I Went Down to the Crossroads


The song “Crossroads” as recorded by Cream popped up on my Spotify playlist today. It reminded me 1) of high school and 2) of a college literature class where we got into a discussion of crossroads in mythology.

In myth and magic, crossroads often represent a place between the worlds. It is a place where supernatural spirits can be contacted and paranormal events can take place. As a symbol, it sometimes is a place where two realms touch and therefore is neither here nor there, or “betwixt and between.”

The song was written around 1936 by Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. The lyrics tell of a man kneeling at a crossroads to ask God’s mercy. Johnson had said it was inspired by not being able to hitch a ride into town at a crossroads. The blues mythology has said that the crossroads is where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical talents. The lyrics do not support that interpretation but the myth continued.

Crossroads go back to Greek mythology where they were associated with Hermes and Hecate and shrines and ceremonies often were set at a crossroad. Hermes was connected to travelers, but Hecate’s connection to crossroads was ritualistic. “Suppers of Hecate” were offerings left for her at crossroads at each New Moon.

I have read that in the UK crossroad rituals date back to Anglo-Saxon times and continued until being the early 1800ss. Criminals and suicides were often buried at the crossroads. (Suicide was a crime.) This may have been simply because crossroads usually were outside the boundaries of the town and those people were to be kept apart. Criminals were sometimes punished and executed by gibbet or dule tree at a crossroad.

In Western folk mythology, a crossroads can be used to summon a demon or devil in order to make a deal. The 1587 Historia von D. Johann Fausten describes the character Faust inscribing magic circles at a crossroads and offering a copper coin in order to summon the devil.

Crossroads also appear in hoodoo, a form of African American magical spirituality, and Brazilian mythology.

The myth has been perpetuated in fiction, movies and TV. The U.S. television show. Supernatural, used crossroads demons in a number of episodes. In the Coen Brothers comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the character Tommy Johnson says that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar skills, an obvious allusion to the legend of Robert Johnson.

Magical Phrases

If I asked you to say something “magical,” what would you say?  Hocus pocus? Abracadabra? Open sesame? I heard all of those phrases as a child and used them in my make-believe childhood world. Do they hold any power? I doubt that they do, but they have a long history of use in “real” magical ceremonies and also in theatrical magic shows.

Let’s look at the origins of those magical phrases.

Hocus-pocus is a generic term that may be derived from an ancient language and is currently used to refer to the actions of magicians, often as the stereotypical magic words spoken when bringing about some sort of change. It was once a common term for a magician, juggler, or other similar entertainers.

The earliest known English-language book on magic (known then as legerdemain “sleight of hand”), was published in 1635 as Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain.

“Hocus Pocus” also was the stage name of a well-known magician of that time, William Vincent, who may have been the author. He is recorded as having been granted a license to perform magic in England in 1619.

But it is unlikely that Vincent invented the phrase and the origins of the term remain obscure. I found a bunch of conjectures. Some say it a garbled Latin religious phrase or some form of “dog” “pig” Latin.

In searching other languages, we find in some Slavic languages, “pokus” means an “attempt” or an “experiment.” There is a tenuous connection with alchemy going back to the court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (1552 – 1612). I  saw that hocus may mean “to cheat” in Latin or a distorted form of the word hoc meaning “this.” Together they would give the sense of attempting to cheat.

Another theory (in the Oxford English Dictionary) has the origin from hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used as a magical formula by conjurors. A similar distortion theory is that it may be taken from the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, which contains the phrase “Hoc est enim corpus meum”  (meaning “This is my body”) particularly the hoc est corpus portion. This is a mocking suggestion that a magician is changing something in the same way that the Catholic Eucharist ceremony changes water and wine through Transubstantiation.

The final suggested origin is that it comes from the Norse magician and “demon of the north” Ochus Bochus.

Image by Franck Barske from Pixabay

Abracadabra is an incantation used as a magic word in stage magic tricks, and historically was believed to have healing powers when inscribed on an amulet.

Abracadabra’s origin is also unclear but its first occurrence is in the second-century works of Serenus Sammonicus. His book called Liber Medicinalis (sometimes known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) who was a physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla. In that book, he prescribes for malaria and other lethal diseases wearing an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle. It is found on Abraxas stones, which were worn as amulets. Subsequently, its use spread beyond the Gnostics.

Possible folk etymologies include from Hebrew meaning “I will create as I speak”, or in Aramaic “I create like the word.”  There are also some similar words in Latin and Greek such as abraxas. but according to the OED Online, “no documentation has been found to support any of the various conjectures.”

The Greek abraxas is a possibly related word of mystic meaning in the system of the Gnostic Basilides and appears in Gnostic texts such as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. It was engraved on certain antique gemstones, called on that account Abraxas stones, which were used as amulets or charms. (Their spelling on stones was “Abrasax” (Αβρασαξ) and the more modern “Abraxas” probably comes from a confusion made between the Greek letters sigma (Σ) and xi (Ξ) in the Latin transliteration. The seven letters may represent each of the seven classic planets.

