February 3rd, 2013

stabat mater dolorosa

Conjure in pop culture - Supernatural S1 E9, "Home"

Supernatural is among my daughter's favorite shows and she has forbidden me to carp about any liberties taken with magic, mythology, symbols, angelology, or religion. But that's why I have a blog.

So in season 1, episode 9, "Home," the main characters hook up with a palmist/psychic character of presumably African-American descent who instructs them on how to purify a house that's infested with a poltergeist. "Angelica root, van van oil, crossroad dirt, [and] a few other odds and ends" are tied up into bags to be put into the north, south, east, and west walls of the home, one on each floor.

Poltergeists aren't a precise fit in conjure, and I would personally take a different route for exorcism and even for house-cleansing, but the bags-inside-the-walls method isn't a bad one for protection purposes. (It would obviously be easier to do this as you were building or remodeling the house; if you were doing it after the fact, in real life and not on TV, simply hanging or concealing the bags would be traditionally fine, and while the N-S-E-W thing is alright, I'd not neglect the center of the home, nor the entrances.) As for ingredients, the angelica root and the Van Van oil are easy to find info on, so I want to confine my remarks to the crossroads dirt for this post.

I can easily piece together a few different lines of thinking on how and why one might use crossroads dirt, but I personally never heard of any such thing being used as a standalone ingredient in any older traditional sources or from any older traditional practitioners. That doesn't mean it was never used back in the day - I certainly haven't met everybody from every region - but the reason why I suspect it's an invention or interpolation from another tradition (or simply a writer's imagination) is because the important thing about crossroads is that they're places, not curios or objects. Now, I know that graveyards are places too and graveyard dirt is old-school, but graveyard dirt when taken and used as a standalone ingredient is usually used either for its attachment to/association with a particular spirit in that graveyard, or for the purposes of symbolically recreating a graveyard in another place (to bury someone or something in on your altar, for instance). Graveyard dirt "works" most often because of a particular grave in that graveyard - other uses are rarer. That means it "works" because of the spirits associated with the graveyard, not simply because it's a graveyard, if the distinction I'm trying to make is making sense (and please note I'm leaving aside things like vodoun right now and deities or non-formerly-human spirits from other religions that are associated with graveyards). There's a theory/philosophy of the relationship between the living and the dead at work here that underlies the whole usage of graveyard dirt as a standalone ingredient in conjure.

The crossroads, on the other hand, are important because they're crossroads, not because of a particular spirit associated with particular crossroads (and again, I'm leaving aside the related matter of the "devil/black man at the crossroads" lore for the time being, as that is a rite that has to be done at the crossroads, and that particular rite is less common than other crossroads rites that have nothing to do with the "devil/black man at the crossroads.")

Even if the intent behind using crossroads dirt was to somehow tap into the traditions associated with the devil or black man at the crossroads, that would be done in order to gain some kind of skill or knowledge, not for purposes of protection or driving away spirits. You don't move the crossroads rite to a non-crossroads place like you might move graveyard dirt to a non-graveyard place. When we're talking about driving away things we don't want around, the crossroads would come in as a place to perform all or part of a rite focused on getting rid of something or somebody, most commonly as a place to dispose of ritual remains, personal concerns, water, etc (though they can also be used as more "neutral" disposal locations for other types or rites or workings, of course - I don't mean to imply that they're all about hotfoot or something because they aren't, but they are very often about dispersal in some sense, even if it's just a neutral "disposal" or dispersal of "energy" or materials to conclude a benevolent rite). Crossroads are important in those cases because they are a place where two paths meet and then diverge, where they cross; they are a place where things travel and where paths, well, cross, where direction can be changed, where choices can be made, and where things can be met, etc. So even if you were to use crossroads stuff as part of a rite or working to get rid of an entity, you wouldn't try to bring the crossroads to the house - you would be more likely to take something from the house to the crossroads. And you wouldn't "tie up" the crossroads by tying the dirt up into a mojo bag - it goes against the entire reason for using crossroads in the first place, the way I see it. When crossroads are used to get rid of things, they are used because of dispersal, to get something to go and stay gone, to move in the other direction from you. You don't really use crossroads for binding or tying down, and even if you tried to stretch it that way and think of bringing some kind of dispersal energy to the site, using crossroads dirt for that purpose doesn't make any sense to me. And crossroads aren't really used as a way to confuse or keep away spirits in the same way that, say, crossing running water would be in some traditions or regions.

