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Submitted in December 1999 for the course, Ethnography of Belief, at the University of Pennsylvania.  (This paper is approximately 20 pages.)

This paper was my first ethnographic portrait of an East Village citizen.  A second such portrait can be found in my essay
about street mosaics.

"The Guardian-Spirit Lady in the Experience of Edwin Pillay"

by Eric Miller

In life, one sometimes feels confused and lost.  At such times, one often feels inclined to call upon those things that constitute the bedrock of one's intellectual, emotional, and spiritual being for support and guidance.  These fundamental, trustworthy things--one's "core beliefs"(1)--can include one's concept of the cosmos, that is, one's sense of the nature and structure of all time and space and all that occurs within it.  For some people, beings without bodies(2), or beings with other-than-human bodies, may appear at such times, whether or not they have been consciously summoned.  This paper is about one such figure in the experience of Edwin Pillay: the figure is a guardian-spirit lady who especially appears on roads at night.  In the course of telling the story of Edwin's guardian-spirit lady, my focus will be on such questions as:  What role or roles does this figure play in Edwin's everyday experience?  What does this figure mean to Edwin?  How has she changed as Edwin's life and locale have changed?  What are her possible cultural roots?  Is she unique to Edwin and the culture(s) in which he was raised?  Or, to some degree, is she a universal figure?

A note about the fieldwork that informs this paper:  Edwin and I have have been neighbors in New York's East Village and close friends for over twenty years.  In early October of this year--approximately three months ago--I first asked Edwin if he had ever had any experiences with ghosts or spirits.  He told me that indeed he had, and we have talked informally about the subject since then in the course of our conversations.  On November 26, I videotaped a conversation we had as we traveled around Manhattan late one night.  Transcribed excerpts from that videorecording can be found at the end of this paper.

The story begins in Edwin's youth.  Edwin's family is South Indian: his mother is from Andhra Pradesh and his father is from Kerala.  However, Edwin was raised in South Africa, where his forbearers had been brought as indentured workers by the British: he has yet to visit India (Edwin and I have planned for many years to together visit South India, where I have already lived for over a year: perhaps my upcoming Ph.D. fieldwork will provide an opportunity.)  Edwin and his brother and two sisters were raised in a large Indian community near Durban.  His mother worked in a local Indian-run residential community center, the Aryan Benevolent Home (henceforth ABH:, so Edwin and his siblings were raised there.

Edwin remembers being told as a child: "Don't go on the roads at night.  A ghost will get you!"  However, being an independent young person, Edwin often walked long distances on the roads at night.  Somehow, he was not scared of the dark, or of the (female) ghost who supposedly lurked there.  In fact, he experienced the spirit of the night as being benevolent and protective.  He often experienced her as wearing a long flowing white gown (sometimes the gown was also pink and blue) and as being very gentle and soothing.  Once I asked Edwin if he had ever spoken with her.  He explained that one does not actually speak with such figures.  "Do you mean you communicate telepathically?" I asked.  Edwin nodded in assent.

Perhaps at this point, terminology should be discussed:  Edwin does not like to call this figure a ghost, perhaps because he does not associate her with any particular person who has died.  Also, the term "ghost" seems to refer to figures that are angry, threatening, and dangerous, and, as mentioned, this figure has never been those things to Edwin.  Sometimes Edwin refers to her as an "angel,"  and indeed, angels are often sensed or heard by clairvoyance, and occasionally do manifest as apparitions in brilliant white robes or as balls of brilliant white light.  However, angel is perhaps a limiting term in that it seems to have Judeo-Christian connotations.  Incidentally, in the ABH community, Edwin was exposed to numerous religions and cultures.  He especially remembers seeing mosques and Hindu temples.  Indigenous South Africans, mainly Zulu people, worked at the ABH, so Edwin also came into contact with their culture.  The term, "guardian spirit," refers to figures whose primary function is to warn and protect: this term seems to come the closest to what Edwin has described.  However, it should be kept in mind that Edwin is not attached to any particular label in reference to this figure, beyond the sense that the figure is female and is a spirit being.

An essential feature of Edwin's guardian spirit is that she often appears on roads at night.  Thus, at this point I would like to reflect upon the motifs of "night" and "road."  Although this paper seeks to present Edwin's experience from his own point of view, it also is dedicated to placing his experience in a larger and more general context.

The night is an ambivalent symbol.  In many cultures, the night is considered to be the time in which the soul attains union with god.  At night, in the darkness, things that were differentiated in the light of day seem to become one.  The night is often considered to be a time of rest and regeneration.  However, the night can also be a scary time, especially for those resisting the dissolution of the ego, or for those who are suppressing something.  Many people fear to be alone at night, unprotected by their culture and the authority figures upon which they depend during the day.

The road is also an ambivalent symbol, also loved and feared.  "Perceptions of the road oscillate between the polar extremes of permanence and mobility."3  On the one hand, roads connect various parts of a community and enable and represent a community's wholeness.  In many a rural community,

The folk conception of a proper road was a short segment that connected the homestead with such commonplace destinations as the meeting house, the mill,  and the neighboring town.  It was the concrete expression of a cyclical routine enacted in daily, weekly, or monthly rounds as the farmer brought his produce  nto town on market day, hauled his grain to the grist mill, and trudged to  church on Sunday.4

