This post was inspired by a prompt at The Pagan Experience suggesting writing for the letters “G” or “H”.
Chances are, if you’re at all familiar with anything related to the Pennsylvania Dutch, or Deitsch, culture, you’re familiar with hex signs. “Out east” (which is how I refer to Eastern Pennsylvania), these colorful designs are commonly found on barns. In my own neck of the woods (Western Pennsylvania), you can see these signs hanging on houses, garages, sheds, and even displayed indoors.
While there is some debate over the origins and meaning of hex signs, as well as the term “hex sign” itself, among Urglaawer it is believed that hex signs are magical objects. Your intention is painted into the design, and the design and colors selected have special meanings that contribute to your intent. The result is a finished piece that can be placed inside or outside the home to attain your desired results. Or, as it has been more poetically put by the late, great Lee Gandee, hex signs are “painted prayers”.
Hex signs come from the “Fancy Dutch”, that is, the portion of Deitsch culture that loves to decorate everything. Usually when you say “Pennsylvania Dutch”, the image that comes to mind for most people is that of an Amish or Mennonite person. But those two cultures belong to the “Plain Dutch” sects, so named because of the conspicuous lack of decoration in their clothing, homes, and personal belongings, as directed in their respective religions. But when we’re talking about Fraktur, painted chests, colorful ceramics, elaborate needlework, and of course, hex signs, we’re talking about the Fancy Dutch. This just so happens to be the part of Deitsch culture that I am personally descended from, and it’s also the part of Deitsch culture that preserved more ancient Pagan practices from the Old World, so it’s the branch that is most relevant for this blog.
The other artforms that I mentioned, such as the decoration of wooden chests and the Fraktur, contributed to what eventually became hex signs. But where did those designs come from? After all, they’re pretty distinctive and consistent across the Deitsch nation.
I think there are two very clear places where we can see “ancestors” of the designs used in Deitsch folk art. The nearest, chronologically, is heraldry, which was in common usage throughout Europe up through the 1600s. Heraldic badges used to be so common that laws were enacted to limit who could use them! The first major German settlement in the US was in Germantown in Philadelphia in 1683, so these settlers would have definitely been familiar with heraldic imagery. Heraldry had power, including indicating the rule of the noble to which it belonged, and extending the protection of that noble to his or her vassals, so there was clear understanding that these images had significance and weren’t just for decoration! One design from hex signs that closely resembles heraldry is that of two facing unicorns in this hex sign, which is my personal favorite, shown here on my shrine to Holle:
The second clear ancestor of hex signs is the runes. In Iceland, the runes took on the more stylized shapes of the Galdrastafir, used in all manner of magics, including protection, winning love, and helping you in legal battles. We know from “the Lore”, as the medieval Icelandic writings about ancient Pagans are known, that writing, inscribing, and coloring the runes were considered magical acts. There are numerous surviving amulets and other objects that have been infused with magic through the means of drawing or inscribing runes, bind runes, and other designs upon them. (If you’d like a great source of examples, check out “Runic Amulets and Magic Objects“.) If you look at the instructions for Icelandic Galdrastafir given in surviving grimoires, drawing or inscribing the designs and then coloring them with blood is again considered the means of activating the magic. With such a heavy history of writing, drawing, carving, and painting being viewed as the means of causing magical acts, it would be rather silly to think that the designs of Fraktur, hex signs, and other types of decoration weren’t viewed as empowered in some way! We’ve found runic designs showing up everywhere in Germanic culture, including directly built into the architecture. From “Runelore” by Edred Thorsson:
“In the southern Germanic areas there is some hard evidence for a similar tradition of runic survival. One of the most interesting examples of this is to be found in the Black Forest region of Germany in the so-called Heidenhäuser (heathen houses!). These are very old farm buildings in which the threshing floor and other parts of the house are decorated with magical ideographs, some of which are of undoubted runic origin.”
He then goes on to provide illustrations of the specific runes used. Later, he explains that hex signs are the continuation of this tradition, and could only be made by someone who was properly initiated (a Hexenmeister) using the proper magical incantations (including a survival uncovered in South Carolina invoking Thor by name!).
So ok, hex signs are magical–but what are they used for? Common traditional purposes include blessing a home, fertility, bringing rain, encouraging crops, protecting animals, and love. In modern practice, many more uses are evolving, including connecting to and honoring particular deities, creativity, prosperity, enhancing your magical abilities, and more. Contemporary artists are creating their own designs inspired by traditional themes and Pagan symbols, as well as new ideas. You can see some of these more contemporary designs from The Hex Factory and Dutch Hex Sign.
You can use hex signs that others have created, or you can make your own. While the most powerful effects are going to be from hex signs made specifically for you by a practitioner who knows what they’re doing, you can still get results from store bought ones if you bless and empower them with your intent. I love that they are “portable spells” that can allow you to transfer blessings to someone else too. (That may or may not be a hint that people who love me should send me hex signs as gifts…) You can also take them out when needed, and put them away when they’re not, which gives you yet another excuse to have a delightful hex sign collection.
Hex signs have been used to decorate many other objects besides barns. You may notice from pictures on this blog that my ritual stein and altar cloth both have a bunch of hex signs on them. A quick internet search will help you find jewelry, dishes, pillows, and even embroidery patterns featuring hex signs. I personally believe there is power in both the symbol itself and the preparation of it, and I’ve had success with embroidered symbols as others would with drawn or painted ones. Experiment and see what works best for you. Happy hexing!