James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
“I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the lord above ‘have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please.’” – Robert Johnson, Cross Road Blues (recorded 1936, released 1937).
Boundaries are thin at cross roads, where the unlikely occurs and the unworldly cross over. They are liminal spaces, thresholds and gateways to other worlds, and where magic has more power. Liminality occurs at boundary times, where two opposing ideals meet, such as sunset where day turns into night. Perhaps the best known example of this is Halloween/Samhain evening, where summer turns into winter and day turns into night, and the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. The crossroads are a meeting of two directions, where a traveler must make a choice between continuing straight ahead and turning onto a new path directly away from the old one.
One of the most well-known tales of the crossroads occurred in the south-eastern United States. The story tells of Robert Johnson, a young blues player, who wanted musical fame. Robert heard voices one night, telling him to take his guitar down to the crossroads at midnight. As he stood there waiting, a tall dark man walked up and told Robert he could have his fame in exchange for his soul. Robert agreed, the stranger took Robert’s guitar and tuned it. After receiving the guitar back, Robert played a few licks and was amazed at his improvement. When he looked back up, the dark stranger was gone. For now. At least that’s how the story goes. As to its truth? We’ll get back to that soon…
In a country as relatively young as America, this seems like an old story. Many cultures have their own tales of crossroads, some reaching back centuries or further. The Northwestern area of Europe is particular dense with them, but the United States is not the only New World country to have myths about the crossroads.
The Guatemalan God Maam was an underworld deity until he was taken into the college of saints by the Catholic Church. He is now Saint Maximon and is pictured seated at a crossroads outside churches (although his veneration into sainthood is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, he is widely honored). Cross-culturally, werewolves were said to transform from man to wolf at crossroads, typically during a full moon. In Brazil, bits of lupine lore are combined, and the person must be at a crossroads, with it being just after midnight on Friday. Ixpuztec is the Mayan Goddess of suicides, an action which did not have the same stigma there as it did in Christian countries. She would attack those she wanted to join her in the Underworld at crossroads. In Umbanda, a religion of Brazil, the image of death is associated with Exu, lord of the crossroads who rules the midnight and the cemeteries, all three being things of liminality (the border of direction, or day, and of the afterlife). The soucouyant is a Caribbean creature that resembles an old woman by day, but then whom shapeshifts at night into a fierce fireball that blazes across the sky in search of victims. Spreading rice around your house or at the nearby crossroads ensures your safety, as it will have to pick up every grain before continuing on.
As mentioned, there are a great many tales from across the British Isles that involve crossroads. Across the British Isles, standing stones are erected at crossroads, for sundry reasons. Some lore tells of the stones being used to keep the Fae from entering the world through these threshold locations. Some tales discuss the stones being the frozen fingers of trolls and other land wights. Drab historians will try to convince us that they were simply put to delineate borders, but is it not just as likely the stones are used to trap beings who were best kept under the ground? One such example is Canrig Bwt who sleeps under a stone in northern Wales at Llanberis and who dined upon children’s brains. Another Welsh witch lay beneath three crossroads stones at Crumlyn, Monmouthshire.
The Welsh also believed every crossroad is inhabited by the spirits of the dead on All Hallows Eve. You can also come across fairy dogs at the crossroads, at which meeting you need to avoid or run away from before it barks three times. If you’re still present at the third bark, you are doomed to die soon. Even worse than the smaller fairy dogs, is the Gwyllgi, a large deep black dog. It haunts lonely roads, but is said by some to favor crossroads. Even seeing the Gwyllgi is a sure sign of doom. Wales also has the Gwrach y Rhibyn, a monstrous old woman with corpse-like looks, who cries at those about to die, similarly to the Gael’s banshee. Typically she is found at crossroads or a running stream, but will also sometimes come up to your window at night. On the Isle of Man, evil spirits and bad luck could be swept away by sweeping a crossroads clean at midnight (which, by the way, is another liminal time – the border of one day to the next, just like sundown).
In Ireland, the bodies of those who were unconsecrated were considered unholy and buried at crossroads. This was not only to keep them out of sanctified cemeteries, but it was thought that it would keep them buried and unable to return as undead creatures. If they were able to dig their way out, being buried there would at least would confuse them on which direction to take if they did claw their way up. The crossroads were also a place where humans could escape the fairy realm, as they would be able to more naturally cross over into their own world at the liminal intersection.