On the other hand, in many cultures, the road as an image is an "irresistible invitation to motion," including motion outward.5  The road can conjure a "mythical realm of freedom."6  Roads lead to borders, and beyond.  "We are ambivalent about moving.  In response to a need for roots, we cling to an agrarian family image of the good and proper and cooperative life lived in harmony with the seasons."7  "Movement means cutting away at an authority structure based on age, experience, and ownership of land."8  "In our symbolic imaginations, the cooperative agrarian production system centering on extended-family values, those which accord respect, power, and responsibility to age and experience, contrasts to the view of life as a pilgrimage, a journey, a trip, in which we are individually responsible for finding our own way through life."9

It must be remembered that Edwin was born in 1957, and thus grew up during the sixties: counter-cultural aspects of the sixties were occurring in South Africa as elsewhere.  In the sixties, among many young people all around the world, to be on the road was to "reaffirm the central value of the 'authentic' and the 'natural' through personal, rather than corporate industry, and the primacy of the personal rather than the institutional relationship."10  Being on the road involved searching to find others with "not only common values and interests, but common stylistic means of expression; engineering situations in which you can express the norms and behavior of that kind, so that you can comfortably be 'yourself.'"11   In the sixties, "Increasingly, placement of the authentic self occurs not at home but with one's peers, with those who share one's interests and, even more important, one's style."12  "The on-the-road generation was a glorifier of moving on, of cutting roots so that you can 'make the scene' wherever that happens to be."13  "Underlying the value we place on travel and other expressions of physical mobility lies an increasing desire to be present at significant events, to take part in them, even as observers."14  There is a "desire to be 'where the action is,' to get into--and even set up--the action."15  This was part of a general societal "change from kinship to kindship-orientation"(16)--that is, a shift from a society in which the multi-generational family provides the primary personal orientation to life and friendships, to one where with work and play alliances become the primary locus for engagement and interaction.

We have many images of the mover: "the wanderer, pilgrim, stranger, tourist, traveling salesman, explorer, conqueror, tramp, and more recently, the 'thumb- tripping' hippie, or the 'head-tripping' freak (where paradoxically, the movement is achieved by totally immobilizing yourself)."17  "We are equally attracted to ways out of the constrictions and community-centered way of life.  When better opportunities for employment arise, ones that involve possible escapes from the constant perusal and judgment of family, they are usually taken.  In fact, parents encourage children to better themselves in this way, even with the knowledge that it undermines the stable system they value."18  In sum, in the late 20th century, the key landscape symbol is no longer the home but the highway.19  This is not to say that Edwin has ever turned his back on his family: on the contrary, he has remained in touch with them throughout his time in America.  One can "assert the central importance of moving, even while we maintain a central allegiance to the home, stability, and family continuity."20

Generally-speaking, it is considered unhealthy to meet a ghost.  Many ghosts are thought to inflict sickness on humans who ventured into the woods.  Although some will guide lost travelers back to the road, more often ghosts are said to cause the deaths of those who they encounter on the road at night.  Tales are told of finding travelers' bodies the next morning with their blood drained, evidently sucked out.   The image of the ghost embodies and in a sense symbolizes the fear of beings who live in another world.   Such negative stories are versions of the bogey or bogeyman (possibly derived from the Middle-English word, "bugge," meaning terror), which was commonly used to terrify children into obedience by way of the unfamiliar.  The natural habitat of the bogey is night, and children fear darkness because it may contain such monsters.  The bogeyman is said to lure children into the dark in order to punish naughty behavior.  Clearly, then,one function of ghost stories is to scare children from venturing out into the realm of the night and the road.  For to go there is to risk leaving the community, both physically and psychologically.  Cultures often present the border realm as a dangerous no-man's-land, a mystery-shrouded, dreaded environment, that must be avoided at all costs.  This is one way that cultures preserve themselves; and that leaders of cultures preserve their power in their communities.  The Other is demonized.  Oceans as well as roads are perceived as a threat: thus, for example, European sailors in the 1400s feared falling off the edge of the world and being devoured by dragons if they sought to sail too far out into the Atlantic ocean.

People in the olden days seem to have lived in a world that was full of mystery  and mysterious experiences.  They believed in omens and spoke about them  freely with one another.  All sorts of peculiar things were talked about: ghosts  appeared before unexpected events, animals forecast events to come...  Many  report that the fear of ghosts affected children in particular.  Discussions  about spirit beings were the "horror movies" of the times, which indicate the  mportance of tales as entertainment.21

Telling legends was a social event either within a family or among people living in the same village.  In relatively-bounded communities,

Belief in a supernatural world was created in the course of communal events,  and that belief gradually disintegrated as the external environment and culture  changed.  Belief in ghosts was dispelled not by logical reasoning, but rather as  a byproduct of the changes brought about by industrialization and   urbanization.22

It may well be that when people broke the taboo and actually did leave--as was the case with Edwin--these scary stories lost some of there power.  It would be very interesting to learn if these stories are still told as much and in the same ways in Edwin's old neighborhood as they were when he was a child.

