"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Continued from Part One.


I went to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now
save poor Bob, if you please..."

Robert Leroy Johnson lived only twenty-seven short years (1911-1938), but the Blues recordings he made in the years just prior to his death have earned him a pre-eminent place in American music; the legends that sprang up in the wake of his untimely death earned him a similar position in American folklore.

The story goes like this; back in the 20s, when Johnson was just a teenager, he developed a passionate desire to play the Blues.  The problem was, he wasn't any good.  Tired of being laughed out of auditions, he disappeared for awhile.  When he returned, everyone agreed he was different.  It wasn't just his astonishing new skill with the guitar, it was his devilish charm with the opposite sex and his cool, devil-may-care attitude.  There was more than a whiff of sulfur, metaphysically speaking, about him.  The story that started to spread, perhaps from Johnson himself, was that he had gone at midnight to the crossroads.  There, a large black man tuned his guitar for him.  When he returned the instrument, Johnson was now a master.  When he died at twenty-seven, murdered people said by a jealous husband, it was whispered that he had sold his soul for the gift and the Devil had claimed his due.

This is an old story, really, one of the oldest.  The Pact at the Crossroads is, in fact, the descendent of the Serpent and the Tree stories we examined earlier.  The Tree becomes in these later versions the Crossroads, and the Serpent or Dragon becomes the "Black Man," or Devil.  Johnson's transformation from talentless nobody to Blues legend is the equivalent of winning the Golden Apples or Golden Fleece.  It is the sacrifice Odin made crucified on Yggdrasil.  The formula is both ancient and widespread.

The relationship between the Serpent and the Devil is one familiar to most readers.  It is an established part of the Christian tradition.  While the Serpent in the Garden of Eden was not, originally, associated with Satan, by the time Revelations 20:2 was written, the identification was explicit; And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years.  It is a reasonable association to make.  Both are Trickster figures, and tempters.  Both are associated with darkness and the underworld.  And both are associated with the Tree/Cross/Crossroads. 

The Devil's association with the Crossroads was well established by at least the early 11th century, when English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (955-1010) wrote;

Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the Devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arise from death.

His rough contemporary Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, expanded on this in homily entitled On the False Gods;

Sum man eac wæs gehaten Mercurius on life, se wæs swyðe facenfull
And, ðeah full snotorwyrde, swicol on dædum and on leasbregdum. Ðone
macedon þa hæðenan be heora getæle eac heom to mæran gode and æt wega
gelætum him lac offrodon oft and gelome þurh deofles lare and to heagum
beorgum him brohton oft mistlice loflac

(There was also a man called Mercury, he was very crafty and deceitful in deed and trickeries, though his speech was fully plausible. The heathens made him a renowned god for themselves; at crossroads they offered sacrifices to him frequently and they often erringly brought praise-offerings to hilltops, all through the devil’s teaching. This false god was honored among the heathens in that day, and he is also called by the name Odin in the Danish manner.)

Both of these passages associate the Crossroads and the Devil with necromancy. Ælfric suggests the Devil appears to witches at the Crossroads in the shape of a dead man, and Wulfstan suggests Mercury was a mortal man who somehow became a false god through the Devil's teachings.  This is, in part, due to the Biblical tradition's notions of witchcraft, right back to the Witch of Endor episode, but there is also something deeper and more important here...the connection between the Crossroads, the Devil, and the Underworld, the Land of the Dead.  This is a point we will be getting to shortly.  

Before we do, however, we need to address the connection Wulfstan is making here between the Crossroads and Mercury/Odin/the Devil.

Like Satan, Mercury and Odin are psychopomps, passing between the worlds of the Living and the Dead. Mercury/Hermes guides the souls of the Dead to Hades, and Odin is the Lord of Valhalla.  The Devil, as we all know, is the ruler of Hell.  

