Names and titles: Asphaltia, Our Lady of Traffic, Changer of Stoplights, Who Bestows Parking Spaces.

Symbols and correspondences: Good luck charms hanging from rearview mirrors, especially bells or chimes as representatives of Air, Element of movement and travel

Offerings or ways to worship: Incense, either beforehand to ask for a safe and smooth road trip, or promised in the midst of difficult travel and lit to her afterwards – do not stint a promised offering!


I think Asphaltia first started to take shape in my mind when my partner’s parents gave us a good luck charm for the rearview mirror of our car. It’s a Celtic cross with small bells hanging below it. When a really bumpy patch comes up, the bells can jingle surprisingly loudly, or bang repeatedly against a parking tag. LitSpouse announced once that he was going to take the bells off, and I told him equally quickly that no he wasn’t, because the bells were the Pagan part of the charm, since they invoked the Element of Air.

I knew that I made that connection in part because of Hermes, god of travel and communication, in the ancient Greek myths, who was clearly associated with air. But Hermes didn’t seem to fit, in my mind, with the rather unique spirit of car travel today. Automobiles and especially highways are uniquely recent means of travel. It was in thinking about interstates, urban roads or highways, and, yes, traffic, that the name Asphaltia occurred to me.

I think Asphaltia’s origin myth has a lot to do with heat, for all that she’s mostly associated with air. The vulcanization of rubber and the development of asphalt concrete, both heat-dependent processes, were necessary steps in the evolution of today’s car-centric transportation culture in the US. I think she became more firmly present in the US through the spreading construction of the interstate highway network; I imagine it as the flow of Asphaltia’s spirit across the land.

Part of that spirit may be uniquely American, or at least have some some American-specific features here. I’ve been to Europe just enough to know that the transportation culture there is quite different. The most interesting example of this was the way roads in Ireland are marked: with destinations rather than road names. The roads have names or numbers, and some major highways (interstate equivalents) are referred to by name, but nearly always with a destination attached. Something like “I-395 south” wouldn’t be a reasonable description there; even on a major highway sign, it would list the name of the next primary population center, and would tend to omit the directional descriptor. All the small road signs that I saw gave “To [placename]” rather than the name of the road.

One possible conclusion I drew from this was that in the US, a road is a place in and of itself; you can be “on the road,” and if someone calls me while I’m in the car and asks me where I am, I would normally give the name of the street as the first response: “I’m on 295” is a perfectly reasonable statement here. Depending on context, I might go on to add details about direction and/or destination, but roads are places to be.

I got the impression that in Ireland roads are not places to be in any important sense. You’re always going somewhere, and you would describe yourself as in between origin and destination. This approach treats roads as inherently liminal. It makes more sense in a country where it would be unusual for a road trip to last more than a few hours, and even a very long road trip might only take two days. In the US, I have regularly made road trips of six or eight hours; those involve an entire day, and so it’s more natural for me to have an idea of place attached to that situation of traveling. I’ve also been on a cross-country drive, which took a week but could easily take ten days.

In some way, transitory can be a persistent state of being in the US. With the development of the interstate network and the economic adaptations that cater to it – notably fast food and motels – we have in some ways created a specific sub-culture in which the liminal state of travel is considered completely normal.

At any rate, I think these things contribute to Asphaltia’s current situation, especially in my own life. Since her name occurred to me, she has taken on a more definite character, and while she can be hard to understand, she’s not exactly capricious. I imagine her as being just as frustrated by traffic jams as we are; when I’m in one, I try to focus on visualizing the roads as a free-flowing network, with air or water coursing through them, and I blow out a calm breath to will it to be so.

11 thoughts on “Contemporary Deities: Asphaltia

  1. This is great… I might end up riffing on this idea one day in a book or story or something – there’s some interesting ideas here about the American idea of mobility that I’ve been pondering as well…

  2. Particularly cool that Matt was the first responder, as I was going to bring up a convo we had last night regarding a related sub-culture: driving (or cycling) magazines. Matt pointed out that the difference in driving culture between Europe and America extends to this medium, as well. An American magazine about motorcycling is focused on power or maneuverability or long-distance comfort – some specific aspect of motorcycle riding – and most of the articles and ads in the magazine are related to that. A European magazine of the same ilk is 1) more holistic and 2) focused on the machine as a practical, primary mode of transport, rather than a secondary or even recreational experience.

