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Clouds of red, white, and blue that pass
Forever on their way,
Like hills sublime, like mountains rise
And greet her day by day.
Where eagles soar in circles grand,
‘Neath God’s blue canopy,
They wing her love in freedom’s name
O’er the land of liberty.

from a poem by William Cox, 1927

Personifications as allegorical interpretations of places have a long history in art and literature, and  the concept of spirits of place have an even longer one in the myths and religions of various cultures.  In the United States, there has been a long history of these personifications, the most common perhaps being Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty and Columbia.  Recently, there has been a surge in interest in these symbols, particularly Lady Liberty and Columbia as an American avatar.

America from “Allegory of the Four Continents” by Marten de Vos, circa late-16th century

While there has been some criticism, particular of Columbia, if we are all honest with ourselves, the history of most every nation and the mythology of most every pantheon has a dark side–one of injustice and cruelty.  The problem is not one of using a symbol with a dark past or in deifying a representation of questionable character (particularly when its the historical equivalent of ethnocentrism to an entirely different people and time), but in failing to learn and move forward.  The gods are as human as we are divine–I think that expecting them to have no dirty laundry is a dangerous oversimplification of their being.

Either way the adoption of Liberty and/or Columbia (or Columbia as an aspect of Liberty) by some Pagans is a reality.  And, perhaps, a solution to the problem of indigenous American deities for those of us with mostly European ancestry whose practices would benefit from a deity of our own land AND our own peoples.

Liberty

Libertas as a deity usually took the form of a Goddess. A temple to Her on the Aventine Hill in Rome was dedicated around 238 BCE. Sometimes She merged with the chief Roman God Jupiter, in the form of Jupiter Libertas, whose feast was celebrated on April 13. Libertas also was closely associated with the Goddess Feronia, and some viewed them as aspects of the same Goddess, including the Roman scholar Varro, a contemporary of Cicero. Feronia is thought to have been originally an ancient agricultural and fire Goddess among the Etruscan and/or Sabine peoples. During the Roman Republic, Feronia’s feast day was November 13. She was honored in central Italy as the Goddess of freedwomen and freedmen, and She was associated with the granting of freedom to slaves. Part of the passage from slavery into freedom in Roman society involved having the head ritually shaved, being ceremonially tapped by a magistrate with a rod, called a vindicta, and then wearing a cap, known as a pilleus, to symbolize freed status.

(snip)

As the USA became a nation, Lady Liberty became part of the official symbology of some of its newly formed states. Holding Her Liberty Cap atop the Liberty Pole, Lady Liberty appears along with the Goddess of Justice on the New York State Flag. On the obverse of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, created in 1776, Liberty holds the Liberty Cap atop a pole in Her right hand and is flanked on Her left side by the Roman Goddess of Eternity (Aerternitas) and on Her right by the Goddess of Fruitfulness (Ceres). In addition, the Goddess Liberty, also with a Liberty Pole and Cap, appears with Ceres on the front of the Great Seal of New Jersey, adopted in 1777.

As more states were formed in the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, some of them also chose to include Liberty imagery as part of their iconography. In addition, Lady Liberty images appeared on coins, paintings, stamps, and in sculptures throughout the land, including the colossal bronze Statue of Freedom, which was commissioned in 1855 and in 1863 set on the top of the dome of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, where it can still be seen today. It is interesting to note that during America’s Civil War era both sides claimed Liberty and sought to use Her images to promote their own causes. Among abolitionists, Liberty was depicted freeing slaves, while states rights advocates used Her image to signify independence from the “tyranny” of centralized government. Today, Liberty images are used in connection with a wide range of political parties, candidates, and positions on various issues.

From Libertas to Lady Liberty, an article by Selena Fox

Columbia

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 rootColumb– 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 A Witchy Life’s Weekly Deity series (go, read the rest…I’ll wait!)

FYI: Another source of insight on the matter of Columbia comes from the Conversations with Columbia series by blogger Hecate Demeter.

Actually, what I find sort of interesting, and worthy of some reflection, is that one of the MOST iconic figures…isn’t considered worthy of deifying.  I realize that Columbia is a DC40 target, and has likely received some legitimacy from that, while Libertas is an ancient goddess in her own right (and  I see Columbia more as an aspect of Libertas than an independent goddess myself)…but still, why no god by the name of Uncle Sam?

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