Through the ages, the crossroads has been seen as a powerful place for magic and summoning spirits – and even for meeting the Devil.
It has been said that there is an invisible country that is part of the physical landscape, yet separate from it. You can’t see it with your everyday eyes. But you can often perceive and feel its effects when the barrier between the seen and unseen is at its weakest.
Those with “second sight” claim to regularly see this invisible landscape and its inhabitants.
And one of the key locations where the physical world and this invisible country meet is at the crossroads.
In folklore, intersections of roads, paths, and bridleways are said to be places where spirits gather, and places where such otherworldly entities can be called up using ritual magic.
The crossroads was invariably seen as haunted and the abode of spectres like fairies. It wasn’t a place people liked to go at night.
Nowadays, this isn’t generally the case, what with street lighting and cars roaring by with headlamps blazing. But it certainly was in the past. That said, you still come across occasional reports of people encountering ghosts or other paranormal phenomena at crossroads.
Gods and goddesses, the world over, have associations with the crossroads.
One such is Hecate (pronounced “Heck-uh-tee”), the ancient Greek goddess of sorcery and necromancy. People placed statues of her at crossroads, which were venerated. Devotees would conduct rituals around these statues after dark. And to avert evil and misfortune, they would leave offerings of food, such as cake, honey, and eggs.
These offerings were known as “Hecate’s suppers” and were made when the moon was full.
In Christian times, the crossroads continued to be seen as somewhere to be wary of. Crucifixes and crosses were regularly put up at crossroads in a bid to dispel evil influences afflicting unwary travellers who passed that way.
The crossroads was also seen as a place to summon demons or other baleful spirits. The famous sixteenth century stories about Dr Faustus, for example, depict the dissatisfied doctor conjuring up Mephistopheles at a crossroads in a bid to gain unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.
And then there’s the curious case of Thomas Perks.
Perks was a mathematician and magician, who, in the 1760s, claimed to have conjured spirits at the Staple Hill crossroads, now in the urbanised area of Mangotsfield near Bristol, in south west England.
At this crossroads, Perks drew a chalk circle and raised spirits, which he said, were “in the shape of little maidens about a foot and a half high.” They had shrill voices and went behind a bush to sing, producing, as he put it, a “perfect concert of such exquisite music,” the like of which he’d never heard before.
Not content with this, Perks decided to experiment further. But this time he inadvertently evoked fearsome spirits, which he described as having “dismal shapes like serpents, lions, bears…and attempting to throw spears and balls of fire.” All of which frightened the life out of him.
Not surprisingly, Perks stopped his conjuration experiments after this. Whether directly connected to his evocations or not, he was in poor health for the rest of his life.
In folklore and legend, there are numerous traditions of people meeting the Devil at crossroads.
In Tyrol (West Austria/Northern Italy), for instance, it was believed you could meet the Devil by going to a crossroads at midnight on Christmas Eve. But ideally, you needed to choose a crossroads through which funeral processions passed.
The idea was to lay down in the centre of the crossroads and eventually the Devil would appear, typically in the guise of a huntsman.
But the rule was you had to keep quiet. No crying out in terror when the lord of darkness or other spectres appeared. Ideally you wouldn’t utter a single word. The Devil would then bestow various abilities and talents upon you.
In fact, this Faustian motif of the Devil bestowing abilities was quite common amongst the bluesmen of the time. (I cover this in some depth in my Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook).
But it isn’t just the Devil, fairies are also said to frequent crossroads.
For example, there’s an account from Ireland in 1940 of a man in Kerry letting his dog loose on a group of cavorting figures at a crossroads. He didn’t realise they were fairies, otherwise he might have thought twice about setting his dog on them. The dog flew at the dancing figures, but they vanished instantly. Unfortunately, the unwitting dog dropped dead on the spot.
A good deal of Irish folklore maintains that processions of fairies can be seen on certain nights of the year at the crossroads. So perhaps the man should have known better.
Besides being a location for catching a glimpse of the fairy people, the crossroads has long been associated with the dead. Crossroads were the favoured location for burial grounds in many parts of the world, from India and Greece to Slavic countries.
Suicides were commonly buried at crossroads.
In Britain, there was a custom of not only burying suicides at a crossroads, but also of driving a stake through the corpse’s heart to stop its ghost wandering.
In Ellesmere, Shropshire, a man was buried at the “four-lane end” with a forked stake through his body to “keep it down”. This however didn’t seem to stop the ghost walking as there were subsequent reports of people seeing terrifying apparitions at this crossroads.
Surprisingly, the staking of corpses was only outlawed in Britain in 1823.
Besides suicides, criminals were also sometimes buried at crossroads. And, of course, the crossroads was a common place to erect the gallows. So it’s no wonder there are so many ghostly tales surrounding these locations.
In fact, it was widely believed in Wales that you could see a ghost at every crossroads at midnight on Halloween. And in Germany and Poland there was a fear amongst travellers that if you came across a shadowy figure at sunset at a crossroads, it would follow you home and haunt your house for days afterwards.
In Hessen in Germany there was a custom of taking the crockery belonging to the deceased to a crossroads and smashing it. It was believed this would prevent the person’s ghost from returning. And in Russia, there was a belief that animated corpses lurked at crossroads waiting to pounce on unwary travellers to eat them.
And at a crossroads in the German province of Oldenburg, it was believed you could see witches doing a “flyby” on Walpurgis Night – on their way to the “Brocksberg” (Brocken in the Harz Mountains) where they would gather for their great sabbat on the mountaintop.
So all in all, when you find yourself at a crossroads – especially a lonely one out in the wilds – you need to make sure it’s not after dark…
If you’ve had any strange or spooky experiences at a crossroads, let me know in the comments. I’d be interested to hear about them.
- Conjuring Up Singing Devils – Haunted Ohio.
- Haunted Land by Paul Devereux (Piatkus 2001)
- Ecstasies by Carlo Ginsburg (Hutchinson Radius 1990)
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