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The crossroads -- a place where two roads cross at or about at right angles, otherwise known as "the forks of the road" -- is the subject of religious and folkloric belief all around the world. Because the crossroads is land that belongs to no one, a place outside the borders of town, it is considered a suitable site to perform magical rituals and cast spells. The use of the crossroads as an impromptu altar where offerings are placed and rituals performed is widely encountered in both European and African folklore.

In ancient Greece, marker stones commemorating the god Hermes in his priapic form were set at the crossroads. In ancient Rome the similar god Mercury was the crossroads guardian.

In India, the god Bhairava, an older version of great god Siva, is said to guard the crossroads at the outskirts of villages. Stone phalluses and statues of Bhairava's watchful eyes are erected to represent him as a guardian of the boundaries.

In Guatemala, the old Mayan underworld Lord Maam, under his Catholic Saint guise of Maximon or Saint Simon, is generally depicted seated at a crossroads in a chair, just outside a church.

In Africa, almost every cultural group has its own version of the crossroads god. Legba, Ellegua, Elegbara, Eshu, Exu, Nbumba Nzila, and Pomba Gira are African and African-diaspora names (in several languages) for the spirit who opens the way, guards the crossroads, and teaches wisdom.

European tales of, by, and about European musicians, dancers, and others who seek physical dexterity selling themselves to the Devil are legion, frequent, and commonplace. It could be argued, and HAS been argued (not by me) that all instances of this belief in African American culture are simply cultural borrowings from European sources. One of the things that gives traction to the idea that Black folks borrowed the concept from White folks is that we have evidences of such beliefs going back in Germanic cultures far earlier than we see them among enslaved Africans in the Americas. That doesn't prove much, though, as we have little early evidence of African beliefs in situ from those early peiods.

Regardless, we DO have European sources in early folklore, and, to put it bluntly, when a white musician like Charlie Daniels writes and performs a country-rock piece like "The Devil Came Down to Geogia," he need not be conceived as borrowing from African American sources, because he can just as simply have been using his own Anglo-Germanic roots-sources for the inspiration.

This old, pre-Christian, Germanic idea of becoming the Devil's bond-servant (and here we mean Der Teufel, the old pagan woods-devil, not Satan) remained strong in German folk tales long afer Christianity added the "soul" and "Satan" elements to the story. For an example, including musical talent, see "The Devil's Sooty brother," Grimm's Fairy Tale #100. It is given in full, in English, here:

Some modern anthropologists have given these crossroads gods a new collective name -- trickster gods. In my opinion this is a misnomer, for not all crossroads gods and spirits are tricksters (unreliable, clever, deceitful) and not all trickster gods or spirits are crossroads gods -- the water dwelling kapi of Japan, the shoemakers' elves of Germany, and the wide-ranging Coyote of Native Americas being prime examples of trickster gods and spirits who do not inhabit crossroads.

American beliefs about the crossroads are many and they come in numerous variations. There are two major themes regarding crossroads rituals in the African-American hoodoo tradition. While these customs may contain an admixture of European folklore, they are primarily derived from African antecedents.

  • In hoodoo practice, after one completes a "job of work" or magical ritual, the most neutral way to dispose of remnants such as left-over candle wax, incense ashes, footprint-dirt, or ritual bath water is to carry everything to the crossroads, throw it into the intersection, turn and walk home without looking back. (Alternative methods for the disposal of ritual items include throwing them into running water for get away or moving spells, taking them to a graveyard for hard-core enemy work, or burying them in one's yard for drawing influences toward one.)

    If a job such as a Follow Me Boy Spell is worked to link two people, then the trick may be laid at every crossroads between the home of the practitioner and lover's home, that is, each crossroads will be marked with ritual artifacts to cement the bond and draw the desired one closer. Contrariwise, in at least one form of Hot Foot or Drive Away Spell, ritual items are thrown into a series of crossroads leaving town, to push the hated person out of town and to act as guards against his or her return. Also, there is a version of the Crossing Spell in which Graveyard Dirt is buried at a crossroads.

