The Enchanted Crossroads
By Liam Rogers
Published Lughnasa 1996
Magical practitioners are, in many ways, walkers between the worlds, guardians of those places where the veil grows thin and the spirit world impinges upon the haunts of man. It is, then, not surprising to find strange beings and ghosts attributed in folklore to many types of boundary in the landscape.
Thus we find faeries manifesting "at the bottom of the garden" (the boundary between a man's cultivated land and the wild places of Nature), strange legends attached to stones that marked parish boundaries, and so on. Nigel Jackson has noted the liminal nature of hedges:
Perhaps the most important of such places is the crossroads, for here the worlds, as well as roads, meet. Remote crossroads were not the places to linger on a dark and lonely night, for here you could meet demons, vampires and witches. In Romania vampires and witches met at the boundaries and crossroads where neither cuckoo sang nor dog barked. Murgoci explains that:
In other words, this was where one could make contact with spirits, where access to the Otherworld was possible, and where witches were thought to gather for their Sabbats. The reference here to spirit-flight is interesting, and a point to which I will return later.
Such beliefs that demons and ghosts congregated at crossroads was widespread: Frazer recounts that in the Böhmerwald Mountains in Germany witches (or at least their supposed malefic influence) were expelled on Walpurgis Night (May Eve) by cracking whips at a remote crossroads, and he also tells us that in Bali (near Java) periodic expulsions of devils are carried out with a ceremony at a crossroads:
Closer to home, Bernadette Thomas mentions the connections between evil spirits and crossroads in the Isle of Man:
Ritual sweeping was suspected by archaeologists and anthropologists to have been carried out on ancient landscape lines such as those at Nazca in Peru. Devereux explains that:
The point to all this was to create a "sacred space" and is much the same as when modern witches use a broom to sweep the circle. Talking of banishing rituals, when you perform the Pentagram rituals you are supposed to be standing on the intersection of the paths of Samekh and Pe - another crossroads|
With the associations that the crossroads has with the Otherworld, it is natural that we find death turning up as well. Suicides were often interred at these spots, as well as anyone else deemed likely to walk after their death. A stake was often driven through the heart or navel of such an unfortunate, with the purpose (according to some sources) of pinning the body to the ground - my opinion is that the evidence for this is slight and suggest that the purpose of the stake was to simply pierce the corpse to allow the spirit or soul to leave the body, with the stake being symbolic of the "Cosmic Axis" that was the vehicle for travelling between the worlds. It was only comparatively recently, in 1823, that the practice of driving stakes through the hearts of those who had committed suicide was outlawed in England.
There are two main theories for this practice. Summers sums up the first:
Therefore the thinking is that crossroads impede the passage of spirits, much as knots and tangles of threads catch spirits - the converse being that straight threads act as a path for spirits, just as straight roads are now seen as following the shift in the theory surrounding leys led by Paul Devereux.
I am unhappy with this explanation, however, and will offer another that I feel makes more sense. Basically I think that the theory that spirits enter and leave this world at crossroads is the key, with the crossroads again acting as a kind of "Cosmic Axis" enabling interworld travel.
The reason for burying such people as suicides at crossroads (and also the reason that gallows were often sited there) is that their souls were thought to wander around aimlessly until such time as they would have died naturally. I believe that crossroads, being seen as the place where worlds met, was the best place for ensuring their passage from this world to the next. To support this argument, let's consider the ancient Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl, described by Veronica Ions as "god of wind and divine messenger and road-sweeper" - remember what I was saying about ritual sweeping? Anyway, the Mayans had:
A similar concept can be expressed Qabalistically: Malkuth, the physical world, has for one of its symbols, the equal-armed cross which symbolises its role as the sphere of the four elements. Now, the thirty-second path leads to Yesod (the Moon) which is associated with the Underworld, and this path (that of Tau - "cross") is linked with myths of trips to the Underworld and back. One's final time up the thirty-second path is to be at one's death, of course.
So, we see the crossroads with the tree that leads to other worlds, the "World Tree" (cognate with the concept of the "Cosmic Axis" mentioned earlier) which is Yggdrasil - an Ash, just the wood of which the stake that impales suicides is usually wrought and of which is formed the handle of a traditional witch's broom.
Whichever theory you prefer will, however, be satisfactory for the purposes of examining the role of the crossroads upon "corpse ways", but first let's try to get up to date with the current thinking in Earth Mysteries research.
Ancient crossroads have long been considered as possible marking points along a ley, and now become even more relevant following Devereux's reassessment of the origins of straight lines in the landscape. The present view is that the entranced flight of shamans was transcribed upon the land, either physically or conceptually (much as the invisible faery paths of Ireland). Here we must bear in mind that, according to Eliade (8), the Otherworld was probably seen as being overlapped upon the normal physical landscape, the concepts of totally separate worlds evolving later.
