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Over Stock, Over Stone

Pennsylvania historian Ned Heindel tells an interesting story in his book Hexenkopf: History, Healing, and Hexerei. Shortly after the First World War, a Lehigh County man in Eastern Pennsylvania's Witch Country went to a lawyer seeking a divorce on the grounds that his wife was a witch.

The tale will sound familiar to any student of European witch-lore. One night the man can't sleep, having drunk too much coffee that day. (It is precisely this type of telling detail, the storyteller in me wants to add, that really brings a story to life.) In the middle of the night, the man's wife gets out of bed, picks up a broom, and utters an incantation in Pennsylvania German:

Uber stock und uber stein.

 Then she flies out the window. As it happens, it's Walpurgisnacht.

Curious, the man picks up a broom and tries it himself. He hurtles through the air to the Hexenkopf (“witch's head”), the local Sabbat Mount where the witches go for their big jamborees. (Where there's witches, there's a sabbat mount.*) A big fire is burning, people are dancing: you've been there, you know what I'm talking about. When his wife sees him, she takes him to a table where little black guys with tails are handing out drinks. The guy takes one, and after a few sips, conks out. (Cowans just can't hold their liquor.) He wakes up next morning in the neighbor's pig sty, smeared with shit. He wants a divorce.

Heindel adds the telling detail that the lawyer (sagely enough) recommended against legal action, and that “the case was settled out of court.”

This is fascinating stuff. We see here Old Country witch lore naturalizing to a new American locus. This is, in fact, precisely how these things tend to work: when people travel, they take their mythologies with them. One could easily retell this story from the witch's perspective, and in very real terms. She married a cowan, but who wants to miss May Eve? He follows her to the sabbat, the witches get him drunk, and dump him.

There's much to comment on here, but for now I'd like to focus on the charming little flight-spell that the witch-wife uses. The literal meaning is “Over tree and over stone,” which does the job in a prose-y kind of way. But we can do better.

Stock in German means a tree-trunk, and in fact that's exactly what it used to mean in English not so very long ago. The meaning has survived in various stock (!) expressions: standing stock still, coming from good stock. (Think family tree.) You may remember druid saint Simon Stock, a 13th century English hermit, so-called because he lived in a hollow tree-trunk. So to the native English-speaker, “stock” is comprehensible, but has a charmingly “hidden,” archaic feel to it. Of course, that's exactly what gives something a witchy sound, and that's exactly what one wants for this kind of thing.

This impression is magnified (and the phrase bound together) by the alliteration as well. This also gives the phrase an archaic ring because alliteration was the primary organizing principle of ancient Germanic poetry, and many expressions bound together aurally and conceptually by alliteration have survived into modern English usage: house and home, kith and kin, might and main.

Personally, I think it scans better in English without the “and,” but you can make your own call on that one. Try it just before you leave for your next sabbat (and better it be if you've just schmeered on the dwale):

Over stock, over stone.

Got a nice, witchy ring to it, don't you think?

Oh: but for gods' sakes, leave the cowan at home.


*The Black Mountain is the Mt. Olympus of Craft mythology, the place to which one goes to encounter the gods. While it is first and foremost a place of dream and story, it also incarnates (so to speak) in local landscapes everywhere. Where's yours?

 

Ned D. Heindel, Hexenkopf: History, Healing, and Hexerei (2009). Easton, PA: Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society, 2nd edition.

This fascinating study of the Hexenkopf, a real local landmark in Williams County, PA, is available only directly from the County Museum ($20 plus postage). You can contact them by calling 610-253-1222. Let's flood them with orders and make them wonder what's going on.

I don't know whether the local Pennsylvania pagans have started utilizing this legendary location as a site for rituals yet. I certainly hope that they have.


Illustration: Title illustration from Johannes Praetorius'  Blocksberg Verrichtung (1668)

 

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

Comments

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    I enjoy your writings, Steven. Just want to point out that "Breeding Stock" can also refer to cattle.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 28 May 2014

    Thanks, Ted. I checked the OED for clarification (8 pages of definitions for "stock"!); according to which, the use of "stock" for animals (as in "livestock" or "breeding stock") derives originally from a figurative usage of the tree trunk meaning. Which of the two gave rise to the phrase in question I don't know. So you may well be right.

    To quote my favorite oracle: Reply hazy, try again later.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Thursday, 29 May 2014

    I love the OED, though it's a lot harder to lift now than when I was 20. I also love word derivations, so thanks for researching that for me. How funny that "livestock" could even derive from that figurative stump - as you say, as in family tree. I'm no stranger to being behind the 8 ball, so I welcome the deeper insight!
    Thank you.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 29 May 2014

    Have you noticed how the print keeps getting smaller and smaller, too?

    My dad always says, "Age spares us nothing."

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