I grew up with this proverb, “Iko rita meta, idamu alejo,” i.e. A crossroad is the predicament of a visitor/stranger. And each time I heard it, I had this image of a stranger arriving in the metropolis that was Ibadan of my childhood from my grandmother’s small village in Ekiti, and he would be in the traditional four piece suit of Fila, Agbada, Buba and Sokoto all of which were made of Aso Oke and he would have a horse tail in his hand. He would be standing at an intersection with three, four or more roads meeting and he would be reeling around and around and around in confusion while waving the horse tail, perhaps to ward off the ever present flies, or, to maybe clear the fog that he thinks its in his mind for he knew he was in a quandary.
Why this image? I grew up in a household ruled by my maternal grandmother who missed her small village very much and so most of her discourses were about this nostalgia. And her relatives did come down often to visit bringing with them lots of yams, some vegetables, chickens and a goat once in a while along with lots of stories about the happenings in the village and these, my grandmother would savor with relish. The relatives in turn would be overwhelmed with the city teeming with zillions of people and so many roads and vehicles, and my grandmother in turn would reassure them.
There were other references to crossroads as well, I remember walking to my elementary school with my twin brother early in the mornings, and on arriving at certain crossroads in our neighborhood we would find pieces of broken clay pots, and in some of the larger pieces would be a peculiar combination of stuff—palm oil, a coin, dead rat, chicken skull, some large feather belonging to some bigger bird like a hawk, and once we saw the head of a dog, at another time, the eye of a big animal, and usually some precious beads like corals and other weird and bizarre combinations of things. Each time we see this, I would freak out as I felt my head expand and contract, and as we had been warned several times by my superstitious grandmother and other housemaids, we would give the offering, for that was what they were a wide berth as we hurried along on our way.
Another thing about the crossroads of my childhood was that they were notorious for motor vehicle accidents. There was also the famous University College Hospital that my grandmother would refer to as simply ‘Orita-Mefa’ (Intersection where six roads met), and the accompanying image for me is one of pain as in painful intramuscular injection of immunization or medication as we received all our medical care from this hospital.
Then there was a popular song by Ebenezer Obey about his enemies in an attempt to harm him dabbling in juju and placing ebo—offering at crossroads. And finally there was the drama on Television and a character in this drama series was Eshu, and his province was the crossroads, where he would stand and confuse the heck out of people, not just travelers or visitors but anyone passing by was his potential victim.
I remember one drama in specific where two BFF—best friends forever, who loved each other very much, had been friends since their childhood, and had never had an argument or fought in their lives and as such were like one soul in the manner in which they could read each other’s thoughts and anticipate each others joys and sorrows and were always at each others beck and call. They were a match made in heaven and the envy of everyone. On this particular day, they fell victim to Eshu’s pranks and to the shock of the whole community started to fight and were determined to beat each other to death.
What happened? They were walking by and chatting to one another amicably when Eshu walking towards them from the opposite direction passed them by walking purposefully and right in between the two of them. He greeted them politely and they returned his greetings in turn and Eshu went on his way.
The following ensued:
Friend #1: ‘Can you believe that odd guy, is he color blind? He’s wearing an orange Agbada with a red cap.”
Friend #2: “No, he’s not, its okay to wear black cap with orange Agbada, black goes with everything.”
Friend #1: “I see that you are the color blind one.”
Friend #2: No, I’m not, you are the one calling black, red.”
They argued and were both getting angrier by the minute and before we knew it, they were calling each other names and accusations were flying back and forth as Friend #2 started to question the sanity of Friend #1 if he was calling black, red. And then there were accusations about a business judgment of five years before that had caused both of them lots of money. And another accusation of how one friend had inadvertently flirted with the other’s wife, thinking that it was her sister, and on and on it went and then the blows started to fly.