  • Not all hoodoo rituals take place at an actual crossroads, but when laying tricks or casting magical spells, many practitioners make use of what can be called a "portable crossroads" or circle with a cross inside, known as an "X" or "cross-mark," generally. The cross-mark may br drawn on the ground or on a personal altar with sachet powders or it may be created quite subtly, with a mere five dots rather than with two crossing lines. In the latter case, the dots go at the four points where the crossing lines would touch the circumference of an imagined circle and at the intersection or center-point of the circle. When drawn this way, the pattern is not called a cross-mark but a "five-spot." Although folklorists tend to call the pattern a "quincunx" and some anthropologists use the term "cosmogram," in actual conversations with real practitioners, you will hear them spoken of like this: "You lay down your salt in the four corners and in the center, like the five-spot on dice" or "Sprinkle your powders in the form of a cross-mark inside a circle" or "They'd lay out powders by the door -- a big old X-mark -- to trick you.

    A 19th century pen and ink drawing by E. W. Kemble called "The Hoodoo Dance" documents the practice. If you look closely you will see at the center of the dance floor a clearly marked portable crossroads or five-spot: A piece of cloth is laid on the ground and at the four corners of the cloth are set four candle-sticks with burning candles, plus four identical pieces of herbiage -- judging from their size and shape, either four large Clematis flowers or four carefully opened banana (plantain) skins. At the center-point of this portable crossroads is a small bowl heaped full of herbiage, presumably an offering.

  • The crossroads is the most popular place to perform a specific hoodoo crossroads ritual to learn a skill -- to play a musical instrument, for instance, or to become proficient at throwing dice, dancing, public speaking, or whatever one chooses. As this ritual is usually described, you bring the item you wish to master -- your banjo, guitar, fiddle, deck of cards, or dice -- and wait at the crossroads on three or nine specified nights or mornings. On your successive visits you may witness the mysterious appearances of a series of animals. On your last visit, a " big black man" will arrive. If you are not afraid and do not run away, he will ask to borrow the item you wish to learn. He will show you the proper way to use the item by using it himself. When he returns it to you, you will suddenly have the gift of greatness.

    The man who meets people at the crossroads and teaches them skills is sometimes called "the devil" He is also called "the rider," the "li'l ole funny boy" or "the big black man," black in this case meaning the actual colour, not a brown-skinned ("coloured" or Negro) person. Because he shares qualities with and derives from a number of African crossroads spirits (of whom Legba, Ellegua, Elegbara, Eshu, Nbumba Nzila, and Pomba Gira are some African and African-diaspora names), it is a common scholarly conceit to equate the crossroads "devil" with Legba, but that is utterly unheard of in the oral folk tradition.

    This African-derived crossroads ritual is one of the most widely distributed beliefs in African-American folklore and is practiced throughout the South. It is the subject of the rest of this essay.


    The crossroads ritual is currently best known in popular American culture through the recent acceptance of a spurious legend that the famous 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson claimed that he had learned how to play guitar by selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, somewhere in Mississippi. In truth, the blues singer who publicly made this claim was Robert's rather less-well-known contemporary and friend Tommy Johnson, not related to Robert. Tommy Johnson is remembered for his classic recording of "Maggie Campbell Blues." LeDell Johnson, Tommy Johnson's brother, spoke with the blues scholar David Evans about Tommy's sudden guitar playing skill and Tommy's claims about it. His account of the ritual is typical of others collected throughout the South. Note that LeDell did not say that Tommy Johnson called the crossroads spirit "the devil" and he did not mention selling his soul.

    "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."

    from "Tommy Johnson" by David Evans (London: Studio Vista, 1971). [Thanks to Debbie Sexton ( for sourcing this material.]