The most dangerous part of a road is the place where one must make a choice regarding which direction to go in:

One principle precipitant of the mystery-laden associations of road intersections--and not improbably the cardinal and most universal one--is the feeling of confusion and bewilderment to the right road a wanderer or  wayfarer must in the days of yore, days of few if any roadsigns, must have experienced at the crossing or parting of ways, a feeling at times no doubt  mixed with apprehensions and misgivings, especially at night and most of all  around the dread hour of midnight.23

Many cultures proclaim that demons of various sorts dwell in this realm.  "Leading people astray in every possible way is, after all, the traditional purpose of the devil and his confederates."24  It was a common belief in Europe that witches' festivities take place at cross-roads.  It was feared that orgiastic wild dances took place there, especially on May Eve (May 1) and Midsummer Eve (June 24).25  Moreover, many cultures present the road at night as a place haunted by the restless spirits of people who committed suicide, dies a violent and sudden death, died without leaving offspring: it is the realm of "outcast and accursed spirits."26

However, the crossroad is also a place of healing: "In the Finnish folk epic, Kalevala, the magic words required for incantations to staunch the flow of blood from the hero's wound" needed to be recited at a crossroads.27  And

In Wales, girls would attempt at the nearest crossroad to obtain a glimpse of  their future lovers by scattering a few hempseeds into the wind, while repeating  nine times the following couplet: "Hempseed, hempseed, hempseed I sow,  Hoping my true love will come here tomorrow."  Then they would watch from  hiding what men would come by.28

The road then, especially the crossroad, is a place where one can glimpse the past and future, the dead, and the far away--it represents a break out of normal consciousness and out of the normal life of a community.  This is clearly expressed in Norse and Teutonic legends of the "wild hunt": a procession of huntsmen, ghosts, horses, and hounds.  Anyone who is unfortunate enough to see the procession is immediately transported to a foreign land.29

Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little Peoplelists 130 spirits--male and female--associated with roads and travelers.  Clearly, he and his community are not alone in associating spirits with this realm.  Edwin's guardian spirit, however, is specifically female.  This female spirit has many possible cultural roots.  South Africa, largely because of the imperial presence of Africaneers and British (who, as mentioned, imported indentured workers from India), is an extremely international cultural environment.  To begin with, there are countless African goddesses whose elements could have contributed to the story of the lady spirit that was presented to Edwin--and to the way he has interpreted that story as he has grown and traveled to the other side of the world.  Among these African goddesses are:

Amelenwa (Ghana, Akan people): goddess of rivers, and justice.  Because she is merciless and unforgiving, her followers try to avoid offending her.30

Ani (Nigeria, Ibo people): goddess of agriculture and justice.31

Mawa / Mawu (Benin, Dahomey people): goddess of night and the moon; associated with fertility, motherhood, pleasure, relaxation, and forgiveness; lives in the forest.  She was sent to earth by her father to help people during a famine.  She is the twin or wife of Lisa, god of the sun.32

Minona (Benin, Dahomey people): mother of Mawa: goddess of fertility of women and the land.  She is a sorceress who teaches both good and evil magic, and teaches divination using palm kernels.  Traditionally, every Dahomey woman has a shrine for Minona in her house, at which offerings are made of fresh fruits to guarantee abundant crops.33

Muso Koroni (Mali, Bamnara people): this goddess is the color of the dark, rich African earth; she sometimes appears as a black panther or leopard.  She is goddess of night, and of life's passages: she oversees initiations.  Both tame and wild, she is goddess of agriculture and wilderness, she rules the wild places.34

Bomu Rambi (Zimbabwe, Shona people): goddess of night and the moon.35

Dziva (Zimbabwe, Shona people): goddess of justice, creator of life, protector of the poor.36

Gcagcile (South Africa): goddess of disorder, spirit of trouble; her son, Kibuka, is god of war.37

Huntu Katt! Kattan (South Africa, Bushmen): goddess of hunting and wild animals.38

Nomkubulwana (South Africa, Zulu people): goddess of the sky, heaven, and fate.  She is dressed in white, and appears to a chosen believer, telling him or her a prophecy that must be kept secret.39

Inkosazana (South Africa, Zulu): goddess of education, knowledge, and agriculture.40

There are also numerous European and Asian female spirit figures which are similar in some ways to Edwin's spirit.  However, many of these female figures are negative:

Banshee ("woman of the hill"): a Celtic Irish spirit who often appears as an old woman with glowing red eyes in hollow sockets, with long flowing white hair.  Sometimes, she is dressed in white (the color of death) and has long red hair.  Her appearance or wailing is said to foretell that a member of one's family will soon die.41

Sirens: creatures who appeared as women from the waist up, birds from the waist down, and congregated on the rocks of Sicily, where they sang melodiously to attract, beguile, and devour, passing sailors.  Odysseus was able to pass by their island successfully by stopping up the ears of his men with wax and lashing himself to the mast of his ship.

Aicha Kandida: a Moroccan water djinn who takes the form of a very beautiful woman who will approach a man traveling at night, calling him by name and pursuing him if he tries to escape.  It is said that if her quarry cannot reach another human or an inhabited dwelling in time, she will drag him into the water and consume him under water.  Sometimes, however, if a man gratifies her willingly, she may be generous and release him back to the world, and even giving him rich gifts.42

Lilith: in the Talmudic tradition of Jewish literature, Lilith, the first wife of Adam, was transformed into a demon for refusing to accept subservient status.  She is a threat to devour male children unless they are ritually protected by circumcision in their third day after birth.

Indian mythology is full of supernatural female figures, including Rakshasas and Apsaras:

Rakshasas: powerful, shape-shifting evil spirits whose strength increases with the fall of night.  They are notorious shape-shifters.  Females may intermarry with mortals and, temporarily at least, be transformed into beautiful damsels.  They display every form of vice, such as greed, lechery, and violence, towards humans and gods; towards one another, however, they are loyal and even loving.43  Rakshasas are often envisioned as black with yellow flaming hair.  They are always trying to satisfy an insatiable hunger, and can often be found at graveyards, eating dead flesh.44

Apsaras: nymphs, water-spirits.  Their favorite abode is fig and banana trees.  Apsaras are often accompanied by gandharvas, spirits of air and music.  Apsaras' reputation for promiscuity is such that no one group would take them as wives; consequently they are reserved for the heroic dead upon their arrival in paradise.  Apsaras have been known to bestow good fortune in games of chance, and also to cause irrationality and madness.45

