Robert Matthew Phoenix is a practitioner of Pennsylvania German Braucherei (Powwow) in Southcentral Pennsylvania. His family is a mix of Austrian, German, and Irish descendants. For the past two decades he has been working hard to separate historical and cultural practice of Powwow from the New Age elements that muddied the waters in the 1990’s. In 2008, he started his website PAGermanPowwow.com where he shares all the information he finds and learns about the tradition. In 2014 he wrote The Powwow Grimoire, an approachable how-to book about Powwow. He was featured in the documentary Hex Hollow: Witchcraft and Murder in Pennsylvania (2015) and has been interviewed for countless podcasts and venues, as well as having been published in Thomas White’s Supernatural Lore of Pennsylvania (2012) and the forthcoming Llewellyn’s Book of North American Folk Magic (2023). Robert teaches traditional Pennsylvania German Powwow and is the founder of the Phoenix Line of Cumberland County, which now has well over 40 active Powwowers. Robert has also taught several classes and lectures on the subject at Swarthmore College, Baltimore College, and Indiana University. He lives in Cumberland County with his husband, son, and their numerous rescue dogs.
PAA: Hello and welcome. We have provided an official bio but can you just introduce yourself
Robert: My name is Robert Matthew Phoenix and I’m a Powwower in southcentral Pennsylvania.
PAA: Can you explain the history and origins of the Powwow tradition?
Robert: Powwow can trace its roots back through European Cunning traditions, to medieval Catholicism, and even back to Coptic Christian magic traditions. The idea is that a Powwower is doing the work that Christ has called us to do; heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on.
PAA: How does the Powwow tradition fit into the larger context of Pennsylvania Dutch culture?
Robert: Our tradition was brought to Pennsylvania by the German-speaking immigrants who fled
Europe to have religious freedom and economic opportunity. Prior to around the mid-1800’s or
so, various healing rituals and charms were just a part of everyday life. As we get closer to the
end of the 19th century, we see more of a professionalization of the Powwow tradition where it
became somewhat separated from the regular folks and mostly practiced by those who
specialized in the healing and anti-witchcraft rituals.
PAA: Powwow is often described as a healing system and other times a folk magic system. How
would you say it fits into these descriptions? Are they accurate?
Robert: I think both terms are correct but neither fully encompasses what Powwow really is. It’s true that it is a tradition of simple healing rituals. But it’s so much more than this. It’s anti-witchery, its creating talismans, there are agricultural elements to it, astrological lore, animal husbandry, and even more than all of this. So some aspects are, of course, healing. Other aspects could be considered “folk magic”, and even others could fall into a different descriptive word. Honestly, I prefer to call it a way of life”.
PAA: How does the modern-day German Reformed Church (United Church of Christ) relate to the
Robert: The UCC is the result of the merging of German Reformed and Lutheran churches, so we have an interesting mix of both old and new. We have the toned down simplistic Sunday mass, but there is also a smattering of Saint veneration. Nothing like on a Catholic level, but it’s there. Also, the UCC tends to be a much more open-minded strain of Christianity, with women pastors, some congregations accepting of same-sex marriage, and so on. In my previous church, the congregation was very open to the discussion and practice of Powwowing; many of the congregants having already heard of Powwow, experienced it, or
even practiced it themselves.
PAA: Can you explain the concept of a mystical bond between man and God in the Powwow
Robert: I’m not sure I can put something like that into words, but the gist of it is that a connection with God, as defined within Christian tradition, is at the heart of what we do. Without that connection to God, our Powwowing has nothing behind it. No power. And a strong connection to God is a personal thing that takes place between you and Him. It can’t be forced or faked. When you truly have that connection, you can really understand the tradition of Powwowing. It all makes sense.
PAA: How do historical, cultural, and religious truths influence the practice of Powwowing?
The truth of our culture’s history is absolutely essential to understanding Powwow. There are always attempts by folks to rewrite history to make it what they’d prefer it to have been, rather than what it really was. This is such a disservice to a cultural tradition such as Powwow. Our ancestors gave up everything to come to Pennsylvania to build lives for themselves. We should respect that by upholding the truth of who they were, what they believed, and what they did with their lives. That’s how you honor and preserve culture.
PAA: Can you describe some modern interpretations of Powwowing and how they differ from traditional practices?
Robert: All I will say on this is that if Powwowing is honored with cultural, religious, and historical truth, it’s good work. Anything else is an intentional misrepresentation that disrespects our culture.
PAA: Can you discuss some of your published works on the subject of Powwow and their reception by the community?
Robert: I’ve published a bunch of things over the years in various venues. My work is very well received because the Pennsylvania Dutch culture loves our own history and traditions. I have met hundreds of folks with PA Dutch ancestry who have stories to share about their own experiences with Powwowing. It’s really amazing to me because if you read a lot of academic stuff, they seem to imply that Powwow is a dying tradition. But to really get with the people, you find a whole different opinion. This is why it’s important to keep putting good information out there. It maintains interest in the subject and inspires others to
share their stories. That’s what keeps a culture’s history alive. I would say my biggest published work is my website. That’s truly my life’s work, tracking down the information, putting it out there, making it accessible and available to anyone.
