RD on Americans and their cars

After I mused about how Asphaltia’s influence spread along with the interstate highway system, it is interesting to see Religion Dispatches picking up on a related theme. The piece describes Michele Bachmann’s promise to return gas prices to $2 a gallon as tapping into some of Americans’ self-constructed myths about the sacred and the self:

The federal highway system — the real America — on the other hand, operates as widely dispersed, center-less system for individual travelers on separate routes, an enactment of the American protestant primordial act: the prioritizing, centering and sacralizing of the individual in pursuit of their own happiness.

I would argue that although Paganism is about connection, at its best, it tries to balance the individual and the group, prizing both and the connections between them. This is why grounding and centering can be a group act as well as an individual one. What do you think? How do Pagans construct their myths of the center, the sacred, and the self, and how do they relate to this idea of cars and travel?

Contemporary Deities: Asphaltia

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.