A review of my book, “Der Volksfreund, Hex Signs, Folktales, and Witchcraft of the Pennsylvania Dutch”
A Cultural Celebration of the Pennsylvania Dutch by an Artist and Descendant
A fascinating collage of art, oral history, folk tales, scholarship and personal, family memory, Der Volksfreund provides unique insight into the mis-named Pennsylvania Dutch, the descendants of immigrants from the Rhine in the Eighteenth Century, to America. The author, an accomplished practitioner of the folk art of those people, and a product of their culture, makes illustrative use of his own work (largely in the form of his Hex Sign paintings and artifacts) and of his family history, and of the work of a number of contributors (including articles by his brother, scholar Russell Yoder, modern folk occultist Edred Thorsson (aka Stephen Flowers), articles from “Deitsch” newspapers from the 40’s (in Deitsch and English), and actual email conversations with fellow folk artists like Natalie Forn). Also included herein, recitations of the surviving versions of culture myth, including tales of the trickster Til Eileschpiggel, a Coyote-like character and depictions of modern sites of witchcraft and haunts.
The author’s basic description of who the Pennsylvania Dutch were, actually led me to insight of my own family origins. My mother had been raised by Pennsylvania Dutch in Northern Ohio, and that her first American ancestor was a Hessian mercenary who had fallen in with them, but I had always thought of my father’s people as probably Scots-Irish until I traced my ancestry on both sides back to Pennsylvania in the mid-18th Century, and remembered family stories that they were in fact descended from French Huguenots, whom Yoder informs me, were included with the Pennsylvania Dutch in their journey up the Rhine to the Netherlands to Philadelphia. That insight alone being worth the price of the book to me!
This book is cunningly crafterd, opening with the aforesaid, “native” newspaper articles and closing with some reconstructed witchcraft by Thorsson. The folk healing and magic, as revealed to us, reminds me of the magic of the Icelanders, in that it shows clear signs of the pre-Christian, interstitial knowledge and awareness that survived and shone through the often stringent (these were largely Calvinist sects after all, and rebels against what they saw as the decadent Churches of their time) Christian teachings of their leaders. Yet their Hex Signs, like the Icelanders’ glyphs, are clearly evidence of older practices handed down over centuries from a more natural religion - likewise their folk tales. The contentions of the modern Hex Sign artists that their work is “just for Nice” are not disingenuous; to me their apparent dismissal, appears evidence of how a subliminal cultural enlightenment, a deeper knowledge which is not always consciously known to its bearers, can shine through in art, and in how the world is regarded.
As one planning to visit the homeland of the Pennsylvania Dutch, I can’t think of a better intro to the actual feeling of the culture, beyond dry academics or cartoonish marketing. One more of a series of genuine celebrations by an artist and product of the culture which he celebrates, Hunter Yoder’s compilation Der Volksfreund is a unique and valuable resource, the kind of largely informal cultural anthropology we all need to really understand our ancestors and the origins of our own cultures, to the extent they survive.