In folk magic and mythology, crossroads may represent 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", "betwixt and between".
An 11th-century homily called De Falsis Deis tells us that Mercury or Odin were honored on crossroads.
- 53. Sum man eac wæs gehaten Mercurius on life, se wæs swyðe facenfull
- 54. And, ðeah full snotorwyrde, swicol on dædum and on leasbregdum. Ðone
- 55. macedon þa hæðenan be heora getæle eac heom to mæran gode and æt wega
- 56. gelætum him lac offrodon oft and gelome þurh deofles lare and to heagum
- 57. beorgum him brohton oft mistlice loflac.
The modern English text gives: "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."
In conjure, rootwork, and hoodoo, a form of African American magical spirituality, 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. In the Vodou tradition, Papa Legba is the lwa of crossroads.
In Western folk mythology, a crossroads can be used to summon a demon in order to broker a supernatural deal. This legend can be seen in many stories. For example, in 1926's Faust, the title character summons the demon Mephistopheles at a crossroads. In the U.S. television show Supernatural, crossroads demons are a recurring plot device.
Some 20th-century blues songs, such as Sold It to the Devil by Black Spider Dumpling (John D. Twitty), may be about making a deal with the devil at the crossroads. Many modern listeners believe that the premier song about soul-selling at a crossroads is "Cross Road Blues" by Robert Johnson. However, the song's lyrics merely describe a man trying to hitchhike; the sense of foreboding has been interpreted as the singer's apprehension of finding himself, a young black man in the 1920s deep south, alone after dark and at the mercy of passing motorists. The idea of selling one's soul for instrumental skills predates the American South as several virtuoso classical musicians such as Paganini had stories told about selling their soul for music prowess (and that story may reference back to medieval troubadour doing something similar). The motif of selling one's soul for guitar power has become a staple of both rock and metal guitarists.
Crossroads are 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 (as the favourite place for the manifestation of "left-hand" entities such as Exus and where to place offerings to the Orishas). Eshu and Legba derive from the same African deity, although they are viewed in markedly different manners among traditions. For example, Papa Legba is considered by Haitian Vodou practitioners to be closest to Saint Peter, although in Brazilian Quimbanda it is not uncommon to see Exu closely associated with demonic entities such as Lucifer, clad in Mephistophelean attire and bearing a trident.
In Greek mythology, crossroads were associated with both Hermes and Hecate, with shrines and ceremonies for both taking place there. The herm pillar associated with Hermes frequently marked these places due to the god's association with travelers and role as a guide. Though less central to Greek mythology than Hermes, Hecate's connection to crossroads was more cemented in ritual. 'Suppers of Hecate' were left for her at crossroads at each new moon, and one of her most common titles was 'goddess of the crossroads.' In her later three-fold depictions, each of the three heads or bodies is often associated with one of three crossing roads.
In the UK there was a tradition of burying at crossroads criminals and suicides. 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.
While they became a place of burial for suicides and others unable to be given proper burial in the Middle Ages, the crossroads were once a burial place second only to the consecrated church for Christians.
- The Old English text is reproduced here from The Cambridge Old English Reader by Richard Marsden, pp. 205–208.
- Litwack, Leon F (1998). Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 410–411.
- Jad Abumrad; et al. (2012). "Radiolab, April 16, 2012: Features". Radiolab.org. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- Canizares, Baba Raul (2000). Santeria and the Orisha of the Crossroads. New York: Original Publications. pp. 23–24.
- Hornblower, Spawforth, Eidinow. (2012) The Oxford Classical Dictionary fourth edition. Oxford University Press. p.688, 649-651]
- Robert Halliday (2008). "British Archaeology, no 25, June 1997: Features". britarch.ac.uk. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- Jobes, Gertrude. (1961) Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols Part 1. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p.388