For as much vitriol as Europeans spouted about ‘paganism’ following their discovery of the Americas and the multifaceted spiritual beliefs of its inhabitants, they sure did love to harkon back to Roman and Greek polytheism. In particular, Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often symbolized the continents as Classical deities. Europe, Africa, and Asia each had their own manifestation, each a symbol of the civilizations that Europeans had encountered there. When Columbus accidentally stumbled into the New World, Europeans needed some way to fit this new continent into their symbolic pantheon. Thus, the goddess Columbia was born.
The Old World Goddesses
The tradition of symbolizing a place in the form of a god or goddess stretched back to Roman times, as did Europe’s connection with Africa and Asia. With the coming of the Renaissance and the reintroduction of Classical art and ideas into European society, rather Roman looking goddesses came to symbolize the three continents of the Old World.
It should come as no surprise that of the three goddesses, Europe came out looking the best. She was always fully clothed in a Roman-style toga, often surrounded by feats of art, war, and science.1 Thus, she highlighted Europe’s rich Classical past and her quickly brightening future which the Renaissance had initiated. Asia and Africa didn’t have quite the same nod to their history. The goddesses of the other two continents were often depicted with recognizable animals from their lands (camels, giant cats, elephants, etc.).2 But, since these species appear in both continents, the characteristic that sets them apart is their clothing: Asia was always fully clothed, Africa’s breasts were exposed, though she wore what looks like a toga from the chest down.3
Cleary, Europeans thought more highly of the Asian civilizations they had encountered in China and India over the centuries than the societies in north Africa and along the continent’s western coast. This can be seen in the African goddess’s partial nudity; the level of clothing, in the symbolism of European artists, reflected the level of civilization they thought each continent had achieved. This rather bigoted symbology remained a key factor in their portrayal of the continents for several centuries.
After the Americas entered the picture, Europeans grappled for ways to symbolize these ‘new’ continents and their people.
A New Goddess for a New World
The first images of the goddess Columbia that came out of Europe depended on the reports of explorers who had visited the Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil. Given that tropical areas were the first points of European contact with the Americas, the earliest depictions of the American goddess often portrayed her surrounded by alligators, parrots, armadillos and other denizens of the Western Hemisphere.4 Such exoctic creatures helped to place this new goddess decidedly in the New Word. Artists, however, went one step further in their attempts to make sure their audiences knew Columbia represented America.
In the early images of Columbia, she is always sporting a feathered headdress, what amounts to loin cloth around her waist, and perhaps some other feathered adornment on her arms. Additionally, she holds a bow in one hand and a group of arrows in the other. Borrowing details about the headdress from tales of European exploration amid the Tupinamba in Brazil, European artists crafted an ‘Indian Princess’ or goddess figure to represent the Americas.5
This new goddess, however, was also meant to portray the lack of culture Europeans perceived in the Americas.6 Whereas the European goddess was fully clothed, surrounded by symbols of Western achievement, the American goddess was nearly naked, surrounded by wild nature. Though Europeans denoted these continents with their own goddess, clearly they did not perceive this place or its people as equal to Europe.
British America Embraces Columbia
While we have been referring to this New World goddess as Columbia, the first variation of that name did not appear until the late 1600s. In 1697, Samuel Sewall, a prominent Puritan judge and merchant (though, now he’s more famous for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials), published a book with a long Latin name, Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica, in which he referred to the country of “Columbina.” By Sewall’s day, the New World had come to be known as America, in honor of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Sewall reckoned, however, that “men should rather call it Columbina from the magnanimous Heroe Christopher Columbus a Genuese, who was manifestly Appointed by God to be the Finder out of these lands.”7
Nowadays, we have a pretty different view of Columbus. And I’ve made my thoughts on him (i.e. that he was a bigoted maniac bent on conquering and enslaving the people of the Caribbean) pretty clear. In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, though, he was revered. As such, his name came to be associated with the Americas, particularly British America, more and more. It took four decades after Sewall’s book, but, finally, in 1738, during a Parliamentary debate in England, the name Columbia entered the record books.8
Why Columbia, the feminized name of a Genoese explorer working on behalf of the Spanish crown, became associated with the British colonies on the North American east coast is unclear. But, the association stuck. And as the inhabitants of these colonies gained a collective of identity as Americans, rather than Englishmen, the name Columbia and the Greek goddess of the Americas were combined into one powerful symbol.
The Goddess Columbia and the American Revolution
In the decade leading up to the American Revolution, the goddess Columbia had her name used to both hail England and King George and extol the virtues of the coming revolution. In 1761, a book of poems put together by Harvard graduates became the first poetic publication to use the name Columbia to celebrate George III’s marriage to Princess Charlotte.
Behold Britannia! in thy favored Isle;
At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
For ancestors renown’d, for virtues more;
At whose sole not, grim tyranny aghast,
With grudging strides, hies swift from British climes;
While liberty undaunted rears her head.9
A decade-and-half before the American Revolution, we see Columbia associated with liberty; but, before revolutionary fervor kicked in, so too was ‘thy Prince.’
In the 15 years that passed between the publication of these Harvard poems and the beginning of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord, other poets invoked Colubmia’s name to praise the cause of American independence. The most influential of these poets was Phyillis Wheatley. Taken from her home in Africa as a child by slave traders, Wheatley was raised in Boston as a slave in the home of John and Susannah Wheatley.10 Educated in the classics as a girl, Wheatley developed prodigious literary talents, which, despite her enslavement, she turned to the aid of the American Revolution. In a poem she wrote to George Washington, Wheatley wrote:
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.11
White Washing the Goddess Columbia
After the initiation of the Revolution, many Native American Nations allied with the British, hoping the empire could keep white Americans east of the Appalachians. These alliances brought white settlements into increased conflict with Native Americans for years, fanning the flames of American’s distrust of Native Nations that had existed since the beginning of the colonial era. While the goddess Columbia had become the unofficial symbol of the United States, many Americans felt uneasy about her rather Native American appearance. Americans, thus, made Columbia fully European in these years.12 Her skin became white; her feathered headdress was taken away, sometimes replaced with a liberty cap; and, most importantly, she was fully clothed in a flowing Roman toga.
With Columbia now a fully clothed white lady, Americans were more comfortable with her becoming a lasting symbol of their new nation. Rather than representing the British colonies in the ‘wilds’ of America, Columbia now symbolized the United States of America, which could spread civilization across the continent. This 1872 painting shows this symbolism perfectly. As Columbia moves west, not only is she taking the physical border of the United States with her, but she is casting the light of American civilization into the darkness of Indian country. While clearly racist, it shows how Americans had adopted to the now centuries old figure of the goddess Columbia to meet their evolving sense of their nation’s place in the world.
Sources on the Goddess Columbia
- John Higham, “Indian Princess and Roman Goddess: The First Female Symbols of America,” American Antiquarian Society, 51.
- Higham, “Indian Princess and Roman Goddess: The First Female Symbols of America,” 50.
- Sameul Sewall quoted in Frank J. Cavaioli, “Columbus and the Name Columbia,” Italian Americana, vol. 11, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 1992): 10.
- Cavaioli, “Columbus and the Name Columbia,” 11.
- Cavaioli, “Columbus and the Name Columbia,” 14.
- Delno C. West and August Kling, “Columbus and Columbia: A Brief Survey of the Early Creation of the Columbus Symbol in American History,” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 12, no. 2 (1989): 48 and Cavaioli, “Columbus and the Name Columbia,” 11.
- Phillis Wheatley, “Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775,” founders.archives.gov.
- Higham, “Indian Princess and Roman Goddess: The First Female Symbols of America,” 55-57.