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 reclaim as the personified ideals of America.
In the early history of the United States, Columbia was visualized as a goddess-like female national personification of the United States and of Liberty itself. Some historians claim that she emerged from the imagination of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who in 1697, wrote a poem suggesting that America’s Colonies be called Columbina, a feminization of Christopher Columbus’ last name. Her association as America’s Goddess was reinforced 70 years later when, Phillis Wheatley, a former slave and the first published African-American female poet, wrote an ode to General George Washington invoking Miss Columbia in 1775. In 1798, Joseph Hopkinson wrote lyrics for Philip Phile’s 1789 inaugural “President’s March” under the new title of “Hail, Columbia” which was once used as de facto national anthem of the United States until 1931. In 1801, our seat of government was renamed from the Territory of Columbia to its current name, the District of Columbia. In the War of 1812, Miss Columbia began appearing in political cartoons, and by the mid-19th century, she was a common figure in political cartoons as well as in the literary realm. By the 1890s, women dressed up as Miss Columbia for patriotic events. In various World War I posters, Columbia pleaded, beseeched, and implored viewers to save food, send their sons to war and buy bonds. In World War II, Columbia reappeared with the same pleas.
The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and stripes; a popular version gave her a red-and-white striped dress and a blue blouse, shawl, or sash spangled with white stars. Her headdress varied; sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a Native American headdress, sometimes it was a laurel wreath but most often it was a cap of liberty.” (This liberty, or Phrygian, cap, is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward. In late Republican Rome, such a cap served as a symbol of freedom from tyranny. It has been used to symbolize liberty in numerous countries of the Americas.)
By 1920, the Statue of Liberty replaced Columbia as the primary female representation of the United States in most instances. Though often used interchangeably, some still distinguished Columbia is the United States personified, and Libertas (Lady Liberty) is the personification of freedom.
Today, images of Columbia, or other similar divine feminine representations, adorn the entrances to all of the major federal government buildings in Washington, D.C. She stands blindfolded, faithfully balancing the scales in front of the Department of Justice. She is the source of Inspiration and Knowledge displayed at the entrance to the Department of Education. She is the Goddess of New Life, abundance, provision and harvest who offers her cornucopia to her subjects at the Department of Agriculture. She stands guard atop the Capitol Building and from behind the Speaker of the House’s podium. America’s Goddess watches, protects and guides from atop her silent perch; encouraging her subjects to set aside selfish desires and serve her in faithful submission. Some might even see the temple of our Goddess, the “District of Columbia,” does not allow its citizens to vote based partly on the notion that all who come to the “district of the Goddess” should forfeit their individual egos and agendas and instead work for the Great Goddess and her agenda of liberty, justice and democratic self-governance.
Today, many Contemporary Pagans see the Goddess Columbia as an important matriarch of the United States and the symbol of those ideas. In 1993, for example, Pagan leader Isaac Bonewits led a group in consecrating a statute of the Goddess of Freedom when it was brought down to ground level for cleaning and restoration.
What can we learn from the Goddess Columbia today? Most Contemporary Pagans practice a spiritual practice encompassing both a masculine and feminine divine, but they also recognize the dominance of patriarchy in today’s moral and spiritual thoughts. When our country was founded, it was seen as a kind of magickal future for the human race. Radical new principles embodied by Columbia such as freedom of speech, thought, and religion were integrated into our laws as inalienable rights. Unfortunately, many see the United States ignoring or at least down playing many of these principles. It is important for more people to remember Columbia, and bring the feminine back into the language of our democracy. We live in a changing world. As a society, we are on the cusp of great change. The way we actively pursue that change will forge our future. The Goddess Columbia expects no less.