Like I said, if I had to use crossroads dirt as an ingredient, I can think of a few ways to use it I guess. I can reconstruct some of the thinking if indeed there's any more to it than it being something that might have popped up if you googled hoodoo and needed something to make your dialogue sound reasonably interesting. I think it's a later creation or interpolation or invention that came into conjure -- if it can even be said to have a place in conjure, which I'm not convinced of -- through not-traditional-conjure sources. (For instance, if you see it in New Orleans, I will bet you cash money that it came in via vodoun or another religion.) I suppose I can imagine using it in, say, a paket for Legba. But as a standalone ingredient in a mojo bag to get rid of spirits or keep them out? Nope, it doesn't fit -- for the same reasons you don't see hot-foot mojo bags and that you can't bottle running water and still call it running water. The crossroads are important because they are a place of meeting and movement in a way that makes the site itself important; you can't capture it. If you could, it would no longer be about movement and meeting and divergence. That's not to say you can't create a spiritual crossroads in a ritual setting - you can, and you do every time you draw a veve, for instance, or make offerings on your ancestor altar -- but that is a different animal, working in a different way, and that would be for another post.

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For the record, I consider the quincunx or five spot (pictured above from S2E11) to be related but distinct; even if you consider it a ritually created, manmade crossroads of some sort, it's used for completely different purposes than the crossroads as a location. The quincunx or five  spot is used to fix things, to set things in place - it's declarative where the crossroads are more like ellipses, if you will. I don't consider the five spot to be a crossroads, precisely, and I think it quite likely that anything you read about setting down crossroad dirt to perform a ritual, whether in a quincunx or in some other pattern, was written by somebody who comes from a tradition other than conjure. That's fine - I know traditional southeastern conjure is not the only way to work, but I believe in separating the fact from the fiction is all. If they tell you it's used in conjure to increase the power of your rituals, I would be very skeptical. If they then tell you to bury the crossroads dirt near your home to draw something to you, I would not hit a hog in the behind with anything they sell or say. So tying crossroads dirt into a mojo to get rid of a negative entity or person? It just doesn't make sense.

Now, if you wanted a mojo or paket in your house to keep away evil spirits and/or unwelcome guests, you have all kinds of options. I like St. Michael for this type of stuff - a paket at the front door and one at the back. Here is a paket I have at one of my doors currently, made by my colleague Rev. Tixerand at Isle Brevelle Botanica, along with a partial view of some other odds and ends I keep at this particular spot.

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You can make a good St. Michael paket for your home with Grains of Paradise, angelica root, boldo leaf, blackberry leaf, broom straws, caraway seeds, and pennyroyal. If you want something smaller than holy-card-sized, then just put a St. Michael medal into the paket or mojo instead of having the image on the outside. You can also use a hoodoo nail or a sword charm dressed with St. Michael oil.

If you live on family land, or are doing work to protect a family, you might want to get a friendly family spirit or ancestor involved. In that case, you can use graveyard dirt from a relative who would be invested in the protection of the home and/or family, properly collected with proper payment. A nice three-ingredient mojo in that case could contain graveyard dirt, althea, and blessed thistle. Or whichever particular herbs suit your situation -- if you live in the woods and need protection from animals, or have awful in-laws and need protection from them, or need to keep the cops away, or need to keep your teenager's bad influences away, you can modify accordingly. Dress with Fiery Wall of Protection, Home Protection, St. Michael, or some other appropriate oil.

