A Perplexing Thing

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.

11 thoughts on “A Perplexing Thing

  1. From the photo the rune on the right appears more like a thurisaz than a lugaz to me. Is it just the lack of clarity in the photo?

  2. Lots of people were using Tree of Life motifs on their funerary art in the 1830s. Shakers, people from the Ephrata Cloister (who were Germans), Swedenborgians, people who would become the LDS, even mainstream Christians with no particular Germanic connections. Some of the trees were weeping willows, but many were oaks (representing faith…or the Old Man, or what have you).

    Once again, there’s the problem of intention. What did the tree and symbols mean to the carver, the buyer, the buried? Without knowing anything about the carver, the community, the other stones, the religious practices in Wetzel County, WVA in the 1830s…well, I can’t actually conclude anything meaningful.

    But, like you, at least I might have thought to ask some questions.

  3. I think that his problem is the same as the problem he’s snide at the neo-pagans about–it’s actually difficult to prove a long, unbroken line of any kind of occult belief among any groups of people who moved around and encountered any other groups of people.

    You don’t know that things meant then what they mean now. You don’t know if someone heard something from his Grandpa or his friend’s Grandpa.

    And he’s finding such interesting stuff, these people really open up to him about interesting things, that I wish he’d just focus on that.

  4. There’s a lovely bit in Silas Marner in which Dolly, as part of her attempt to draw Silas into the local church and community, brings him a cake. The cake has some shapes pricked into it. Silas, who is literate, asks her why she’s got “I H S”* on the cake, and she says it’s because that’s what you always put on cakes, for good luck. (IIRC, she doesn’t even recognize them as letters, just shapes, but it’s been a long time since I read the book.) Which is all Eliot’s way of pointing out the fundamental, but completely unrecognized, Catholicism of the local, communal Anglicanism. The locals have a rooted but completely unreflected-on religion, in contrast with Silas the former Non-Conformist, who had a scripture-centered and completely self-aware faith but lost it.

    Which is just a long-winded way of saying “what Bridgett says about intention.”

    *symbol of the Jesuits, who would have been active in the area undercover some centuries earlier.

  5. Well, I finished it and I guess the best I can hope to say for it is that maybe it will inspire someone else to write a book about this.

    It’s weird. You thin he could have just said, “Hey, don’t forget that there are a lot of Germans in the Southern Appalachians as well as Scots-Irish. I live among them and I’ve interviewed some of the old ones about their beliefs and here’s what they told me.” and then he could have just had a book about that.

    Like I said, he’s got a great ear for knowing when he’s hearing something important.

    But man, he doesn’t know how to contextualize it AT ALL.

    nm, if those are runes, I’d be suspicious that they’re on the gravestone for the same reason Dolly’s IHS is on the cake–they’re just powerful marks you make. Otherwise, there’s nothing that I know of that would suggest “horse” and “lake” as particularly appropriate runes for marking a grave.

  6. Should I even try to read this book or would I end up frustrated? I love these folkways discussions, but so often the books about them are nothing more than a thesis statement with halfhearted anecdotes to sort-of back it up but not really.

  7. B, I don’t think that anthropologists necessarily think that it’s their job to contextualize — or, rather, they’re super-suspicious of and cautious about imposing narrative and selecting outside “facts” to frame/interpret what they are reporting on. They had a big professional blow-out about it in the not-too-distant past about narrative imposition as an act of colonial power and more recently have been all about analyzing (in a meta-narrative way) the narratives created around ethnographic information as a way of discussing the relationship between social power, knowledge, and researcher/interview subject. The ideal of their discipline used to be to describe what is (beliefs, practices, rituals, etc), as nearly as they can, in terms that would make sense to the cultures that they’re describing. Some still would like to do only that.

    This, of course, is why anthropologists drive historians crazy. (That…and that their conference parties are always a hell of a lot better than ours…)

  8. You know, Coble, I actually thought of you quite frequently when I was reading it, because everyone he talks to consider themselves Christian and their “magical acts” (my term, not theirs) to be in line with and a part of their Christian beliefs. For instance, they all believe in witches (some more firmly than others) and believe in witches because the Bible says they exist. When they do what I might call “spellwork,” they invoke the name of the Trinity and understand a lot of their “magic” (again, my term, not theirs) as being necessary to protect themselves from the Devil and his agents.

    I think you’d find that stuff really fascinating and interesting, for many of the same reasons I do. Whatever else you might say about these folks, they live a very spiritually rich life.

    But I think you probably know more about Anabaptist history than I do and so I imagine that there’s going to, again, be a lot of the context that you’ll be “but no, that’s not right” about. I was doing a lot of that and I’m not as steeped in the history.

    But I did wonder if you might find the first-person accounts useful in your own writing.

    So, I’m torn. I think I’d advise you to borrow it from the library and skim it.

    Bridgett, so do you think maybe the problem was that he doesn’t know how to contextualize but his publisher was all “you have to do this” and so he did this?

    Because that would explain some things, if he’d been given a task he wasn’t quite prepared for.

  9. I’m not Bridgett, but I have found that a lot of people in disciplines that intersect with history (anthropology, literature, theology, etc.) don’t think that knowing the history is necessary. I have stories…. My suspicion is that they don’t want to do the work, and that critical theory is an attempt to get out of having to do the reading.

  10. Yeah, this guy has almost the opposite problem. He’s clearly done a lot of reading, but doesn’t seem to have the skill-set to interpret it and evaluate what of it might be true, what might be more complicated, and where he might be lacking. A little actual theory and not just theorizing would have been nice; something to hold onto.

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