Pre-Christian Residue in Pennsylvania German Folk Culture

The following is an excerpt taken from chapter IV of Patrick Donmoyer’s book, “Hex Signs: Myth and Meaning in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars”, titled, “Celestial Symbolism in Folk Culture”:

Aside from the sacred context of these motifs, one particular instance of a profane (albeit mild) reference to the six-pointed rosette can be found within Pennsylvania Dutch dialect profanity, where long strings of words are stacked to indicate the severity of the situation, usually consisting of permutations of the phrase Dunnerwedder! – literally “Thunder Weather.” This latter phrase is considered by some to be the survival of an ancient invocation of the heathen god of thunder, Thor, named “Dunner” in old German, from which its disapproval in current times is allegedly derived. Several of such permutations were documented by the Rev. Leonard Shupp, a dialect folklorist who recalled a series of elaborate cuss-words used in Lehigh County. Among the most interesting dialect combinations he cited were: “Himmel Haagel Schtaern Dunnerwetter,” “Heilich Schtaern Dunnerwetter,” and “Kreuz Haagel Schtaern Dunnerwetter nochemol!” These can be translated from Pennsylvaanisch dialect respectively as, “Heavenly Hail Star Thunder Weather,” “Heavenly* Star Thunder Weather,” and “Hail Cross Star Thunder Weather once again!” While significance of these terms may be completely unintelligible to a modern audience, and even to many Pennsylvania Dutchmen, the idea of the “Heavenly-Hail-Star,” the “Holy Star,” or the “Hail-Cross-Star,” is a highly probable reference to the ancient name given to the six-pointed rosette: Hagal, meaning “hailstone” in old German. This emblem was part of the Runic alphabet of the ancient Germanic people and had a sacred connotation connected with fate and the passage of time, however the motif continued to be used long after its initial meaning was forgotten. This pre-Christian origin could be why the phrase was later used as profanity. Yet, some aspects of this early symbolism did survive, as “the first three hail-stones of the year,” according to the 20th century dialect folklore collection of the Rev. Thomas Brendle, held a sacred connotation and had the power to heal, as “a protection not only against fevers but against all sickness throughout the year.” These parallels are useful in studying the origins of art and belief, however they need not be overstated as many of these ideas have been forgotten for hundreds of years.

Buy the book: For the most comprehensive, convincing, and up-to-date research on Pennsylvania Dutch barn stars, see Patrick Donmoyer’s Hex Signs: Myth and Meaning in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars** (foreword by Dr. Don Yoder).

It is interesting to note that in his foreword, Dr. Yoder makes mention of the fact that a number of Pan-Germanic scholars from Germany – one of whom would later go on to become a member of the NSDAP – journeyed to the local region prior to the development of the Third Reich in order to study the culture, dialect, and folkways of this particular group of racial Germans who had been living outside of the Reich for quite some time.

*Post editor’s note: I believe this repeating of the term “Heavenly” as a translation for separate terms, “Himmel” and “Heilich”, to be a simple error by the author. Given the following sentence, it is probable that “Heilich Schtaern Dunnerwetter” should rather translate as “Holy Star Weather”.

Relevant to the history of Germanic symbolism at large, here is a video on folk symbolism among the Dutch proper (as opposed to the Pennsylvania-Dutch, more accurately known as the Pennsylvania-Germans):

This short 1941 Dutch documentary, “Eeuwig Leevende Tekens” (Immortal Symbols), by Hamer (Hammer) Film from the “Volksche Werkgemeenschap” (Folkish Study Group), touches on the six-star, solar cross, sun swirl, swastika, Odal rune, Tree of Life, and more.

Subtitles by Otharus [Jan Ott] –

**This link is to the book’s publisher, Masthof, and is available for $30. It can be purchased for the same price from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University or from Amazon for $40.