The ever present concerned citizens milling around ran to the fighting men and separated them as they admonished them, two grown men fighting in public, had they no self respect? So they narrated the story to the concerned citizens and Eshu was in the midst of the crowd and he listened to their narration. In the narration too, the two bosom friends started to get heated up again and the citizens had to stand between the two of them. At some point, Eshu came to the forefront and asked them if it was him that they saw, and the two men eagerly said “Yes.” He showed them his cap, and on one side the cap was red and on the other side it was black.
Eshu is Yoruba’s trickster and god of the crossroads and there are tricksters in mythologies of other cultures. In the Congos, his name is Papa Legba, he is associated with red, emblematic with the heat and intensity of the crossroads. He is a cruciform figure with the extended arms suggesting either prohibition or guidance or the more sinister possibility of the crossroads drawing the wayfarer into a state of confusion and panic.
In Greek mythology, the goddess of the crossroads is Hecate since the crossroad is considered the opening of the underworld in which Hecate was the mistress. Hecate is believed to arrive at the doorways of those laboring toward birth, a midwife, mediating that crossroads of becoming or obstruction.
Crossroads are symbolic of choice, union of opposites, the meeting place of time and space. It is the place of burials of suicides, vampires and felons to ensure their confusion of ways and prevent their return to haunt the living.
Crossroads are associated to Ganesha of the Hindu pantheon, a god with an elephant head and he is the lord of beginnings and of obstacles, and Janus in Roman pantheon, the god of beginnings and transitions and of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is a two faced god since he looks to the future and the past, and the concept of January is based on him. Crossroads are locus of extreme potency and ambivalent gods able to contain and synthesize opposites flowing into one another. At crossroads one confronts the necessity of choice and the immensity of fate. It is a matrix of union and also of separating, parting, splitting, of meeting and farewell.
Crossroads, considered to be the opening to the underworld represent the possibility of many ways and also commitment to the individual path. Legendary, the crossroads suggest a junction where consciousness must regard the unconscious, and be accountable to the whole self in its ambivalence (An Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols by J.C. Cooper and The Book of Symbols).
What do all these mean? Crossroads as symbols and metaphors make us question ourselves and prevent us from becoming rigid and dogmatic in our self-belief. It is as if they are the fault that lets in the contents of the unconscious into our conscious psyche, fructifying them with things that have been suppressed, repressed or things that have never before been brought to consciousness.
Oedipus, the famous crossroader of literature made a choice at the meeting point of his historical inheritance, fate and destiny, though this could have been attributed to road rage, but the history he had fled caught up with him and the choice he made at the crossroad was actually to actualize it. He lamented: “Oh three roads, dark ravine, woodland and way/Where three roads met: you, drinking my father’s blood/My own blood spilled by my own hand: can you remember/ The unspeakable things I did there, and the things I went on from there to do?” (Sophocles, 72).
As I was writing this piece, ‘Scent of a Woman’ was playing. I left it on but muted the television because it’s a movie I have seen many times before, but I have my favorite scenes at which I turned on the volume. One was when Colonel Slade (played by Al Pacino) went to Charlie Simms’ (played by Chris O’Donnell) school in lieu of his parents for the trial, and in his eloquent speech said he did come to many crossroads in his life but he had never made the right choice, even though he knew which road to choose, but he did not choose them because they were too damn hard, but that Simms came to his own crossroads and he chose not to snitch on his peers, even though he faced possible expulsion from the prestigious preparatory school which would mean returning home to his not wealthy parents in Oregon, defeated, and with his tails between his hind legs.
Simms actually had been at a bigger crossroad that weekend he spent in New York City when the alcoholic Slade, who was living out his planned last few days. He had frustrated Simms to no end and had broken every rule possible including him, a blind man driving an expensive rented car, such that if Simms had abandoned him (as Slade invited him to do on many occasion that weekend), we, the audience wouldn’t have faulted him.
Simms was at a crossroad; to let an annoying, miserable, bitter, blind, hateful, and suicidal SOB who had nothing to lose in life and who had made his life hell, but was in his custody, and was wielding a deadly weapon that he knew how to use very well, kill himself, or stand between him and his gun and as such put his own life at risk. Simms chose the harder and scarier path and prevented Slade’s suicide.
