Saturday, August 06, 2011

The devil at the crossroads

While doing research for my recent presentation on the limp as a motif in Caribbean music and movement, I looked into legends about the devil at the crossroads. This is a frequent folkloric motif around the Caribbean region (in which I include the US Gulf Coast region), and it's been tied to the West African deity Eshu (Fon) or Elegguá (Yoruba) - a very interesting character.

Since this section is too long to fit into my article on the topic, I'll post it here instead! Enjoy...

The devil at the crossroads

Eshu has been syncretized with or explained as the devil throughout the New Worl. This practice occurred even in the Old World through the influence of Christian missionization, so that Muslim and Christian Yoruba may also interpret Eleguua as being the devil (Cosentino 262). In Cuba too, Eshu, represented as a rather frightening old man with a cane, is sometimes believed to be the devil, and it is said that “he speaks backwards” (Benítez Rojo 227). The devil is therefore a common motif in Caribbean folk culture, and here it is important to consider African American culture of the Southern US as part of the greater Caribbean. All around this region, the devil is tied to the crossroads, which, as noted, is a place inhabited by Eleggua. IN this discussion, it is important to recall that although devil iconography appears in Afro-Caribbean relation as a representation of Eleggua, neither are interpreted as being “evil,” only ambivalent and sometimes scary.

The similarities between Legba and the devil are easy enough to see: they share the colors red and black, the symbols of the cross or its inversion, the presence of horns or other animal-like features, hypersexualization, tricksterism, perhaps even the limp. Europeans and Euro-Americans misinterpreted these symbols and the lwa’s playful, sexual movements. Spencer writes, “Just as early Christian missionaries to the Fon taught their African converts that Legba was Satan, so did the semi-dualism of Christianity, imposed upon the holistic cosmology of the Africans brought to America as captives, force Legba (in the minds of the enslaved who remembered him) into the satanic role” (Spencer 1993:28). And we must not forget that Caribbean carnival characters like the Dominican lechón are also "devils," although they may not look like one.

The syncretization of these two figures explains the widespread appearance of stories and beliefs involving the devil, or other frightening and morally suspect figures, at the crossroads throughout the Caribbean. In Haiti in the 1950s, a folklorist reported witnessing a magical rite in which a man goes with a bocor houngan, or magic practitioner, to the crossroads at midnight to sacrifice a chicken: “Soon they hear a great wind and suddenly in the middle of a whirlwind a man so tall that he seems to reach the sky appears. As he comes nearer he becomes smaller and smaller until he takes on dwarflike size” (Simpson 1954: 397). The union of opposites here invokes Eleggua’s oppositions. And writing of the Southern US equivalent religious practice, hoodoo, Spencer writes, “it was at the crossroads that one could find not the devil but Legba,” and thus the devil at the crossroads was “unquestionably an African religious retention” (Spencer 1993:28).

In music, too, Eshu as the trickster and the limping “devil” make frequent appearances. For instance, blues fans will be familiar with the tale of 1930s guitarist Robert Johnson, who reportedly gained his talent by selling his soul at a crossroads. One must note, however, that Johnson himself sang of meeting not the devil but God at the crossroads, which again underlines the ambivalent rather than evil character of this mythical figure (Thomas 2009:73). Yet the belief that a devil might teach music or other skills to aspirants who invoke him at a crossroads had a long history in the American South even prior to Johnson.[1] The “devil” who shows up is generally described as a “big black man” or a “rider,” indicating a perceived connection with African heritage as well as, perhaps, the way that spirits like Legba “mount” or “ride” their devotees at ceremonies through possession.

The connections may go deeper still. Smith argues that blues singers assume the trickster persona and its liminal characteristics in order to signify, or utilize indirect, figurative, or double speech (190), and that blues’ signifying hearkens back to Eshu’s mediating function in “the limen between text and interpretation” (183). Furthermore, blues, like many other African American styles, involves “troping” repetitions that comment on the original, which is never reproduced in exactly the same way. The intersection of the “original” and the new version is itself a kind of crossroads. Thus, Smith explains, “In the blues, the crossroads are …the locus of an American Esu. The interpretational uncertainty represented by the crossroads creates a spatial and temporal realm of ambiguity. This is the realm of the trickster figure. In the blues tradition, this trickster figure is often represented as the devil” (Smith 184).

Sometimes, the limping devil appears alone with no musical component. In the African-origin towns on Colombia’s Pacific coast, there are stories of a limping devil called “Patasola” with whom one can make pacts, although these are not generally connected with music (Pedrosa n.d.). Patasola is also known in Cuba (Pedrosa 73). It is noteworthy that Patasola sometimes appears as female, sometimes male, since Eshu him(?)self can also appear in art as male, female, or both (Gates). Also in Cuba, practitioners of African-derived religion tell stories of the limping San Lázaro, as well as of one-legged African deities including Aroni, Osain, Obatalá, Odudúa, and of course Elegguá. And in Haiti, beliefs about limping devils still exist: one states that a one-legged child will kill its parents (Pedrosa 74).

Elsewhere, the devil appears without a limp, but in conjunction with both music and the crossroads. I have already noted the well-known association of blues with the crossroads devil. Zydeco musicians in Louisiana also recount stories of a musician of yore who met the devil at the crossroads, the “tallest man he had seen in his life.” The devil asked the man to play a waltz, and in the morning, he could play all instruments beautifully (Tisserand 43-44).

Throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, stories are told about devil-tricksters appearing in music competition, although either the limp or the crossroads may be missing as a motif. The recent Colombian film Los viajes del viento and the German- Colombian production El acordeón del diablo both depict current takes on an old story in which vallenato musician Francisco Moscote wins an accordion duel with the devil at a crossroads. The Dominican Republic offers its own story in this framework, as ethnomusicologists Aretz and Ramón y Rivera explained after a collection trip in 1963:

In La Vega, there is a tradition about a black singer who was the devil and who was vanquished by a celebrated improviser of the region. Francisco Trinidad was his name and he was famous for his agile mind. One time he sang with the black man and said:

Negrito, you are the devil

What do you think about that

And just in case you are:

Magnificat anima mea!

They say the black man ‘disappeared’ in a cloud stinking of sulfur. (Aretz and Ramón y Rivera 1963:204)

They further note that an identical story, even to the detail of the verse quoted above, is found in Venezuela, where it describes the improvising singer Florentino (ibid; also appearing in a recent film, Florentino y el Diablo, and a similarly-titled novel). These anecdotes echo both the Colombian tales and those from the Southern United States, although the crossroads themselves are missing from this retelling.[1] In Cuba, where, as mentioned, limping devils are common, Fernando Ortiz even wrote that the appearance of the scandalous colonial-era dances zarabanda (sarabande) and chacona (chaconne) was attributed to the limping devil (in Pedrosa 73).

These stories all serve to place Eshu-Eleggua in Caribbean music. He lives on today through the limp as a stylistic principle, a pleasing rhythmic unevenness in sound and movement, that unites music and dance practice in the region. Although outsiders may have trouble even detecting its existence, the importance of this aesthetic feature is clearly noticed and sometimes debated by merengue musicians and dancers as well as carnival participants, who frequently go so far as to come up with origin myths to explain its presence.

And you'll be able to read more about those in my article. :-)


Aretz, Isabel and Luis Felipe Ramón y Rivera. 1963. “Reseña de un viaje a la República Dominicana.” Boletín del Instituto de Folklore [Caracas] 4(4):157-204.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. 1996. The repeating island: The Caribbean and the postmodern perspective, 2nd ed. James Maraniss, trans. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cosentino, Donald. 1987. “Who Is That Fellow in the Many-Colored Cap? Transformations of Eshu in Old and New World Mythologies .” Journal of American Folklore 100(397):261-275

Gates, Henry Louis. 1988. The signifying monkey: A theory of African American literary criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pedrosa, José Manuel. S.d. “Leyendas de Timbiqui (Cauca, Colombia): Etnotextos y estudio comparativo.” Revista de Folklore [Fundacion Joaquin Diaz] 21a(245):168-175. Available online at (Accessed June 1, 2011)

Pedrosa, Jose Manuel. 2001. “El Diablo cojuelo en América y Africa; de las mitologías nativas a Rubén Darío, Nicolás Guillén y Miguel Littin.” Revista de filología e letterature ispanische IV:69-84.

Smith, Ayana. 2005. “Blues, Criticism, and the Signifying Trickster.” Popular Music 24(2):179-191.

Tisserand, Michael. 1998. The kingdom of zydeco. Arcade Publishing.

[1] The Venezuelan and Dominican stories have another shared characteristic. In Dominican folklore, the devil is frequently depicted as having a gold tooth (Andrade); thus, a popular merengue called “El diente de oro” or “The gold tooth” probably refers to the devil. The diablo appearing in Florentino stories also appears with golden teeth, as in the following verse:

Entra callado y se apuesta

para el lado de la música.
Dos dientes de oro le aclaran
la sonrisa taciturna.
"Oiga vale, ese es el Diablo"

[He enters silently and positions himself/ near the music. Two golden teeth light up / his taciturn smile. / ‘Listen, that’s the devil.’] (Arvelo Torrealba)

[1] Newbell Puckett's "Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro" (University of North Carolina Press, 1926; reprinted by Patterson Smith, 1968)


Bruce from Accordion Noir said...

Elijah Wald wrote a great book on Robert Johnson, "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues." (New York: HarperCollins 2004.)

It tells how blues fans and collectors "invented" the blues as we think of them today based on their own opinions and tastes, rather than the tastes and realities of what the original blues audiences appreciated themselves.

He discusses how Robert Johnson was basically unknown at the time, and only became "the father of the blues" when collectors discovered his stuff thirty years later. Interesting. He mentions how the whole "he sold his soul to the devil" myth didn't come to be until years after Johnson died too. Nobody who knew him remembered it, and like you say, it's not in the songs themselves.

Interesting stuff. Wald's just about my favorite music writer because he's always digging into the past and how it's different from what we remember or assume. His Narcocorrido book is fantastic, and his, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll, is a great alternative history of American popular music. Totally worth reading and then tracking down all the obscure (but often very popular once) artists he introduces.

Nice work, you inspire me.

Papa Coyote said...

My band, Papa Coyote just released an accordion song to Ellegua.

Ellegua is like Coyote, the trickster at the gateway. He'll help you find your way, but not necessarily the way you thought it was going to be.

He's also like the Tarot Hanged Man card. Hanging upside down by a foot, yet He is smiling and can slip away at any time.

I've heard it said that they teach us that our percieved burdens are not always what they seem. If we flip how we see them, we can be free.