    Robert Johnson, shown here, did record a song called "Crossroads," but it is about hitch-hiking, not magic. In other songs he made it clear that he was familiar with and practiced hoodoo: In "Hellhound on My Trail" he mentions Hot Foot Powder, in "Come On In My Kitchen" he refers to a woman's nation sack, and in "Little Queen of Spades" he describes how his lover uses a mojo bag to gain good luck in gambling. But hoodoo is an entire system of belief and the ritual whereby one learns skills at a crossroads is only one of thousands of practices that are part of the hoodoo tradition. Robert Johnson worked hoodoo and believed in it, but he himself apparently did not claim that he used the crossroads ritual to gain mastery of the guitar. This is not to say that he did not do so -- for many, many people have done it, and not only because they wanted to learn to play the guitar, but to become proficient on other musical instruments, to improve their skills as dancers, to become good at throwing dice, and to learn how to lay tricks (cast spells). However, in the interest of accuracy, i must repeat that Robert Johnson never claimed he worked the crossroads ritual. Tommy Johnson did, however.

    As far as i have been able to determine it was a writer named Robert Palmer who bears the responsibility for transferring Tommy Johnson's crossroads story to Robert Johnson, probably because Robert Johnson was so much better known and Palmer thought it made a better story.

    Unfortunately, Palmer and the other European-American writers who propagated his fictional story, were unfamiliar with the teacher at the crossroads and they conflated Tommy Johnson's "big black man" with Goethe's Mephistopheles in "Faust," and then painted false "spooky" images of those who received the gift of learning. It particular, they took their cue from "Faust" to cast Robert Johnson into the role of a tormented and tortured soul doomed to suffer the wrath of God. Needless to say, Palmer's take on the black man at the crossroads does not accord with oral histories collected in the South in the 1930s, the time in which Robert and Tommy Johnson were friends.


    Another writer, Julio Finn, took Palmer's myth-making even farther into fantasy-land when he claimed that hoodoo existed as a hidden "cult" in rural Mississippi during the 1930s. (I just shake my head when i read things like this.)

    In his book "The Bluesman: The Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas," Finn followed Palmer's lead and attributed the Tommy Johnson crossroads story to Robert Johnson -- but then he leapt to the entirely unsupported conclusion that

    "It is doubtful whether Johnson could have written the lyrics of songs without having been initiated into the cult...the symbolism involved in them is highly complex and of a nature which makes it highly improbable that they were simply things he 'picked up.'"

    This is so uninformed that it is laughable, but suffice it to say that hoodoo was -- and is -- common, everyday folk belief in African-American communities. It is not a "cult," it requires no "initiation," and it is precisely something that can be "picked up" from family members, local story-tellers, and even newspaper ads, as will be demonstrated below and is also shown on my web page about the history of hoodoo.


    The specific idea that rural blues musicians "made pacts" with "the devil" for earthly good fortune is an oft-repeated misunderstanding of the crossroads ritual. Some Christian blacks of the early 20th century themselves confused the issue by calling the entity one meets in the ritual "the devil," but i have found no evidence that they ever called him "Satan" or "made pacts" with him in the medieval European sorcery tradition exemplified by the Faust legend. Furthermore, as will be seen below from several examples, the crossroads deity did not grant good fortune, wealth, or power, as the European-American Christian devil is believed to do. He was a teacher of manual dexterity and mental wisdom.

    When African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century told interviewers that they or anyone they knew had "sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads," they did NOT intend to convey thereby that the person in question was an evil, hell-bound anti-Christian. The confusion arises in the eyes of white interpreters who don't understand that the crossroads deity is a survival from polytheistic African religions and that he has been assigned the only name he can be given in a monotheistic religion.

    The traditional colours assigned to the African crossroads spirit are red and black, and the spirit himself is given offerings of alcohol and sacrificed animals, so it is easy to see why Christian slaves and their masters conflated him with "the devil" (e.g. Satan, the "Adversary" to the monotheistic god in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions). However, the crossroads spirit is not Satan. Nor is he evil, harmful, deceptive, or cruel in the sense that the Judeo-Christian devil is. He is a revered spiritual entity from a polytheistic religious system. No "black arts" in the medieval European sense are needed to call upon him or gain his favour. He is a teacher and guide, the opener of the way.


    The following documentation on the crossroads ritual comes from "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork," a 5-volume, 4766-page collection of folkloric material gathered by Harry Middleton Hyatt, primarily between 1935 and 1939.

