I was enchanted when I first saw hex signs on PA barns, after I moved here 25 years ago. As I’ve been interested in myth and folklore for my entire life, I thought I was seeing a recognizable system in those repeating star patterns and sun wheels which decorated barns in Berks, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Lebanon counties. Back into the distant past, all over Europe (and Asia, too), these symbols have been used for luck and for warding against evil.
Among scholars there is ample disagreement on this subject, but on balance, I think it’s safe to say that these signs come directly from early groups of German settlers. Perhaps they were North Germans or Silesians, not Rhinelanders or Austrians, but it’s not clear whether all or only a few of these subgroups brought the hex sign to the US. It wasn’t the Amish, although, sometimes, in brochures, the Amish and hex signs are pictured together. In fact, Old Order Mennonite belief forbids their use, and if they buy a barn with a hex sign on it, it will soon be painted over. (Not for nothing are they called “Plain.”)
Most likely, ordinary Lutherans, from German-speaking farming country brought the symbols with them as part of a hoary rural tradition. Die Volk loved to decorate just about everything—and they did. In Europe you will find everything from “hope chests” to chairs lavishly carved and brightly painted. They incorporated these traditional designs into all sorts of architectural details, such as decorative “gingerbread” trim, as well as gable end panels.
Many scholars of folk art believe these symbols were a German artistic tradition —- aesthetics -- rather than some underground religion, although, in some quarters, this remains disputed. There are strong arguments on both sides. In Hexcraft by Silver Ravenwolf some practices of Pow-wow (an amalgam of German and Native American magical traditions) employ ancient symbols such as the star, the rosette, and the spiral. Even if this New Age idea is not correct, it is still a fact that both in Europe and America “hexes” appear on everything, from cupboards to birth certificates (Taufschein), to gravestones and legal documents.
After the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to assimilate the persistently German speaking “Dutch” communities by requiring “English only” in all public schools. This led to a backlash, as the Germans tried to maintain their traditions. In a recently published book, Hex Signs it is the authors’ (Don Yoder and Thomas E. Graves) opinion that the barn signs began to be more widely used during this time. Psychologically, in a time of stress, these were necessary forms of self-definition. Many barn signs extant today appear to have been originally painted in the post civil war era.
In modern times, the hex sign has grown in popularity, and in familiarity, too. The use of the signs is far more wide spread than in the last century. This is partly due to the efforts of regional tourism and partly due to a widely renewed interest in folklore and myth.
A brief guide to hex symbols:
If this is a kind of sympathetic magic (and who really knows?) representations of things desired are created, and placed where they can be seen and reflected upon every day.
Five pointed stars - Might be elemental symbols — Earth, Air, Fire, Water & Spirit, or, more simply, just “lucky stars.” If they are interpreted as Goddess symbols, they may connect back to Mother Earth, Erda, in the Norse religions, who increases fertility and who nurtures her creation.
Sometimes you will see stars with 12, 10 or 9 points. The idea here is that if you multiply the angles, you are multiplying the magic and the protection provided.
The Rosette is perhaps star and flower combined, or perhaps it is simply a variant on the star.
Sun symbols—the now hopelessly tainted swastika—stand for motion, the never-ending cycle of seasonal nature. Remember that sun light is preeminently important to a farming people who live at high latitudes with a lot of dark, cold days.
Spirals and circles are symbols of the circle of life that are the seasonal cycle.
Rain—raindrops are often used as the outline for circles, or as the body of spirals.
Sun and Rain equals fertility and prosperity. Many crops equals lots of food, and plenty of animals, which provide food and clothing.
Sprigs of wheat are a direct representation of what every farmer wants to see in his fields.
Hearts traditionally stand for affection, unity and love. Closely related is the Tulip, a symbol which must have slipped across the border from Holland, standing both for prosperity, and perfection.
Birds—the ancient love bird symbol, a hope for happy marriage, such as the one used on the [first print] cover of Hand-Me-Down Bride.