In our our North America, Part II episode, Jaz and I mused about the hex signs painted on the barns of the Pennsylvania Dutch community, as some of our research showed that in Frederick County, Maryland, the seven-pointed star was used to ward off the Snallygaster. I promised to look up some pictures to share on Twitter. But, as research goes, there was more than what we scratched on the surface and it required a full blog post.
First, let me remind you about the Snallygaster. It is a giant winged dragon with tentacles, which terrorized Frederick County and areas of West Virginia and Maryland during the 1800s and early 1900s. It is thought to be a cryptid that came out of the schnellergeist (fast ghost) mythology of the Pennsylvania Dutch community.
While the schnellergeist was a spirit that caused trouble around farms, the snallygaster was an embodied being that captured cattle and people who were out after dark. It was originally used as a sort of boogieman to keep children in line and later used as a warning against African-Americans, as a metaphor for lynch mobs.
In the 1920s, fear of the snallygaster was used to keep people away from illegal distilleries in the woods. Eventually, it was killed in a distillery accident, and its body was destroyed in an explosion.
Some of the resources I found on the snallygaster said hex signs were painted on barns and houses to keep the snallygaster at bay. These “hex signs” are gorgeous works of art and are known as barn quilts or barn symbols. Just take a look at some of them:
I can see why people would imagine these are put on barns and houses as symbols of magical protection against the supernatural. That is what has been said about these symbols since they were first widely written about in travelogues and tourism information in the early 1900s.
The only problem? These stories don’t line up with what the locals say. Some locals say these stars are Christian in nature, recognizing celestial beauty. Others insist they are folk art and just for decoration, without a deeper spiritual meaning.
Unfortunately, the concept of hex symbols and the mystery of the supernatural is more exciting and better for tourism than the truth, so the truth of these signs gets buried beneath fabulous claims.
So where does the Hex Sign word come from anyway? It’s another misconception brought on from outsiders writing about the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. The original term was hexefuss, which translates to witch’s foot. These were originally geese or crow feet that were nailed to a barn door to keep out evil forces. Eventually, they were drawn as chalk symbols. But unlike the barn stars, these were tucked out of sight on the inside frame of doors or windows. They were not meant to be decorative or even seen by others.
Do we know?
Could it be that the barn stars were used to keep a snallygaster-type monster at bay? Sure. But if we actually listen to local legend, it is much more likely that the barn stars were decorative and other, more private symbols were used for protection.
Often, the fun, interesting stories live on. Unfortunately, that means a lot of folk tradition gets lost in the process. While the snallygaster is one of my favorite cryptids, I don’t want to promote this beast at the cost of local cultures.
- Snallygaster: The Lost Legend of Frederick County By Patrick Boyton
- The Snallygaster and Its Abominable Friends
- “HEX SIGNS: SACRED AND CELESTIAL SYMBOLISM IN PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH BARN STARS”
- Hex Signs Exhibition Catalog
Image from Lumberwoods Unnatural Museum