    IMPORTANT: If this is the first time you have encountered Hyatt material
    at this web site, please take a moment to open and read the supplementary page called
    "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork" by Harry Middleton Hyatt.

    354. If ah want tuh go gamblin', go to a crossroads 'fore de sunup and have de dice in yore han's, an' look at de sun when she start tuh peepin' up, an' yo' stay dere an' shook dem dice at dat crossroads until de sun gets up where yo' kin see it. Ah'll do this -- thrown 'em out, thrown 'em out. Ah'll do this *In de Name of de Father, Son an' Holy Ghost.* An' ev'ry time yo' throw 'em out *pop yo' fingers* -- "Dat ah may be lucky in my travels" [quotation?]. Ev'r time yo' throw 'em out pop yore fingers an' aftah while yo' see de sun rise. It will rise jes' a little bit up, after yo' done say de names -- yo' see, it will rise jes' a little bit up. Ah used to be a gambler but ah quit it.

    (That will teach you how to be a good gambler?)


    [Fayetteville, North Carolina, (1415), 2547:3).]

    {Note that this spell starts in a cemetary and concludes at a crossroads; otherwise it is essentially the same at any crossroads ritual.}

    349. If you want to know how to play a banjo or a guitar or do magic tricks, you have to sell yourself to the devil. You have to go to the cemetery nine mornings and get some of the dirt and bring it back with you and put it in a little bottle, then go to some fork of the road and each morning sit there and try to play that guitar. Don't care what you see come there, don't get 'fraid and run away. Just stay there for nine mornings and on the ninth morning there will come some rider riding at lightning speed in the form of the devil. You stay there then still playing your guitar and when he has passed you can play any tune you want to play or do any magic trick you want to do because you have sold yourself to the devil.

    [Ocean City, Maryland, (14), Ed.]

    {The code number 14 marks this as one of Hyatt's earliest informants and "Ed." means he recorded the interview on an Edison cylinder; he seems not to have transcribed the speaker's dialect as he did with later informants. The mention of Graveyard Dirt as an offering placed at the crossroads is interesting here and relates to another informant's displacement of the entire ritual from a crossroads to a cemetery. The things that "you may see come there" at the crossroads are not listed by this informant, but are explained below. This variant is also unusual in that the mere passing of the rider is sufficient -- in most other versions the "black man" borrows the instrument and tunes it up or plays upon it. For instance in entry 359, "If you wanted to be a dancer, the devil would come himself and strike a step" and entry 363, "And he'll tune up [your guitar] an' hand it back to you and you start to play."}

    363. You go out there [to the forks of a road] about four a'clock, jis' commence dawnin' day, jis' about crack of day -- an' start a-pickin' at de guitar. Yo' go jis' onest. An' they says de devil came out an' take it -- jis' somepin will pull it from you, you jis' give up to it. An' he'll tune up an' hand it back to you and you start to play . You can pick any song you want to pick.

    [Wilmington, North Carolina, (241), 239:4.]

    356. Now de fo'ks of de road -- now, in case dis is whut chew wanta do, if yo' wanta learn hoodooism. See, if you wanta learn hoodooism, you go to de fo'ks of de road. Go dere -- yo' leave home zactkly five minutes of twelve an' have yo' a fo'k. Git chew a bran'-new silver fo'k an' git to de fo'ks of de road an' git down on your knees an' stick dat fo'k in de groun'; see, an' anything on earth yuh wants tuh learn an' know, things will come 'fore yo' an' tell yo' what to do. See. But chew got'a be dere zactly twelve 'clock -- go dere de third day but it's got'a be in de night, twelve 'clock in de night.

    [Mobile, Alabama, (656),937:3).]

