Weekly Deity: Columbia


*I hesitate to add Columbia to this series, but since she is considered a goddess by some, I decided to examine her in more detail.*

Columbia is the personification of the Americas, more specifically, the United States.  She is the patron deity of the US, and her name means “Land of Columbus.”

Attributes

Although her depiction has never formally been pinned down, in general, Columbia is shown as a beautiful young or middle-aged woman.  She is gowned in a dress that is either white or has a stars-and-stripes motif like the American flag.  A cap of liberty sits on her head, also called a Phrygian cap.  Commonly she is shown with any of the following: an eagle, a sheaf of wheat, a cornucopia, the American flag, a laurel wreath, or implements of war.

Mythology

As a pseudo-goddess, Columbia does not have mythology.  She is not from ancient Greece or Rome.  The best way to discuss this figure is to talk about her history and how she has been perceived since her “creation” in the 1700s.

Columbia emerged out of the colonization of America and the unconscious need of the British settlers for an identification, a symbol, for the new land they had taken over.  The symbol actually seems to have come from British thought, as a means of personifying the new land, and then this symbol was communicated to the settlers in America, who changed it and made it their own.  “Columbia” was originally just the Latinized name for the Americas, combining the root Columb– of Christopher Columbus with the suffix –ia to form a Latinized name for the country (in the same vein as Britannia).  Then the personification followed.

Columbia was soon considered a symbol of freedom.  She became associated with the ideals of the United States after America broke from England, and later became a common symbol of Manifest Destiny as well.  After WWI and WWII, she fell into some disfavor and was replaced with today’s more common figure Lady Liberty, who is related to the image of Columbia but is somewhat less militant in appearance than the figure of Columbia, who was at times dressed up in the implements of war and shown as an image of American might.

from Wikimedia

Today, a number of statues are still in place that reflect the figure of Columbia.  The most notable at the moment is the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol building in DC.  Although this statue is not actually named “Columbia,” and it is unknown whether the statue was meant to reflect the pseudo-deity or not, it is often considered to be an image of Columbia because it displays many of the characteristics associated with her. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Freedom)

Light and Dark Sides

Columbia is an interesting mixture.  On the one hand, she is a personification of freedom and liberty.  On the other hand, she is a war-like figure that has been associated with some not-nice things.  Since she is not a deity with an actual mythology, we can only form an opinion based on how she has been used as a symbol for the last 300 years.

Her Light side would probably include the ideals of freedom for all and liberty.  She would not seem to be a symbol of slavery or oppression.  Which makes her all the more interesting because she is also the “goddess” of Manifest Destiny, a time in American history that none of us should be proud of.  She was a symbol of American involvement in the World Wars–again, not something that any American should really embrace or be proud of, as many atrocities and horrible acts were committed.  She was also a symbol of the Revolutionary War, which makes more sense given that the colonists were fighting for freedom from Britain and Columbia would have been seen as an embodiment of that desire.

It is the Manifest Destiny portion of her history that always trips me up.  Manifest Destiny (for those that don’t remember high school history), was the period in American history in which the east was expanding to the west, when settlers were given license to move into the American West and bring “progress” and “light” to the “heathens” that lived there.  And, if said “heathens” could not be transformed, then they were forced to live elsewhere or murdered.  The idea of Manifest Destiny was used to justify a great many things, from war to genocide to land cultivation.

I think that when working with a figure like Columbia, it is important to note that she does have both of these sides to her.  She is both Dark and Light, and denying her involvement in the darker sides of American history does a disservice to her and to the practitioner.  Just as denying dark events in history only sets us up to repeat them, denying the Darker sides of Columbia denies an entire side of her history and personality and makes her unbalanced.  There is a reason she has been replaced by the figure of Lady Liberty—Columbia is less relevant to a populace that was fewer wars and wants peace.  The figure of Columbia is much more militant than the figure of Lady Liberty as a personification of America.  Focusing only on the freedom aspect of Columbia does not transform her into a Light figure; on the contrary, it makes her lopsided and unbalanced, and denies the aspects that make her what she is.  Denial of her role in Manifest Destiny and war is setting you up for a lopsided experience as well, as I would think that acknowledging only one aspect of her personality means that you are ignoring that she has a more dangerous side to her personality that could come out to play at any time.  Hello, we’re involved with two losing wars no one wants to be involved in; that right there is an effect of Columbia, though the conflicts are still spun out in the name of Liberty.

Some resources:

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One response to “Weekly Deity: Columbia

  1. Pingback: American Avatar « musings of a kitchen witch

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