The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
Folk tales and blues songs recount journeys to crossroads. For those with a magical orientation, crossroads are the locations believed most conducive for successful spell-casting. Those of other orientations identify crossroads as the devil’s territory.
Exactly what are crossroads and what’s so special about them?
Despite all the legend and lore, superficially at least, crossroads are just intersecting roads. The most common varieties are three-way and four-way crossroads, although once in a while a five-way crossroad presents itself, as well as those offering even more roads to choose from. The “ways” of a crossroad indicate the possible number of available paths or choices: a three-way crossroad usually forms the shape of a “T” or “Y” while a four-way crossroad forms an “X” shape.
Magically speaking, of course, a “path” or “road” is more than just a cleared, paved street. Your “road” or “path” is also your destiny; literally and metaphorically, crossroads offer choices, change, opportunity and the ability to determine (or at least try to determine) one’s own future.
From a magical perspective, all energies converge and diverge at the crossroads.
Every type of spirit eventually passes the crossroads too, thus, if one has a little patience, it is the most likely place to encounter them. Journeying to a crossroads almost inevitably empowers magic spells and personal magical energy.
True magic involves manipulation of natural magical energy and power; the point where two lines intersect is considered especially powerfully charged, absolutely radiant with magical energy. After all, as they teach in elementary geometry, a line radiates from a point. The concept of the magically powerful crossroads exists virtually worldwide. It is common to a tremendous number of magical traditions.
Crossroads are prime arenas for casting magic spells. Crossroads are also associated with the safe and effective disposal of magically charged items. Spells often leave remnants, the equivalent of leftovers or garbage or, from an energy perspective, nuclear waste: these items include bits of candle wax, left-over food or fabric, the contents of now obsolete charm bags, and so forth. The spell isn’t complete until these items have been carefully and safely laid to rest.
Crossroads are the appropriate place to dispose of these items, whether by burying, dispersing them into the air or placing in a trash can, so that their energy safely dissipates or, conversely, so that their energy finds the correct path to accomplish its goal.
In many Latin American magical traditions, crossroads are the place to leave spiritually contaminated objects or objects that radiate dangerous magical energy, such as those associated with illness.
A literal crossroads is a conjunction of two roads. Midnight is a metaphoric crossroads in time. It’s where day meets night and is considered a very magically powerful moment. Time and space can converge to create one of the most powerful magical places of all: a crossroads at midnight, especially on a special magic night, say Halloween or Midsummer’s Eve. Journey to the crossroads during this time and tradition suggests that one will encounter ghosts and spirits. Expect the Wild Hunt and Fairy Host to troop past.
Witches and other magical practitioners desiring either to avail themselves of the natural radiant power or to dance with the spirits, linger at crossroads too, especially on those magically charged nights.
Witches weave their spells at crossroads, sometimes literally. In Slavic tradition, witches bring their looms and spindles to crossroads during the Full Moon, where they simultaneously spin thread, weave tapestries, and/or weave spells. These witches require privacy although they are not inherently harmful: anyone interrupting or accidentally witnessing them will find themselves bewitched to sleep. They’ll wake in the morning when the witches have gone.
Crossroads are understood to be populated by hosts of divergent spirits. However certain spirits are especially identified with crossroads and are often classified as “Crossroads Spirits” or “Gatekeepers.” Sometimes they’re called “Road Openers” too.
In magical parlance, these spirits “own the roads”; in plain English this means that these spirits provide and prevent opportunities and success. Those spirits who own roads permit or even encourage Opportunity to arrive at your door. Conversely, if displeased or in the mood for tricks, these spirits keep Opportunity far away, dooming one to stagnation at best, failure at worst.
Among the most famous road-owning spirits are Eshu-Elegbara, Hecate, Hermes, and Pomba Gira. (See DIVINE WITCH: Hecate, Hermes; HORNED ONE: Exu.) In general, three-way crossroads are associated with female spirits; four-way crossroads with male.
Once upon a time, back in ancient Greece, in order to contact Hermes one erected a cairn of stones at one of his crossroads. These cairns eventually evolved into monuments known as “herms.” The traditional herm was a monolith, a solid block of stone featuring a man’s head at the top and an erect phallus sticking out. (The oldest, simplest herms didn’t even bother with the head.) Traditional herms were very simple; eventually they incorporated artistic touches and were personalized to indicate the god whose power was embodied. Many herms are crowned by Hermes’ characteristic traveler’s hat, for instance. (Herms, as their name indicates, almost always portray Hermes; a few however depict Dionysus instead.)