    {Re: the "things" that "will come 'fore yo'" in the above entry. Hyatt collected many, many accounts of the crossroads ritual in which it was said that on each successive visit to the crossroads (at midnight or dawn, depending on the informant), a different black animal appears and on the last midnight (or sunrise) the "devil" or "big black man" appears and fulfills the request. Each account gives a variant list of animals, but most commonly mentioned are a black chicken, a black bull, and a black dog. Other animals named are a snake, a bear, a lion, a cat, a lamb, a cow, a sheep, and a horse. One informant in Snow Hill, Maryland (entry 355), carefully specifies that all the animals will be male (a drake, not a duck; a rooster, not a hen; "wouldn't be no females"). In a couple of accounts, some of the black animals are replaced by black weather conditions -- a smoke, a rain, a thundering. These stories are simply too long for me to transcribe here, but the ritual given above, although it does not name or describe the "things" that will come before the postulant, is obviously part of the "black animals at the crossroads" series.}

    {Here is a lone entry in which the rooster is red, not black}

    333. You go to the fork of the road on Sunday morning before day, go there for nine times in succession before the sun rise and make a special wish, a special desire, and whatever you want to do, if it's to be a conjure or to be a bad person, then the devil comes there. First comes a red rooster, then after that the devil sends something else in the shape of a bear and after that he comes himself and takes hold of your hands and tells you to go on in the world and do anything that chew want to do.

    [Elizabeth City, North Carolina, (182)]

    {It seems as if in some of the original African versions of these rituals, the animals were sacrificed at the crossroads. There are remnants of sacrifice and ritual food preparation in some entries, for instance, a horse that has been beheaded in entry 355). The ritual slaughter of a black rooster who is blind in one eye is described in full in entry 341. The piece is too long to quote at length, but here's are some excerpts.}

    341 {excerpts} If yo' want tuh learn to pick a guitar, go to a road nine Sunday mawnin's -- de fo'ks of de road, nine Sunday mawnin's. But 'fore yo' evah go tuh to learn yo'self, dey way fo' yo' tuh do -- git a rooster, an if he ain't blind, have some de young ones to knock his eye out... Don' do it chewse'f, but have somebody else tuh do it...Ah reckon yo' heerded dat ole song -- dey say long time ago it was named atter [after] [what a] root worker done, chew know. Dey say "The Ole Blind Rooster, When He Comes" {The informant may be recalling the popular song "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain When She Comes" -- for the lyrics often contain the line "We will kill the old red rooster when she comes."}

    ...Yuh kill de rooster and eat him, but don' eat none of it yo'self, see. You git de drumstick an' de eye -- take de eye time yo' kill him and bury it undah yo' step an' let nobody know whut chew done wit' it. {Elsewhere in the interview the informant makes it clear through repetition that by "the drumstick" he means the leg and foot bones (still attatched to each other), from which the flesh was eaten by someone else, that the "eye" is the rooster's unblinded or remaining eye, and that the "step" is the back door step, not the one at the front door} Den yo take de drumstick an yo' go down to de fo'rk of de road Sunday mawnin' 'fore day, jes' right round 'bout three a'clock an' when yo' go dere, well, wanta learn tuh play de guitar...

    {The informant goes on to describe how you place the rooster leg-and-foot at the crossroads and it will turn around end-for-end. Then on the successive Sunday mornings there will be animal visitors at the crossroads while you pick guitar -- a "mou'nful and pitiful" sheep, a lowing cow -- and on the final Sunday, a "li'l ole funny boy" who will "play all dumb" when you speak to him, but in the end will teach you to pick guitar. The informant claimed he had worked this ritual himself and he said that after a while, under the boy's tutelage} ...Ah got playin' so's ah could play anything ah want. Ah have been where ah could lay de guitar upside down an' stan' beside it -- it would ring right on. Dat's true...

    {As to the identity of the "li'l ole funny boy," this informant had an interesting opinion.} Well, people say yo' meet de devil, but tell de truth 'bout de thing, ah don't know if it wus de devil or not. It wus a black something othah jes' 'bout dat high -- sorta mind me of a dog. He had han's lak a dog when ah fus' seen him but fust and last his han' wus jes' lak mine only it wus jes' as hot as could be."

    [Fayetteville, North Carolina, (1438), 2581:1.]