But leave out the crossroads dirt, y'all - that's just television.

ETA: Read the comments for commentary by ConjureMan Ali, who says he knows a trick from the VA/SC area involving crossroads dirt as a standalone ingredient -- but note that the lore involves the practitioner setting out to travel, not binding the dirt up into a fixed mojo for protection or for anything else. That made sense to me, but tying the dirt up still didn't. I called my cousin who was born in Louisiana but now lives in Texas, and she says she doesn't know any uses for crossroads dirt as a standalone ingredient from any region she's lived in. But my neighbor, who lives in the Atlanta area now but grew up in Florida, says she has heard of dirt from the "fork in the road" taken as a standalone ingredient in a bag for luck. So between these two, I guess I stand corrected and my train of thought on crossroads dirt being a new interpolation as a standalone ingredient misses the track somewhere. She doesn't know where her people are from before her mother. But she and her mother call hoecakes "johnny cakes," so that makes me suspect that her mother or grandmother spent some time on the East coast of the U.S. That could be just me wanting the East coast connection to be there to explain some differences I see in regional variations with how certain liminal places and states are treated (a bit on that is in the comments too), 'cause Lord knows regional dialect stuff can work on a pretty "micro" scale and lore can get into families all kinds of ways, especially when a family moves a lot. But my neighbor is 50 and her mother is over 80 and neither of them are practitioners of any particular spiritual path, religion, or folk practice (they ask me for stuff in a pinch), so they sure didn't invent this stuff or read it to import it from somewhere else. 

It also tells me that my asking people about "crossroads dirt" might be the wrong phrase. I should probably ask about "dirt from the fork in the road."   

stabat mater dolorosa

Conjure in pop culture - Supernatural S2 E8, "Crossroad Blues"

In Season 2, Episode 8, "Crossroad Blues," the boys encounter a tin box buried at a crossroads surrounded by yarrow plants, which they remark on as being useful for "summoning rituals." The box contains an old apothecary bottle they surmise is full of graveyard dirt, a black cat bone (the whole damned leg bone, all still attached, including foot, tarsal/metatarsal, and radius/ulna), and a photo of the pact-maker, which they call "deep South hoodoo stuff." There also appears to be a bundle of something that might be spanish moss, but you only get a glimpse.[*] Ten years later, the pact-makers who did the crossroads rite see hell-hounds who come to fetch them at the expiration of their contracts, in this universe sealed with a kiss by a demon at the crossroads.

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"So it's just like the Robert Johnson legend, right? I mean, selling your soul at the crossroads kind of deal?"
"Story goes that he died choking on his own blood. He was hallucinating and muttering about big evil dogs."  

They find a pact maker with a peppery powder at his door, which he identifies as Goofer Dust. He then tosses them a leather mojo full of it that "keeps out demons." Apparently it works even on hell-hounds, at least for a while.

We are largely in the realm of creative liberties here; this is a gumbo of influences, or perhaps it's more like fusion cuisine. The writers seem to go to hoodoo when they want to evoke something particularly Southern or relating to a specifically African-American character with family knowledge (though to be fair, they mix it up pretty well and so far at least don't seem to be painting with too broad a brush stroke or singling any one group out for any special treatment - like I said in the comments to my last Supernatural post, there's a little something to annoy everyone of every religious persuasion in this series, not least of all orthodox Christians of several persuasions; the universe's view of God is actually breathtakingly grim, and with so many sexy demons running around, I'm kind of surprised I haven't heard more moral outrage from more quarters).

But while this is hoodoo-flavored, and there are some definite hoodoo spices mixed up in this one, as a whole they still don't quite make a hoodoo dish. Individually, the crossroads, the black cat bone, the goofer dust, the photo, and the blues allusions all smell like hoodoo, but they don't make a whole lot of sense mixed together. They're just designed to evoke hoodoo associations and set the stage for where this particular universe is taking its particular characters.

