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A lady, a miss, or an outright goddess, Columbia has existed as the literal personification of the United States since before its creation as a country. Created at the end of the 17th century, Miss Columbia was first just a metaphor for the European colonies in the New World. However, the name and the image not only stuck but were embraced as the perfect representation of the New World’s strife for freedom and progress.
Who is Columbia?
Columbia doesn’t have a set-in-stone “look” but she’s almost always a young-to-middle-aged woman with fair skin and – more often than not – blonde hair.
Columbia’s wardrobe varies greatly but it always has some patriotic notes to it. She is sometimes depicted wearing the American flag as a dress to show her patriotism. At other times, she wears completely white robes, reminiscent of those worn in ancient Rome. She sometimes wears the Roman Phrygian cap, as it too is a classic symbol of freedom dating all the way back to the times of ancient Rome.
As for Columbia’s name, it should come as no surprise that it’s based on the name of Christopher Columbus, the Genoan explorer who is credited for discovering the New World. However, while Columbia has most prominently been used in the US, Canada too has used the symbol for centuries.
Who Created Columbia?
The idea of Columbia was first thought of by Chief Justice Samuel Sewall in 1697. Sewall was from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He didn’t invent the name as a part of his legal work, however, but as a poet. Sewall wrote a poem in which he called the American colonies “Columbia” after the name of Christopher Columbus.
Is Columbia a Goddess?
While she’s often called “Goddess Columbia”, Columbia doesn’t belong to any religion. No one really claims that she has godhood either – she is just a symbol of the New World and the European colonies in it.
That being said, while it may tickle some of the more ardent Christian believers the wrong way, Columbia continues to be called a “goddess” to this day. In a sense, she can be called a non-theistic deity.
Miss Columbia and the Indian Queen and Princess
Miss Columbia isn’t the first female symbol used to represent the European colonies in the New World. Before her inception at the end of the 17th century, the image of the Indian Queen that was most commonly used. Depicted as mature and attractive, the Indian Queen was similar to feminine images the Europeans used for other colonized continents such as Africa.
Over time, the Indian Queen became younger and younger, until she “transformed” into the Indian Princess image. People appreciated the younger-looking design of the image as it was more in line with the New World’s infancy. Once the Columbia symbol was invented, however, the Indian Princess started falling out of favor.
For a while, the Goddess Columbia and Indian Princess symbols co-existed. However, the American settlers clearly preferred the European-looking woman over the more native-looking one and the Indian Princess stopped being used shortly after Columbia’s creation.
Is the Statue of Liberty Columbia?
Not exactly. The Statue of Liberty was created by the French engineer Gustave Eiffel in 1886 – the same engineer who designed the Eiffel tower in Paris. At that point the image of Columbia was well-established, however, Gustavo based his statue on the image of the Roman goddess Libertas instead.
So, the statue doesn’t directly represent Columbia.
At the same time, Columbia herself is based on the goddess Libertas, so, the two images are still related. Libertas herself was a very common image in France at the time since the French symbol of freedom during the French Revolution – Lady Marianne – was also based on the goddess Libertas.
Columbia and Libertas
A large part of Columbia’s visual inspiration comes from the ancient Roman goddess of freedom Libertas. That’s likely indirect as Libertas had also inspired many other feminine symbols of freedom across Europe. The white robes and the Phrygian cap, in particular, are tell-tale signs that Columbia is strongly based on Libertas. That’s also why she’s often called “Lady Liberty”.
Columbia and Other Western Female Symbols of Freedom
Not all Western European feminine symbols of freedom are based on Libertas, so to draw parallels between Columbia and some of them would technically be inaccurate. For example, the famous Italian image Italia turrita may look similar, but she’s actually based on the Roman mother goddess Cybele.
One European character who’s closely related to Columbia is the French Marianne. She too is based on the Roman goddess Libertas and was used as a symbol of liberty during the French Revolution. She’s often shown sporting a Phrygian cap as well.
The British trident-wielding symbol Britannia is an even better example. Also coming from the times of ancient Rome, Britannia is a purely British symbol, representing the island’s liberation from Roman rule. In fact, Britannia and Columbia were also pitted against each other, especially during the American Revolution.
Symbolism of Columbia
Goddess Columbia has risen and fallen in terms of popularity over the years, but she has nevertheless remained a key symbol of all of the United States. Versions of her image and those of Libertas or the Statue of Liberty can be seen in every state, every city, and on almost every government building to this day.
As the personification of the country, she symbolizes the United States itself. She also symbolizes freedom, progress, and independence.
Importance of Columbia in Modern Culture
Columbia’s name has been invoked countless times since her inception at the end of the 17th century. To list all references to Columbia on governmental buildings, cities, states, and institutions would be impossible, but here are some of the most well-known mentions of Columbia in American culture.
- The song ail Hail, Columbia is a patriotic song often considered an unofficial national anthem of the country.
- Columbia Pictures, which was named in 1924, has used varying versions of the image of the goddess Columbia holding a torch upright.
- The command module of the Apollo 11 craft in 1969 was named Columbia.
- There was also the space shuttle of the same name built in 1979.
- The goddess/symbol was also showed in the 1997 graphic novel Uncle Sam by Steve Darnall Alex Ross.
- The famous 2013 video game Bioshock Infinite takes place in the fictional city Columbia with the place also being plastered with images of the American goddess.
- Speaking of American gods, the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman called American Gods featured a goddess named Columbia.
Q: Who is the goddess Columbia?
A: Columbia is the female personification of the United States.
Q: What does Columbia represent?
A: Columbia represents American ideals and the country itself. She embodies the spirit of America.
Q: Why is it called the District of Columbia?
A: The country’s capital was going to be located in the Territory of Columbia – which was then officially renamed to District of Columbia (D.C.).
Q: Is the country Colombia connected to goddess Columbia?
A: Not directly. The South American country Colombia was created and named in 1810. Like the goddess Columbia, the country Colombia is also named after Christopher Columbus. However, there’s no direct relationship with the US image of Columbia.
Columbia’s name and image may be misunderstood today but she has been a part of the North American mythos for centuries. A symbol, an inspiration, and an outright modern, nationalistic, and non-theistic goddess in her own right, Columbia quite literally is America.