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Legends of the Crossroads

Updated on January 22, 2012

The Devil's Pact

"If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and your go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ' fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself ... A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want."

Tommy Johnson

Listen to Big Road Blues by Tommy Johnson


Betwixt and Between - an intersection of roads. This meaning is used metaphorically as a place where other things - both physical and abstract - meet.

The Crossroads in Blues

Another interpretation of the crossroad hinted at by some blues songs is that point at which a particular road is taken in life - similar to Robert Frost's "road not taken".

Originally the blues "Crossroads" was a literal right-angle crossing of two railroads - "where the Southern cross the Dog" - in Moorhead, Mississippi. The "Southern" was a line of the Southern Railway, sold to the Columbus and Greenville Railway in 1920, and the "Dog" was the "Yellow Dog", officially the Yazoo Delta Railroad, part of the Illinois Central Railroad system after 1897. This place is mentioned in a number of blues, including the recorded works of W. C. Handy and Bessie Smith.

Legba's Veve

Legba's Veve
Legba's Veve
Legba Poppet
Legba Poppet

Papa Legba, Guardian of the Crossroads

Papa Legba is the intermediary between the lwa and humanity. He stands at a spiritual crossroads and gives (or denies) permission to speak with the spirits of Guinee, and is believed to speak all human languages. He is always the first and last spirit invoked in any ceremony, because his permission is needed for any communication between mortals and the loa - he opens and closes the doorway. In Haiti, he is the great elocution, the voice of God, as it were. Legba facilitates communication, speech and understanding. In Yoruba, Ellegua is mostly associated with Papa Legba since both share the role of being the god of the crossroads, yet Legba also shares similarities to Orunmila, the orisha of prophesy who taught mankind how to use the mighty oracle If.

He usually appears as an old man on a crutch or with a cane, wearing a broad brimmed straw hat and smoking a pipe, or sprinkling water. The dog is sacred to him. Because of his position as 'gate-keeper' between the worlds of the living and the mysteries he is often identified with Saint Peter who holds a comparable position in Catholic tradition. But he is also depicted in Haiti as St. Lazarus, or St. Anthony.

See my lens Papa Legba, Gatekeeper to the Spirit World to learn more about this deity.

Papa Legba Voodoo Altar Doll

Papa Legba Voodoo Altar Doll
Papa Legba Voodoo Altar Doll

Burial at Crossroads

Historically, burial at crossroads was the disposal method of choice for executed criminals and suicides. A crude cross was typically erected, which gave rise to the belief that these spots were selected as the next best burying-places to consecrated ground. Actually, the ancient Teutonic peoples often built their altars at the crossroads. Human sacrifices, especially of criminals, formed part of the ritual, so these spots came to be regarded as execution grounds. Hence after the introduction of Christianity, criminals and suicides were buried at the crossroads during the night, in order to assimilate as far as possible their funeral to that of the pagans.

Superstition also played a part in the selection of crossroads in the burial of suicides. Folk belief often held such individuals could rise as some form of undead (such as a vampire), and burying them at crossroads would inhibit their ability to find and wreak havoc on their living relations and former associates.

Crossroads in Folk Magic

from Wikipedia

In the folk magic of many cultures, the crossroads is a location "between the worlds" and, as such, a site where supernatural spirits can be contacted and paranormal events can take place. Symbolically, it can mean a locality where two realms touch and therefore represents liminality, a place literally "neither here nor there".

This is particularly pronounced in conjure, rootwork, and hoodoo, a form of African American magical spirituality. In conjure practice, it is said that in order to acquire facility at various manual and body skills, such as playing a musical instrument, throwing dice, or dancing, one may attend upon a crossroads a certain number of times, either at midnight or just before dawn,and one will meet a "black man," whom some call the Devil, who will bestow upon one the desired skills.

Evidence of this practice can be found in 20th century blues songs, most notably "Crossroads Blues" by Robert Johnson. Some believe Robert Johnson sang this song in regards to the deal that was made with Legba in which Johnson exchanged his soul for his extraordinary guitar skills that seemed to appear suddenly.

In the Vodou tradition, Papa Legba is the loa of crossroads. Crossroads are also very important both in Brazilian mythology (related to the headless mule, the devil, the Besta Fera and the Brazilian version of the werewolf) and religions, where it is the favorite place for the manifestation of "left-hand" entities such as Exus and where to place offerings to the Orishas.

What do you think?

Is it the Devil or Legba who makes deals with guitar virtuoso wannabes?

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Where the Southern Cross meets the Yellow Dog

Where the Southern Cross meets the Yellow Dog
Where the Southern Cross meets the Yellow Dog

Eshu, Yoruban God of the Crossroads

Eshu is an Orisha, and one of the most important deities of the Yoruba mythology, as well as Santeria/Lukumi and Candomble traditions.

Exu is the protector of travelers, god of the crossroads, the deity with the power over fortune and misfortune, and the personification of death. Every religious ceremony or ritual begins with an offering to Eshu; failure to do so guarantees failure in the intent of the ceremony.

Eshu is revered within the Orisa-If system of the Yoruba as well as in African diasporic faiths like Santeria/Lukumi and Candomble developed by the descendants of enslaved West Africans in the Americas, where Eshu was sometimes identified with Saint Anthony or Saint Michael, depending on the situation. He is identified by the colors red and black, or black and white and his caminos, or paths are often represented carrying a cane, shepherd's crook, as well as a pipe. Eshu is a trickster-god, and plays frequently tempting choices for the purpose of causing maturation. He is a difficult teacher, but a good one.

