In pop culture, the concept of a crossroads demon has sprung up in recent years, perhaps particularly inspired by Supernatural, where they are explicitly named as a special type of demon. The concept has always fascinated me, so I wanted to delve into answering the question “what are crossroads demons?” and explore the history of their folklore.
Demons making deals is an ancient archetype, and whether you risk your soul or karmic misfortune, these deals always carry a heavy price. The archetypal deal making crossroads demon may be Mephistopheles, now famous from many portrayals in media, but originally a German folkloric character from the legend of Faust (whose name gives us Faustian bargain). In the legends of Faust, Mephistopheles is the agent of the devil who bargains with Faust for his soul.
Unlike in Supernatural, Crossroads demons are not always a unique sort of demon, but merely a demon who makes deals at crossroads. The concept is particularly tied to the folklore of the American South, but it is a concept that has cropped up in many times and places.
Why are crossroads special?
Within folklore cross roads are important places. They often represented liminal spaces. This is a fancy way to say that a crossroads is an ambiguous place that is neither here nor there – not at your destination, nor the place where you started, where you have to make a decision on what path to take. If you were in unfamiliar lands, a crossroads was an easy place to get lost. If a sign was wrong, or you read your map wrong, you could end up far from your destination.
Hecate, the Greek (and Carian) goddess of Witches was patron of crossroads. In Ireland, criminals and suicides were buried at crossroads, perhaps out of a belief that crossroads would confuse the dead, or were a space outside of the law. In some legends, a crossroads could also confuse a spirit or Fae that was haunting you – Oschaert, a monstrous shapeshifting Black dog from Belgian folklore, was said to be deterred from its chase if you came to a crossroads or an image of the Virgin Mary.
The belief in the mystical or liminal nature of crossroads isn’t unique to European folklore. The Yoruba deity Eshu (Elegba), the messenger between heaven and Earth, resides at crossroads, and Papa Legba, a Haitian Vodou Iwa and the intermediary between humanity and the Iwa, is a crossroads spirit. Many other religions and folklores also make the crossroads a sacred or spiritual place, such as the Japanese gods or spirits of paths, boundaries and crossroads, the Chimata-no-Kami.
Famous stories of crossroads demons
Stories of deals made with the devil are particularly common among musicians. In a famous story, blues musician Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to a demon at a crossroad in return for the ability to play blues. Though many people now credit him for this claim, it likely came from a biographer writing after his death. He died tragically young, only stoking the belief.
Johnson’s story mirrors other folklore about musicians selling their soul, and perhaps was a retelling of a much older belief in making deals with the Devil for supernatural talents. Tommy Johnson, an earlier and unrelated blues musician, had the same story attached to him. Old American folk stories tell that, if you wish to learn to play the fiddle, you may do so by walking until you find a crossroads on the fifth morning, where you will find the devil, and he will teach you to play.
Another story from Maryland in the 19th century instructs that you must go to a cemetery, take some of the grave dirt, put it into a bottle, then go to a crossroads or fork in the road, and there you will find a rider riding at “lightning speed in the form of the devil”. When he has passed you by, you will be able to play “any tune”.
The 19th century Italian musician Paganini was also said to have sold his soul to the devil (or his mother had sold his soul for him as a child) in return for his remarkable ability to play the violin. Allegedly, an audience member once fled his concert after claiming to have seen the devil helping him play.
Why are the deals always (mostly) made by musicians?
Bill Angus, in a paper for Popular Music journal, argues that the prevalence for musicians as the subject of crossroads deals is likely a product of Christianity. For nearly a thousand years, Christian teachings condemned music as immodest, immoral, tempting or evil. The association of music with evil, and the incredible talent some musicians could display to do something that seemed impossible with their instrument or voice, fed into the belief that they must be instructed by the devil.
It is important to note however that wasn’t merely a neutral connection of two disparate beliefs (music as temptation, and musicians as devil summoners). The regulation of music, the condemnation of musicians, and the suppression of musical traditions by Church leaders was often connected to racially and ethnically motivated goals.
Musicians, especially traveling or widely popular musicians, can be deeply politically subversive, and introduce new ideas that challenge the establishment. In 17th century Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, musicians were arrested for “religious deviancy” and one piece of legislation listed vagrants to include “entertainers … wizards and unlicensed healers”. In 1654, a minstrel with the amazing name Methuselah Flower of Tewkesbury was arrested for singing ballads. This was just one of many arrests and bans on music during the English middle ages.
The suppression of Irish house dances, largely advocated for by the Catholic church, was part of an effort to suppress Irish culture during British rule. Conservative American beliefs that non-religious music was the Devil’s music were tied to racial politics, and Black music was particularly demonised, and in Europe, discourse around music and the distrust of travelling musicians was rooted in traveller and Romani discrimination.
Crossroads demons and deals in pop culture
Crossroads are weird – they’re almost ubiquitous in the popular zeitgeist. While searching for sources for this article, the results in academic libraries were flooded with examples of crossroads and demons being used as a metaphor by authors. Yet the lists of Faustian bargains in pop culture, provided on TVTropes and Wikipedia, are surprisingly sparse. As a result, I actually found it hard to find examples in media – despite the fact that we’ve all clearly been exposed to the idea enough times that it has become part of our collective consciousness.
As mentioned at the beginning, crossroads deals and demons feature prominently in Supernatural, particularly the first six seasons. The 1986 movie Crossroads is inspired by the legend of Robert Johnson, and in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Dream gifts the Three-in-One a crossroads as the price for their advice. And obviously, the numerous retellings of Faust’s tale feature the infamous demon Mephistopheles.
Do you know any other examples of crossroads demons and crossroad deals? I’d love to check them out, so let me know in the comments.
Angus, B. (2020). Going down to the crossroads: popular music and transformative magic. Popular Music, 39 (2), 257-269. DOI 10.1017/S0261143020000379
Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.). Eshu. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eshu
Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.). Hecate. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hecate
Kathryn E. (2020). Imbolc Musings – Folklore of the Crossroads. ABeautifulResistance.org. https://abeautifulresistance.org/site/2020/1/23/imbolc-musings-folklore-of-the-crossroads
Lamoureux, A. (2018). Meet Papa Legba – The Devilish Voodoo Figure of ‘American Horror Story’ fame. Allthatsinteresting.com. https://allthatsinteresting.com/papa-legba
Oschaert. (2006). In Encyclopedia Mythica. https://pantheon.org/articles/o/oschaert.html
Roberts, M. S. (2019). Niccolo Paganini was such a gifted violinist, people thought he sold his soul to the devil. Classicfm.com https://www.classicfm.com/composers/paganini/niccolo-gifted-violinist-deal-with-devil/
Slaven, J. (2022). The Crossroads: a liminal setting for occult and supernatural activities. Owlcation.com https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Crossroads-a-liminal-setting-for-occult-and-supernatural-activities
Featured image: Illustrations for Faust: Méphistophélés in the air, 1828. Eugène Delacroix, Lithograph, hend by the Cleveland Museum of Art. In the public domain.