San-sin: Korean female spirits associated with individual mountains. These spirits are believed to guard, guide, and bless travelers passing through their territory, and to answer specific petitions for blessings (particularly requests for the birth of a child).  "It is quite common even today to see piles of rocks and stones placed as offerings to the Mountain goddess at the high point of a pass."46  A story is told of a monk who, losing his way in the mountains, is given directions to his destination by a mysterious old woman.  Afterwards the monk realizes that the woman was an incarnation of the bodhisattva Kuan-yin. Although this tale is composed entirely of Buddhist narrative elements, it is very possible that the mysterious woman is a female mountain spirit whom the story transformed into a Buddhist personage.47  Despite the overall maternal and protective reputation of these female mountain spirits, there is legendary evidence that when their cult centers were damaged or their ire otherwise aroused, these female mountains spirits would wreak vengeance on humans.48

In Japan, female guardian-spirits are connected with rituals related to the agricultural cycle, and sometimes pose puzzles to travelers journeying through their realm.49 These spirits were said to guard the resources of the mountain, control hunting, and bless travelers after giving them a test.  Also: "The great spirit of Tai-shan had a national function of assisting in the maintenance of justice."50

Maya Owichapaha ("She who pushes them over the bank"): a Lakota (Native American) goddess who lives in the southern part of the Milky Way.  There she judges the souls of the dead: those who have lived good lives she assists in their travels across the sky; but those who did evil she pushes off the star-path into oblivion.51

Laume: a Lithuanian fairy queen, who appears human except for her hen's feet.  It is best not to laugh at her--for those who do often find themselves changed into animals themselves.  Here again we see the power of transformation of matter associated with a female spirit.

La Llorona ("the weeping woman"): a shrouded, mournful ghost known in various regions of South America.  She is usually seen by riverbanks, the woods, and deserted streets, especially at midnight, the traditional witching hour.  Some say that she murdered her own children in an effort to win the love of a wealthy man, but then killed herself.  La Llorona is feared, for it is said that she preys upon young men and kills them.

Edwin has told me that Tamil women dominated the ABH, thus he was certainly influenced strongly by Tamil culture, which accords a great deal of respect to female figures, both in society and in story.  A central heroine of the Tamil culture is Kannagi, heroine of the Epic of the Ankle Bracelet, which was committed to writing approximately 1600 years ago (according to linguistic analysis of the text).52   Although Edwin does not remember hearing about Kannagi in his youth, her story is emblematic of Tamil culture.  Kannagi and her husband Kovalan walked over three hundred miles from the coastal town of Poompuhar to the central city of Madurai.  Along the way, they had two experiences with female guides.  Early in the journey, a Jain lady monk showed them the way--and although this monk had the power of seeing the future, which she could see would be tragic for the young couple, she could not say anything, for she felt it was not her role to try to prevent fate.  Secondly, later in the journey, Kannagi and Kovalan came upon a tribal group in the forest.  Although this tribe was known to be fierce and involved with various unsavory activities, its members were very respectful toward Kannagi and Kovalan.  The shamaness of the tribe went into possession that night, and speaking through the shamaness, the tribal goddess declared that Kannagi would become queen of all the Tamil lands.  Kannagi could not understand this prophecy and tried to hide behind her husband.  When they reached Madurai, Kannagi stayed with cowherdesses at the outskirts of town, while her husband entered town and tried to sell one of her ankle bracelets.  There he was framed for theft by the court goldsmith, who by had recently stolen one of the queen's identical-looking ankle bracelets, and Kovalan was quickly put to death.  When Kannagi heard of this she became hysterical.  Rushing into town, she at first tried to reattach her husband's head to his body: perhaps in her hysteria she thought for a moment that he was speaking to her...but no, he was dead.  Kannagi then rushed into the king's court and proved to him that he had acted unjustly (these anklets were tubular and hollow: rubies were within her remaining anklet and the one Kovalan had been trying to sell, whereas pearls were within the queen's sole remaining anklet).  In remorse for his miscarriage of justice, the king lay down and died of his own volition.  Kannagi, however, was beside herself with fury: she went outside, circled the city three times, and finally tore off her left breast and dashed it against one of the city's walls.  The city promptly burst into flames: some say that Agni, the god of fire, did this for her.  Only animals and good people were able to escape.  Some of these people followed Kannagi, who wandered off further westward, into the Nilgiri mountains, where tribal girls acclaimed her as a goddess.  There in the mountain wilderness, Kannagi founded a new tribe--members of which I have briefly visited.  Shortly thereafter, Kannagi ascended to heaven, where she was reunited with her husband. 

Again, although Edwin was not aware of the story of Kannagi, he was in his youth surrounded by Tamil women, who perhaps carried traces of Kannagi's character in their personalities and stories.  (The story of Kannagi has been alive in the Tamil folk tradition for over a thousand years.  However, it was only with the Dravidian nationalist movement that arose in the twenties in Tamil Nadu that the story was taught in schools and truly became part of public discourse.  Evidently, the Tamil community in South Africa was in part shielded from these revivalist developments.)  Also, Edwin has expressed to me that he believes that some cultural traits, especially his Tamil-Dravidian ones, are inherited genetically.

Very positive manifestations of the female spirit include the Virgin Mary, whose image is blended with more ancient female spirits and goddesses around the world.  In visions, Mary typically bears messages asking people to pray more and to lead a more devout life; she also often asks for churches and shrines to be built for her.