Herms were the ancient equivalent of modern roadside shrines. Those who wished to beseech Hermes’ favor made offerings there. Women seeking personal fertility, which Hermes allegedly bestows, ornamented herms with floral garlands and wreathes as part of spiritual petition.
In ancient geometric symbolism, a T-shape reproduces the potent, sacred unification of male and female energies: the long vertical bar represents male genitalia, the horizontal bar, female. (The Y-shape is perhaps even more explicit: the vertical bar represents the phallus, the downward pointed “v” at the top is the vulva.)
In indigenous traditions of Meso-America, crossroads were considered dangerous places haunted by volatile and sometimes malicious spirits, notably the Aztec female warrior spirits, the Cihuateteo. The Cihuateteo are spirits of women who died in childbirth, understood as the equivalent of dying valiantly in battle. The Aztec after-Life was fairly dismal for most dead souls, but the valiant Cihuateteo were given the glorious role of escorting the sun on its downward passage through the sky. When not busy with these celestial chores, the Cihuateteo allegedly haunted crossroads where they were suspected of stealing children, seducing gullible men and then punishing them, and last but not least, causing seizures and madness. Shrines to appease and propitiate the Cihuateteo were often placed at major crossroads.
Once upon a time, crossroads were commonly accepted as places of magical and spiritual power. Although perhaps witches always had business to conduct there, crossroads were not originally identified solely as witchcraft places. This changed with Christianity’s rise to power. Appreciation of the crossroad’s volatile energy was retained, but crossroads were now considered sinister, threatening places where Pagan or anti-Christian forces held sway.
Herms were toppled and replaced with large crosses
Gallows were erected at crossroads; crossroads became venues for public hangings
Suicides or others forbidden church burial were buried at the crossroads, with the implication that crossroads were unhallowed ground
To be observed lingering (loitering) at a crossroads, especially after dark, was frequently considered a telltale sign of witchcraft and grounds for accusation
In witch-hunt era Europe, crossroads became defined specifically as witches’ territory
Witches were accused of attending sabbats held at crossroads
Crossroads were always the place to meet spirits; post-Christianity, they became identified as the place to meet the devil. Various rituals for meeting the devil or selling one’s soul to him involved journeying to the crossroads after dark. Allegedly the devil offered violin lessons at the crossroads. He held all-night parties at crossroads, where witches allegedly danced with demons, familiars, and damned souls.
The most famous modern legend regarding the devil and crossroads involves Delta bluesman Robert Johnson (died August 16, 1938), who allegedly sold his soul in exchange for musical power and talent at the intersection of US Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Other locations in Mississippi also claim to be the spot. In the twenty-first century this has evolved into a point of pride and humor but once upon a time, many people took this very seriously: people hurried past crossroads, fearful for their very souls.
Ancient Pagan crossroads spirits by nature tended to be affiliated with witchcraft and shamanism. In addition to opening those roads to opportunity, many of these spirits also cleared the way for spiritual and/or necromantic communication.
In many African-Diaspora traditions, Eshu-Elegbara must be approached before one can communicate with any other spirit: he is the doorkeeper to spiritual interaction. Hecate, on the other hand, reputedly patrols the borders between Life and Death, determining who passes and who doesn’t. Shamans traveling to the Realm of Death but expecting to return to Life would do well to court her favor and avoid her displeasure.
Post-Christianity, these spirits became particularly diabolized:
Hecate was considered a dread spirit rather than the grand goddess she had been previously.
Pomba Gira, the Afro-Brazilian spirit, seems to derive from a confluence of Iberian, Romany and Central African roots. (Pomba Gira is the crossroad where those three traditions meet.) Sometimes depicted as a she-devil complete with pitchfork, horns, and cloven hooves, she is often vilified and described as an evil, sexually deviant spirit.
The devil himself took on characteristics of male spirits like Hermes and Eshu. People reported encountering Satan at the crossroads, describing him as a suave bantering musician who walked with a limp or hobbled on a cane.
Despite efforts at denigration, crossroad magic remains a powerful, vital magical tradition, one never abandoned or forgotten. A particularly simple magical spell intended to dissipate personal stagnation and encourage the arrival of opportunity and good fortune suggests that one go to a crossroad (ideally not a busy traffic intersection but a nice, old-fashioned country crossroad) and just linger, allowing negative energy to disperse and positive energy to attach itself to you.
See BOTANICALS: Mandrake; CALENDAR: Halloween, Midsummer’s Eve, Time of Day; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Step of Wu; Films: Alraune; Music: Violin; DICTIONARY: Alraune; DIVINE WITCH: Dionysus; HORNED ONE: The Devil, Dionysus, Eshu-Elegbara, Hermes.