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).

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[*] 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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crossroads 2

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