This "croix de chemin" both marks an intersection and memorializes a chapel to
St. Blandine, destroyed during the Revolution.
This post began when I mentioned to Gid that here in the south west of France one often finds roadside crosses (croix de chemin) with the Virgin Mary at the center as opposed to a crucified Jesus. The Gid was a bit surprised by this and requested a photo, so I've tried to oblige him. These crosses do in fact sometimes represent the crucified Jesus. They can also be unadorned, simple crosses or crosses made to look like unworked logs covered in vines and flowers. Some are adorned with symbols of the Crucifixion: a cock, spear, ladder, various tools and implements.....
In the Toulouse region, these small monuments are suchlike: they are generally about chest-high square pillars, maybe 3 feet (1m) to a side, made of brick. A cross is mounted on top, made of wrought iron. Viola. Simple. They are ubiquitous. In the relatively small town of Aucamville, I can count more or less a dozen off the top of my head, but perhaps there are more....
I've pondered these monuments for years and have several theories about their origin; I lay them out in three categories.
Category one is practical. Imagine when roads were simple dirt tracks, at best. When it snows, the roads would quickly become covered, side roads easy to miss. The cross would then pop up, like those poles you see by the side of the road in the mountains, in order to mark the edge of the road. I should mention that these crosses invariably mark the junction of either a t-intersection or crossroads.
The southwest, however, is not the snowiest of regions, so perhaps this explanation is not the origin--merely added value. They may have been markers in the wider sense: "OK, Johann, head towards Grenade and when you come to the second cross, go left." Or maybe, "The farm you're looking for is three crosses down the road." Where the streets have no name, the cross guides.
My second category is linked to superstition. My first instinct was to think of the Blues legends of the crossroads. You know, go to the local crossroads at midnight and make your deal with the devil, play guitar like Ralph Macchio, etc. A cross would offset this unholy place, no? In fact, I have read that crossroads were traditionally regarded with apprehension as places where the roads converge were especially prone to unforeseen encounters. Strangers presented a larger danger in those days, I think. Cathar heretic? Sorcerer? Plague victim? Without an explicit diabolical association, they could still represent vague forms of danger from the four corners of the earth.
I tend to think that a crossroads, being a cross, might have provoked unease because people were essentially trampling a cross underfoot. Maybe by dedicating a cross at these spots, the populace felt they'd mollified Jesus into not sending Michael down with a flaming blade in order to make quick with the smiting. It seems quite possible, much like the theory that the red cross became a symbol of health after the practice of painting them on walls to prevent peasants from pissing there....
The third category is something I'd wondered about and in discussing these things with my neighbor, my feeling was supported: Christianization. Recall that the Romans had tutelary and guardian deities (lares) for just about everything: cities, neighborhoods, down to the individual households. There were even lares of intersections:
Lares Compitalicii (also Lares Compitales): the Lares of local communities or neighbourhoods (vici), celebrated at the Compitalia festival. Their shrines were usually positioned at main central crossroads (compites) of their vici, and provided a focus for the religious and social life of their community, particularly for the plebeian and servile masses.
This festival was annual and its name itself derives from "crossroads":
In ancient Roman religion, the Compitalia (Latin: Ludi Compitalicii) was a festival celebrated once a year in honor of the Lares Compitales, household deities of the crossroads, to whom sacrifices were offered at the places where two or more ways meet. The word comes from the Latin compitum, a cross-way.
There is even precedent for honoring a feminine deity at the crossroads. Apparently, a "mother of the lares" was honored at them, her devotees hanging woolen effigies which were believed to have replaced the actual sacrifice of children. Hmm, a mother deity....the sacrifice of children....the cross with Mary at the center may have some kind of foreshadowing here. The roadside crosses too, are often decorated with flowers upon Mary's feast days.
