Crossroads factor into many stories of the occult, strange, and astonishing. But, why? And who are these strange creatures that seem to be pulled towards to them to interact with humans? Like many special places in folklore such as bridges, dusk, and stairwells, crossroads act as a liminal space. Every magical being from fairies to Old Scratch himself has been rumored to be available to call upon or see at a crossroads. Crossroads also represent the need for a choice - if you are a traveler you must make a decision, which road will you take? And how could this direction change your life?
There are crossroads myths that date back to well before there were any roads for carts or cars and can be found all over the world from Africa to Europe to Asian. Crossroads myth and folklore also dates incredibly far back all the way to America in the 20th century, and perhaps even more recently.
Before I begin diving into the crossroads and the beings that guard, appear, or interact at the crossroads I do want to stress not that all aspects of the crossroad are necessarily or inherently evil. In fact, crossroads play an integral part of all sorts of magic. Commonly, an offering of food, wine, silver, or lavender is made at a triple crossroads when asking for advice when you are a metaphorical crossroads in your life. Many magical practices, such as a wash, also need to be poured out or completed on a crossroads to finish and solidify the magic.
Let’s begin with what Icy Sedgwick calls the “Daddy of crossroads legends”, the Devil. The Devil appearing at a crossroads is quite a popular through-line of the myth, however, Old Scratch appearing at a crossroads and offering fame, knowledge, power or fortune is one of the most popular crossroad deals you’ll hear in American myth. In America, he sometimes appears as a well-dressed man (typically white or black) offering you a wily deal that’s bound to end in disaster and, of course, with him getting another soul to add to his book.
One of the most infamous crossroads myths in America is that of Robert Johnson. In this story, Johnson does not begin as the great talent we recognize today. Frustrated as gig after gig landed him nothing and being asked to stop playing multiple times, he decided to make a deal with the devil...literally. The story goes that late at night Johnson made his way to a crossroads and expressed his intention and desire for a deal in the middle of them. Summoned, the devil took Johnson’s guitar out of Johnson’s hands and into his own, while strumming a few nearly unlistenable chords. When he was done, he handed back the guitar to Johnson. However, when Johnson played the notes came easy and talent flowed from him. Some of his lyrics are often nodded to as “proof” of this deal, such as “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)
Robert Johnson died early at the young age of 27, joining the infamous 27 club. Was his death the work of the devil, or simply bad luck?
In addition to devils, there are also animals of the crossroads. Oschaert, from Belgian folklore, was a black dog that haunted crossroads. A bit of a trickster, this creature often played tricks on those who are unknowingly wandered into one of his crossroads. Luckily, you could be saved from his trickery by standing in the dead center of the crossroads and waiting for Oschaert to leave, tail between his legs. Never fear cat-lovers, there is also a crossroads cat, often called the money cat. In order to conjure the cat, you must leave a food offering, particularly a dead hen until it shows itself to you. Then, it will allow you to take it home. Once in your house, it must be trapped in a box or corner of the house until it is tamed. You must take diligent care of it, including feeding it well and offering it treats. If you let it out early or if you do not take proper care of it, it will flee your home and curse you with bad luck.
Another figure of the crossroads is Papa Legba, an African trickster god, and the god of the roads. Like the crossroads itself, Legba is also a liminal being with the power to open the way between the world of the living ad the world of the dead. Gerdès Fleurant, a sociologist focusing on music and folklore, noted that without Papa Legba, “nothing can be done. No ceremony can take place. He is the one who opens the gates of the universe.” Unlike the devil at the crossroads, Papa Legba is typically helpful and kind, despite being a bit of a trickster. He is willing to help as long as you honor him with his favorite things (like candy) and treat him with respect and he will teach you what you wish to know or lead you to a choice when you are at an indecisive mental crossroads.
As mentioned before the crossroads are a powerful place to perform magic. According to Danish lore on midnight on New Year’s Eve if one stands within a rectangle formed by horse-cart tracks a ghost of any dead person can be summoned and will be forced to answer three questions of your choosing. It is said in German lore that if you’d like to hear the names of the people that will die in the coming year you simply need to visit a crossroads between 11p, and midnight on New Year’s Eve to hear the names called out by the wind.
Without a doubt, the crossroads are a place of great, time-old folklore, mystery, and myth. We urge caution when driving or walking through at night. And, if someone asks you to sign a book in a crossroads in exchange for fame and glory...we highly suggest you close the book and keep on moving.
The featured image is Crossroads by Flickr user Jacopo. It is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).