In the English speaking world, abracadabra was frequently dismissed. The Puritan minister Increase Mather dismissed it as being powerless. Author Daniel Defoe wrote dismissively about Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness during the Great Plague of London.

Today the word is now commonly used simply as an incantation in the performance of theatrical magic.

“Open Sesame” is another common magical phrase that was found in the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in Galland’s version of One Thousand and One Nights. In the story, it opens the mouth of a cave in which forty thieves have hidden a treasure.

In Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et une nuits (1704–1717) it appears as “Sésame, ouvre-toi” which we translate as “Sesame, open yourself.”

So, is this just a storybook phrase?

Sesame is connected to Babylonian magic practices which used sesame oil. The phrase probably derives from the sesame plant. Sesame seeds grow in a seed pod that splits open when it reaches maturity, and it is thought that it alludes to unlocking treasures.

But “sesame” is a reduplication of the Hebrew šem ‘name‘, i.e. God or a kabbalistic word representing the Talmudic šem-šamáįm “name of heaven” so it also has religious and mystical connections.

Though I do have a replica Professor Dumbledore elder  wand that I bought at Olivander’s shop (Well, the one at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida), I haven’t found that any of the Hogwart’s spells or the magical phrases described above seem to do anything.

Maybe I need a different wand. Maybe I need to go to wizarding school. Or just stick to card tricks.

Cross-posted at What’s In a Name?

A Shelf of Grimoires

the old books
Image: Suzy Hazelwood – Pexels

I was browsing at a local bookstore and came across a daily planner for practicing (or budding) witches.  Another book on the rather full shelf of like-minded books was Wicca Moon Magic which has a subtitle of A Wiccan’s Guide and Grimoire. I had to look up “grimoire” (grim-WAHR) which is a book of spells or textbook of magic. Yes, like those books the students at Hogwarts had to buy for classes.

These books have instructions on how to create magical objects like talismans and amulets, how to perform magical spells, charms and divination, and how to summon or invoke supernatural entities such as angels and spirits.

I would be more of at a Wicca for beginners level.  Though I find these things interesting, I have no desire to dabble in the dark or light arts. Like most people today, I view magic in its more commonly thought incarnation as entertainment and “tricks.”

Historically, magic is the practice of beliefs, rituals, and actions which are said to control and manipulate, either naturally or supernaturally, beings, and forces. It is not religion or science. Those who engage in magical practices are referred to as either magicians or witches. The former has fantasy book connotations. The latter has evil connotations. Despite plenty of negative connotations with magic throughout history, it still plays a part in many cultures today.

And, though I said it is not considered a religion, magic has played a part in some well-established religions. The angels of Christianity and Judaism have religious and magical connections. The Sefer Raziel HaMalakh is the Hebrew book of Raziel the angel. It is a grimoire of Practical Kabbalah from the Middle Ages written primarily in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Raziel was sent to Earth to teach Adam the spiritual laws of nature and life on Earth. That included knowledge of the planets and stars, the spiritual laws of creation, and the knowledge of the power of speech and thoughts. It even included knowledge about the power of a person’s soul. That’s a lot of learning. It is the knowledge needed to harmonize a physical and spiritual existence in this world.

I have found a whole figurative bookcase of writing about Wicca, Traditional Witchcraft, Hedge Witchcraft, Kitchen Witchcraft, and others.  I won’t write about them because my knowledge is limited. What I do identify with in these books and practices (and with those of the ancients) are their observances of celestial events.

In the planner book, astrological events and Moon phases are marked for each day.  Though I can’t say that I associate most celestial events with influence on me or my daily life, I do take note of the events.

I suppose over the years I have written some about topics that cross over into related topics, such as herbal uses, divination, folklore and folk traditions. These texts go into other areas that I have read about elsewhere like crystals, talismans, faeries, and spirit communication.

Wicca Moon Magic: A Wiccan’s Guide and Grimoire for Working Magic with Lunar Energies  My posts here clearly show that I pay attention to the Moon. I don’t worship it in any way, but I mark the phases. Wiccans  feel that the Moon’s influences on us is much greater than most of us.

A New Moon and Full Moon are the obvious phases for their attention but each phase of the lunar cycle is supposed to offer particular energies. For millennia, the Moon has been associated with love, passion, fertility, mystery, death and rebirth, and the afterlife.


The Sator Square

I came across a curious thing, the Sator Square (or Rotas Square) recently.  It is a word square that contains a five-word Latin palindrome (words that read the same forward and backward).

The earliest form has ROTAS as the top line, but later versions had SATOR on the top line and that became the most common representation. This 5×5 square has 5 words and 25 letters but it only uses 8 Latin letters (the consonants S, T, R, P, N and three vowels A, E, O).



I learned of this odd little puzzle from a puzzling film. The words (though not the square itself) show up in Tenet, the 2020 action-thriller-spy-fi movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Nolan is known for puzzling us and leaving audiences with clues and things not fully explained.