From the Late Republican and early Imperial eras, the priestly records of the Arval Brethren and the speculative commentaries of a very small number of literate Romans attest to a Mother of the Lares (Mater Larum)....She is named as Mania by Varro (116–27 BC), who believes her an originally Sabine deity. The same name is used by later Roman authors with the general sense of a bogey or "evil spirit". Much later, Macrobius (fl. AD 395–430) describes the woolen figurines hung at crossroad shrines during Compitalia as maniae, supposed as an ingenious substitution for child sacrifices to the Mater Larum, instituted by Rome's last monarch and suppressed by its first consul, L. Junius Brutus.
In this context the following may even indicate aspects of the Black Madonna:
Modern scholarship takes the Arval rites to the Mother of the Lares as typically chthonic, and the goddess herself as a dark or terrible aspect of the earth-mother, Tellus...Mercury leads her to the underworld abode of the dead (ad Manes); in this place of silence she is Tacita (the silent one). En route, he impregnates her. She gives birth to twin boys as silent or speechless as she. In this context, the Lares can be understood as "manes of silence" (taciti manes).
Manes of silence?
Hecate, another figure associated with the underworld, was thus honored, and her shrines served as signposts to find one's way, one would assume in a literal and spiritual sense. This most certainly included the afterlife as well, as Hecate was the goddess of this realm. These three forms: literal direction, spiritual direction and navigating the underworld, neatly echo our three categories of purpose outlined above.
In a similar fashion, food was often left at the crossroads to honor Hecate, especially at junctions where three roads converged --what we often call a "Y-intersection".
Frequently a pole was erected at the intersection and three masks would be hung from it to pay homage to Hecate and to request her guidance in helping to choose the right direction.
Interesting in this context is that the iron crosses used for the croix de chemin markers often serve to adorn grave markers as well. Could we here be seeing an echo of Greco-Roman devotion, in which literal space was marked by a kind of road sign which also had connotations of the journey of the soul in the afterlife? As we will see, the roadside cross was often used along the route to the cemetery, so that the funeral procession could stop and make appropriate prayers.
Could this ancient association of the crossroads with a goddess of the underworld have influenced the the legend that the Devil, Lord of the Underworld, will appear at a crossroads 'round Midnight?
Crossroads also played a part from time to time in the Imperial cult, indicating that the honorees were not only feminine principles:
In 86 BC, offerings of incense and wine were made at crossroad shrines to statues of the still-living Marius Gratidianus, the nephew of the elder Marius, who was wildly popular in his own right, in large part for monetary reforms that eased an economic crisis in Rome during his praetorship.
After returning to the subject of the roadside cross and formulating the above speculations, I decided to re-read some articles I hadn't read in a while on the topic. The first, from French Wikipedia, is "Croix de chemins". This article distinguishes three types of cross: memorial crosses, boundary crosses and crossroad crosses. I've spoken a bit about the idea of the memorial and boundary marker in past posts, but in this article I focus mainly on the third type. This category is the only which has an article of it's own: "Croix de carrefour". Under the "functions" heading it mentions the religious use, of course, but indicates they were also used as guide stones, specifically for when roads were covered by snow. Whereas I'm quite sure I thought of the first point independently, I think this is where I first heard of the idea that they were used in snowy conditions, but, as I've mentioned, the Toulouse area isn't the snowiest of regions.
The crossroad cross is described as having its origin in the Christianization of megaliths and other pagan monuments, as well as in the practical purpose of defining the limits of parishes, the location of hamlets, as a guide for religious processions. Why the crossroads? As stated before; one can get lost more easily there than on the straight and narrow and besides, they've always stood for uncertainty from any direction, a place where the likelihood of a malefic encounter is heightened:
Le carrefour, dans de nombreuses symboliques, évoque un choix pour lequel il est facile de se tromper de direction, donc de tomber sous la domination des puissances maléfiques.
I have focused primarily on crossroad crosses, but this here site deftly summarizes the roles and types of crosses: the roadside cross; the processional cross marking the route of, hey hey! religious processions; the boundary cross; the cemetery and village cross (unlike the crossroad crosses which often feature Mary, these usually feature a crucified Jesus); crosses at bridges, summits and springs; finally, memorial crosses.