In England, suicides were buried at crossroads. Considered to be a mortal sin, the self-made victims could not be buried in church graveyards. This practice continued from at least the 14th century until it was abolished by law in the early 1800s. For this same reason, gallows were erected at crossroads, as the outlaws hung were not wanted near holy spots. Just as this resembles lore from Ireland, England also has tales that resemble the dogs from Wales. The Black Shuck is a large black dog that appears at crossroads, as well as places of executions and paths to the Otherworld. It, like the Welsh Gwyllgi, is an omen of death. Coffin bearers could also safely rest their burden at crossroads, on their way to the cemetery along the “corpse way.”
Just south of the British Isles, across the English Channel in Brittany, they speak of a money cat, a black magical feline who gives silver coins. Of course it must be taken care of, as it gives the coins only while being petted and you must give it the first food of each meal. From this cat come many of the folklore tales of black cats. In regards to crossroads, however, it is at this location the cat can be obtained, with the invoking of an evil spell. It is also possible to get the money cat by going to the crossroads several nights in a row with a dead hen, until the cat is sufficiently enticed to show itself. Once the cat is taken to your home, you must keep it trapped in a box and must feed it well until completely tame. If you let it out too early, it will leave and you will have bad luck. The Gaulic and pan-Celtic horse Goddess Epona would show herself to those she considered worthy of aid, if the petitioner called for her at crossroads. This legend persists into modern times with the sightings of a dark woman on a white horse if someone would turn their own horse around three times at the crossing, both here and especially the north of England.
Moving to the east, Germanic lore says that you can become the servant of Der Teufel at the crossroads in exchange for getting your heart’s desire. Der Teufel is an old pagan monster who lives in the woods, which the Christian church co-opted into being considered the devil, Satan, once the old religion was replaced. Instead of being a temporary servant for your desire, it morphed to the permanent selling of your soul. Witches in Germany also met at crossroads, which is where the tradition of cracking whips at the intersections on Walpurgis Night came from, for to scare the witches away (as if that would work). There are also ghostly horsemen in Germany who will prevent you from crossing the intersection. It appears that how benevolent or malevolent ghostly horses act at the crossroads is very dependent on what European country they are in!
Heading south, we find Roman beliefs in the Lares, who were the guardians of families, crossroads, and cities, with a later attribution of fertility. Lares Compitales were specifically the guardians of crossroads, with shrines being erected at these locations to honor them. They were also honored at the annual festival, Compitalia, which was sometimes held at crossroads.
Nearby in Greece, the God Hermes is a patron of travelers and has images set in marker stones at crossroads. He is attested to in writings, most notably by Anyte of Tegea in the third century BCE with “I, Hermes, stand here at the crossroads by the wind beaten orchard, near the hoary grey coast; and I keep a resting place for weary men.” Additional Greek myth tells of Heracles coming to a crossroads and being met by two women, the personifications of Virtue and Vice. They both show how his actions, whether long term or short term, will benefit him. Naturally in the end, being the hero of the tale, Heracles chooses Virtue’s path.
Perhaps more important, and most assuredly so for modern witches and neo-pagans, is Hecate, the Greek Goddess of witches and of crossroads. She can point you in the right direction or make you lose your way. She can also give you guidance when it comes to life choices, but that does not mean the advice is easily puzzled out. She is very much a liminal deity, also guarding gates and thresholds between the civilized lands and the wilderness. It was at the crossroads that sacrifices would be performed to honor her. Now depicted as a crone, due to Christian influences, she was originally considered to be quite beautiful and is still considered such by her worshippers.
Continuing through Europe, Romanian lore tells us that vampire and witches met at crossroads in less traveled areas, which is odd given that this is also a location where burial renders them harmless. There is also Eastern European lore that speaks of Ieles, large bipedal feline creatures who would attack people and drink their blood. The crossroads were a favored hunting location, but they were also a source of protection, if you stood in the very center and did not leave that spot until the ieles left. Hopefully you’re good at geometry and have a strong bladder. Not only were they fierce hunters, but could hex people as well. A similar beast from Belgium is the Oschaert. Although it was a black dog instead of feline, and would play tricks instead of casting hexes, it could be defended from by standing in the middle of the crossroads.
Heading further east, we find, Lu Tou, a God of crossroads and of wealth in China. Those who live on Bali leave food at crossroads to entice the devils who plague the island. The food is an attempt to appease the devils, while torches are then lit and men shout for them to go away in an attempt to scare them off.
Sarutahiko Okami is a God of Crossroads in Japanese lore. His name means “monkey-field prince great god,” and so of course he has a slight monkey-like appearance in some tales. In this case, the crossroads are between heaven and earth. Alternatively, he is also depicted as human, but with a very prominent nose, as a physical representation of his additional aspect of male sexuality. As he would stand at the crossroads, he would shine so greatly that he could be seen in the heavens. Another Japanese God of crossroads is Chimata-No-Kami, who was also considered a phallic god, giving a possible connection between the crossroads and male potency. Rokuharamitsuji is a temple located at Fudarakusan at which is located the Crossroads of the Six Realms, a liminal location between this world and the next. Another Japanese deity is Jizo, the God of travelers and family. Statues of him are placed at crossroads.
