The crossroads

19 07 2010

From the blues to Brazil and beyond

If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you 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


This vignette was told in conjunction with the story of bluesman, Robert Johnson, who according to another site, “claims he sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for becoming the greatest musician ever. He is — and was dead at 27.”

Another site elaborates better who the demonic character in this story might actually be:

Legba is a trickster deity and god of entrances and crossroads. He is part of the belief systems of blacks of Dutch Guina, Brazil, Trinidad, Cuba and the voodoo cult of Haiti and New Orleans. In the new world, Legba goes about in tatters and he functions in cult rituals “to open the way” for the gods to possess their devotees. For this reason his songs are sung first at all rites. In the new world syncretism he is often equated with the devil. With this information, we can assume that when Robert Johnson made his claim of meeting the devil, he was referring to Legba.

Maya Deren in her book, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, summarizes Legba’s role in the following manner:

Legba – life – is the link between the visible, mortal world and the invisible, immortal realms. He is the means and avenue of communication between them, the vertical axis of the universe which stretches between the sun door and the tree root. Since he is god of the poles of the axis, of the axis itself, he is God of the Cross-roads, of the vital intersection between the two worlds. The poteau-mitan, the center-post of the peristyle, through which the loa arrive at the ceremony, is also called the poteau-Legba

Deren further elaborates:

For the serviteur the cross-roads is more than a metaphysical principal, or one operating only at birth and death. It is the point of intersection that the abstract and ancestral principles which are the loa – whose location is in an absolute time and an absolute space – become a living organism of this immediate moment and this particular place. As the principle enters reality it not only acts upon that reality but is, of necessity, defined, shaped and modified by it. It is at such an intersection that tradition meets contemporary need and faith becomes the act of ritual service and divine response. At this intersection the idea lives as action.

Even in Mexico, the crossroads had a powerful significance in folk healing. As I have cited previously from the work of Isabel Kelly in her book, Folk Practices in North Mexico, one way to cure the folk ailment susto in my mother’s area of the world was the following:

The sick person is stretched on the ground, with his arms extended in the form of a cross. This is done at a crossroads; or, if they cannot got to such a place, they make a cross in the ground with lime.

Then, with a knife… the ground is marked, following the outline of the patient. At the same time, the Creed is recited three times… One makes the sign of the cross on the body of the patient. As the third Creed ends, a hollow is dug… at the head, at the feet, and adjacent to each hand… And in each hole is poured water- holy water if possible…

Going to Brazil, Legba is replaced by Exu, another figure often syncretized with the Devil in urban umbanda, who is often portrayed more as a trickster, but nevertheless is still the one who opens the way between the spirit world and the world of man. As Molly Ahye writes:

Eshu is the connection, the spiritual connection between man and divinity….Eshu is a mirror of us. He embodies all the forces, positive and negative. Eshu is the one who guards the secrets. He has the power to manipulate man or to free man, because there is so much of man in him. You are linked to him by your humanness and he plays on that. And you are linked to him by your divine spirit and he tests that…How do you know you’re good and righteous if you haven’t passed through the fire? What is the force that will test you through that fire? Even is that thing has to bear your weight–infamous, evil, whatever–that is the thing that gives you the opportunity to test yourself. That is what Eshu does.

One Brazilian film maker dramtically portrays Exu in the following film clip:

Of course, the evoking of the crossroads and the trickster undoubtedly brings forth references to the ancient Greek god Hermes, the god of medicine, learning, and the messenger of the gods. As one Murray Stein elaborates:

The name Hermes is connected with the name for the stone heap that was a boundary-marker, a herma. This is the physical fact from which the experience of Hermes springs, in which it is grounded. Around this concrete phenomenon of the boundary-marker there grew up the many associated features and qualities that go into making this god what he is. Something about the experience of herma and boundaries and cross-roads stimulated the Greek imagination into elaborating the figure of Hermes.

And as David Fideler cites in his book, Jesus Christ, Sun of God, both Hermes and Apollo represented the Divine Logos, who the Christians would associate with Jesus Christ, even to the point of transfering Hermetic symbolism to the new Jewish savior. Perhaps even the cross itself? For St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in Against Eunomius:

To the Ephesians, moreover, he describes by the figure of the Cross the power that controls and holds together the universe, when he expresses a desire that they may be exalted to know the exceeding glory of this power, calling it height, and depth, and breadth, and length , speaking of the several projections we behold in the figure of the Cross by their proper names, so that he calls the upper part “height,” and that which is below, on the opposite side of the junction, “depth,” while by the name “length and breadth” he indicates the cross-beam projecting to either side, that hereby might be manifested this great mystery, that both things in heaven, and things under the earth, and all the furthest bounds of the things that are, are ruled and sustained by Him Who gave an example of this unspeakable and mighty power in the figure of the Cross.

So there you have it, from the blues and the Devil to Christ and the Cross. The crossroads heals, confounds, and governs all things.



3 responses

19 07 2010

Excellent post, there’s such a deep vein of great lore and beliefs – it’s crazy how these tropes interlink too.
it’s amazing what you discover when you click your own blog tags…cheers!

19 07 2010

Simply fascinating, Arturo.

From your second quotation of Maya Deren,

It is the point of intersection that the abstract and ancestral principles which are the loa – whose location is in an absolute time and an absolute space – become a living organism of this immediate moment and this particular place. As the principle enters reality it not only acts upon that reality but is, of necessity, defined, shaped and modified by it. […] At this intersection the idea lives as action.

Deren’s characterization of Legba’s transitions between the immanent and transcendent planes neatly parallel the Mass as propitiation. As Legba “opens the door” to an interface with the divine, the priest’s sacrifice in persona Christi to the Father renders tangible the grace and fruits of the Son’s reconciliation of humanity with himself, through himself. It is so very ironic, and perhaps a bit pathetic, that Catholics who scorn Afro-Caribbean or Mexican ritual as “primitive” and “superstitious” overlook the ways in which these traditions parallel so-called mainstream American Catholic practice.

I remember as a (snot-nosed and spoiled) child mocking the supermarket votives and gaudy statues at a religious shop. “All superstition”, and we were hurried along. Yet Sundays I would find myself in the pew of a crypto-Jansenist church, watching a “proper” priest lift the chalice to a stylized crucifix devoid of suffering. Our Sacrifice and our Christ was as proper as the Rosary Altar Society and the summer picnic. Yes, Calvary entered our lives. We shaped Him not according to the daily sufferings of all Christians, but our self-imposed limits of public interaction with sacrifice and liminality.

It was not until I started attending a church with a large Hispanic congregation that I realized the link between iconography of sacrifice, the Mass, and the liminality of ritual. During Passiontide the parishioners wheeled a full-sized, lifelike, and quite bloody Jesus on a catafalque. At then I realized this representation was an astute representation of the sacrificial action of Mass that reflected the “crossroads” of the temporal and transcendent, the tangible and the abstract. Then I understood what I did not want to understand: the bloody crosses of Mexico and central America betray a deeper intuitive knowledge of the Mass as union of worlds than the chastened church of my youth.

19 07 2010

Also shows up in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

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