Saturday, May 7, 2011

Samedi: At the Crossroads

One of the most sacred places in West African and European folklore, probably from a very early time, was the place where two paths crossed.  This awe of the interchange between four directions did not leave either culture as they developed and it came to the New World with Europeans and Africans alike.  In the religions and magickal disciplines of Voudon, New Orleans voodoo and American hoodoo, crossroads are to be respected, utilized and sometimes even feared.

The respect for a crossroads, which does not usually include a place where one road terminates at another but only a place where two road cross paths, is shown in large and small ways.  It is not unusual in Haiti or the American south to see shrines set up at crossroads.  These can be built for specific spirits, to ancestors, as offerings of thanks or as petitions for help.  It is interesting to note that American Christians have followed this tradition, probably without knowing it, by building shrines to victims of car accidents at crossroads.  Little offerings are often left at crossroads, usually with the same frequency that they are left in cemeteries.  Some magickal workings call for dirt or stones from a crossroads.

Taking a little dirt from one is not the only way to work crossroad magick.  Many root workers routinely leave tricks or what has been left over from their work at crossroads.  A magickal packet might be buried at the crossroads to strengthen its power; the worker may or may not come back for it after a prescribed number of days.  Leavings from magickal work: the stumps of candles, ashes, spent herbs or stones and so on might also be buried at a crossroad as a means of magickal disposal.  This way not only is the item gotten rid of, so is the energy that clings to it.  Some root workers say that love spells can be enhanced by leaving items at each crossroad between the worker and the subject of the spell.  Likewise, leaving completely different items at each crossroad between the house of an enemy and the way out of town will encourage them to leave.  Some hoodoos even say that a person on the lam from the law should go to a crossroads and take nine steps backwards in the opposite direction from the one they plan to travel.  This is thought to fool the authorities, making them constantly search in the wrong place.

The fear of the crossroads has probably grown out of the belief that the Devil resides there, or will more readily appear there if called upon.  A dark crossroads has become the ideal place to make a pact with the Devil, probably owing to the legend of Robert Johnson.  Most people in the U.S. have some vague familiarity with the story of Johnson, the famous blues guitarist (who incidentally was said to have been born May 8, 1911).  Desperate to master the guitar but unable to, Johnson made an unusual decision.  He went to a crossroads outside Robinsonville, Mississippi in the dead of night and there called up the Devil.  Johnson exchanged his soul for an unearthly talent.  For a few years, Johnson knew the heady rewards of fame but he died suddenly in 1938 in Greenwood. 

Johnson was a talented artist, but after his death stories circulated that he couldn’t play guitar worth beans until one day when he miraculously became a virtuoso.  Though Johnson never claimed to have made a pact with the Christian Devil, the rumor sprang up and has been talked about to this day.  The old belief about handing over one’s soul merged with the power of the crossroads in the story of Robert Johnson and a legend was born. 

I remember my Aunt Bette always crossed herself when we drove through a crossroads.  She said it was “just a habit” when asked but she was a New Orleans Creole born and bred and wiser than she’d let on.  I always wondered if she, a great connoisseur of jazz and blues, thought of Johnson and his moment with the Devil as we rode through those lonely crossroads of south Jefferson parish.  Too late to ask now, but I still wonder.

Header: Crossroads by Paul Stanley (a painting of Robert Johnson by a member of KISS ~ how cool is that?)


Timmy! said...

"Oh, son, you sold your immortal soul... for THAT?"

"I wasn't using it."

Cool painting too, Pauline. Who knew Paul Stanley was a painter too?

Pauline said...

Thank you for the "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou" reference. I thought about going there and mentioning Tommy Johnson but hey, it's a blog post.