India and Jewish Folklore
Coming back towards the west in India, Bhairava is their God of crossroads. He is an older version of the Great God Siva and guards the outskirts of villages where danger lurks at the intersections. Buddhism has Mara, the Goddess of evil and death, who haunted out of the way places, specifically crossroads.
Jewish lore tells of the crossroads being used as a focus to create more powerful love potions and was useful for memory incantations. It is also believed that you can cure a fever by collecting an ant at the crossroads, as long as the ant is carrying a burden and you collect it in a copper tube. Sounds particularly difficult since you also have a fever. Perhaps this is an instance where you get supernaturally help by helping yourself, by dropping food on the ground so the ant has a burden to pick up.
Finishing up on Africa, Legba is an African God and who was a major deity in the diaspora of Africans into the new world. He is the guard of the crossroads and opens the way between worlds. He is a large figure in Hoodoo, a ritualistic religion that combines varying amounts of magic, African paganism, and Catholicism, depending on your practice. The crossroads were used in practice as a cleansing agent, where you throw left over objects into the middle of the intersection and then turn around and leave it, making sure not to look back. Much of the magic is also considered more potent when performed at the crossroads. It is considered the best place to learn a skill, where eventually a large black man, meaning the color of pitch and not the skin tone, will come and give you the gift of greatness in the skill. This deity has been conflated into the devil, where the stories such as Robert Johnson’s have eventually came from, although in oral tradition it is Papa Legba or a similar being, and most definitely not the Christian devil.
This leads us back to Robert Johnson, whose folktale uses these aspects of African lore. Did he sell his soul for fame at the crossroads? If he did, the song Crossroad Blues is not an admission. It comes from a time in America’s history where it was very dangerous for black men and women to walk after dark. The lyrics paint a more vivid picture of physical danger than of spiritual. However, the story may still have a kernel of truth, considering another song of his.
“I got to keep movin’, blues fallin’ down like hail… And the day keeps on worrin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.” -- Hellhound on my Trail, Robert Johnson (1937)
Listening to his plaintive voice in this recording can give one chills. Although the song has its roots in southern United States and religious lore, the best works of art are those that the artist has a personal connection to. Perhaps he should have swept away his bad luck and evil spirits at the crossroads rather than have the devil tune his guitar, although that would have deprived the world of his great contribution to the blues.
Death Gods: an encyclopedia of the rulers, evil spirits, and Geographies of the Dead (Ernest Abel)
The Fantasy Encyclopedia (Judy Allen)
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology (Theresa Bane)
Dark and Dastardly Dartmoor (Sally Barber and Chips Barber)
A Dictionary of Fairies (Katherine Briggs)
The Mythology of Supernatural: the Signs and Symbols Behind the Popular TV Show (Nathan Brown)
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism (Geoffrey Dennis)
The Golden Bough (James Fraser)
Fairy Magick: Spells, Potions, and Lore from the Earth Spirits (Sirona Knight)
Celtic Myth & Magick: Harness the Power of the Gods & Goddesses (Edain McCoy)
Crossroads: a southern culture annual (Ted Olson)
British Goblins (Wirt Sykes)
© 2016 James Slaven
James Slaven (author) from Indiana, USA on August 02, 2016:
Thank you, Gabrielle! Are you at WVU? I lived in Morgantown for nearly 8 years (I worked at NIOSH, but also taught a few classes at WVU). I love the state and miss it. :)
Andrea, I'll do my best to rectify that. I certainly don't want to miss out on anything like that for myself, too!
Andrea on August 02, 2016:
Liked your piece but your research doesn't include the Australian Aborigines!
Gabrielle on August 01, 2016:
Very nice!! I'm a folklore minor in WV, and very much enjoyed reading this! I have heard the story of Robert Johnson from a very close friend of his!! Cool to come across it here!!
James Slaven (author) from Indiana, USA on July 31, 2016:
Thank you so much, Polly! I usually focus on the British Isles, but I really wanted to fit in Robert Johnson, which meant the States, and I thought "why stop there?" Plus, there wasn't enough for just the US. :)
Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on July 31, 2016:
Fantastic piece, James. We have lots of folklore, witchcraft, and superstitions around crossroads in Britain and Ireland. I'd not studied it on a global scale though, and it's interesting to see just how common the belief that these are liminal spaces is among different cultures.