I'm not here to enter the fray about when, where, how, and if Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural talent in blues-playing. There is tons of crap out there about it, and we can't ever know the truth about anything that happened at midnight at a rural crossroads. Those rites usually require that you don't have an audience, after all. I can recommend Lucky Mojo's page on the crossroads legend, most especially for the explanation of how this "black man" or "devil" that you encounter is a distinct entity from the Judeo-Christian devil. (Though cat yronwode also gets into the question of whether that was really Robert Johnson who made that claim publicly, and the record would suggest that it was not.) That accords with my experiences and background as well: in deep South conjure, the rite done at the crossroads did not traditionally involve *selling one's soul to the devil* or any kind of Faustian pact like that. That sort of thing was layered on afterwards by folks from outside the tradition, splicing in European lore. And if you peruse the Hyatt material, pertinent bits of which are excerpted at the Lucky Mojo page linked to above, you'll find some remnants of surviving lore about a rooster leg (rather than a cat leg) involved in the rite. But the simplest form -- the heart of the rite -- is just showing up for a set number of nights in a row and waiting on the entity to appear to teach you a skill, usually involving manual dexterity of some kind. Again: this rite, done traditionally, does not involve selling your soul to any entity, never mind the Judeo-Christian devil; you do not need a black cat bone; you do not need yarrow; you do not need graveyard dirt; and you do not need to worry about hell-hounds coming for you later (though there is lore that sometimes the entity that comes to the graveyard is a creature rather than a man, so the black dog is a nice touch there).

As far as Goofer Dust goes, I imagine everybody reading this knows that it's not a first pick for keeping away bad spirits, though it could very well be peppery, depending on your recipe. While some of the ingredients in Goofer Dust might sometimes be used for situations involving nasty spirits, Goofer Dust itself is usually used to harm people, and some of the elements in it are sometimes used to *draw* nasty spirits. Generally speaking, Goofer Dust is less an element of protection than an element of crossing (often with killing intent). I would not use Goofer Dust in any sort of protective rite - various recipes differ depending on what the creator has on hand and the region they live in, but my formulas (for both regular Goofer Dust and Extra Strength Goofer Dust) all call for some kind of poisonous or venomous insect or creature, and my dust is created with intent to harm, so there are plenty of better ways to work.

As for yarrow, for all I know it might be used for summoning in some other tradition or possibly even some other region, but not in deep-South conjure. I have never heard of it having any relationship to any crossroads rite, either. I find it's more often used for courage and, by extension, for strength. I suspect that its associations with psychic power or divination come in through a combo of European herbal lore and the flowering of the sort of faux-world-mysticism of the 60s that introduced many Western practitioner to things like the I Ching, in which yarrow stalks were sometimes part of that particular form of geomancy (though coins are a lot more common these days). I have things I much prefer for psychism, divination, etc.; I don't imagine I would use yarrow for this unless I was inexplicably out of all the other stuff I prefer to use. I use it for courage and strength, and it's a great additive to Success or Road Opener mojos/formulas for clients when the reading shows that part of what's holding them back is internal or emotional fear or self-doubt or weakness.

And if you want guitar-playing skill without the crossroads rite? Try putting a rattlesnake rattle in your guitar. (If you play electric, you'll have to make do with a mojo in your guitar case. Put the rattle inside a plastic globe from one of those gumball machines that the toys come in, or else use an Altoids tin, to keep it from getting crushed).

***
[*] In Season 3, Episode 5, "Bedtime Stories," one of the characters goes back to the crossroads, and this time there's a wooden box containing a silver skeleton key, a cat foot/paw skeleton on a leather cord (not the whole drumstick-and-thigh), the apothecary bottle presumably full of graveyard dirt, and some silver coins (most too large to be dimes but I can't really tell what they're supposed to be). Here are screencaps of the character adding his own photo in the form of a fake ID.


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