One of the largest hurdles that those of us who study and practice folk magic traditions faces is the lousy research and misinformation that is perpetuated in modern 'magical' literature. Thanks to the new age boom in the 1990's, the shelves of the bookstores are weighed down by poor academia, historical revisionism, and just plain old bad writing. And sadly, it is this information that has been used as the foundation for magical practice for the past 20 years. When I was first introduced to the actual practice of powwowing, it was through the lens of a neopagan organization founded and run by an author famous for her poor scholarship. But in those days I was young (in my mid 20's) and extremely impressionable, and so I didn't realize that the history she was teaching was actually a lie. When I branched out on my own and set my pre-conceived notions and desires aside, I was able to study actual history and academia, and that's when my powwowing work really began.
Piecing together the history of folk magic traditions isn't easy. You have to first dig through the misinformation that is out there. That information is easy to spot. In addition to almost any title with a crescent moon on the cover, most of these publications are categorized under the headings of "new age" or "wicca" or something similar. But it's important to remember that actual folk magic traditions are a part of our history. And, within that history, they are pieces of actual and established cultures. In other words, the best way to learn about folk magic is by learning about the people who are associated with that folk magic.
The study of Pennsylvania German powwowing, with the intent of establishing yourself as a practitioner and authority on the subject, requires several approaches, which I've outlined here for you to consider. And keep in mind that these are the steps (more or less) that I adhered to in order to piece together a proper history and understanding of the tradition.
1.- Skip the New Age/Occult/Wicca section of the bookstore. Don't even go in that direction, it won't help you. Those books are generally written with one thing in mind.....fame. Those authors want to have that book under their belt so they can give themselves some type of credentials within the neopagan world. And, indeed, that's all it really takes in that community. Unfortunately, academia and scholarship are often left at the door with many of those works. So skip that section, it's not a proper approach.
2.-Go to the library. In that library, seek out the history of the culture you are interested in. In the case of Pennsylvania German culture, there is a wealth of information out there. You have to first ask yourself who are the people that make up this culture? Start there and learn about those people. Since we're talking about folk magic, you also have to research the beliefs of those people. What were the prevailing religions? What were those religions like prior to the immigration of those people? If you are looking at an American folk magic tradition, find out the history of the churches for those people. And, of equal importance, learn the history of the areas where those people settled here. That's where you'll find the creation of the folk magic traditions. Remember to ask yourself: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, and To What Extent. All of these things can be asked in regards to the people and culture and beliefs and location of the folks you are studying.
3.-Remain neutral. Don't study with an agenda of proving something. Study with an agenda of LEARNING about those people. When it comes to our American folk magic traditions, keep in mind that these people are our cultural ancestors. It does them an injustice to superimpose our romanticized ideals onto them. It insults their memories. In my case, my ancestors weren't particularly "magical". However, they were members of the Reformed church in Austria and it was a tremendous leap of faith for them to leave their lives behind and come here to Pennsylvania to establish themselves. Had they not made that sacrifice and brave move, I wouldn't be here. It would be a dishonor for me to pretend they were something other than what they were. History is amazing, and the more truth you learn about your family's history, the more power there will be in your practice of their folk magic.
4.-Take it for what it is. If you learn that the culture was responsible for horrors beyond imagining, take it for what it is. It's still history. It's still a part of the culture that created the folk tradition you are studying. Take that information and understand it for what it really is: a piece of history. A necessary piece that helped to mold things into what they are today.
5.-Don't speculate. Putting assumptions onto the actions of our ancestors is not real history and it certainly isn't scholarly. Saying things like "My great great grandfather painted this star hex sign to protect his barn. I'm sure he understood this symbol to represent the three-fold Mother Goddess...". No. He probably didn't. But unless you found his diary explaining his reasoning, all you really know is that he painted a star. What is the historical and cultural significance of those stars? That's more likely your answer. Don't get crazy, stick to real history and facts.
6.-Don't assume that because the ancients of a country did something, that means your ancestry did it too. Just because my ancestors (some of them, at any rate) came from Austria, it does not mean they were Heathens. It does not mean they were even very good Christians. All I really know of them is that they were members of the Reformed church and remained members when they came to Pennsylvania. There is no evidence to suggest they kept any type of heathen beliefs alive. What we know from history is that much of Austria was Catholic in the 1800's. The Reformed Germans were something of a minority. There is no evidence of pagan beliefs active at the time. And, since I can't trace my family back any further, that's all I really know.
7.-Don't assume that because your last name means something, that this is an indication of your connection to a pagan past. My last name means "Merchant". It's English in origin. However, to trace the line of my last name is nearly impossible. It isn't a straight line, as anyone who studies family history will know. And when you take on the study of your family, you can't go back very far, trust me. Your last name is your connection to a great big long list of people, with various beliefs and lifestyles and origins. You can't make narrow assumptions. Your last name may very well be an accident. In my case, Chapman isn't even the name I was given at birth. So there are many things to consider. Don't assume you know all there is to know about your lineage by your last name. It's so much more complex than that.
8.-ALWAYS CITE YOUR SOURCES. Remember that the more historical and academic your sources are, the more correct your information will be, and the more seriously you will be taken. In order to be a student of a folk magic tradition, you literally need to become an academic and a scholar. Always cite your sources. If you are presenting information online, link to your resources. Personal gnosis doesn't count as academia. Also, try not to link to your own work, unless you are doing so as a reference, not a resource. Also remember to be prepared to have your work challenged. If you are making claims, prepare to back up those claims with actual academia. In this day and age of misinformation, it is crucial to the preservation of culture that you are doing things properly. That means that when you are challenged, you can confidentaly prove that what you say is true.
9,- Ask questions of people who know. There are many learned individuals out there. Ask them questions. Track down the real authorities. Let them know your interest in preserving a piece of culture.
10.-Immerse yourself in the culture. Live it. That's how you'll learn it. That's how you'll understand it. Without an understanding of how that culture formed and lived, you won't have a proper understanding of it's folk magic. If you don't have that personal connection, you are essentially playing a game of pretend.
11. Stick to it. Don't give up. The information is out there, but you have to be persistent. Go to local Historical Societies, go to the library, ask the older folks who may remember, just keep going. Don't ever think you know all there is to know, because there is always more.
12.-Be true to the history and culture of the people. Your study of a specific folk magic tradition is also an effort to preserve that bit of culture. Be true to it. Don't make it something it is not. Be faithful to the people who lived it. Keep it alive to preserve culture and history and honor those who made up that culture.