In the days of ancient Greece, crossroads were dedicated to Hecate, Goddess of the Underworld, who was said to have 3 faces, each to observe the three ways of the crossroads. Representations of her as a pole with 3 masks were placed where 3 roads met and cakes with candles were left so the ghosts that followed her would be fed and not haunt the living. Diana, Roman Goddess of the Witches was also Goddess of the Crossroads and a small altar was placed there for the protection for travellers who left gifts in return for good luck. In India, Rudra, the God of the Crossroads also ruled ghosts and evil powers, in Africa, Elegua opened and closed all paths and carried a forked stick made of the guava tree. In Russia, vampires were said to lurk at crossroads, in Sweden witches were reported to dance at the crossroads in order to summon the devil.
Crossroads throughout the world are considered places of confusion as they present choices and hence a matter of chance and unknown possibilities. The places where three roads or more roads meet (sometimes with four or five options) are considered an entrance to the Otherworld and hence a place of feared sightings of apparitions, ghostly manifestations and visitations from beyond the grave.
Parish boundary lines were frequently positioned at crossroads. Those who had committed acts of criminality (such as thieves and highwaymen) and witches (who were said to have the power to adversely affect people and animals) were not entitled to be buried in consecrated ground in the parish and were buried at crossroads to confuse the soul so it would never find its way to heaven. Suicides, often considered restless and vengeful were also not entitled to a burial in consecrated ground. They were sometimes buried upside down also to confuse their sense of direction. To prevent the dead from waking and haunting the living, a stake was often driven through the heart or navel to pin the unfortunate to the ground. The practice of driving stakes through the bodies of those who had committed suicide was outlawed in England, the last burial at the crossroads was outside Lords Cricket Ground in 1823.
The dule tree was considered to be haunted because it was used for the purposes of making the gibbet or gallows upon which to hang criminals and it was known as The Tree of Lamentation’ as it often groaned in the wind.
Scaffolds were erected at the crossroads such as Tyburn in London (where two Roman roads, Edgware and Bayswater, meet). Gibbets and gallows were also erected on high places to provide an elevation for the spectacle, such as Gallows Hill, now known as Galley Hill in Luton. A noose was placed around the neck of the accused and they ascended a ladder or horse drawn cart which would then be removed. Hanged criminals did not die quickly and their relatives frequently tried to hasten their end by tugging at their thrashing legs so they noose would tighten and strangle quickly.
Those found guilty of murder or sheep-stealing were placed in a cage and displayed upon the gibbet to starve to death, a process known as ‘gibbeting’ or ‘hanging in chains’. The dead were left to rot on the rope on which they were hanged and often their body was dipped in tar to prevent the birds from consuming it so it remained as an example to others. The body would eventually be unceremoniously buried under the gibbet, often to be dug up by hungry dogs or by witches who thought the fingers of the dead possessed special powers. It was possible for witches to make contact with the dead at the crossroads sites and witches were said to gather at sabbats around the scaffold, the place where their accomplices were tortured and hanged.
In the Isle of Man there was a traditional method of removing bad luck by going to the crossroads and sweeping the intersection clear of fallen leaves and other fallen debris. This sweeping should be done at midnight when the moon was full and a besom switch broom was used of birch twigs. ‘Sweeping’ occurred throughout Britain as a means of banishing spirits of disorder and to restore order and calm.
The Church – and society - has rethought its attitude to suicide and considers it a difficult and painful decision, taken whilst in distress. It has reconsidered also its judgement on murderers, all are granted burial in consecrated ground should it be desired by the family of the deceased. Society now no longer experience enjoyment at watching the sensationalised suffering of others, no matter what crime has been committed. The dead rarely walk to haunt the living or are lost in the Netherworld. However, when you next pass a crossroads, do as they did long ago and make the sign of the cross incase the undead latch onto you!
By Wendy Stokes www.wendystokes.co.uk