Unless you read French, this site won't do you much good and the pics aren't stunning but they do their job and show you what the crosses look like. Note these come from Cantal, north of where I live in the Lomagne area northwest of Toulouse; the Cantal Crosses have much more variety and are hewn from stone. As I've said, these parts, like most of the buildings in Toulouse and environs, the socles are made from brick and the crosses themselves wrought iron.
I've posted a few example from Aucamville, including one in my possession that was once a grave marker. No, I didn't desecrate a grave....it had been thrown on a pile of rubble after having presumably come loose from the tomb. Some of these village cemeteries are in a shocking state of disrepair and it's not uncommon to find a pile broken headstones and iron thrown into an unused corner of the cemetery, invariably behind a high-brick wall on the edge of town....questions of sanitation and what not.
OK, so this is a hubbub of ideas. I'm not so sure I've done the subject justice, confusedly evoking both underworld figures such as Hecate and Tellus: "chthonic....a dark or terrible aspect of the earth-mother" and the Virgin Mary. In the French Southwest at least, Mary, like her pagan counterparts, is a tutelary figure of the crossroads and a spiritual guide. Yet Mary herself, though usually associated with Isis, the Great Mother and Cybele, has in the Black Virgin the cthonic aspect of these other goddesses; BV's were often found in caves or buried in the earth. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Apuleis, in perennial LoS favorite The Golden Ass, identifies Hecate with Isis. Googling "Hecate and the Virgin Mary" I'm not surprised many people make the link. And why not? Being thrice-headed, she represents a trinity. Her powers linked to regeneration and rebirth are not incompatible with Mary's, nor her dominion over childbirth. The Virgin is indeed believed to have a special role in childbirth; for both Mary and Hecate, this roles was represented by a serpent.
Though Hecate evolved into a vampiric and terrible figure, she began more benignly, something of a protectress. By the Middle Ages, she was a Witch Queen. Could this be a result of the growing popularity of Mary in the Middle Ages, perhaps a subsequent need, even if unconscious, to distance her from her prototypes? Is it a coincidence that midwives and healers, working in Hecate's domain, began to be accused of being witches? The first witch, Lilith, Adam's first wife, was transformed into a demon when Yahweh booted her from Eden for daring to proclaim herself equal to Adam. But it was Eve who eventually brought Adam down and brought the curse of pain and suffering upon the process of giving birth. But Mary, free from their Original Sin, was able to counter the pain and danger of birth, if the right prayers were offered and objects such as her belt rented for such occasions (ND de la Daurade).
It is said that four rivers flowed from Eden to the four corners of the world, forming a great cross. Each crossroads is a microcosm of this vast cross covering the world. The center of each crossroads is the center of the world, if not the universe. The axis mundi is "a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms". Hecate and Mary, are unsurprisingly both considered as mediators between heaven and earth, Hecate especially seen as a gatekeeper and patron of the liminal; what could be more liminal than birth, or death? Each one impossible without the other.
Trouble was knowing which paths lead to heaven and which ones to hell. Linger too long, and who know who'll turn up. Choices, choices. At least in the Southwest, you've got the Virgin Mary looking over you, sometimes from a cross cast to look like wood, decorated with vines and flowers. An instrument of death, with wood taken, according to legend, from the Tree of Life, if not the Tree itself. Carpentry seems to have played a large role in the symbolism of rebirth; the tree returns to life each Spring, the carpenter transforms dead wood into useful, even if sometimes cruel creations. Jesus, the carpenter, killed on a wooden cross. Noah saved humanity in a big wooden Ark. The other tree in Eden, that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, has a name that says it all. Good and evil, more paths, more choices.
None of this is a direct analogy, role by role, blow by blow, but it is a kind of associational cloud in which we can see faces peering back us, at times distinct, at others, blending into one. At times distinct and unique all at once, leaving us with a vantage point filtered as if through old glass, forms defined by what isn't rather than what is; questions as opposed to the artificial transparency of answers.
I once saw a sign that said "if you can't dazzle 'em with diamonds, baffle 'em with bullshit." I may make it my new motto. That or "Wherever you go, there you are."