In Britain, as elsewhere, the crossroads has traditionally been a place of spiritual power. For a long time, suicides and murderers were buried at crossroads, as it was believed that this would confuse their spirits and ‘bind’ them there, thereby protecting neighbouring communities from their influence. The crossroads was an intimidating place, yet at the same time also a powerful place, and divination took place there, as it did across Europe.
Various rituals intended to rid the individual of ailments were carried out at the crossroads. An Oxfordshire cure for warts involved the sufferer binding a large black slug upon the wart for a night and a day, then going at night to the nearest crossroads and flinging the slug over the left shoulder. People of Exeter and the surrounding area suffering from fevers would visit at the dead of night the nearest crossroad five different times, and there bury a new-laid egg, thereby transferring the illness to the egg and ridding it from their body.
On the Isle of Man, people wanting to get rid of evil spirits and bad luck would go to where four roads meet, and sweep the intersection clear. This was done at midnight when there is a full moon and a broom was used.
It wasn’t just people who wanted to get rid of evil who visited the crossroads for ritual purposes at night, but also those who sought to raise and make contact with spirits for occult purposes. Accounts of such activities can be found in John Beaumont’s book of 1705 entitled An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. In this book, Beaumont presents the case of a 20 year-old acquaintance of his from Gloucestershire named Thomas Jerps. Jerps was a man who had sought to engage with spirits at the crossroads:
I ask’d him several particulars concerning the method he used, and the discourse he had had with the Spirits; He told me he had a Book whose directions he followed, and accordingly, in the dead time of the Night, he went to a cross way, with a Lanthorn and Candle, which were Consecrated for this purpose, with several Incantations: He had also a Consecrated Chalk, having a mixture of several things within it; and with this he used to make a Circle at what distance he thought fit, within which no Spirit had power to enter; after this he Invoked the Spirits, by using several forms of Words; some of which he told me were taken out of the Scriptures, and therefore he thought them lawful…
About a Quarter of a Year after this, he came to me again, and told me he wished now he had taken my Advice, for he thought he had done that, which would cost him his Life, and his Eyes and Countenance shew’d a great alteration. I asked him what he had done? he told me that being Bewitch’d by his Acquaintance, he resolved to proceed farther in this Art, and to have some Familiar Spirits at his Command, according to the directions of his Book, which were to get a Book made of Virgin Parchment, and Consecrated with several Incantations, as also particular Ink, Inkhorn, Pens, &c. for this purpose; with these he was to go out as usual to a Cross-way, call upon a Spirit, and ask him his Name, which he was to enter in the First Page of his Book, and this was to be his Chief Familiar.
Beaumont, John (1705) An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. Online.
Devereux, Paul (2010) ‘Talking and Walking with Spirits: Fresh Perspectives on a Medieval Necromantic System’ in Patrick Curry (ed) Divination: Perspectives for a New Millenium (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing): 243-250.
Rogers, Liam (1996) ‘The Enchanted Crossroads’, White Dragon. Online.
Roud, Steve (2006) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin Books).