The Crossroads are an infinitely powerful place – where the planes collide, the worldly nexus and the paths of decision. While always related to the actual crossing of roads, the symbolic nature of the Crossroads extends far beyond – even in the physical plane. The nexus include far more than the mere crossing of paths, but present at many – both naturally and made-made – destinations.
Hectate is often associated with Crossroads. A ancient Greek goddess of the three paths, guardian of the household, protector of everything newly born, and the goddess of witchcraft.
It is believed by Historians that most Europeans, between 1000 and 1900 didn’t travel much. Many ‘bumkins’ were born, married, raised their children and died within 10 miles of their birth. Meeting the road that crossed your road outside of town was also reaching your town’s borders in most cases. In all mythology and religion stories, this ‘stepping off’ place was the first trial for the hero.
The crossroads is a land that belongs to no one. It’s an area that seems to invite ghosts, spirits and creatures of the night, those that don’t belong in the natural world. Malevolent faeries are believed to haunt the crossroads looking for lost souls to lure into the half-lit world of the Unseelie. Devils, demons, ghosts and black dogs and other supernatural creatures congregating at crossroads were widespread. For this reason it was believed that the crossroads would confound or confuse restless spirits, stopping them from returning to haunt the living. Frazer recounts that in the Böhmerwald Mountains in Germany witches (or at least their supposed malefic influence) were expelled on Walpurgis Night (May Eve) by cracking whips at a remote crossroads. With the associations that the crossroads has with the Otherworld, it is natural that we find death turning up as well.
They were often used as burial places for unbaptised children, murderers, executed criminals, and suicides as we will see below. It was because this ground was unconsecrated and was seen as separate from the everyday world. Such outcasts were not intended for the forgiveness of heaven and so they were buried in a place that would condemn their spirits to wander for eternity.
It was suggested that this was because the crossroads form a Christian cross but this does not hold true as the belief in the power of crossroads predates Christianity and you will find similar superstitions regarding crossroads in many cultures which are not Christian.
From the 13th Century until 1823 suicides in Britain were buried at crossroads. Self-murder” became a crime under common law in England in the mid-13th Century, but long before that it was condemned as a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church. For a death to be declared a “Felo de se“, Latin for “felon of himself”, an old legal term for suicide, it had to be proven the person was sane. In medieval times suicide was not just frowned upon: suicide was a crime. Medieval suicides typically could not be buried in the church graveyard, or in any other consecrated ground. Sometimes their bodies were flung ignobly into a ditch. Others were decapitated before burial, or their bodies were staked to the ground. On occasion suicides were buried under a crossroad so that they would be symbolically stepped on by all who passed by. These punishments were even harsher then than they would be if instituted today: in a medieval village, where practically everyone knows each other and where weddings and funerals are truly communal events, the lack of a proper funeral and the public shame that would bring would be powerful. Everyone in town would know about the suicide, and everyone would know that it brought shame and disgrace. If proven, they were denied a Christian burial – and instead carried to a crossroads in the dead of night and dumped in a pit, a wooden stake hammered through the body pinning it in place. My opinion is that the evidence for this is slight and suggest that the purpose of the stake was to simply pierce the corpse to allow the spirit or soul to leave the body, with the stake being symbolic of the “Cosmic Axis” that was the vehicle for travelling between the worlds.
There were no clergy or mourners, and no prayers were offered. But punishment did not end with death. The deceased’s family were stripped of their belongings and they were handed to the Crown. “The suicide of an adult male could reduce his survivors to pauperism,” Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy wrote in Sleepless souls: Suicide in early modern England.
Crossroad burial was officially abolished by Act of Parliament in 1823 apparently after opposition to the practice was encouraged when King George IV’s carriage was held up by a crowd of spectators in London. They were watching the burial at this crossroads (shown) with Lower Grosvenor Place and Grosvenor Place of a suicide called Abel Griffiths.