When Edwin came to New York City at the age of twenty, some twenty years ago, he at first worked in a clothing design business.  However, eventually he changed to taxi driving, enjoying the freedom of driving around on his own and the opportunity to talk with people from all nationalities and all walks of life.

However, driving a taxi in New York City can be a scary and disorienting experience, so Edwin proceeded to organize the space of Manhattan by recognizing spots around town as sacred locales.  This happened most often where he saw statues of Mary, which he tells me he associates with the figure on the roads of South Africa.  Now, however, the female guardian spirit has taken on political overtones.  Edwin has perhaps been influence by liberation theology in casting Mary as a political heroine.  In this context, "Mary is no longer depicted as the pious mother of Jesus, but as a worker's mother who knew poverty, harsh living conditions, and the degradation of losing a son not just to death, but through a corrupt political system."53

While Edwin describes the chiffon fabric worn by his South African guardian spirit as being white, with occasional blue and pink, he does not define her skin color.  I have asked him if she seems European, Indian, African, or other, and he has not answered: I have the sense that Edwin does not perceive her as being one or the other of these.  When it comes to Mary, Edwin does not care for her to be portrayed as European: he expressed annoyance to me about the portrayal of Mary on a recent TV show, saying the actress was too white.  He has said, "Mary is the most colorful woman in the world."54   It seems Edwin has preference for black madonnas.  Black madonnas "differ from the white Madonna, who may be said to embody church doctrine of obedience and patience."55  Black madonnas are associated with direct action--not just feeling peace in the face of suffering, but also being involved with action to alleviate that suffering.  Edwin has also related his guardian-spirit lady to the statue of liberty, saying she is at odds with elements of governments which make things difficult for travelers (immigration policies, curfew laws, etc.).  Black madonnas, like numerous indigenous goddesses and spirits, are associated with justice, protecting the local people and land:  "Justice is the central value that emerges from studying the earth mother.  Slavic peasants from time immemorial have settled disputes by calling upon the earth as witness."56  "The political implications of black madonnas is that they are in favor of freedom and integrity, the right of peoples, cities, nations, to be inviolate and independent from outside interference."57   The principle is that of enabling the local and the individual.  The Earth Mother listens to appeals, settles problems, and punishes all who deceive her or are disrespectful to her.58  "Justice founded on equality is implicit in the civilization of the pre-Christian goddess, wherein the earth was held in common, with everyone having equal right to the sea, the seashore, the air.  People in pilgrimage to the black madonnas of the poor of Italy say, 'We are all equal because we all have the same mother.'"59

In many places around the world where Mary is worshipped, statues of her become pilgrimage sites.  There is often a procession through the community to the statue of Mary to crown her with flowers and to show her love and faith.  People who never attend church often have an active prayer life with Mary, as Edwin has with his lady figure.  I asked Edwin if his spirit figure could possibly be worshipped in an organized sense.  He said it would not be possible, for he has an absolutely personal, intimate, and private experience with her: he imagined that whoever relates to such a figure also has a similarly personal, non-institutional relationship with her.  (Edwin's relationship is so personal, he has never had a name for her all these years.  It came as a surprise to him recently when his sister Jane said that the lady spirit on the roads in South Africa is commonly referred to as Highway Sheila.  I associate the name Sheila as being Australian, and at this time have no way of knowing if the name is prevalent in South Africa because of Australian influence or some other reason).

Places dedicated to sacred memories are a part of many of the world's spiritual practices.  In these sacred places the seeker encounters the holy and, through rituals, meditation, and revelation, experiences a call to move beyond the self.  Eight categories of sacred sites are:

1)  places sanctified by events in the life of a prophet, saint, or deity.
2)  sites of miracles and healing.
3)  places of apparitions or visions.
4)  locales dedicated to religious rituals.
5)  tombs of saints.
6)  shrines of a miraculous statue, icon, or relic.
7)  places that manifest the energies or mystical powers of nature.
8)  places that have been marred by evil, and that have later become turning points for  communities.60

A number of these (3, 6,7) pertain to sites around Manhattan that Edwin associates with his guardian-spirit.

It has been said that "places are centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation, are satisfied."61  There must also be provision for intellectual and spiritual needs.  "When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become a place."  And one way to make a space a place is to assign markers, spots, that are associated with a figure from one's spirit life or one's past.  The establishment of such a marker turns a space into a place, that is, it helps one to find or create meaning in that which is unformed and unfamiliar.  "To strengthen our sense of place, the past needs to be rescued and made accessible."62  That is, the experience of the past needs to be applied to, mapped onto the present.  These sites help Edwin navigate the city at night: "I need reminding posts around the city.  I use them to feel comfortable."63

On the night of October 26, 1999, Edwin took me for a ride in his taxi after work.  (See videotape segment.)  He took me to one statue of the Virgin Mary that he enjoys passing, but the main one he wanted me to see had been replaced.  The fact that the representation of his guardian-spirit was not there temporarily upset Edwin.  He admitted to being disoriented.  A few blocks later, however, he spotted another sculpture of the Virgin Mary.  This gave him a great sense of relief.  He said, "She is traveling."64   It was as if he had learned a lesson--that he should not be too dependent on any particular physical manifestation of her.  Her essence is in appearing and disappearing, so it is only appropriate that representations of her should come and go.  She is the goddess of change and transformation.  It is a characteristic of this lady of the night roads to be able to traverse all boundaries, and to bring with her anyone she pleases.  Edwin, far from being killed by this figure, was in a sense helped by her to travel to the other side of the world (like the figures in the wild hunt are supposed to be able to do).  Edwin sees her as having enabled his voyage and having protected him along the way.