    Not sure what bearing that has on Asphaltia, though I would say there are probably European cultures (Italy and Germany, for example) where she is venerated, if not in exactly the same way we do here in the U.S. at least with similar enthusiasm. 🙂

    1. Interesting! I did think about other kinds of vehicles and experiences, but couldn’t speak competently to any of them.

      Are the European magazines also more focused on “here are cool places you can go with your motorcycle,” rather than just the experience of riding itself?

      And Italy and Germany – yes, very probably! Although there I would bet that it’s still a little less prevalent in the population – more of a subset, because not everybody _has_ to go out on the Autobahn every day. A city that retains any of its premodern layout is not going to accommodate a major highway through its center very easily. On the other hand, some places that have had the crap bombed out of them might…mileage varies, as Asphaltia would point out. There’s a whole subset of history about reconstruction after war; I wonder what someone who’s familiar with that literature would say about Asphaltia’s spread post-WW II.

  3. “An Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long way, while an American thinks a hundred years is a long time” – I’d heard that before but I never really understood it until I first visited the States. I drove across the whole of Wyoming and South Dakota and was blown away by the sheer extent.

    It also seemed to me (I don’t know how true this is of America as a whole, but certainly of the places I saw) that roads were so much more primary than in England. Here, we have towns and they are linked by roads – but also by railways, long distance footpaths (many of them millenia old), canals etc. But there, it was as if the roads were made first and the towns strung along them as decorations.

    1. Oh, I forgot that quote. It’s incredibly appropriate. I’m glad your experience resonates with mine, and it is well worth pointing out that these issues – like everything else – are bigger in the Midwest and absolutely huge in the West of the US.

      Yes, I think that’s true about the primacy of roads in the US. All of this contributes to roads being their own sort of “place” in the States, I think, rather than connecting real places. It’s also a self-reinforcing problem: the roads influenced how and where cities and all kinds of land use developed, so those locations have to use the roads to get around, so…

      There’s only so much we can do in terms of retro-engineering those arrangements to provide for rail, foot, bike, or water-based transport. It’s actually worse within cities – cities laid out by people with at least horse transport, or worse with car transport assumed, generally laid out or remapped cities that are not very people-friendly. “You can’t get there from here – at least not like that” – is sadly true.

      The most disturbing thing for me is that tourists in the DC area take photos of the Metro (subway). People generally only take pictures of things that are unusual, that they don’t see on a regular basis. The fact that a basic amenity like mass transportation is so unusual as to be picture-worthy in the US is, for me, the best example of the problem. Even cities dependent on motorized transport could have been laid out to be not-totally-car-dependent.

      1. The primacy of roads in the U.S. (and parts of Canada) is a huge problem for disabled people, incidentally. If you can’t drive a car, whether it’s because you get seizures or because your vision isn’t good enough or because you can’t adequately attend to all the stimuli in your environment when driving (my situation, with severe, not fully treatable ADHD), you can’t really get around a lot of places, and it takes forever to get around many more places.

        I live in Toronto, which is quite friendly to non-drivers by North American standards. It is common here for people living and working in the downtown core to not own cars by choice, due to road congestion and the high cost of parking. However, my boyfriend lives an hour’s drive away from me in another city, and the trip is 2.5 hours by public transit. Similarly, my trip to my parents’ house, which is in another nearby city, takes about 40 minutes by car and 1.5 hours by public transit. For traveling outside Toronto, I find it pretty frustrating to not be able to drive.

        1. Really good point, kisekileia. I’ve had similar situations from time to time, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have that issue constantly.

  4. You gotta drop pennies and other small change from your ash tray into the parking lot while chanting, “Hail Ashphaultia, full of grace, help me find a parking place.” Works.

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