Hex Signs

Article by Rebecca
Image by Will Hobbs (www.sirwilliamwesley.com)

We have all heard different things referred to as a “dying art form”. What is worse is an art form that isn’t dying, yet no one is sure what it means because no one cared until it was too late. That was the impression I was left with after visiting the Berks County area in Pennsylvania to learn about hex signs.

Hex signs, at their most basic, can be defined as geometric folk art associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Driving around the Berks area you will see these giant disks decorating barns. Sure, they are colorful and decorative, but what does it mean?

You see, there are several schools of thought in regards to the hex sign. They’re all very interesting, and if you want to learn more I would suggest “Hex Signs” by Don Yoder and Thomas E. Graves, or better yet, to visit the area. Now that we’ve established that there is a lot of potential information and speculation attached to these symbols, you can forgive me for hitting the high points.

One approach is to view the hex signs as Dutch folk art, which regardless of what else these signs may be, they are most definitely art. Hex signs appear on important documents and are incorporated into furniture dating back to the 1800s. Scholars say there were/are eight basic designs that are the root of all hex signs: rosette, four-point star, five-point star, six-point star, eight-point star, twelve-point star, swirling swastika, and wheel-of-fortune (or barn wheel). These were put on barns as decoration and to establish an ethnic identity.

Other folklore associates the hex sign with an occult element. They argue that the term hex comes from the German word for witch, hexe. Some interviews have revealed that hex signs on barns may have a talismanic purpose, such as being there to promote fertility, protect livestock, provide good luck, etc. With hex signs, being giant disc with radiating designs also provides a possible link to the sun disc symbolism, central to the worship of the sun. There are hexologists who have dedicated years towards trying to discover the underlying meaning of these symbols, and there are modern artists that create their own hex signs based on these principles.

In addition, as some argue with the evidence of swastikas on ancient structures, hex signs are basic designs. Symbols that a farmer could handle and that they were just born out of the inevitable desire for easy embellishment of the family barn.

Unfortunately, the family farm is a dwindling enterprise. With the sale or abandonment of barns, so goes the hex sign. At this point the owners of most barns that display hex signs will tell you that they are there because their father had them on his barn and his father did too, etc. or that they are there to remain true to the architectural design of the era. The fact is, no one concerned themselves with hex signs until there was no one left to definitively explain if they hold a deeper meaning.

In my opinion, it’s personal belief that gives a symbol its power. For example, a cross probably is not a very potent symbol to a Muslim, but obviously for a Christian it symbolizes the very basis of their faith. For some, a hex sign is an impressive folk art legacy, if you chose they could symbolize more.