Just as Edwin feels that his guardian spirit protects him from making wrong turns on the road, he also credits her with helping to prevent him from making other wrong decisions.  He told me that a while ago, he had developed some bad habits, becoming too materialistic and isolationist.  During this period, she had repeatedly come to him when he was sleeping and pulled him by the arm, in the process bending copper jewelry he was wearing: "She was unhappy with me, and she was getting angry with me."65  In the morning, he felt he had been in a wrestling match, and his jewelry was bent up.  He no longer wears that jewelry, but keeps it a testament to the power of his guardian-spirit.  Edwin says largely due to his spirit's promptings, he changed his ways and that, "when I came back, she was waiting for me with open arms."66

Recently a fellow resident of the boarding house in which Edwin lives gave him a small statuette of a lady figure.  He associates this figure with his lady spirit and is impressed that it involves peace-making, for formally he had had cross words with this person.

Although Edwin's guardian-spirit figure is for the most part related to justice and protection, he is flexible enough to also relate her to romantic matters.  Recently, he saw a female acquaintance of his on he street.  He turned away fro a moment, as he considered approaching her.  When he turned to her again, she was gone!  He told me, mostly-jokingly, that this must have been the goddess's doing.  Again, we see that miraculous transformation is part of what this figure means to Edwin.  Things come and go.  One's sense of direction and one's sense of balance and purpose also come and go.  When Edwin loses his sense of where he is and where he is going, he looks for a sign from his spirit.  In a sense, this is like navigating by stars, or by the position of the sun.  It is looking for something that is stable by which to navigate.  Of course, this stable item is not always perceptible: it comes into and out of vision, but Edwin has faith that it will be there when he needs it.

Edwin often talks of the feast days at the ABH when people from the community would bring food for the people living in the home (many of them being children).  On other days, residents of the ABH were transported to picnics sponsored by community members.  The sharing of food seems to be related to the motif of positive female spirits: "The custom of distributing wheat to the hungry harks back to ancient African rituals, later to rituals of the Greco-Roman wheat goddess Demeter, and, in the early common epoch, to rituals connected with the Roman goddess Ceres, who is identified with the great Mother goddess."

Edwin has regularly sent money to the ABH, where his mother still works and lives, perhaps as a way of paying homage to his guardian spirit.  He regularly also gives food and gifts to his fellow borders in the boarding house in which he lives.  He speaks of returning to South Africa to help people at the ABH: for example, he would like to contribute toward computers there, and Internet communication.

In regard to the Internet, Edwin has recently registered the website name,, thus playfully founding the World Taxi Organization.  He foresees helping to build this into a website that might be useful, to begin with, to the taxi drivers and their families in Durban (South Africa), New York (USA), and Madras/Chennai (the capital of Tamil Nadu, one of the four southern states of India).  Taxi drivers in NYC are a very special group: coming from all countries of the world, they are great travelers themselves; and in driving taxis, they are constantly traveling and transporting others.  Edwin has told me that he only really feels at home when his is driving.  This is quite interesting to me: only when in transit does he feel at peace.  Many of these taxi drivers are at the forefront of new communication technologies.  Many own cellular telephones.  They gather at restaurants that feature satellite TV from their home lands.  And an increasing number of them avoid long distance telephone bills by speaking with their families over the Internet.  Eventually, Edwin would like to service this community (which could only be done by servicing each of these communities separately, as well as a group) by, among other things, featuring live audio and video transmissions, including those to and from taxis.  Edwin has told me that his guardian spirit, as goddess of change and transformation, would preside over all of these transcultural and transcontinental communication endeavors.

In his relation to his lady guardian-spirit in general, Edwin is playful and open-minded.  Based on his experience, he definitely believes that she exists, but he is not dogmatic about what form she might take next.  In fact she seems to take delight in surprising him by often taking new forms.  Edwin is open to the mystery around her, and does not presume to fully understand the workings of the cosmos, a very healthy and wise approach in my humble opinion.

Edwin does not seem to have had the problems adjusting to a new culture such as those described as occurring among many Laotian Hmong people who have migrated to the USA(67), possibly because his cultural upbringing was quite flexible and inclusive in the first place: he has just continued to adopt elements on his own, just as his ancestors did upon being brought from India to South Africa.

Fieldwork on 10/26/99, Monday morning, beginning at 2am.

Edwin was driving his taxi around after work: I was visiting with him.


Transcript of Excerpts of  Videorecording

(My comments are in bold type.)

So tell me about the lady on the highway at night.--She is the guide.  Because she understands.  She is just there to make you feel good, just there to say, "Everything is fine."  She was like this beautiful person, she wasn't a scary person, no, very pretty and everything.  She wasn't like a mean-looking person.  She was soft and nice, and, this...white and pink and blue colors.  Like you could see her against the sky--Pink and blue?--Yes.  And she had this soft chiffon thing running in the wind.  And she'll come and smile, and just move slowly...She's the kind of person you see, and you just melt, you relax...

Sometimes she'll come in our dormitories while we're sleeping--Right--and in the morning, people will say, like, I mean, I've seen it too, I don't know if I was hallucinating--Right--you'll see little white footprints on the floor, and nobody knew where they came from, because they'll come in the boy's dormitory...  And she'll stand on the road--Right--and just dance and make you feel good, like, "It's alright, it's dark but its alright.  See the moonlight?  See, I'm here?  Everything's alright."  Because I used to travel at night a lot--by what, by walk?--Yes, I used to travel a lot, so I needed something to guide me and keep me happy, and she was there.--And there was nothing to fear from her?--Nothing.  Like once I was driving, I used to work for this company, and I was driving from Johannesburg to Durban, that's a long drive.  And it was dark.  I was afraid that time...that's the time I thought I saw her...

