Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Red Church or The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei by C.R. Bilardi

Pendraig Publishing  548 pages.  Black & white illustrations.  Octavo.  2009

Standard Edition:  Trade Paperback

Special Edition:  Hardcover, limited to 100 copies.  Includes personalized himmelsbrief.

The Red Church or The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei: The Traditional Blessed Healing Art for the Good of Man and Beast is a massive collection of charms (both verbal and written), prayers, formulae, herbal lore, folk medicine nostrums, and other magical operations that fall within the Pennsylvania German charming tradition known as Braucherei (pronounced BROW-ker-eye; meaning, to try).  It is also commonly called 'Pow-Wow' from the Algonquin word 'Pau Wau' which was used to describe medicine men or spiritual leaders.  The Red Church is one of the most comprehensive collections of Braucherei practices ever assembled and is arguably the most important book the tradition has seen since Lee Gandee's 1971 autobiographical classic Strange Experience: The Secrets of a Hexenmeister.

Author Chris Bilardi, a recently ordained Pastor of the Lutheran Orthodox Church, begins the book with a thorough history of the tradition and the rural culture in which it developed.  Bilardi isn't just a historian, he's also a Braucherei practitioner, known as a Braucher or Pow-Wow Doctor (more sorcerous types are sometimes called Hexenmeisters).  His stated goal is to preserve this rather obscure folk magic tradition and dispel misconceptions that have arisen in recent years.

One such misconception is the tenancy for some to erroneously link Braucherei to Pagan traditions.  He believes the Paganizing of Pow-Wow by modern revisionists obscures the tradition's basic tenets and threatens its historical authenticity.  There is a legitimate Germanic Pagan practice found in Pennsylvania called Urglaawe (pronounced OOR-glawe-veh; meaning,  primal faith), but it is distinctly different from Braucherei, as Braucherei is essentially a Christian folk magic system.

It is true that there has always been plenty of cross-pollination within folk magic traditions, and some Braucherei charms can be traced far enough back in European history to possibly have Pagan roots, but the tradition itself and its core belief structure are solidly Christian.  Brauchers believe that their power does not originate within them; rather, they are conduits of Divine force.  This is why when asked if they can help or heal someone they simply respond, "I can try", as ultimately it is not up to them; it is up to the Divine.

It's understandable why Bilardi is protective of Braucherei's heritage considering it nearly disappeared completely during the early 20th century due to the highly sensationalized 'Hex Murder' case in 1928.  What remained went underground.  Fortunately it is still holding on here and there and even beyond Pennsylvania with known Brauchers practicing quietly in Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Like most folk magic traditions, Braucherei utilizes concepts of 'contagous magic' and 'sympathetic magic', much like its southern counterpart: Hoodoo.  It is also the Yankee cousin of English Cunning-craft, though Braucherei is exclusively a protective and healing tradition.  You will never find a Braucher willing to hex or harm, as they feel they will lose their ability if abused or used for ill.  They are the antithesis of the malevolent witch.  Brauchers are summoned to heal injuries and alleviate sickness (including animals), break hexes, protect homes and property, and charm items to increase their potency -- all done at no charge.  An example of the latter is a charm to make firearms shoot straight and always find their mark.

 Another well-known Braucherei charm is the himmelsbrief, or 'heaven's letter'.  It is a long written charm which is said to have been originally composed by God.  Different versions exist.  The most famous is the 'Magdeburg Letter' which reportedly fell from the sky in 1783.  It is believed that a himmelsbrief hung in one's home will protect the household from danger and sinister forces.  If carried in a pocket it will protect the owner from harm.  Bilardi  provides examples of himmelsbriefs and also includes diagrams of talismans, reduction spells like the ABAXACATABAX charm, and magic squares like the ubiquitous SATOR.

Himmelsbrief circa 1850s.
 Part of the Balkan collection.

