Strangers at the Crossroads

I was in high school when I first read English writer Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 offering The Songlines. The book is many things, a complicated pastiche of a work, traversing territory as broad and varied as the customs of Australian Aborigines, the eccentricities of European expats set up in the Australian Outback, and evolutionary anthropology and the bases of human aggression. But most of all, it’s a book about what its title says it’s about: Songlines.

Australian Aboriginal groups tell mythological stories about a time out of time, when totemic ancestor beings came into existence and wandered all over the Australian continent. These totemic beings are identified as the mythic progenitors of every species of plant, animal, fish, and insect on earth. Indigenous Australians are said to “own” these totems or Dreamings, meaning that they believe they are descended from the original mythic ancestor for that particular species. Individuals who share the same totem or Dreaming together comprise a clan whose membership also includes all actual members of the totemic species as well as the land and geographic areas associ- ated with that species. Thus, for example, Aboriginals who share the Wallaby Dreaming believe they are all descended from the universal Wallaby Father and that all others who share the Wallaby Dreaming, as well as all actual wallabies, are their brothers. As a result, it is forbidden for them to hunt, kill, and eat wallabies, as to do so would constitute an act of fratricide and cannibalism.

During the Dreamtime when totemic ancestors walked the Australian continent, they sung the names of animals, plants, rivers, landforms. This act of singing brought the world into order, creating the natural world we see all around us. The paths along which the totemic ancestors traveled while singing the world into being are remembered in the words of the songs themselves. The songs serve effectively as maps of the landscape of Australia, mentioning the names of places, plants, and animals encountered and sung into existence by the original ancestor who first composed the song. The paths mapped and recorded in the songs and passed down in traditional Aboriginal cultures are known as “Footprints of the Ancestors,” or the “Way of the Law.” In English, they are usually referred to as “Dreaming-tracks” or, more famously, “Songlines.”

Songlines can run for immense distances over the landscape and often connect far-flung tribes who share a Dreaming. While on Walkabout, those who share a Dreaming may safely travel the Songline associated with that Dreaming and rest assured in the knowledge that they would receive help and hospitality wherever they went along the path. If a man strayed from his Songline, however, he would be trespassing and  “might get speared for it.” 

Much later in life, as a graduate student in Classics, I discovered the similarity to the Aboriginal concept of Songlines among ancient Greek ideas about crossroads. I made this discovery while researching the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, that gleefully transgressive trickster deity who pushes up against and penetrates boundaries as a means of ultimately establishing a new equilibrium of appropriate order. Greeks associated crossroads with the dark and dangerous goddess Hecate, often represented by the baying of unseen hounds on a harrowing night, as the wind whips across the empty intersection of a thousand weary travelers from the past and countless more in the future. Greeks also left stones at crossroads to mark the boundaries of fields or just the event of their passing. Often, at these cairns or herms, travelers would leave excess food or supplies for subsequent wayfarers to find and use if needed, an unexpected windfall for a day of desperation. 

In more modern parlance—and as dramatized in the 1986 film Crossroads with Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, and Steve Vai (another junior-high and high-school favorite)—crossroads are where you go to catch a ride to the big city, hoping to ride out big dreams and overcome big challenges along the way. It’s where the aspiring artist meets the devil of an uncaring and oversaturated world and either sings a song to enchant Satan and, like Hermes with his older brother Apollo, make him forget about the upstart challenge and impish antics of the underdog and just fall in love with something witty, fresh, and new, or gets his head chopped, killing dreams and dreamer alike.        

Like Hecate on the fringes of ancient Greek religion, ambivalent and polymorphous, Satanists live so much of their lives as Strangers, wayfarers, travelers passing the rest of humanity at the fraught crossroads, where trespass can get you killed and kindness can sustain you when you’re most in need. Jealous guardians of our own sovereignty and autonomy, we tend to skulk at the fringes, watching, learning, amassing knowledge and experience, occasionally entering the fray for a taste of the spicy life, but then retreating just as quickly to what LaVey called our “secret places of the earth.” To riff of common pagan parlance, as Satanists, we’re not merrily, but warily, met.

Like crossroads themselves, a stranger is an unpredictable thing, but also a thing of possibility, of hope, of fear, of interest and fascination, of familiarity and revulsion, a guest, a pest, a burden, a boon. 

The first startled words a thunder-struck Lucifer utters in Milton’s Paradise Lost are like a moment of tragic realization, or anagnorisis, well in advance of any climax. Finding himself lying “vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf, // [c]onfounded” the unlikely hero of the narrative struggles to recognize his own general, Beelzebub, given the latter’s changed and newly fallen state. He says:

‘‘If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright: If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joined
In equal ruin.” (lines 84-90a)

The irony, of course, is that Satan might just as well be describing his own transformed nature and appearance. And in fact, he is, ending this portion of his speech by dwelling on the pair’s shared ruination. Exiled for rebellion against his former employer, Satan here first accepts himself and his crew for the newly minted Strangers they have become and, with his next breath, renews his resolve to make continued war on an unjust heaven with its unworthy sovereign:

                                ‘‘ …Yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,
And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
That with the Mightiest raised me to contend….
                                …What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.” (lines 94-111)

As I wrote in the last piece on the subject, the Children of Erlik, perfect Satanists, are Strangers to one another too. They’re Strangers to everyone, even, at times, to themselves. To quote LaVey again: “This is what the devil represents, and a man lives his life in the devil’s fane, with the sinews of Satan moving in his flesh.” He becomes a Stranger, and as a Stranger carries on through the many perilous crossroads of life. 

One thought on “Strangers at the Crossroads

  1. My earliest experiences learning about anything outside of Christianity lead me into the New Thought-styled Hermetic philosophy of the Kybalion. I have no way of knowing this is so, but I’ve long thought that LaVey must also have read and been influenced the Kyablion, but the reason I even mention it is because a central pillar argued by the book is that the entirety of all known, extant, and otherwise perceivable reality is purely a mental creation, a statement which seemed to have a lot of sympathy with what’s probably my poor understanding of the Australian aborigines’ statement that, “Somewhere, a dreamer is dreaming us.” And then, there’s also that old children’s song which ends with the refrain, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” Life seems to rarely ever be so constantly merry… perhaps warily? “Warily, warily, warily, warily, life is but a dream…” LoL

    Like

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