    {Here is a version in which the sacrifice of the rooster seems to have been intended and then passed over somehow}

    340. Jes' lak if yo' wanta learn some tricks, yo' know, yo' kin take a black chicken an' go dere fo' nine mawnin's, to de fo'k of de road. Have yo' a further road -- both of 'em public roads each way, not no blind roads, yo' know. Both of 'em have tuh be public roads, forkin'. Yo' take dis chicken an' go dere fo' nine mawnin's an' on de ninth mawnin' de devil will meet chew dere. An' he will learn {teach you} -- well, anything yo' wanta learn.

    (Do you do anything with that chicken?)

    De chicken, he have tuh be live. Yo' ketch him alive an' carry him to de fo'k of de road, an' yo' go fo' nine mawnin's, an' on de ninth mawnin' he'll meet chew dere.

    [Fayetteville, North Carolina, (1415), 2528:3.]

    347. I had a party to tell me tha' chew could go to a four crossroad -- what is called a four-way road [a crossroad] -- for nine mornings at one partic'lar hour in de morning, and dance and sing and put on a little program such as you're able to do, and on the ninth morning the devil'll put in his appearance or some of his imps and give you the power to accomplish what you want to do. And this one boy did do it, but he -- and also you can do by goin' to the woods. And there's a certain location in the woods tha' chew kin do it. An' this boy did do it -- had he carried it out, he was on his ninth morning. And when a big black man came from behind a pine tree and come to him a-laughin', he couldn't stand it and he run and left it.

    [Princess Anne, Maryland, (125), 38:1; happened 1934, so informant says.]

    {Informant #125 was Mr. [-] Maddox, a waiter in the town who became a contact man; brought in informants #127, #129, #130, #133, and possibly others in Princess Anne. (See also entries 820-1);}

    {As to meeting the black man at "a certain location in the woods," mentioned above, the trees and bushes associated with this in other entries in the Hyatt collection are the holly, the dogwood, and the huckleberry. In these less common versions of the ritual, the person who wants to learn to play an instrument or to win at dice or cards goes to one of these trees until the black man arrives and meets him as he would have at the crossroads. I believe that these "sacred tree" variants are European intrusions or inclusions into the African crossroads ritual. The evergreen holly is well-known as a holy plant of the Celts, later adapted to Christian symbolic purposes. Dogwood is often associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. Huckleberry is used in hoodoo for gambling luck ("huckleberry luck"), especially to bring on dreams of lucky numbers.}

    READ VERSE FROM PSALM 36 (?) 136 (?)

    10550. Go down to a crossroad, where a road crosses, nine Sunday mawnin's. It's a very he'd [hard] thing tuh do. When yo' thought of doin' one thing fo' nine Sunday mawnin's it's a good long while. An' meanwhile ah come an' maybe somebody try tuh hol' him off, but yo' gotta meet at dis same place at de same time of day. Jes' lak ah say ah'll be dere at nine a'clock, yo' gotta meet dere at nine a'clock fo' nine Sunday mawnin's at de crossroads. An' yo' gotta read a verse out de Bible.

    (Do you know what the verse is?)

    It's de 36 Psalms, an' ev'ryone ends wit de same words - the 136th Psalms, an' ev'ry verse ends dis chapter heah wit de same thing, de same words.

    Well' yo' start wit dat an' yo' read it fo' nine Sunday mawnin's, an' de ninth [Sunday] mawnin' yo'll meet what yo' didn't expect. Yo'll meet trouble dere, storms, high winds or sompin of dat sort. Yo' cain't tell exactly whut's it goin' be, diff'rent, de ninth mawnin'. But anyhow yo' continue wit it an' when yo' git through wit it, yo'll do whut chew wanta do so fur as tricks is concerned an' wit'out bein' religious atall. But chew kin do anything yo' wants tuh do.

    [Wilson, N.Car., (1476), 2655:3.]