What I took from the movie is Simm’s integrity and his ability each time at the crossroad of his life to choose the path that led to his growth and development. Al Pacino won a well deserved Oscar for his performance but the fictional Simms won the Oscar of life.
I am someone who is impressed by the genius of our dreams and the stuff that they crank up night after night and for me and based on my own psychology, I dream of crossroads a lot. And after a while I came to appreciate that it really is a place of making choices as new possibilities are offered to us. And the choices are either to stay with the old and outdated story or to begin a new story, because the crossroads of real life or of our inner life are actually roads where new life and opportunities are presented to us. Paul Valery said: “The bottom of the mind is paved with crossroads.”
And as they are the fault lines where the unconscious is opened to meet consciousness, something new, usually a treasure, or a potential that is in us all along, is presented to us at this point of our lives and we are left to choose and follow the unknown, unfamiliar, narrow and probably dark and scary path or to return as we have come, to return to a well known, well traveled, worn out, broad, and well lit path, but it is of the old story. And just as in that image from my childhood of that well suited man from my grandmother’s village, will he choose a road, any road, and follow it to its logical conclusion and that road might actually lead him to his relative’s house in Ibadan or will he cower in defeat, get onto the next lorry and return to his tiny village, defeated by life?
And if he were to take the path that he didn’t know, what will become of him and who would he meet on the way? What adventures would he get himself into; and if at the end of it all, would he still remain the same or would he have gained the confidence to tackle the wilder Lagos next?
When at the crossroads of our lives—whether our inner life or our outer life (before the era of GPS), we are not aware of the feelings of changes in the air, what we feel is dreadful anxiety, and all we can think of is where to get some Xanax, or a drink.
Anxiety, a feeling that is difficult to sit with, is a sign of inner conflict and is one affect that has driven many people to seek counseling from which ever place they do, from their psychotherapists, psychiatrists, pastors, Imam, priests, hairdressers or bartenders. “What should I do? I don’t know what to do, please tell me.” But can anyone really tell us what to do? It is our crossroad and not theirs and to tell us what to do would be transmitting their own values which are very unique and individual things.
And conflict is a great midwife; it is that which assists the delivery of new possibilities in us if we don’t flee from it. Conflict is symbolized in mythology and dreams by the number two, a thing that was once one is not enough anymore and it becomes two—that one thing and its opposite, to do or not to do, to stay or to go, to stand or to sit and so on and so forth. And out of these two, a third must be born and this third is the new possibility and this is the making of a crossroad. And this third can only be born by sitting with the conflict, that thing and it’s opposite.
A good example is that drama of my childhood, of the two best friends. They were of one mind and were at peace. This is a good place to be, and most of us crave it but it is not a place of growth, but rather of stagnation because there is a whole lot to us as human beings and maturity is the ability to live most of what and who we are even when they are in contradiction, in harmony.
What Eshu did is to help them see the possibility of discord and that they had resentments and some degree of rage and hatred towards one another but which they would not allow themselves to be aware of. And this is what came out in the fist fight they engaged in. Before the fight, they were just one sided human being, all they knew was the love that they had for one another and that was it, but after the fight, they have become more human, more rounded, fleshed out and three dimensional human beings capable of hate and of love and all other emotions that are in between those two, and it is the balancing of this in harmony that makes a human being. So Eshu in this context has brought something that existed in these friends all along, he didn’t introduce it to them, they had had it in them long before Eshu came along.
This is how crossroads, internally introduce the new thing into our lives, the thing that we have always had in us but which we were not aware of and when we become aware of its presence gives us more consciousness and enriches our lives.
Feasts of Phantoms a novel by Kehinde Adeola Ayeni-- ISBN 978-0981393926Available your local bookstore, a host of online booksellers and directly from Genoa House.