A Magic Letter from God
A Himmelsbrief, which translates to “heaven’s letter” is a miraculous religious textual object believed to have been written by God himself. The object’s purpose is to protect the owner of a copy from all evil and danger and punish disbelievers, so long as the owner follows the moral covenants detailed in the letter. These divine letters could also be invoked to communicate with someone departed, or to request assistance from God in heaven. Scholars today consider Himmelsbrief to be part of the Folk Medicine tradition.
Pennsylvania Dutch Powwow
The Pennsylvania Dutch participate in a magical worldview, where superstitions and charms have apotropaic properties. The Powwow was a popular method of physical and spiritual healing for believers. The integration of the Native American term “powwow” illustrates the diverse cultural influences of the Pennsylvania Dutch beyond their German ancestry.
Performing a Powwow hinges on repetition of specific Bible verses and other incantations to ensure that their owners would be protected from death, injury, and other misfortune. In addition to verbal repetition of magical and religious phrases, simply owning a copy of a Himmelsbrief can serve as a protective talisman against evils and ailments. Although the text of these letters is often written in a formulaic rhyming scheme, Powwow practitioners charged steeply for these magical letters–with prices dependent on the reputation of the practitioner (referred to as a Hexenmeister or Braucher).
Falvey’s Magdeburg Himmelsbrief
The two most popular examples of these Powwow letters are the Koenigsberg Fire Brief of 1714 and the Magdeburg Himmelsbrief of 1783. Falvey Library holds a copy of the latter, described on the bottom of the page as “Magdeburg, 1783.” The title at the top of the letter reads:
Ein Brief, so von Gott selbsten geschrieben, und zu Magdeburg niedergelassen worden ist. // A letter written by God himself found in Magdeburg.
It is believed that these divine letters miraculously fall from the sky, and are subsequently found by the devout (in this case, found in Magdeburg–historically one of the most populous cities in the Holy Roman Empire). The title is followed by 27 lines of prose, and tacked on the back of the frame are six nails with the note “Original hand-made nails used on frame backing—frame refinished March ‘82”.
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