Notably absent in The Red Church are the iconic barn stars or 'hex signs' of the Pennsylvania Germans.  This is a somewhat controversial topic among Brauchers and historians.  Some feel hex signs were used to focus and localize the powers of sacred geometry.  They may have been used as protective wards or 'painted prayers' to encourage fair weather for crops.  Chris Bilardi does not believe they had a specific magical intent, but were instead  just simple barn decorations.

'Triple Protection' Hex Sign 
created by legendary Braucher, Lee Gandee 

I respectfully disagree (in part) with Mr. Bilardi on this one point.  While I'm certainly not a Pennsylvania historian, considering the known Hermetic influences in the state's early history, I think it is fair to assume that some early hex signs were used for magical purposes.  It's also likely they were copied by the uninitiated and reduced to a type of folk art by those who were ignorant of their original purpose and symbolic meaning.  Regardless, even if hex signs did not originally have magical intent, the point may be a moot one, as hex signs certainly are used magically now.  Braucher Lee Gandee used them for magical purposes over 50 years ago.  Nor are they  going unnoticed by today's practitioners, including those who follow the Urglaawe path, as can be seen at the hex sign site Zaubereigarten.

Also included are lunar, planetary, zodiacal, and qabalistic charts to assist in magical timing.  A complete Braucherei herbal is provided to instruct the reader on the proper use of magical and medicinal plants.  New World practitioners will welcome this, as all the plants are native to North America (or long since naturalized).  It is a pharmacopeia of indigenous alternative medicine.

Chris Bilardi is nothing if not thorough.  The Red Church includes four Appendices: Glossary of Terms, Use of the Psalms and Names of God from Scripture, Pennsylvania German & Standard German Pronunciation Guide (PA German is its own dialect), and Table of Planetary Hours.  He also includes a lengthy Bibliography and extensive Index.

Physically the book is rather ordinary and what one would normally expect from a standard hardcover.  It has slate blue cloth boards.  Title and author are gilt-stamped on spine.  A cream-colored dust-jacket sports the title in blackletter script and includes a heart with tulip design in the fraktur style of the Pennsylvania Germans.  The back includes an image of a distelfink perched on a branch representing 'good luck'.  While the jacket may seem somewhat lackluster and monotone, it perfectly reflects the humble yet artful spirit of the Pennsylvania Germans.  It should be noted that the cover of the hardback differs from the trade paperback.

I'm puzzled why the title is printed uncomfortably close to the top edge of the dust-jacket on both the spine and cover, leaving almost no margin.  It's a rather unfortunate placement and aesthetically unappealing.  I can only assume it was an overlooked mistake.  Other unfortunate oversights include several typos and the chart for the Zodiac Influences is rather blurry (at least in my copy).  These are easily avoidable (if not obvious) mistakes that should have been caught by Pendraig Press' editors.  Even so, at a cover price of $46 The Red Church is a steal, minor flaws or no.

The book includes a tipped in bookplate with a Bible verse handwritten by Chris Bilardi, "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." (John 1:5 KJV)  Others may vary.  What makes this book special and truly talismanic is that it also includes a himmelsbrief designed by the author.  It comes enclosed in a red envelope bearing the owner's name.

Braucherei books themselves are often considered physical talismans.  The tradition's most famous charm book (other than the Bible) is The Long Lost Friend by John George Hohman that famously includes the magical statement:
 "Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drowned in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me."
The Red Church continues this time-honored tradition by including 'The Binding and Blessing':
"Whoever takes possession of this book is bound to do good alone, to the glory of God and for all the well-being of Man and Beast.  No part of this work of mercy shall be abused.  All who make proper use of the contents of this book shall be blessed and held in Adonai's protective hands, safe from enemies seen and unseen, and from all malign witchcraft.
Anyone who abuses this work shall be bound: this book and its contents shall be forever closed and sealed to him."
Thus the book itself acts as a protective ward for those worthy of its blessing.  Brauchers take these magical declarations very seriously.