Criminals were also buried at crossroads. This may have been due to the crossroads marking the boundaries of the settlement coupled with a desire to bury those outside of the law outside the settlement, or that the many roads would confuse the dead. The ancient Teutonic (Germanic) ethnic groups often built their altars at the cross-roads, and since human sacrifices, especially of criminals formed part of the ritual, these spots came to be regarded as execution grounds.
In Romania living vampires and witches met at the boundaries and crossroads where neither cuckoo sang nor dog barked. Murgoci explains that:
“People destined to become vampires after death (ie witches or magicians – LR) may be able in life to send out their souls, and even their bodies, to wander at crossroads with reanimated corpses …” (2)
In Russian folklore, the undead were believed to wait at crossroads, drinking the blood of weary travelers unlucky enough pass their way. In other words, this was where one could make contact with spirits, where access to the Otherworld was possible, and where witches were thought to gather for their Sabbats.
In German lore it was believed that if you are chased by a ghost or vampire that you should head towards a crossroads for protection. Once reaching the crossroads the being will vanish with an eerie screech.
There was an old German folk belief that a man can turn into a werewolf if he goes at a full moon’s night to a crossroad, wearing nothing but a belt made of a wolf’s pelt. At midnight, the transformation will happen.
Ancient crossroads have long been considered as possible marking points along a ley, and now become even more relevant following Devereux’s reassessment of the origins of straight lines in the landscape. Throughout folklore we see the concept that straightness facilitates spirit movement, and twists do the opposite (probably the reason for labyrinths and meander patterns that we sometimes see on old burial sites such as NewGrange or the Moons Womb) – hence the spirit of the entranced shaman moved straight over the land – as the crow flies.
The same thinking appears to have survived in the Dutch “Doodwegen” (“deathroads”) and the German “Geisterwege” (meaning “ghost roads”) which were often straight lines along which corpses were carried to the graveyard. In England we find what are known variously as “coffin lines”, “church ways” or “corpse ways”, whose origins lie in the medieval belief that any route that you carried a copse along to burial became a legal right of way (this seems to be untrue, incidentally). These again are often (but not always) straight.
Crowing hens, regarded as unlucky, were abandoned at the crossroads. If you had warts these could be cured by rubbing them with a stone and leaving it at the crossroads, if someone picked up the stone then they took over your warts.
A more pleasant feature of Irish country life was the custom of holding dances at the crossroads.
People dance on specially erected timber platforms and enjoy the open air, scenery, meeting friends and making new ones and enjoying the music provided. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that crossroads dancing became popular. However, the clergy condemned it so the Gaelic League introduced the first Ceilli in 1697 and this let dancers dance indoors under supervision. Interestingly the Ceilli was not held in Ireland but in London. Traditional Irish culture continued in secret until the 1700s. It was a time in Irish history when dancing was prohibited by the English so the Irish would meet on country roads, particularly where they crossed. They would bring food, drink, and musical instruments and keeping an eye out for approaching soldiers they danced their country dances. It was around 1750 that attitudes began to become less strict and this allowed Irish dance to flourish.
American beliefs about the crossroads are many and they come in numerous variations. There are two major themes regarding crossroads rituals in the African-American hoodoo tradition. While these customs may contain an admixture of European folklore, they are primarily derived from African antecedents. There are stories concerning deals done with the devil, in modern times Robert Johnson the famous American blues musician claimed to have met the devil at the crossroads and signed over his soul to play the blues and gain mastery over the guitar. He died at the age of 27 and became one of those poor unfortunates that have become known as members of the 27 club.
But hip to be square the most interesting crossroads in recent times is the name given to the Nuclear programme. Crossroads are thus associated with demons, death, and mystery—all of which are integral parts of the first atomic bomb tests.
Sources and further reading
- The Murderer Impaled And Buried Beneath Centre Point http://londonist.com/2016/04/the-murderer-buried-beneath-centre-point-with-a-stake-through-the-heart
- Rites of desecration http://www.cvltnation.com/rites-of-desecration-suicide-sacrilege-and-profane-burial-at-the-crossroads/
- Where Four Paths Lead http://illuminating-shadows.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/rites-of-desecration.html
- Criminal Graves and Crossroads http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba25/BA25FEAT.HTML