Crossroad Gods

In the days of Kublai, a virgin could walk from one end of the empire to the other, carrying a bag of gold.                   – Folk Saying

Isn’t that strange?  Remember, in the days of Kublai Khan the Mongol Empire stretched from Hungary to southern China and from Manchuria to Arabia.  Kublai added all of China to the empire of the Golden Horde and founded the Yuan Dynasty of China.

And after his death the best they could say of him is that he made the roads safe.

One could, I suppose, take that as a sad commentary on the banality of memory or the fleeting qualities of human glory.  Instead, let me suggest that it reflects, all too accurately, what a fearful thing it was to go traveling in the ancient world.

Judaism has an ancient device called a mezuzah which you will still find on the doorposts of the homes of pious Jews.  It contains a small, handwritten Hebrew scroll.  The ritual is to touch the mezuzah on entering or leaving the house.  Over the centuries, one can only imagine the depth of feeling in the gesture as someone set off on a long trip into a hostile world or the relief felt on touching it again after returning safely home.

To me, the mezuzah expresses something universal.  It speaks to the whole idea of home.  Here, there is the safety and companionship of home.  Out there, there is everything that is alien and dangerous.

The ancient roads of this world also speak of the hazards of out there.  They are dotted with shrines, from full-sized statues and altars to simple cairns of stones.  The Eastern road is lined with Buddhist stupas.  India adds to them Hindu shrines to manifold deities.   I claim no great expertise on this, but I suspect that wherever man has learned to build anything permanent, he has erected something to travelers’ gratitude at getting to that point and their hope for aid in getting home.

The West’s roads, too, are lined with little altars and shrines to the now defunct Saint Christopher or some other Christian saint.  But alongside them, maybe hidden in the bushes, you can still find other, more pagan monuments.  Wherever the Greek and Roman cultures held sway they erected their own little roadside shrines called herms.

They are fascinating.  The name comes from the Greek God Hermes, who was the patron of travelers.  On a journey, it was bad luck to pass one without at least reaching out to touch it.  Better still, one might take a few seconds to pour a libation over it.  Alas, there are far fewer of them than there once were.  For the god was represented by an erect phallus and generations of prudery have destroyed many.

It would be fun to try to do a little Freudian analysis here and try to somehow connect the generating power of the god’s phallus to safety on the highway, but instead I’d like to follow the strange evolution of yet another roadside protector.

In the early days of Rome there was a set of gods who protected the crossroads.  Each crossroads was the realm of a patron deity, called a Lar.  Collectively, they were called Lares.

What is captivating about them is that they didn’t stay out at their crossroads.  Over the years, like lost kittens, they followed the travelers home.  Through some peculiar transposition they migrated from being outside gods of the crossroads into being inside patron gods of the family.  Along the way they somehow married with the family of Penates, the guardians of the pantries and storerooms.

Every pious Roman family had its little altar dedicated to its guardian deities.  There would be a little statue of the chief Lar of the house, along with lesser Lares to protect the family members, another of two-faced Janus, the god of doorways, another of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and finally some Penates to guard the family food.

To a Roman, this was home.  The doorpost, the hearth fire, the pantry, and the family itself.  When Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome was forced to flee from the destruction of Troy, he loaded his father Anchises onto his back, picked up the family Lares et Penates and headed out.  (He somehow lost track of his wife along the way, but daddy and the family deities made it just fine.  This made him the perfect Latin hero.)

I think that, like the mezuzah, these Roman images define the home as a place where you crossed the line from danger into safety.  A strong door, a warm hearth, food to eat and some sort of guardian to keep it all safe.  The collapse of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages made the outside danger more brutal and the safety inside infinitely more precious.

After the Dark Ages, as the rule of law gradually reemerged, the new laws embodied and codified the home as a special place.  It was one of the first restrictions ever placed upon the power of the state: Its officers must get  permission from a judge, proven by a warrant, to violate the special sanctity of our home and hearth.  We say (ignoring the chauvinism) “A Man’s Home Is His Castle,” and the law still agrees with us.

Language can encapsulate our history and, in this case, ours has done so.  Our word house is just a building.  But our word home is different.  It carries a wider meaning that can be traced through the Frisian and High German heim (= home) all the way back to the Sanskrit kšêmas (= safe dwelling, from *ksi = to dwell secure).

I was recently talking with a friend about how holiday visits home can be truly awful.  We start out with a warm sense of fellowship and good feeling.  All too often, within a couple of hours that degenerates into all too familiar sniping, bruised feelings, and a tremendous urge to flee, screaming, out of the house.

Why do we do it?  More to the point, why do we always look forward to going back when the last visits were so ghastly?

At the time, my friend and I rather smugly chalked it up to yet another victory of “hope over experience.”

Maybe so.  But maybe it might be something more primitive, more visceral.  Maybe it has something to do with the primal need we feel for the safety and security promised by the word itself:


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