Many magicians in many traditions hold crossroads to be sacred or magical spaces. Think about it: a crossroads is where several paths meet and intersect each other. At a crossroads, you’re able to go in any direction, not just along the same path you were taking to get there. This can be a place of decision or of opportunity; the letter upsilon in Greek (Υ) was known as the “philosopher’s letter”, since it has the form of a fork in the road, which is also represented in the word “dilemma”, literally meaning “two ways to go”. Hermes and Hekate were known to be deities of the crossroads, especially of four-way or three-way roads (quadrivium or trivium in Latin, respectively). Exu, Eleggua, Legba, Lucero, Nkuyu, and the like are all African diasporic deities for the same thing. Crossroads are places of opportunity, being able to go in any direction, but they’re also places of liminality, being between places entirely. Consider the famous location “Four Corners”, a place where four large states in the US meet at a grand crossroads. Closer to where I live, there’s a notable (and terrible) place called “Seven Corners” which is a seven-way (!) crossroads. You can get the gist of where I’m going with this.
But we have lots of other places that can be considered liminal as well. Anything that is used to transfer or lead us from one place to another without being in any one place itself can be considered a crossroads of sorts, and I had the idea recently that stairwells fulfill this function as well as any intersection of roads or hallways. After all, in a stairwell, you’re able to go between different floors or levels, able to take one road or another that are superimposed atop each other. We often consider the world to have four directions, or that we travel only along two axes, but we often neglect to remember that there’s a third dimension we live in as well. Two roads can occupy the same X and Y coordinates, after all, but they may be going in opposite directions; being on either one, you’d never know about the other, but stairwells and floor interchanges make this possible.
I propose that stairwells can be used as a crossroads in magical practice, with pretty much the same ideas and powers as the usual crossroads would have. However, the crucial difference is in directionality of the “crossroads”. In a standard intersection of roads, one can go into any direction on this plane; in a stairwell, one can go onto any plane in the same direction. It’s an interesting difference to note, and although the purposes for which one may choose to use a stairwell versus a crossroad may be a little different, the idea is the same.
Stairwells have always intrigued me. Some of the prettiest hotels and office buildings with the most elaborate hallways and baroque elevators have the simplest, barest, most architecturally brutal stairwells I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’ve always considered the quality of a building’s stairwell to be a mark of craftsmanship; how wide is it, what materials are used, what pipes and wires are exposed, what kind of lighting is present, and the like. I’ve always had an affinity for these kinds of access structures, the dank and dirty, claustrophobic, gritty, often ignored tunnels and chambers and stairwells that actually set the structure for a building. All multi-story buildings need stairwells, after all; elevators, escalators, and everything else is mere decoration. Besides those who want to take the stairs for health, few people ever actually use stairwells except in emergencies and emergency drills. I’ve always found them subtly exciting, like being in someplace I shouldn’t because nobody else goes there, a kind of pit-of-the-stomach adventurous nervousness, despite their commonality and prevalence, especially when you ascend or descend to a level of the stairwell that you know you don’t or shouldn’t have access to.
Note that I’m not talking about staircases here; while they fulfill the same purpose, staircases are often open, decorated, and part of the public part of a building, and they act more like a hallway between two (and only two) floors. Escalators do the same thing, for that matter, and when an escalator breaks it devolves into a staircase; no big change there. But stairwells are different from staircases. Stairwells are towers within buildings, a small tunnel going vertically up and down that connects all floors of a building to the same room, the same trek; you’re going nowhere when it comes to the cardinal directions, and yet you’re still going somewhere when it comes to the sky and earth. Throw in the natural spiral, quadrated or not, that stairwells must of necessity have, and you have cycles, patterns, and vortices that connect the different vertically-arranged planes of physical existence.
Elevators, too, are different from stairwells. Sure, they both have the same purpose of ferrying one from one physical height to another, but there’s another crucial difference: you can’t get stuck in a stairwell, but if you’re stuck in an elevator, heavens help you. If you’re stuck between floors, you’re SOL until the elevator comes back online or someone tries to yank you out. You can’t get stuck in a stairwell unless all the exits are blocked off (which is unlikely in most cases), but elevators can stop at any point. Plus, elevators literally box you in and while they ferry you from one floor to another, they don’t have the same power as crossroads; that’d belong more to the elevator shaft. It’s like being in a car at a crossroads; yeah, the car can take you through the crossroads in any direction, but the car itself is not the crossroads.
The only problem is that a stairwell in a building is often like having a crossroads on an island: the amount of distance you can travel once you leave is confined. With the island crossroads, you’re going to have to turn back once you hit the shore, and you’ll eventually hit the same crossroads again. With the stairwell, you’re going to have to go back down if you went up or vice versa. Likewise, if there’s only one crossroad on the island, or if there’s only one stairwell in a building, you’re going to be stuck with that one and only place. Stairwells are symbols of liminality, but they’re constrained by the building they’re in. However, within that building, the stairwell is golden, just as that one crossroads is golden within that island. Work with what you got, after all; whether you’re traveling vertically or horizontally, so long as you’re in a place that connects to other places, you’re good to go.
So, the next time you want to work magic in your office building and your building distinctly lacks a four-way intersection of hallways, try heading to the nearest staircase and leaving something in a corner of a platform between floors.
Liminality has long been a favorite topic of mine, because it’s so prevalent in Russian culture and folklore. Crossroads and stairwells are too, especially in literature – the most famous stairwell in Russia, arguably, might be the one in which Raskolnikov freaks out just after he’s murdered the pawnbroker in “Crime and Punishment”. There’s graffiti all over the walls ‘talking’ to Raskolnikov in the actual stairwell in St. Petersburg where the novel is said to have taken place.
I’m kind of only commenting on this because it’s partially what my dissertation covers :) – I’m writing about emigre identity, and in one author’s case I argue that a character’s true identity can be found at temporary, instantaneous “nodes” where time, space, and language intersect to show him or her who he really is. It’s like a liminal Room of Requirement – a pop-up crossroads, if you will, that disappears as soon as it’s done its job of showing the character their true self.
But I also have a soft spot for liminal spaces, which is why I’m scared of mirrors and doorways. ;-) Stairwells are an underrated space, IMO, so I’m glad you wrote about them. Great post!
Once when I looked up the stairs
I saw a man that wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away…