“I went down to the Crossroads, fell down on my knees” Robert Johnson. When Robert Johnson sang of the Crossroads down in the 1930’s Mississippi Delta, he was paying homage to a tradition that has existed in varied forms for centuries, and at the same time adding his own contribution to the wealth of folklore that exists around the crossing place of two highways.
The sinister reputation of the Crossroads is found in the folklore and belief systems of Europe, Japan, India, Greece, America and some American Indian tribes. The Crossroads were believed to be the haunt of the darker denizens of the otherworld, ready to leap on the weary traveller when the sun set below the horizon. They were the meeting place for devils, demons and witches, and the haunt of ghosts, black dogs and other supernatural creatures. In this role they were probably seen as ‘in between’ places that are prevalent as religious sites in some cultures: places where the veils between worlds were more likely to breakdown.
In Greek mythology Hecate was the goddess associated with Crossroads: a fitting meeting place for the Queen of the Night. Sacrifices may have been made at crossroads in the distant past and (according to Funk and Wagnall Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology) stone pillars were placed at Crossroads on which offerings were left, unfortunately it does not mention when or where these were made.
James Fraser’s ‘The Golden Bough’ outlines a number of colloquial traditions at Crossroads: in Bali East Java ,food offering were left at Crossroads to entice the Devils that were thought to plague the islands. They were then called to depart and chased from the villages with the Crossroad presumably as convenient starting point. In the Bohmerwald Mountains, young men would crack whips at crossroads on Walpurgis night to drive away and witches that might be abroad, and on St John’s Eve bonfires were lit at crossroads to drive away evil spirits.
Crossroads were the burial sites for murderers, executed criminals and suicides. It was believed that the Crossroads would presumably confound the restless spirits, and stop them from returning to haunt the living. Gibbets were erected at crossroads as gruesome reminders of the law of the land, and to stop the restless soul of the executed person returning for revenge.
Amazingly enough the practice of burying suicides and criminals at crossroads was only repealed by an act of Parliament as late as 1823, supposedly on the request of George IV who had been delayed by a crowd gathered for a burial at the crossroads of Hobart Place and Grosvenor Place(1). One wonders how long the tradition would have survived if the King hadn’t been annoyed by this hold up.
Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe mentions the tradition surrounding the Cannards Grave Inn as one example of a crossroads burial in his ‘Haunted Britain‘: Giles Cannard was apparently an Innkeeper who was discovered forging, choosing to hang himself rather than submit to the authorities. His body was buried at the crossroads which was once the ambush site for the highwaymen he associated with, his restless spirit ready to frighten the unwary after the sun had gone down. The Inn is at an intersection of 5 roads and presumably is the site of the burial, although this is not clear from the entry. A quick internet search to find if the Inn still stands gave conflicting information: there are entries for the Inn but a few suggestions that it changed its name in the 1990’s.
Jenniffer Westwood (in her book Albion) mentions another example of such a burial at the Gypsy’s or Boy’s Grave on the B1506 Newmarket to Bury Road where it crosses the road to Chippenham & Moulton. This was traditionally the grave of a boy who had committed suicide after losing his sheep. Presumably this type of burial was a common enough occurrence, supported by the fact that it took an act of parliament to stop it.
A Modern Legend
In the deep South of the Missippi Delta – fertile birthplace of the blues – the crossroads plays a prominent part in the mythology surrounding legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson. The Robert Johnson legend deserves an article in itself, especially for such an influential musician. However, the basic legend is that Johnson, who was not considered a great guitar play by his peers in Robbinsville, disappeared and then returned a short while later with a talent that seemed remarkable given his past performances. When asked how he became so proficient he is reputed to have said he sold his soul to the Devil after meeting him at a lonely crossroads.
If this was a bit of spin to make him more appealing it certainly worked, the myth rolling down the decades and even being the inspiration for the Crossroads film in which Steve Via plays the Devil’s guitarist. There is no doubt Johnson was talented, and his mysterious death added to and seemed to give credence to the story. Listening to his tortured singing and haunting guitar on such tracks as ‘Hell Hound on my Trial‘, and, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ certainly had an effect on me when I first heard them.
The real roots of the legend lie in voodoo folklore which found its way to the delta in a diluted form (Hoodoo), perhaps mixed with other crossroads folklore that seems so prevalent throughout cultures, and with a bit of Fire and Brimstone for good measure.
According to the excellent Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology, the budding blues guitarist would first procure himself a Black Cat Bone (Muddy Waters sang of this in Hoochie Coochie Man) file his nails, and then make his way down to the crossroads armed with a guitar and a steely nerve. The guitarist then had to play into the witching hour, whereupon the sound of another guitar would slowly become audible from somewhere in the darkness, gradually accompanying that of the guitarist. The Devil would then appear, swap guitars and then disappear leaving the guitarist in possession of some mean chops but unfortunately with his soul as the Devil’s bargain.
Whatever the source for Crossroads folklore it is surprising just how widespread it is, and is perhaps as old as roads themselves. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover all aspects of the mythology of crossroads and I would love to hear of any other traditions or locations that you may know of.
(1) Jenniffer Westwood Albion