All three are patrons of sorcerers, shamans, and witches.  Odin is linked to a rich and deep shamanic tradition--indeed his very name suggests it.  Odin or Woden derives from the proto-Germanic *Woðanaz, (“Master of Ecstasy”). In the Ynglinga Saga we are told that he often “travel[s] to distant lands on his own errands or those of others” while he appears to others to be asleep or dead.  This is the literal meaning of "ecstasy," or "out of body."  He ventures in myths into the Underworld from time to time, and has shamanic familiars, his ravens and his wolves.  

Mercury, or Hermes, was likewise the god of magic (alongside gamblers, tricksters, and thieves).  Wulfstan's reference to Mercury having been a mortal man is probably a reference to Hermes Trismegistus, the founder of the Hermetic Tradition.  This Hermes was strongly associated with the classical deity, as well as the Egyptian god of magic, Thoth, and the Hebrew Enoch. It was widely believed, until the late Renaissance, that he had been a real historical figure.  Wulfstan seems to be confusing the two Hermes here, but as Hermes Trismegistus had by that time absorbed so many of the classical deity's attributes it is largely irrelevant.  

The Devil, of course, assumed the role of witch patron and master of the Black Arts during the medieval period, absorbing the roles and duties of earlier deities in this respect.  While in the early medieval period, the Church officially viewed witchcraft as a delusion spread by the Devil, by the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance Satan was himself the Lord of the Sabbat, teaching all manner of sorcery to his disciples in exchange for their souls.  We can already see something of this transition in the passages above, where Wulfstan associates worship of Mercury and Odin at the Crossroads with Satan, and Ælfric asserts the Devil's rites occur there.  

Aside from their mutual associations with magic and the Underworld (meaning, as we do here, the realms of the Dead), these three figures share another strong association; cunning. Today the word suggests achieving one's ends through deceit or evasion, trickery, but it derives from from the  Old Norse kunnandi, or "knowledge," and from kunna or "know" (related to the modern English "can").  Cunning, as both knowledge and trickery, is a common attribute given to Mercury, Odin, and the Devil.  Odin and Mercury, in their respective mythologies, have long histories of tricking and outwitting others, of defeating opponents by cunning rather than force.  This is equally true of the Devil and the Biblical Serpent, the latter of whom we are told is the most "subtle" (read, "crafty" or "cunning") of the Lord's creations (Genesis 3:1).  Cunning is the true source of power for all these figures, the single characteristic most associated with them, and in the Eden fable the Serpent was not merely the embodiment of cunning, but the guardian of the Tree of Knowledge.

What we mean to suggest here is a connection, a current running through various mythologies connecting crafty, Underworld figures with Crossroads, knowledge, and transformations.  Wayfarers who venture to the Crossroads to meet Mercury, Odin, or the "Black Man" are in fact re-enacting the ancient myth of going to the Tree to be tested by the Serpent.  In some cases, these figures can be identified with the Serpent itself; the Devil's association is plain, but of Mercury it must be remembered that his symbol is the Caduceus, the twining serpents around a cross.  In Odin's case, he is more a figure who challenged and defeated the Serpent, absorbing its powers.  Interestingly, we still have an 11th century spell or charm hinting at Odin's connection with the Serpents, Trees, and even Apples;

A serpent came crawling (but) it destroyed no one
when Woden took nine twigs of glory,
then struck the adder so that it flew into nine.
There archived apple and poison
that it never would re-enter the house

Nor are these associations limited to Odin, Mercury, and the Devil alone.  Indeed, some have suggested that it was not "Satan" Robert Johnson met at the Crossroads at all, but rather the Yoruba deity Eshu or Legba, yet another Trickster figure and psychopomp who serves as messenger between the worlds and is associated with Crossroads.  Eshu has often, over the history of his encounters with European cultures, been associated both with Mercury and with Satan.

The implication here is a widespread acknowledgement that there is a power at the Crossroads, a bridge to other realms, and that it is guarded by a cunning, forked tongue Trickster, a force that tempts and tests.  To go the the Crossroads and take this challenge is to be transformed, to gain access to knowledge and power.  It is a fable at the very heart of Traditional Witchcraft.

Next, in Part Three, we will examine these Crossroads in detail, and the Witches associated with them.  

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