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“The Folklore of the Texas Wends” by Charles Wukasch

Sunday 12 July 2015 at 05:13 am.

This article by Dr Wukasch first appeared in Concordia Connections 5.3 (1988): 8. 

The Wends pioneered Lutheranism in Texas when they settled in the Serbin (Lee County) area in 1854. Many Concordia alumni are of Wendish ancestry. The letters "sch" in conjunction (as in the author's name) are often seen in Wendish names.

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All cultures express themselves partly through their folklore: the anonymous, informal body of tales, songs, and superstitions which are handed down from generation to generation. The Wends who immigrated to Texas in 1854 were no exceptions. They brought with them the folklore of the old country and, further, also developed new folklore in Texas.

Traditional Wendish folklore has its roots in the misty, pagan past, before recorded history. Stories about the wodny muz (the water troll) and the zmij (the kobold) continued to be told throughout the centuries.

Among the older Wends in Texas, remnants of these old beliefs can still be found. The most common tales still in existence are those of the zmij, a mythical creature which attached itself to people's homes and then brought the occupants an endless supply of various things. Although the zmij was a seemingly benevolent creature, the tales make it clear that it was wrong to make use of its demonical powers. One tale I have collected in the Texas community is the following:

A boy finds a baby chicken shivering out in the pasture. He brings it inside, sets it behind the cookstove to let it get warm, and gives it some feed. The next morning, he discovers a big pile of feed in the kitchen. The "chicken" is in reality a zmij and has produced a pile of feed by magic. The boy's father orders the boy to take the zmij back to the pasture.

Some of the beliefs, even if never taken seriously by adults, undoubtedly once served a didactic purpose for the youth of the community. Elderly Texas Wends tell of the wodny muz, a type of water creature which could carry children off. This creature was probably used as a warning to the young not to swim alone in creeks and ponds.

Tales and beliefs about the zmij and the wodny muz have their origins in the original homeland of the Wends. Other tales, however, originated in Texas. The Rev. John Kilian, the first pastor of the Texas Wends, plays a role in the following interesting tale collected in the Texas community:

A little girl is playing in the cemetery of St. Paul's church in Serbin. She taunts the occupants of the graves by saying "catch me, catch me." A hand suddenly seizes her and she begins screaming. Rev. Kilian is called to help and then succeeds in praying her free.

Like the warnings about the wodny muz, this tale also serves a didactic purpose: Children should be quiet and respectful in cemeteries.

It is unfortunate that traditional Wendish folklore is disappearing in the community, but such is the nature of folklore. In an increasingly modernized culture, with television taking the place of storytelling sessions organized by parents and grandparents, traditional folklore is bound to vanish.

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Dr. Charles Wukasch joined the faculty of Concordia as an adjunct professor in January, 1988. His postgraduate work includes a semester in the Dept. of Wendish, University of Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, in 1965. He has published articles in scholarly journals and given papers at professional meetings on the language and folklore of the Texas Wends.

Dr Wukasch is currently teaching at Austin Community College.

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