In Yorubaland, Esu is an energy that rose out of the Yangi (sacred red rock) and allows people to communicate with the Irunmole, Orisa, Orunmila, and so on. Is the oldest Esu. Also important in the African diaspora. All Esu live in consecrated sacred rocks.

Exu Voodoo Altar Doll

Exu Voodoo Altar Doll
Exu Voodoo Altar Doll

A Story about Eshu

Eshu was walking down the road one day, wearing a hat that was red on one side and black on the other. Sometime after he departed, the villagers who had seen him began arguing about whether the stranger's hat was black or red. The villagers on one side of the road had only been capable of seeing the black side, and the villagers on the other side had only been capable of seeing the red half. They nearly fought over the argument, until Eshu came back and cleared the mystery, teaching the villagers about how one's perspective can alter a person's perception of reality, and that one can be easily fooled. In other versions of this tale, the two tribes were not stopped short of violence; they actually annihilated each other, and Eshu laughed at the result, saying "Bringing strife is my greatest joy".

Egyptian Charm to Dissolve a Spell

To be done at a crossroads

This spell is taken from an ancient Egyptian papyrus text (circa 3rd or 4th century A.D.) and offers protection against Hekate, a greek goddess who haunted crossroads and frightened passers-by.

"Askei kataski ern oren ir mega semnur bau," (three times), "Phobantia, remember, I have been initiated, and I went down into the chamber of the Dactyls, and I saw the other things down below, virgin, dog," etc. Say it at the crossroads, and turn around and flee, because it is at those places that she appears. Say it late at night, about what you wish, and it will reveal it in your sleep; and if you are led away to death, say these things while scattering seeds of sesame, and it will save you.


Hecate was originally a goddess of the wilderness and childbirth, but eventually became known as the goddess of sorcery and the "Queen of Ghosts". Today she is often seen as a goddess of witchcraft and Wicca.

Hecate had a special role at three-way crossroads, where the Greeks set poles with masks of each of her heads facing in different directions.

The crossroad aspect of Hecate stems from her original sphere as a goddess of the wilderness and untamed areas. This led to sacrifice to assure safe travel into these areas.

Hecate is the Greek version of Trivia "the three ways" in Roman mythology. She was the goddess who appeared most often in magical texts such as the Greek Magical Papyri and curse tablets, along with Hermes.

Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads; drawing by Stephane Mallarm in Les Dieux Antiques, nouvelle mythologie illustre in Paris, 1880.

Hecate, by William Blake, 1795

Hecate, by William Blake, 1795
Hecate, by William Blake, 1795

Artemis of the Crossroads

In Greek mythology, Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and the twin sister of Apollo. She was a widely venerated deity, worshiped as the goddess of forests and hills, the huntress, and goddess of the crossroads. Artemis was often depicted carrying a bow and arrows, and later, with a crescent moon on her head as the moon goddess, Luna. The deer and the cypress were sacred to her. In later, Hellenistic times she assumed the ancient role of Eileithyia in aiding childbirth.

Artemis became goddess of the crossroads when she assimilated Hecate during the Classical period in Athens.

The Lady of Ephesus, whom the Greeks identified with Artemis. (Archeological Museum, Ephesus, Turkey)

The Lady of Ephesus, whom the Greeks identified with Artemis. (Archeological Museum, Ephesus, Turkey)
The Lady of Ephesus, whom the Greeks identified with Artemis. (Archeological Museum, Ephesus, Turkey)

You Decide

The argument amongst scholars has been, just what is that hangin' on the chest of Artemis? Her cult image depicted multiple round protuberances on the chest of "Lady of Ephesus", traditionally interpreted as multiple accessory breasts. On the other hand, newer scholars claim they may be sacrificed bull testes. Which are they? You decide.

Are they breasts or bull testes?

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Breasts or Bull Testes?

Breasts or Bull Testes?
Breasts or Bull Testes?


Symbolically, the crossroads can be used as a metaphor for the afterlife.

Fork in the Road from the Book of Ezekiel

Ezekiel 21:19-23

Mortal, mark out two roads for the sword of the king of Babylon to come; both of them shall issue from the same land. And make a signpost, make it for a fork in the road leading to a city; mark out the road for the sword to come to Rabbah of the Ammonites or to Judah and to Jerusalem the fortified. For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the way, at the fork in the two roads, to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the teraphim, he inspects the liver. Into his right hand comes the lot for Jerusalem, to set battering rams, to call out for slaughter, for raising the battle cry, to set battering rams against the gates, to cast up ramps, to build siege towers. But to them it will seem like a false divination; they have sworn solemn oaths; but he brings their guilt to remembrance; bringing about their capture.

Knight at the Crossroads

There is a common motif in Russian folk tales, where a vityaz (Russian knight) comes to a fork in the road and sees a menhir with an inscription that reads: "If you ride to the left, you will lose your horse, if you ride to the right, you will lose your head".

A Knight at the Crossroads. The knight must choose which path to take when it is not clear which path presents the better option. This is a common motif in literature.

Reader Feedback

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    • drifter0658 lm profile image

      drifter0658 lm 

      8 years ago

      I dig this accounting of the crossroads and all of the attached meanings.Blessed.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      The first time I've heard of the concept that in The crossroads, you can meet the devil so you can sell your soul and do what you want, is in the movie titled "Crossroads" which stars Ralph Macchio. It tells the story of a man who learned to play the blues when he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and that character there was actually my idol, hero and a blues guitar legend Robert Johnson! I'm totally knocked out of my feet when the first riff of Crossroads opened the movie! Robert Johnson is undeniably one of the greatest masters of the blues until now! I'm just crazy about Robert Johnson and I even put his image on my personalized African American checks ! What a great guy regardless if he sold his soul to the devil or not! All hail to the King of the Delta Blues!


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