The Sator Square gives the film its title. The location of the opening sequence is at the Kiev Opera. Characters and companies in the film use the other words: A. Sator is a villain, Arepo the Goya forger and Rotas Security. What does it all mean? Nolan succeeded in getting me (and I’m sure others) to did into the Sator Square.

Let’s start with those Latin words. SATOR comes from serere meaning “to sow” and can be a sower, planter, founder, progenitor – a “seeder.”

AREPO seems to be more mysterious in origin. Possibly a proper name.

TENET is a verb (tenere) meaning to hold, comprehend, possess, master.

OPERA is not the singing we think of but a noun meaning work, care, aid, labor, service, especially the kind that comes with effort – see opus.

ROTAS is a plural noun meaning wheels and as a verb it means to turn or cause to rotate.

That’s the etymologies, but what is the meaning?

The Sator Square has in the past been said to have magical properties. Palindromes were viewed as being confusing and therefore more immune to tampering by the devil.

The square shows up in folk magic for an odd variety of purposes including putting out fires, removing jinxes, fevers and fatigue, and protection from witchcraft. Sometimes the words need to be written on a special material or written in special ink.  The Sator Square appears in Pennsylvania Dutch and Russian Orthodox Old Believer communities.

One interesting use of it comes from repositioning the letters around the central letter Ν (en) so that it makes a Greek cross which reads vertically and horizontally as “Pater Noster” which is Latin for “Our Father” – the first two words of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer.” 

The remaining letters – two each of A and O – are said to represent the concept of Alpha and Omega, which can be a reference in Christianity to the omnipresence of God.

I read that the square might have been used by early Christians who needed to hide their beliefs as a secret symbol to other  Christians. A Sator Square found in Manchester, England dating to the 2nd century AD has been seen as one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in Britain.

The Coptic Christain Prayer of the Virgin in Bartos says that Christ was crucified with five nails, which were named Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera and Rotas, and so the words entered the Ethiopic tradition as the names of the wounds of Christ. (In that Ethiopian tradition the words are altered to SADOR, ALADOR, DANAT,  ADERA, and RODAS and they are prayed on the knots of the prayer rope.)

To further complicate the story, or to show how the Sator Square spread, in the time of Constantine VII (913–959), the shepherds of the Nativity story are called SATOR, AREPON, and TENETON. An even earlier Byzantine bible says that the baptismal names of the three Magiin the Nativity story are ATOR, SATOR, and PERATORAS. Still, another version has it that the Sator Square was Mithraic or Jewish in origin.

What is Nolan up to in the film by using these references to the Sator Square? The most obvious connection seems to be that these words that can be read backwards and forwards have to do with his ideas of time and inversion, as things happen backwards and forwards in the film. After all, this is the director who first came to our attention with his film Memento. That film has scenes in black-and-white shown chronologically, and a series of color sequences shown in reverse order. The reverse order simulates for viewers the mental state of the protagonist who has short-term memory loss that resets approximately every fifteen minutes. The two sequences meet at the end of the film to make a kind of cohesive narrative.

Nolan loves these games. His films Inception and Interstellar are equally complex and confusing. There is already a book to help explain the puzzles of the new film: The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War. (I do like that the book has a Foreword and a Backword.) Should we need a book to explain a film? No, but in Nolan’s film worlds there is plenty to explore after and beyond the film.


The Embassy of the Free Mind

A rather strange and fascinating collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects has been digitized. The digitization of these rare texts is being done under an  education project called “Hermetically Open.”

The project also received a generous donation from author Dan Brown, who certainly has an interest in these things and has used texts like these in his novels. Who knows – maybe his next novel will come from these texts.

Amsterdam’s Ritman Library has made the first 1,617 books from the project available in their online reading room at embassyofthefreemind.com. It is still a work in progress, but you will have full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. My Latin is quite elementary and that was the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods so there are plenty of Latin texts. I have to say that my first browsings have been more to look at the illustrations, front pieces and the visual aspects.

Some books are in German, Dutch, and French, so us language poor monolingual English speakers are at a reading disadvantage.

I do love the idea of digitizing texts that would otherwise be lost or not available to the masses. Now we need some kind of tech babel fish who can read and speak all these books to us.

The Transfer of Force (or magic)

This video was made at Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan a few years ago and resurfaces online every once and awhile.

It shows 32 metronomes that are started, all out of sync. As the video progresses (it’s only 4 minutes, but you can jump a bit if you get anxious),  they shift and then synchronize themselves.

Magic trick? Nope.

It’s that science that is magic – physics. The video shows that transfer of force can align the metronomes over time.

Transfer of force?  You give a toy car a push. It rolls across the floor on its own. It hits another toy car halfway across the room with some force.  Wait. How could it exert a force? The only reason it moved was because you pushed it.

After you pushed that first car, a force was transferred to the car. When it had that collision, it exerted a force on the second car. That force came from the hand that pushed it. Forces are transferred.

And yet, the metronomes syncing is still kind of magical. Most of the science I like best has some magic to it.