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, 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.

paket
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 at the mirror site on livejournal 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.”

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