Ominous Crossroads or Trivia?

The suicide of a loved one evokes emotional turmoil, anguish, pain, loneliness, and many questions for those left behind. Today, there is increasing knowledge and tolerance of psychological conditions and disorders leading to suicide as well as counselling available to grieving relatives. In modern times, the judgemental hostility of the past towards suicides and their families seems incomprehensible and difficult to understand. In the past, ecclesiastical condemnation reinforced the horror of so seemingly unnatural a deed as taking one’s own life. Suicide was formerly labelled ‘self-murder’, – termed-- which is why the Church inflicted harsh punishment on those taking their own lives. Suicides were regarded as so heinous and opposite to God’s will that people who committed suicide were refused burial in consecrated soil. It was sacrilege to bury such people in ground dedicated to the Almighty. Instead, suicides, executed criminals, and suspected vampires were interred at crossroads, regarded from ancient times as the abode of evil forces and thus debased and abandoned. To prevent the maleficent ghost from rising and perhaps harming the living, a stake was usually driven through the corpse’s heart, or it was decapitated. In Hungary, it was customary to also bury all those who had allegedly died under the influence of witches or demons – those who in modern times would be described as being of unsound mind – at crossroads.

Traditionally the gallows, an ominous sight for all passers-by, were erected at such intersections. Tyburn, the famous London gallows, was once situated at a crossroad. In the United Kingdom, many archaeological finds of skeletal remains, some dating from Anglo-Saxon times, have been unearthed at such intersections. For example, in 1977, at a crossroads between Dry Drayton and Oakington in Cambridgeshire, UK, twelve skeletons were uncovered, while sixty skeletons from differing historic periods were found at the crossroads at Fowlmere, also in Cambridgeshire. Numerous other examples exist. Although such burials were abolished in the United Kingdom by an Act of Parliament in 1823, prejudice against suicides remained, and they could only be buried in graveyards in the dead of night without ceremony.

Crosses made by juncture roads were, of course, heavy with symbolic meaning, and many beliefs and portentous implications were attached to such intersections. Witches were said to gather here making pacts with the devil and performing various magic rites to summon evil spirits. Therefore, people were fearful of being delayed at crossroads, especially after dark.

Already in ancient times, Hecate, the Greek goddess of the night, linked with the moon, the underworld, and crossroads, was believed to preside at these intersections. As queen of the spirits of the dead, she was active at night and was accompanied by dogs, suicides, and all those who had died violently. In ancient times, small pillars were erected in her honour at crossroads, and food sacrifices, called Hecate’s Supper placed on these pillars, were offered once a month – a custom that the Church was still trying to eradicate in Europe as late as the eleventh century. 

Interestingly, the fear of such junctions is also found in other parts of the world. For example, in Japan, phallic symbols used to be set up at crossroads to frighten away evil spirits and protect passers-by. In India, offerings were made at crossroads to Rudra, the god ruling over evil powers and ghosts of the underworld. Such an overwhelming presence of evil was believed – throughout both Europe and Asia – to be present at crossroads that, from ancient times, altars have been erected at such places to protect the passer-by. Such altars, decorated with flowers and other offerings, many of which are now dedicated to Christian saints, can still be seen at crossroads in the rural areas of European countries. 

In closing, some trivia: The derivation of the word trivia, meaning ‘commonplace’ or ‘less important’, comes from the Latin word for tri-via, literally meaning ‘three roads’. The most common explanation for the word trivia is that such junctions or street corners were meeting places for the common, ordinary folk. Here passers-by would speak commonalities, mention matters of no importance, ‘trivialities’ to one another. However, given the unfavourable, sinister associations of such junctions, this is hardly likely. A more plausible explanation for the word’s derivation is centred on Mercury, the Roman god of ways or roads. The statues erected at crossroads, or tri-via, to this particular god were so numerous and such a common sight that the word trivial in the English language came to denote something unimportant or commonplace.


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