You see, In India, they encourage you.  In Africa, they encourage you.  White people, they say, "Be careful."  Why do you think they sent those people, those...?--missionaries?--Yes.  Why did they send them?--To stop this activity.--Thank you!  So, what do missionaries do?  They attack the people, they attack the religion.  We don't have a pope in Africa.  Everyone can be the pope...

I gave up for a while.  I know I gave up.  But when I came back, she was waiting for me with open arms.  I mean, hey, the lady was there for me.  I feel she's always there, she's protecting me, that's why I like being in my cab at night.  I love it.  Because she protects me, against accidents, against anything, anything to do with this job.

Do you have any visual representations that reminds you of her?--Sometimes I see her in the clouds, like at night.  Some people look like her.  But no little paintings or anything.  What do you mean?--Like, you know, in India, they have little shrines.--I told you what she looks like.  You know what, as a matter of fact, I saw one, one piece of art that comes close to what she looks like, and it's at 79th and Park--Indoors or outdoors?--It's outdoors.  If you go there you can see it.  It's like a lady, with the wind blowing, and she has a sweet little face.--It's a sculpture?--Yes.  She's standing there like this and the wind is blowing through her clothes.  I saw that sculpture and I thought, "Oh my god, she's in Manhattan!"  That's what I thought, and I felt better.

Sometimes smells will do it.  Like when I smell freshly cut grass, I think of the country and I think of roads, and I think of her.


Videorecorded segment (20 minutes)

a) we visit the first Mary sculpture;
b) we look for the second one (the important one), but it has been replaced;
c) Edwin finds a substitute for the second one.
d) Edwin describes how it seemed that this spirit wrestled with him while he was asleep and crushed his jewelry:

You see, people in the West associate the night with the devil--Correct.--I don't know why they do that.--Huh.--Like why?--'Cause they've got guilty consciences, and they're afraid they're going to be punished at night for the bad things they did during the day.--Is that why?--(laughs)--No, no, you said something interesting.  You know those people, where the ghost, you said something like, the ghost tries to suffocate them?  That was happening to me too for a while.  I used to wear jewelry--Uh-hunh--And when I used to get up in the morning, the jewelry used to be all like crankled up--Ah!--And so I stopped wearing that, because it almost like, almost tightened my hands up.  I mean I used to wear, you remember when I used to wear all that stuff?--Yah.--I stopped wearing that, because when I'd get up in he morning, it was like, as if I'd been through a war with somebody--Ah-hah--I'd say, "Oh, wow, what happened here?"--(laughs)-- And now, my clock stops all the time and shit happens, I don't even care-- (laughs)--I mean, I feel so comfortable--Ah-hah--It's like, because I accepted, like, "Hey man, this honky ain't gonna guide me.  My maker, my angel, she's going to guide me, all through this"--Hunh--"Not this white man, no way."--Hunh.  But when you lost it, did she--Oh, she was there--Did this figure come and sit on your chest or something?--That happened when I was sleeping.  Because I had no vision, I had nothing.--Right--I lost everything, I lost any self of self-respect--So this negative figure came?--No, she was there, I think.-- Uh-hah!--She and I was having a fight.--Ahhh!--She was unhappy with me, and she was getting angry with me, that's why the jewelry was all, like crushed-- Ah!--Because copper was meant to help you overcome your, your weakness, and I was not running to my spirit to help me, I was running to material things like...I would take Tylanol--Right--which I still do, because I am practical--uh-huh--But at that time I was losing faith in faith, so to speak--Uh-huh--I was losing it.  I was starting to believe all this hype--Yah--I really was starting to believe it, you know, and I thought I could beat it--and she came, and did she sit on you and try to shake you?--No, she wouldn't do that, she would like, she would pull me--Ah-hah!--in the right direction, I felt, because my hands were like--Ahhh!--I never felt like I couldn't breathe or anything though.  I always felt alive--but you felt pulled--I just felt like I was having a struggle, at night when I was sleeping.  I was struggling with something--Ah-hah--because the jewelry when I got up, it was all crankled.    I straightened it.  I still have the jewelry, I keep it.


By this point, it was approximately 4am.  Shortly afterward, we returned to the East Village, Edwin parked the taxi, we walked around a bit, and we said goodnight.  (We live around the corner from each other, near 2nd St. and 3rd Ave.)


1   David Hufford, "Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits," in Out of the Ordinary,Barbara Walker, ed., Logan, Utah: Utah State U. Press, 1995, p. 29.

2   Hufford, p. 16.

3   Louis Ward Kemp, "Putting Down Routes: Folk and Popular Perceptions of the Road," in Western Folklore, July 1983, 42(3), p. 157.

4   Kemp, p. 167.

5   Kemp,  p. 157.

6   Kemp, p. 157.

7   Roger Abrahams, "Moving In America," in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies,vol. III, NY: Burt Franklin, 1977, p. 63.

8   Abrahams, p. 64.

9   Abrahams, p. 65.

10   Abrahams, p. 74.

11   Abrahams, p. 65.

12   Abrahams, p. 65.

13   Abrahams, p. 66.

14   Abrahams, p. 63.

15   Abrahams, p. 63.

16   Abrahams, p. 65.

17   Abrahams, p. 66.

18   Abrahams, p. 64.

19   Kemp, p. 157.

20   Abrahams, p. 63.

21   Leea Virtanen, "Have Ghosts Vanished with Industrialism?", in Folklore Processed: In Honor of Lauri Honko,Reimund Kvideland, ed., Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuudeden Seura, 1992, p. 225.

