I’m about halfway through Sings, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore by Gerald C. Milnes and I have mixed feelings. I think his ear for what is important information from his informants is spot-on. And whew, he’s hearing some really interesting stuff. But his history… ugh… I don’t trust it. And I don’t think his interpretations of historical events are exactly right, either.
But I wanted to show you the strangest thing, because I can’t be alone in wondering at this.
So, the premise of the book is that Germanic culture is just as vital and long-lasting and shaping of Southern Appalachian culture as Scots-Irish culture is, and evidence of that still reverberates in Appalachian folkways.
And on the last page of front matter, right across from the first chapter, is this headstone from 1834 (sorry, the picture isn’t that great. I shot the page with my iPhone). The caption says “Tree of life gravestone, Old Probst Church cemetery.”
I keep waiting and waiting and waiting for Milnes to make the obvious point about the headstone, but it’s not in the caption and, like I said, I’m over halfway through the book and there’s been no discussion. And I’ve flipped through the rest of the book and I don’t see it.
So, I cropped so you can see it. And I’m open to suggestions that these are not what they look like.
And again, I apologize for the quality, but is that not Ehwaz there on the left and Laguz on the right? I am dying to speculate about how proto-German runes got onto a German-American’s gravestone in 1834. But it perplexes the shit out of me that it’s not even mentioned. The thing is–I don’t know of any runic systems being used in Germany that had a symbol shaped like Ehwaz. I’m no expert, but I’m flummoxed. But you’d think it would make for an interesting bit of evidence when arguing for a direct European origin of folk symbols and beliefs in Appalachia.
And yet, no mention.
Anyway, I think it would be irresponsible not to speculate. So, here’s my speculation–the Germans who came to America were, in the most non-perjorative way I can use the word, religious fanatics with some beliefs considered odd and somewhat heretical by religious authorities. We know they saw nothing contradictory about Christianity and magic, all were a part of a belief in a rich supernatural world. We also know that the Germans got along with (let’s make that a qualified “got along with) and adopted and adapted the magical practices of people they encountered, thus the overlap in magical herb lore between them and Native Americans and black people.
We also know that a lot of these Germans were coming in through Philadelphia. And we know Swedes, in small number, were here in New Sweden in the 1600s, with New Sweden being sort of between Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia. And the Swedes had some Germans with them. The Swedes were in the middle of one of their “Remember how great we were before we were Christian?” cultural moments, which makes it plausible that some of them might have been using Runes, especially for occult reasons.
So, when the Germans who were also into occult crap encountered Swedes into occult crap, there was some transference. Tada!
Of course, that’s what I’ve come up with at the end of a long day, while just talking out my ass. And maybe the Germans would have had knowledge of runes most popular in Scandinavia,
But man! It tickled and perplexed me to see runes on that headstone. And then perplexed me that they weren’t mentioned at all.
Edited to add: It occurs to me that, if that’s not Laguz on the right, but another, albeit broken, Ehwaz, that would be a rune used in German-speaking areas. No Swedes necessary.