For Wounds and Stopping of Blood
Blessed is the day on which Jesus Christ was born; blessed is the day on which Jesus Christ died; blessed is the day on which Jesus Christ arose from the dead. These are the three holy hours; by these N.N., I stop thy blood. Thy sores shall neither swell nor fester; no more shall that happen, than that the Virgin Mary will bear another son.
+ + +
Protection from Sorcery
Take elm wood on Good Friday, cut the same while calling the holiest names. Cut chips of this wood from one to two inches in length. Carve on them, in the three holiest names, three crosses. Wherever such a slip is placed, all sorcery will be banished.
To Stop Blood
There stood three roses upon our Saviour's grave. The first is mild, the other is good, the third shall stop the blood.
+ + +
A Protective Talisman
To be hung in the home, hidden in a secret place, or carried with you.
A charm to make a thief return stolen goods
Write upon two pieces of paper the following words, and attach one to the top of the door, and the other under the threshold, and the thief will return on the third day and bring back the stolen articles:
Abraham bound it †
Isaac redeemed and found it †
Jacob carried it home †
it is bound as tightly as steel and iron, chains and fetters. † † †
To Remove Skin Infections
Many of the old charms refer to a skin infection known as "wildfire". This referred to a very specific skin condition called erysipelas. I use the term to refer to any skin condition. Feel free to change it to something else that might work better for you if you choose not to use the term "wildfire".
With a red string, pull it tight between your two hands. First touch the top of the individual's head then sweep the string down the front of the body and away from the person three times while you repeat the following three times:
fly, fly, fly
The red string chase you
away, away, away
Then speak the baptismal name of the individual then seal with the words:
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
To Stop Blood
On a slip of white paper, write the following:
Place this paper over the wound to stop the blood.
Charm to cure burns
For mild burns on the skin (don't try to treat serious burns, get medical attention immediately):
At the end of each spoken line, gently blow on the burned area (GENTLY!!!)
Fire of God (gentle breath)
Lose thy heat (gentle breath)
As Judas lost his color (gentle breath)
When he betrayed our Lord (gentle breath)
In the garden of olives (gentle breath)
Amen, Amen, Amen (gentle breath)
Repeat for a total of three times, seal the working.
To Guard your home against thieves and witches
Take a glass of water and repeat over it 77 times:
Adonai, Elohim, the LORD my God
Pour the water around the perimeter of your home. This is believed to prevent witches and thieves from infiltrating your property. Made more powerful if done on a Holy Day or after taking sacrament at church.
Interesting charm and it's language variations
This was shared by a member of my church as she learned it as a child growing up in PA Dutch country:
"Heile, heile, Hinkeldreck! Marifree ischt olles weg."
or, another variation,
"Heile, heile, Hinkeldreck! Marifree ischt olles recht."
"Heiliger, heiliger, Huhnerdreck! Morgen fruh ist alles weg (recht)."
and, in English,
"Holy, holy chicken dirt. Early morning it is gone/away/right."
and, made to rhyme, we get the familiar charm as demonstrated below,
"Holy, holy chicken dirt. Tomorrow morning it won't hurt!"
It is said that to spit on the area of pain helps seal the magic.
To Keep Witches Away from your Property
In the Amish community, there is an old belief that if a bundle of St. John's Wort was hung over the door of the house or barn, no witch could enter and no witchcraft could effect the people or animals within. In these days of the prevalence of hexerei, why take chances?
Sealing a Powwow working
When a charm calls for sealing the working with the sign of the cross, this is done with the right hand, made into a fist, and the thumb straight out (like a 'thumbs up' position). The cross is 'drawn' over the affected area with the ball of the hand just below the thumb; typically three times; spoken in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
For Easing Pains
Hold hand over painful area and recite three times:
Holy, Holy chicken dirt
Tomorrow morning, it won't hurt
Blow on area three times, then seal with the sign of the cross.
To Banish Fevers
Suspend, upon a Friday, a letter containing the names set forth below, between the hours of eight and nine, upon the patient's neck, in the following manner:
Fold together, and tie it in grayish red cloth, which must be unbleached, and pierce through the cloth and the letter, three holes. Draw red thread through them, while calling the three holiest names. Suspend the same around the neck of the patient, and let it remain eleven days. After taking it off, burn it before the lapse of one hour:
H B R H C H T H B R H
H B R H C H T H B R
H B R H C H T H B
H B R H C H T H
H B R H C H T
H B R H C H
H B R H C
H B R H
H B R
Against Evil Spirits and all manner of Witchcraft.
N. I. R.
N. I. R.
All this be guarded, here in time, and there in eternity. Amen.
You must write all the above on a piece of white paper, and carry it about you. The characters or letters above, signify: "God bless me here in time, and there eternally."
To Protect your home from all manner of evils
In chalk or white stone, just outside your doorstep, mark on the ground three crosses spaced equal distance apart while saying:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David as he said through his holy prophets long ago, salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
To Soothe Aches and Pains
Place hands gently on the afflicted area.
Repeat the following for a total of three times:
I will exalt you, O Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
O Lord my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me.
O Lord, you brought me up from the grave;
you spared me from going down into the pit.
(Excerpt from Psalm 30, spoken with devotion.)
To Stop a Wound from Bleeding
Say three times over the wound:
Mary goes throughout the land
She has two pitchers in her hand;
In one is blood, in one is water;
Blood stay; water go.
Make three signs of the cross over the wound.
To Determine if you have been Bewitched
Rub a raw egg from the top of your head down the length of your body to your feet three times. Break the egg into a dish or fireplace. If there is blood in the egg, it is a sign that negative witchery has been cast on you.
To Remove Negative Witchery and Return it to the Witch
Boil a piece of beef and while it is cooking, keep sticking it with a needle. The one who bewitched you will have the same pains and the spell upon you will be broken.
To Prevent Weak or Malicious Persons from doing you an injury
On a piece of paper write the following:
Dullix, ix, ux. Yea, you can't come over Pontio;
Pontio is above Pilato. + + +
Hang this above the main entrance to your house and it will certainly protect you from malicious persons!
To Protect The Home
Go to each window and door individually. In the air make the sign of the cross or protective star while saying:
Three angels with three swords stand before the house of God.
The first is courage,
the second is strength,
the third strikes down all enemies.
In the name of the Holy Trinity!
Hold a red knife in the air, blade facing oncoming storm, and say three times:
"Three angels ride the winds
to lands both far and near
Go west, go east, go south, go north
but do not linger here!"
Stick the knife into the ground.
To Stop Blood
Place a red knife gently over the affected area.
Three ladies came from Jordan's land
Each with a bloody knife in her hand
Stand blood, stand, in the name of God stand
Bloody wound, in God's name mend!
+ + +
For Justice in Court
Carry a bit of Pot Marigold (Calendula) on the day of your court appearance and, prior to leaving your home, recite Psalm 20 three times.
The SATOR charm can be copied onto a slip of paper then taped to the inside of your front door to protect your home from thieves and intruders.
The Pennsylvania Dutch know the value of being aware of the Moon's phases. Keep track here for all of your planting/harvesting needs!
The Lancaster County Hex. It doesn't have any mystical meaning, it's purely a decorative advertisement piece. :)
Another variation of the Double Distlefink, meaning double good luck.
Known as the "Daddy of all Hexes", this combination of color and symbology provides good luck all year round. The twelve petals around the circle symbolize the twelve months of the year.
The Distlefink is my favorite hex sign image. The double Distlefink is a sign of Double Good Luck.
To view or purchase hex signs, go to ZOOKS DUTCH NOVELTIES!