22   Virtanen, p. 231.

23   Martin Puhvel, "The Mystery of the Cross-Roads," Folklore,1976, v. 87, p. 168.

24   Puhvel, p. 168.

25   Puhvel, p. 168.

26   Puhvel, p. 174.

27   Puhvel, p. 171.

28   Puhvel, p. 170.

29   Rosemary Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits,NY: Facts on File, 1992, p.  352.

30   Martha Ann and Dorothy Myers Imel, Goddesses in World Mythology,Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1993, p. 2.

31   Ann, p.  3.

32   Ann, p.  10.

33   Ann, p.  10.

34   Guiley, p.  223.

35   Ann, p.  10.

36   Ann, p.  6.

37   Ann, p.  7.

38   Ann, p.  8.

39   Ann, p.  14.

40   Ann, p.  14.

41   Rose Carol, Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People,Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1996, p. 33.

42   Rose, p. 10.

43   Rose, p. 274.

44   Guiley,  p. 275.

45   Rose, p. 18.

46   James Huntley Grayson, "Female Mountain Spirits in Korea: A Neglected Tradition," Asian Folklore Studies,April 1996, v. 55, n. 1, p. 122.

47   Grayson, p. 125.

48   Grayson, p. 127.

49   Grayson, p. 127.

50   Grayson, p. 123.

51   Guiley, p. 212.

52  Ilangô Adigal, Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet),trans. by Alain Daniélou, NY: New Directions, 1965.

53   Robin Nagle, Claiming the Virgin: The Broken Promise of Liberation Theology in Brazil,NY: Routledge, 1997, p. 9.

54   Conversation between Edwin Pillay and myself, 10/26/99.

55   Birnbaum, p. 3.

56   Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy,Boston: Northeastern U. Press, 1993, p. 23.

57   Birnbaum, p. 33.

58   Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess,San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 159.

59   Birnbaum, p. 30.

60   Norbert C. Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places,Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997, p. 9.

61   Tuan, p. 4.

62   Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience,Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1977, p. 187.

63   Conversation between Edwin Pillay and myself, 10/26/99.

64   Pillay, 10/26/99.

65   Pillay, 10/26/99.

66   Pillay, 10/26/99.

67   Shelley R. Adler, "Terror in Transition: Hmong Folk Belief in America," in Out of the Ordinary,Barbara Walker, ed., Logan, Utah: Utah State Press, 1995.


Abrahams, Roger.  "Moving In America."  In Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies. Vol. III.  NY: Burt Franklin.  1977.  pp. 63-82.

Adigal, Ilangô.  Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet).  Trans. by Alain Daniélou.  NY: New Directions.  1965.

Adler, Shelley R.  "Terror in Transition: Hmong Folk Belief in America."  In Out of the Ordinary. Barbara Walker, ed.  Logan, Utah: Utah State U. Press.  1995.

Ann, Martha  and  Dorothy Myers Imel.  Goddesses in World Mythology. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO.  1993.

Baughman, Ernest Warren.  Type and Motif-index of the Folktales of England and North America. The Hague: Mouton & Co.  1966.

Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola.  Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy.Boston: Northeastern U. Press.  1993.

Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola.  "Memory of the Dark Mother."  ReVision,Winter 1998, v. 20, issue 3.  pp. 25-30.

Brockman, Norbert C.  Encyclopedia of Sacred Places.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.  1997.

Chevalier, Jean  &  Alain Gheerbrant, eds.  A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. by John Buchanan-Brown.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.  1994.

Hufford, David.  The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions.  Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press.  1982.

Hufford, David.  "Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits."  In Out of the Ordinary,Barbara Walker, ed.  Logan, Utah: Utah State U. Press.  1995.

Finucane, Ronald C.  Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. London: Junction Books.  1982.

Gimbutas, Marija.  The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row.  1987.

Grayson, James Huntley.  "Female Mountain Spirits in Korea: A Neglected Tradition."  Asian Folklore Studies,April 1996, v. 55, n. 1.  pp. 119-35.

Guiley, Rosemary.  The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. NY: Facts on File.  1992.

Jobes, Gertrude, ed.  Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. NY: Scarecrow Press.  1992.

Jones, Alison, ed.  LaRousse Dictionary of World Folklore. NY: LaRousse.  1995.

Kemp, Louis Ward.  "Putting Down Routes: Folk and Popular Perceptions of the Road."  Western Folklore,42(3):157-178. 1983 July. Claremont, CA.

Monaghan, Patricia.  The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications.  1997.

Nagle, Robin.  Claiming the Virgin: The Broken Promise of Liberation Theology in Brazil. NY: Routledge. 1997.

Pillay, Edwin.  Conversations between Edwin and myself.  10/26/99, and generally early October through mid-December, 1999.

Puhvel, Martin.  "The Mystery of the Cross-Roads."  Folklore,87:167-77. 1976.

Rose, Carol.  Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.  1996.

Shulman, David Dean.  Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press.  1980.

Thompson, Stith.  Motif-index of Folk-literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-books, and Local Legends. Bloomington, Indiana U. Press.  1955-1958.

Tuan, Yi-Fu.  Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience.  Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press.  1977.

Virtanen, Leea.  "Have Ghosts Vanished with Industrialism?"  In Folklore Processed: In Honor of Lauri Honko. Reimund Kvideland, ed.  Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuudeden Seura.  1992.  pp. 225-233.

Vries, Ad de.  Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam, North-Holland Publishing Co. 1974.