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Meet Me at the Crossroads: The Papa Legba

By Charles Spratley

Listening to the blues on an old acoustic guitar takes me back. The rich sound makes me think of trips down south as a boy and later as a scholar of the arcane. It takes me to the Crossroads, where Papa Legba awaits to teach me a thing or two. Last month, I wrote about the Krampus, a legend from deep in Europe. Thought we might enjoy a little Americana, by way of Hoodoo. I have always been fascinated by folk mythology and spiritual practices, and Hoodoo is by far one of my favorites. The Crossroads are an important facet in both Hoodoo and Voodoo culture. Betwixt and between as some might say. It’s the physical and the abstract, as well as the place where the living meet the dead. It is also where Papa Legba hangs out, for he is the gatekeeper of the Spiritworld. Papa Legba is who you need before you reach out to any of the loas for their aide. It is from this mythos we acquire the legend of the Crossroads.

There is a scene from the wonderful movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, where they come across a blues singer who was hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere. When they ask what he was doing out there, the character proclaims he was waiting to sell his soul to the devil.  Going to the Crossroads to sell your soul to the devil is a legend itself in the blues world. There is a guitarist by the name of Tommy Johnson who claimed that he met a Black Man at the Crossroads at midnight and he taught Tommy how to play the guitar. The Black Man is misconstrued by Christians at the Devil, which is far from the truth.

I looked up several sources on the folklore surrounding the blues and the Crossroads. And yes, while it does contain the earmarks of a conjuring or a pact signing, nowhere other than in fiction is there a signing or a selling of the soul itself. In Hoodoo and Voodoo, the Crossroads are a very important place. It’s a place where you dispose of your remnants of spellwork or a place to work the magic yourself. A metaphorical Crossroads are sometimes made in both spiritual traditions. The veve, or sign, of Papa Legba resembles a Crossroads. If you ever see a rendition of Legba, he is usually shown in folklore as an old man with a beard, hat and cane. He is also portrayed as having black skin.

So where did Papa Legba become confused with the Devil? He was accused of being Ol’ Scratch from the moment he stepped foot on American soil. It is easy to imagine slave owners looking at representations of Legba and hearing stories about him and labeling him as demonic. What a smooth reputation of a blues musician with uncanny playing skill. A strumming that is said to so gifted it must come from the devil himself. Even the Charlie Daniels Band got in on the act with The Devil Went Down to Georgia in 1979. And the rest is history…kind of.