This article is from the Spell/Hex FAQ, by cat firstname.lastname@example.org with numerous contributions by others.
Generally speaking, a magical spell is a formula that may
involve spoken, written, or chanted words; symbolic
enactments; candle burning; ritual baths; burning of
incense; sprinkling of powders, salts, or dusts; and/or the
manufacture and deployment of charms, amulets, or talismans.
The purposes of spells are varied. They include "drawing" or
wish-fulfillment in regard to love, money, and good fortune;
apotropaic, "banishing" or "drive-away" spells for ridding
oneself of unwanted influences; "jinxing," "crossing," or
"cursing" spells to bring bad luck or harm to another,
"binding" spells to keep someone's magic from affecting
you or others, and "summoning" spells to call up spirits,
ghosts, or even demons.
"Hex" comes from the German word for witchery or sorcery,
"Hexencraft." It is a regionally popular word in America's
Pennsylvania Dutch country, where it refers to a symbolic
drawing (usually a six-sided figure in a circle, related to
the Greek word "hex," or "six," as in "hexagon"). Hexes
are made to protect farm animals to draw love, to symbolize
and strengthen a marriage, or to break a curse. The term
hexencraft (the making of hexes) has a different meaning
in Pennsylvania Dutch than in German, where it refers to
magical spells in general, and may also include medical
herbology. One who makes hexes is a "hexmeister"
You may have been told or have read in a dictionary that
the "hexes" of Pennsylvania Dutch folk-magic are evil or
malign in intention. People say the same thing about
African-American hoodoo and European witchcraft --
they use the words hex and hoodoo and bewitch as verbs
synonymous with "curse" or "magically harm," leaving off
any mention of the love spells, prosperity spells, animal
fertility spells, or home protection spells that are
worked in these traditions. This is not done out of
malice but because they are describing essentially
alien cultures to their own and they have not bothered
to research the subject thoroughly
Luckily, vocabulary-ignorance only affects the people
who are misusing a word -- it doesn't infect the actual
culture in which the term originated. Thus, if you were
to go to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, right now and ask
for a hex, you would not be given a curse, you would be
given the Pennsylvaia Dutch version of a sigil, talisman,
veve, or seal -- a six-sided geometrical image to be
used for magical purposes.
In some regions (e.g. in the Ozarks) hexencraft or
Germanic-rooted peasant-style folk-magic is called
"Pow-Wow magic" after the book "Pow-Wows or the Long Lost
Friend" first published in 1820 in Pennsylvania (in German)
and then in English in the 1840s. "Pow-Wow magic" --
that is, Ozarks-style hexencraft -- forms one of the
bases for the Faerie (or Feri) Tradition of Neo-Paganism
transmitted by Victor and Cora Anderson.
"Hoodoo," "conjure" (or "conjuration"), "rootwork," and
"laying down tricks" are also regionally popular terms
for spell-casting, either benevolent and malevolent. They
come from the African-American culture and are common
terms all over the United States in the black community.
Italian spell-craft is called stregharia. In Mexico the
word is brujeria, usually translated as "witchcraft."