Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Hexenmeister:

This watercolor image comes from contemplating a little (1 & 1/2 square) tintype, made in the mid 1800s, of my great great Grandfather, David Dutton. Hexenmeister is a Pennsylvania Dutch term, applied by others, usually posthumously, for a person with an inherited or inherent ability to manipulate magical power, to harm or heal. In the Dutton family this was passed, along with land, from generation to generation via the seventh son. My Father was the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son.

He sometimes joked that he had the power to cure "The King's Itch" (scrofula), and "Swinney" (a withering of muscle tissue in horses), but a story saved by one of my cousins relates that horses were brought by believers to the Dutton homeplace, and healing effected by pouring water from the spring over them.

It is my understanding that typically these hexen, or spells, must be handed down from one gender to the other, father to daughter, & vice versa, (or male older relative to female younger, etc) ~ however, a husband can teach the hexen to his wife, and she may then pass it on to a male heir, or, again, vice versa, mother to father to female heir.

My Dad was keen on Shakespeare, and may have known this quote from Macbeth, cited in "The Devil's Dictionary" - "A cynical view of the world by Ambrose Bierce":

King's Evil (scrofula, a type of tuberculosis of the lymph glands, transmitted via the milk of infected cows):


A malady that was formerly cured by the touch of the sovereign, but has now to be treated by the physicians. Thus 'the most pious Edward" of England used to lay his royal hand upon the ailing subjects and make them whole --

"...a crowd of wretched souls
That stay his cure: their malady convinces
The great essay of art; but at his touch,
Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand,
They presently amend,..."

as the "Doctor" in Macbeth hath it. This useful property of the royal hand could, it appears, be transmitted along with other crown properties; for according to "Malcolm,"

"...'tis spoken
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction."

But the gift somewhere dropped out of the line of succession: the later sovereigns of England have not been tactual healers, and the disease once honored with the name "king's evil" now bears the humbler one of "scrofula," from scrofa, a sow. The date and author of the following epigram are known only to the author of this dictionary, but it is old enough to show that the jest about Scotland's national disorder is not a thing of yesterday.

"Ye Kynge his evill in me laye,
Wh. he of Scottlande charmed awaye.
He layde his hand on mine and sayd:
"Be gone!" Ye ill no longer stayd.
But O ye wofull plyght in wh.
I'm now y-pight: I have ye itche!"

The superstition that maladies can be cured by royal taction is dead, but like many a departed conviction it has left a monument of custom to keep its memory green. The practice of forming a line and shaking the President's hand had no other origin, and when that great dignitary bestows his healing salutation on

"...strangely visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery,..."

he and his patients are handing along an extinguished torch which once was kindled at the altar-fire of a faith long held by all classes of men. It is a beautiful and edifying "survival" -- one which brings the sainted past close home in our "business and bosoms."

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