Throughout folklore we see the concept that straightness facilitates spirit movement, and twists do the opposite (probably the reason for labyrinths and meander patterns that we sometimes see on old burial sites such as Newgrange) - hence the spirit of the entranced shaman moved straight over the land - as the crow flies.
Now shamanic trance states (involving meeting dead ancestors and so on) and shamanic initiation, were perceived as a symbolic death, and hence we see funereal sites being intimately involved in the early Neolithic alignments.
The same thinking appears to have survived in the Dutch "Doodwegen" ("deathroads") and the German "Geisterwege" (meaning "ghost roads") which were often straight lines along which corpses were carried to the graveyard. In England we find what are known variously as "coffin lines", "church ways" or "corpse ways", whose origins lie in the medieval belief that any route that you carried a copse along to burial became a legal right of way (this seems to be untrue, incidentally). These again are often (but not always) straight.
Death is intimately associated with straightness, the thinking possibly surviving in the modern expression "dead straight". Devereux explores this in some depth in his Shamanism and the Mystery Lines. Considering the crossroads as standing at the boundary of the worlds, it is interesting to learn that the Saxon "dod" or "ded" means "boundary", and "dead" comes from the same root (I think|). Quite fitting since death is the ultimate boundary.
Now I shall consider the role of crossroads upon such corpse ways in my own county of Hereford and Worcester.
The gallows at Worcester stood at the crossing of two ancient roads at Red Hill, more than a mile from the city boundaries. One road, the old London Road, survives in parts in the form of alleys behind the new road, and the other survives as a rough path which has acted as a boundary. The point of carrying out executions at crossroads, I suggest, was to allow the soul of the prematurely deceased to depart to the hereafter. At Worcester the prisoner was marched from the prison (in the old castle by the cathedral) up the London Road. In medieval times two wayside crosses stood along this route which may have been used to rest the coffin on the way back to the cathedral for burial. Although the view down the hill along survising fragments of the old road points towards the cathedral graveyard, the route probably wasn't particularly straight.
The route taken for funerals was commonly called a "corpse way" in this area, and on these routes we often see the motif of resting the coffin at a crossroads. In Malvern the coffin was put down up until the last century at the crossroads on the Worcester Road (A449) just below where the Malvern Link railway station stands. At this crossroads the coffin bearers would change positions, which may be a form of the ritual reversal often connected with forging links with the Otherworld (why, perhaps, suicides were often buried upside-down and why, in Yugoslavia, twins wearing their clothes inside out could see otherwise invisible vampires), the concept being that the land of the dead was much like ours but with everything reversed. The purpose of all this was probably to ensure that the soul left the body so it would not later rise from the grave.If you favour the theory that crossroads confuse spirits, then the point would still appear to be to disentangle the spirit from the corpse by losing it at the crossroads.
A well-known ley, at Saintbury in the shadow of the Cotswolds, (first put forward by Devereux and Thompson (9) was recently re-examined by Devereux:
At Ross-on-Wye there is a crossroads by the name of "Copse Cross" which was apparently called "Corpse Cross" originally. It lies on a straight stretch of road around half a mile long that leads to the churchyard of Ross church. Roy Palmer (11) recounts the tale from which the crossroads was supposed to have got its name, in which a poor servant commits suicide when his lover (from a wealthy family) is forced by her father to marry another man from a well-to-do family. The servant drowns himself in the river, and after a sin-eater (a person who takes upon himself the sins of the deceased by taking food and drink which has been passed over the corpse, so stopping the corpse from re-animating) performs his duties in a put on Alton Street, the eastern end of the straight road, the servant is buried at Corpse Cross with a stake through him. His broken-hearted lover paced the lane from the church to her lover's grave, the western end of the alignment which is still called "Old Maid's Walk".
Apparently suicides were customarily buried at this spot, and I wonder if also coffins were rested here on their way to Ross church?
On a larger scale man seems to have demonstrated this kind of thinking in the geomantic division of cities, and even whole countries, in the four parts around a sacred centre to symbolise the uniting of the elements. Michael Dames, in his excellent Mythic Ireland (12) shows how ancient Ireland was a fourfold arrangement of provinces around a sacred centre where Otherworld and "realworld" were one, the point being marked by the stone called Aill na Mireann ("Stone of Divisions") or Umbilicus Hiberniae ("the Navel of Ireland").
Similarly the founding of a Roman city was overseen by an augur (a kind of priest-surveyor) who, having decided on the best position, would trace a design of a cross within a circle at the centre of the proposed city, the design being called the templum. At this spot a pit known as a mundus was dug into which were cast the first fruits and earth from the settlers' old homeland (sometimes earth from the hole was taken to incorporate into the new building). Dames explains that:
The same basic concept may have survived into medieval times in the form of the cross formed by four churches around a central cathedral that Ulrich Magin sees as dictating the street plan of some German towns (13).
Certainly it is clear that the crossroads and its related symbolism had been considered as a place where mysterious beings can be met, and where life and death, microcosm and macrocosm merge into one another. Crossroads are truly enchanted places.