Whether you think of her as an archetype, a land spirit, or an old goddess with a new name, Columbia is the name that some Pagans are starting to use for the personified ideals of liberty and freedom in America. She represents values that we hold most dear, and while we have often not lived up to the best possible implementation of them, we have made progress in gradually recognizing and respecting more and more freedoms for more and more people. Venerating Columbia calls us to continue to strive towards those highest ideals.
Personifying values as goddesses has a long history; Rome recognized Libertas, goddess of liberty, among others. Our own Statue of Liberty, actually entitled Liberty Enlightening the World, is directly modeled on classical depictions of Libertas.
As people began to break away from older models of government and the modern nation-state developed, female personifications of countries emerged: the UK was represented as Brittannia, France as Marianne, and Switzerland as Helvetia. At the same time, we began to see the first depictions of Columbia as the personification of America in various forms.
The Statue of Freedom atop the dome of the Capitol (pictured to the right) combines symbols of Liberty and Columbia: she wears a classical gown and a helmet topped with the distinctively American eagle. Unifying the two, atop the legislative heart of American government, is a statement that these ideals are the pinnacle of what it means to be American.
Her Problematic Past
The statue that I recognize as both Freedom and Columbia has an interesting past, a past that reminds us of the journey our country has made, sometimes in fits and starts, towards honoring its highest ideals in practice by recognizing and protecting more freedoms. Columbia, after all, takes her name from Christopher Columbus, whose explorations enabled the European occupation of the Americas, with tremendous losses of life and freedom for Native Americans that would continue for centuries. The inclusion of “Native American” elements such as her fringed blanket and the eagle should represent rather than erase this problematic past.
The eagle-topped helmet was actually a substitution; the sculptor’s original design had the figure wearing a pileus, or Liberty cap, which symbolized freedom because it had been worn by freed slaves in Rome. It became part of Libertas’ imagery, and can still be found in American iconography today, either held by Liberty or by itself, including in the seal of the Senate and on some state flags.
When Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, reviewed the design, he insisted that the symbol of freed slaves was inappropriate for the United States. Although he prevailed on the sculptor to change the design, the issue of slavery led to war less than ten years later. Davis, and the Confederacy he led, were defeated. As a result, when slavery was abolished, some of the newly-free people were ones who worked to create and install the statue.
Perhaps the least obvious irony embodied in Columbia’s statue is the very fact that she is a female symbol of a country where even a hundred years ago women could not vote. She carries a sword and shield, the armament of an infantry soldier, when women in our armed forces are not allowed to be infantry members, even though they play an increasing role in direct combat. From her first appearances to the present day, Columbia, goddess of freedom and liberty as American values, has symbolized ideals that we have only imperfectly lived out.
Her Hopeful Future
This project invites Pagans to participate as citizens in helping the country progress towards greater freedom for all people, and especially the religious liberty that Pagans are working so hard to gain and defend. We go forward with our eyes open to the problems of our past, including those embodied in Columbia, and we take her as a symbol of how we are unwilling to return to that past; we work instead to create a better future for our country and ourselves.
Columbia represents the goal to which we are dedicated; she encourages us to protect what has been won and beckons us onward to expand freedoms, including religious liberty in a peaceful and pluralistic society. As we take steps in that journey, let us demonstrate that all acts of truth and justice are her rituals.