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Mountain Folklore: A book called the Hex Highway links Pa Dutch art to the distant past by Dave Kline, The Reading Eagle, Wednesday November 9, 2016

Hunter Yoder is a folk artist who developed a unique style of traditional hex signs. His twist on the theme is incorporating ancient Germanic, and even Celtic, tribal runes and symbolism into his vibrant hex signs.

While it is true that many of our most revered hex sign and barn star painters incorporate Christian values, pagan themes, innuendo and numerology into their art, Yoder takes it all a step further back in time as he explores the very roots of the culture. He goes beyond Christianity to a time when paganism and Norse-Celtic tribalism ruled the beliefs  of Europe and much of the region of the Mediterranean, including Northern Africa.

Through a series of what may seem to be a rambling connection of interviews, quotes and dialogues in his new book, "Hex Highway," Yoder brings out many facts about the ancient roots of German culture. He manages to bridge the span of time from the tribes that once ruled Europe to the very heart of Pennsylvania German culture and symbolism.

At times I found the information in the book to be a bit disconcerting due to the very honest and forthright manner in which Yoder states his opinions about art and the pagan influence that helped to shape it. I also found myself cringing just a bit as Yoder very capably and truthfully pointed out how Adolf Hitler managed to steal and corrupt an ancient rune widely used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists in India and China as an expression of something sacred and turn it into the symbol of the Third Reich and evil.

That symbol is known as the swastika. To this day, the swastika can be found adorning Pennsylvania German quilts, hex signs and barn stars. Before you get alarmed, let me explain: Because the symbol is an ancient rune derived from religions that preceded Christianity, it was adopted by roaming tribes of Celts, Norsemen, Mongols, barbarians and others who were heavily influenced by symbolism, numerology and other beliefs that helped to explain the nature of the universe, while also helping to bring order to what often seemed like chaos. Therefore, the early Pennsylvania Germans who utilized this symbol in their art did so for the purpose of revealing a form of faith with a desire for abundance and good luck.

If you can keep an open mind, reading Yoder's account of this is really fascinating. To this day, if you know how to look at Pennsylvania German symbols, you'll begin to see the influence of ancient runes and symbols in some of them. In Pennsylvania German culture, the swastika blossoms into a more fanciful cross by flowering out the ends of the symbol, which makes them look more like a plant than a superstitious symbol.

Yoder's book helps bridge the knowledge gap between quaint, and often outright commercialized and manufactured folk iconography, and its factual connections and roots to the ancient world and superstitious beliefs. By providing many crisp visual images, Yoder steers the reader through many "aha!" moments.

Personally, I like that there is yet another piece of literature out there proclaiming that our region of eastern Pennsylvania is someplace very special and home to a unique and very special folkloric phenomenon known as the Hex Highway.

Several times now I have written about my desire to have the musical component of Berks County take on the moniker "Music from the Hex Highway." This idea has sometimes been met with skepticism and doubt because people think the term hex represents something evil and that thought couldn't be further from the truth. But explaining the full concept is something I find to be exhausting and frustrating.

Within our own Hex Highway zone, we have a profound number of skilled folk artists and musicians. No less than the now-famous coalition in Virginia called "Music from the Crooked Road," Berks County's own version of an arts and music community linked by our Hex Highway could eventually lead the way in attracting visitors and future residents if properly promoted.

Artists like Hunter Yoder are on the leading edge of that effort, and I applaud their vision and efforts.

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