    {Note that this is one crossroads ritual in which "the Devil" is not named, rather appearing in the form of dark clouds and storms. Also, it is Psalm 136, not Psalm 36, in which each verse ends with the same words ("for his mercy endureth for ever"). Why Hyatt, an Anglican minister, didn't comment on the latter, i do not know, but here is the Psalm, for your soul-selling convenience.}

     Psalm 136
     O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     O give thanks unto the God of gods: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     O give thanks to the Lord of lords: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him who alone doeth great wonders: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him that by wisdom made the heavens: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him that stretched out the earth above the waters:
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him that made great lights: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     The sun to rule by day: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     The moon and stars to rule by night: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     And brought out Israel from among them: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him which divided the Red sea into parts: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     And made Israel to pass through the midst of it:
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him which led his people through the wilderness:
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     To him which smote great kings: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     And slew famous kings: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     Sihon king of the Amorites: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     And Og the king of Bashan: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     And gave their land for an heritage: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     Who remembered us in our low estate: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     And hath redeemed us from our enemies: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     Who giveth food to all flesh: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.
     O give thanks unto the God of heaven: 
     for his mercy endureth for ever.


    One thing is fairly clear in all of the African-American crossroads tales collected by Hyatt -- the "devil" at the crossroads is not really "the Adversary" or Satan of Judeo-Christianity. When Robert Johnson sang "Me and the Devil was walkin' side by side," he did not belong to an organized or even a personal Satanic Religion.

    Although some informants say that you "sell your soul" to gain a skill, there is never a Faustian moral at the end of the story, no burning punishment in hell after a preturnaturally successful or ill-spent life. In the non-"soul-selling" variants, you may pay the crossroads spirit with a silver coin for his lesson or -- for no exchange whatsoever than that you have faithfully and without fear attended upon the crossroads for the proper number of days or nights -- the "rider" or "black man" will teach you what you desire, free of charge.

    And it wasn't only Hyatt who collected such tales of the "teaching devil." Newbell Puckett's "Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro" (University of North Carolina Press, 1926; reprinted by Patterson Smith, 1968) contains the following:

    Conjuring represents an African survival, and it is worthy of note that part of this former religion was not entirely abandoned but merely given a subordinate part in the new system [Christianity]; i.e. attributed to the evil element in the cult .... Playing the fiddle or banjo is thought to be a special accomplishment of the devil .... Take your banjo to the forks of the road at midnight and Satan will teach you how to play it .... A New Orleans conjurer described the procedure to me as follows: If you want to make a contract with the devil, first trim your finger nails as close as you possibly can. Take a black cat bone and a guitar and go to a lonely fork in the roads at midnight. Sit down there and play your best piece, thinking of and wishing for the devil all the while. By and by you will hear music, dim at first but growing louder and louder as the music approaches nearer .... After a time you feel something tugging at your instrument .... Let the devil take it and keep thumping along with your fingers as if you still had a guitar in your hands. Then the devil will hand you his instrument to play and will accompany you on yours. After doing this for a time he will seize your fingers and trim the nails until they bleed, finally taking his guitar back and returning your own. Keep on playing; do not look around. His music will become fainter and fainter as he moves away .... You will be able to play any piece you desire on the guitar and you can do anything you want to in the world, but you have sold your eternal soul to the devil and are his in the world to come.
    Neither Puckett's New Orleans conjure doctor nor Hyatt's many informants throughout the South related stories that involved improving the love life, gaining a proposal of marriage, eliminating a rival, discovering a hidden treasure, exacting revenge on another person, or achieving physical healing. That is, the stories are not about general wish-granting, but rather about being granted certain specific skills of dexterity, often musical in nature. Even the dice-throwing story is not a prescription for "good luck" but rather an instructional tale about how to refine one's manual skill. Hyatt asks if the ritual "will teach you how to be a good gambler" and the informant says, "Yes." The key word here is "teach."

    In fact, these stories seem to be prescriptions for a way to contact a specific, helpful spirit -- and the specificity of the crossroads spirit's power is quite apparent: He is a TEACHER spirit who will accelerate one's mastery of mental, manual, and performing arts. The man at the crossroads does not steal your soul or condemn you to perdition or make any unholy bargain with you. He takes your offering and then he teaches by example and transference of power.

    For more information on devil-related folk-magic, see these illustrated pages:


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