PAA: What can you tell us about the practices within the tradition? Do they have similarities to
other traditions of magick and healing?
Coming from Germany does it have other similarities with magical practice originating there? The best parallel would be European Cunning Folk traditions. You’ll find that a lot of the grimoires that Powwow uses were once very popular all over Europe. So whichever region the books ended up in, became that culture’s folk magic. We all have the same roots, but things are colored by the culture that is practicing
them. Because Pennsylvania Dutch originated with German-speaking immigrants, many assume we are all from Germany. That isn’t so. My family is partially from Germany, but largely from Austria. German-speaking can mean Switzerland, Austria, France, Moravia, and includes the various areas that would eventually become known as Germany.
PAA: Are you involved in any other forms of magic?
Robert: No. Powwow is enough for me. I do occasionally add a few ceremonial elements to some of my private work, particularly anti-hex work, but that’s not out of the realm of the Powwowing tradition.
PAA: How has your personal experience with Powwow influenced your understanding and practice of the tradition?
Robert: Once I realized the truth about Powwow, its history, its Christian roots, and my own personal connection to God, the rituals and charms began working for me. And this changed my entire perspective on things like “magic” and such. It’s a powerful experience.
PAA: Can you explain the significance of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania and its relation to religious communities in Penn’s Woods?
Robert: William Penn is owed a debt of gratitude for opening up the state to the free-thinkers and the mystics and even the religiously disenfranchised. With such a diverse community, it’s no wonder that a tradition like Powwow could take root and flourish, and still survive into the 21st century.
PAA: How does the publication “THE WILLIAM AND MARY QUARTERLY” provide quality academic information about the religious lives of early German Americans?
Robert: I think it’s a fantastic resource for American history and folklore. I think anyone in the U.S. who wants to study American folk magic should absolutely focus on the academic history of the culture and
tradition they want to become a part of. The William and Mary Quarterly is an amazing place to start that journey.
PAA: Can you elaborate on the traditionally-held thought that one must be taught by a Braucher/Powwow in order to become a powwow?
Robert: It’s much like learning to cook from someone who knows how to cook. If you want to learn a tradition, it’s best to learn it by one who knows it and practices it. And despite the ease by which we can share things these days, the tradition remains an oral tradition at heart, meaning you’ll learn the really important “secret” stuff face-to-face.
PAA: How has the transmission of Powwow knowledge changed in modern times, with
information being shared more freely?
Robert: Modern technology provides us with so many tools to help us find and share information. Even though nothing can replace face-to-face interaction between a teacher and a student, it’s nice that we do have methods of sharing large amounts of information so easily and quickly. But in the end, the passing on of the tradition isn’t truly complete until you have that one-on-one in-person experience. It’s that personal passing on of knowledge and skill that really touches on something within humanity that we still need in this world, no matter how advanced we become. That mentor/student relationship needs that real
world experience to truly feel as if something is being shared and passed on.
PAA: Can you describe your personal experience with learning Powwow from real-life teachers
and how their methods of teaching differed?
Robert: I learned many things from many people and each of those experiences was different. One lady taught me only two things in a matter of just a few minutes then sent me on my way. Another gentleman invited me to his home to share with me some things he learned within his own family. A lady at my church taught me a Powwow remedy before mass on a Sunday morning. Another friend who is also a Powwower taught me many of the things he learned through many long conversations and Saturday
afternoons together. I’ve been a student of this tradition since the 1990’s and every learning
experience is unique but equally special.
PAA: What are the components of a healing charm in powwow?
Robert: Generally speaking, a healing ritual would involve spoken words and physical gestures. They may include a physical element, like the Bible or a stone or some branches.
PAA: Can you explain the significance of the spoken component, gesture or movement, and
repetition in performing a healing charm in powwow, and how do these elements work
together to achieve the desired result?
Robert: The particular words and gestures in a ritual have a power of their own. They have esoteric meanings that are taught when you learn from another Powwower. In addition, it is understood that God is the ultimate power behind the work we do.
PAA: Are there any rules or taboos in powwow?
Robert: There are a few things… You must do your rituals/charms exactly the way you were taught to do them… if your teacher asks you to keep something to yourself, you must do so or you risk losing your ability to Powwow… never accept payment for your work… no Powwowing should be done during Holy Week (I heard this one just this past year)… Those are just a few of our taboos. I suppose all traditions have such things.
PAA: What are some recommended resources for learning about powwow?
Robert: Patrick Donmoyer has an incredible book called “Powwowing in Pennsylvania” that I highly recommend. I also urge folks to check out my website www.PAGermanPowwow.com. I started the website in 2008, so it’s 15 years of information and resources I’ve gathered about all aspects of the tradition.
PAA: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Robert: If anyone is interested in incorporating Powwow into their lives, please reach out to me through my website. I’m always thrilled to meet folks who want to help keep this amazing cultural tradition alive and bring healing to their own communities.
PAA: Thank you Robert for spending the time and answering our questions so quickly.