Readers will notice the frequent mention and use of the color 'red', the book's title being the most obvious.  Bilardi writes:
"Red is the most common color used in Braucherei; it is also the most mentioned color in Braucherei charms and prayers.  The symbolism is very plain and obvious, if dual: red is heat; therefore, it is also 'fire' and 'life' and 'blood' ... In Christian symbolism it is the color of redemption ... it can either impart an action and energy, or it can be used as a sympathetic 'sponge' to remove a condition..."  

It is not too difficult to notice the alchemical symbolism at work here, most notably the intense focus on the perfected rubedo phase.  Undercurrents of Western Esotericism should not be surprising, as some theorize that Braucherei is a folk magic manifestation of Rosicrucianism -- magic come full circle, as it were.  Indeed Pennsylvania has a long and colorful early history of resident alchemists, qabbalists, and astrologers, such as George de Benneville, Johann Gotfried Seelig, and Johannes Kelpius, the latter two were part of the Mystics of the Wissahickson who, if not formally, certainly had Rosicrucian leanings.

This uniquely American grimoire is a folk magic tour de force.  My hope is that it will ensure that Braucherei remains a living tradition for at least a few more generations.  Perhaps The Red Church will be as important to the tradition as the Pow-Wow classic Long Lost Friend was over 150 years ago.

It should also be noted that Dan Harms, author and mastermind behind the wonderful blog Papers Falling from an Attic Window, has a highly anticipated 'Definitive Edition' of Long Lost Friend in the works.  I met Mr. Harms briefly in Providence, RI back in '99.  He was friendly and extremely knowledgeable in his area.  I am very much looking forward to reading his research on Long Lost Friend.

Beautifully restored Long Lost Friend by JRR Bookworks

Note*  For those interested in learning more about the history of Braucherei (Pow-Wow) beyond this book (particularly from an academic perspective), I would highly recommend Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch: A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World by David W. Kriebel (2007) and Pennsylvania Dutch: Folk Spirituality by the late Richard E. Wentz (1993) who, sadly, just passed on September 25h.

As my readers have probably noticed by now, this blog doesn't play favorites; esoteric Christian theurgical texts are reviewed right along side diabolical tracts of infernal pacts.  Whether rustic charm books about toad-bone rites or Freemasonic treatises on sacred geometry, I hope everyone finds something of interest or perhaps a new path worthy of further exploration.  Thanks again.

B. Balkan


  1. Astonishing post! The hex barn has my head spinning, in a good way, and I had to look closely just to make sure Julian Sands was not present in the pic. Cool info about the himmelsbrief, too.

  2. That "Long last friend" is quite a jewel!! Astonishing work... and for Braucherei, may i suggest one link?


  3. Beautiful artwork, and thanks for the scholarly dissertation. But as an aside from one of the Atheists among you, it's amusing that the Christians are at such pains to differentiate themselves from those (I guess) 'less evolved' pagans. Really? It's all make believe, and the pagans have a fraction of a percent of the blood on their collective hands. In the big historical picture, I'd much prefer to be labeled a pagan, if I had to choose the lesser of the evils.

  4. A new book on Pa German Hexology is just out, "Heiden Hexology, Essays and Interviews" is a collection of published work by Heiden Hexologist, Hunter Yoder. Heiden is the German version of the Anglo Saxon, Heathen. He views recent developments in prechristian Germanic tribalism from his Pennsylvania German perspective. Yoder grew up with the kultur, specifically the practice of painting Hex Signs. In the book, he explores the world of magically charged objects, the preChristian Germanic Gods and Goddesses, the Elder Futhark of Runes, Germanic Witchcraft known as Hexerei, Sex Magic and the use of magic plants. The book documents the proliferation of the practice of Hexerei by the emerging Germanic Heathen community internationally including his interviews of Rune magicians and Folk practitioners.

  5. The Long Lost Friend by Joe Rose of JRR Bookworks is a beauty. I can attest to Joe's craftsmanship and general his agreeable manner. I have commissioned two find bindings from him and there will be more. It is great to see him get some long overdue recognition from this great site.