It will soon be time for witches, goblins and other things that go bump in the night. Aside from some Wiccans who may live in our midst, most present-day witches are confined to trick-or-treaters and reruns of “Bewitched” on the TV Land channel.
But there was a time in Carroll County when witches were thought to be the real deal and something to seek protection from.
Last winter I attended the monthly Box Lunch Talk sponsored by the Historical Society of Carroll County held at Grace Lutheran Church’s Grace Hall. (If you like local history and can get away from noon to 1 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month, these talks are often a lot of fun. The next one is Nov. 20.)
The topic of the BLT was “German cultural legacy in Carroll and Frederick counties,” and the presenter was the Rev. Dahl Drenning.
Drenning gave a lively talk on German-style worship, houses, barns and food, but the part that I found the most intriguing was his discussion of the superstitions brought from the “old country.” Many of his stories were based on conversations he had with his grandparents and reveal the thin veil that once existed between medicine and magic.
In the 18th and parts of the 19th century, it was a common practice to carry a “witch letter” in a small leather pouch concealed in the breast pocket. Written in German, the letter contained Latin-like incantations meant to protect the bearer from witchcraft.
After his talk, Drenning showed an authentic letter and pouch to attendees. Such talismans can be traced back to ancient times and were quite common during the Middle Ages when they were prescribed by healers to protect health and even encourage conception.
In the past with fire in such close proximity for cooking, heating and illumination, burns were a more-than-common occurrence. In cases of scalding or scorching, the injured required the services of a “Pow Wower” who, it was believed, could lessen the effects of and even heal burns. The Pow Wower used a series of incantations and read a biblical passage from Ezekiel 16:6: “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ ”
I did some follow-up research seeking to find a connection between this scripture referring to blood and someone who has suffered burns. I learned that the Bible passage is commonly known as the “blood verse” because it is used to heal uncontrollable hemorrhaging in humans and animals. In Appalachia, this is part of so-called “hillbilly witchcraft” and its practitioners swear it works if one has been given or born with the “power.” These anointed ones can also use Ezekiel 16:6 to cure burns if they follow the reading by blowing on the wound.
Drenning referred to the use of this ritual in old-time Carroll and Frederick counties when he discussed the German practice of “try for fire” to heal burns. Back in his teaching days in Westminster schools, he actually had students who shared memories of grandparents curing burns in such a manner.
I found all of this most confusing since the Bible contains numerous prohibitions against witchcraft and sorcery. These evils were considered the work of the devil because only God has the power to heal. According to the Mosaic Law, the penalty for practicing witchcraft was death.
This carries through in Christian teaching as evidenced by the horrors of the Salem witchcraft trials in the late 17th century. Nineteen people — 14 women and five men — were found guilty of witchery and executed on the gallows. That’s no trivial matter, though more than appropriate as we find ourselves in the season of the witch. (This reference is not to be confused with the psychedelic rock song of the same name sung by Donovan in 1966. Now that really dates me.)
In these enlightened times with the miracles of modern medicine all about us, belief in spells and incantations to cure ills is more than quaint. Today the only witch’s brew we have to fear is the one mixed up by evil doers around the world, from Moscow to Pyongyang to Washington. A hex on all of their houses.