Round magical signs and symbols
used by the Pennsylvania Dutch, primarily to protect
against witchcraft but also to effect spells. Hex signs
are both amuletic and talismanic (see amulets; talismans).
Traditionally, hex signs are painted on barns, stables
and houses to protect against lightning, ensure
fertility and protect animal and human occupants alike
from becoming ferhexed, or bewitched. Hex signs also
are painted on cradles, on household goods such as
kitchen tools and spoon racks and on wooden or metal
disks that can be hung in windows.
Each hex sign has a different meaning. Some of the
symbols and designs date back to the Bronze Age—such
as the swastika or solar wheel, symbol of the Cult of the
Sun—and to ancient Crete and Mycenae. The most common
designs or symbols, all enclosed in a circle, are stars
with five, six or eight points; pentagrams, or Trudenfuss
(see pentacles and pentagrams); variations of the swastika;
and hearts. The six-petaled flower/star, a fertility hex
sign, is painted on utensils and tools relating to livestock,
especially horses, and on linens, weaver’s tools, mangling
boards and other items. Pomegranates also are used for
fertility; oak leaves for male virility; an eagle or rooster
with a heart for strength and courage; hearts and tulips
for love, faith and a happy marriage.
Hex signs are designed for healing, accumulating material
goods and money, starting or stopping rain and innumerable
other purposes. A charm or incantation is said
as the hex sign is made. Little is known about hex signs,
as it is a taboo for the Pennsylvania Dutch to talk about
them to outsiders.
The custom of hex signs comes from the Old World and
was brought from Germany and Switzerland by the German
immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s
and 1800s. In the Old Saxon religion, it was customary to
paint protective symbols on barns and household items.
In Germany, tradition calls for hex signs to be placed on
the frames of barns, but not on houses; in Switzerland, it is
customary to place the signs on houses. The Pennsylvania
Dutch borrowed both practices. Among the Pennsylvania
Dutch, regional customs developed in style and placement.
In the 19th century, hex signs proliferated throughout
the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside then diminished
along with interest in the folk magical arts.