If you were to ask the average American which mythical figure best represents the national character, most would reply with a household name: Uncle Sam. The genial yet intimidating patriarch has dominated artistic and poetic descriptions of the American nation-state for a hundred years.
However there is another, more deeply ingrained avatar of the American populace, the omnipresent Columbia. Most famously depicted as the Statue of Liberty , upon which is inscribed Emma Lazarus’ poem reproduced above, Columbia was the mythical figure adopted by the founding generation of the early United States. After the defeat of the British in 1783, America found itself free from international harassment and a wide open frontier of unknowable bounty. What was needed was an icon, a symbol by which to galvanize and direct the consciousness of the American people. By the late 1790’s, Columbia was born. Columbia quickly became the patron saint of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine of westward expansion embraced with genocidal fervor by the pioneers and politicians alike.
Columbia’s figure appears on or within many state and federal buildings constructed in the 19th century, usually cast in bronze and often pointing or facing West. She adorns the Wisconsin Capitol building, sculpted by the same Daniel Chester French who constructed the greatest rendition of Columbia in history, the 65-foot-tall Statue of the Republic commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. She reposes atop the Texas Capitol holding the sword of Justice and raising aloft a blazing golden star. She lends her name to numerous towns across America, she is the patron of Columbia University and the seat of governmental power stands in a district built in her honor: The District of Columbia.
Columbia as a symbol is far too complex and deeply-rooted to be ascribed as a creation of political machinations. Columbia is only the latest name given to a goddess who is older than recorded history and can be traced in her modern form to the early Egyptian dynasties. She has been known throughout history variously as Inanna and Ishtar by the Sumerians, Kali by the Hindus, Freya by the Norse and most notably as Isis by the ancient Egyptians. She is the goddess of love, wisdom, warfare and destiny and is venerated by all cultures as the mother of civilization. In the original
Egyptian telling of her tale, Isis is also the goddess of magic, friend of slave and aristocrat by equal measure. It was Isis that kept the veil of night cloaked about the light of wisdom and it was her name invoked in the rites and rituals of the numerous fertility cults that sprang up along the banks of the Nile. The pentagram, or five-pointed star, the primary symbol of magical and initiatory societies across the world, is the shape traced in the heavens by the transit of the planet Venus throughout the year. In this Roman context the parallels between Isis and the western conception of the Virgin Goddess in her myriad forms become starkly apparent.
She has also enjoyed considerable veneration throughout history as a figurehead of Freemasonry or as Manly Palmer Hall put it, “The Virgin of The World”. Numerous Masonic writers have expounded lengthy treatises on the Masonic symbolism inherent in the legend of Isis, it being so closely tied to the inner curriculum of Masonry. In the pre-Christian Mystery traditions, Wisdom was always depicted as feminine. In Greece, Wisdom was personified as Athena, Goddess of Knowledge and Crafts. The seven liberal arts are given female representations and the nine Muses invoked by countless artisans and artists are all of female form. For an organization with an historical opposition to the admittance of women, Freemasonry has an oddly persistent fascination with feminine representations of their Craft.
It is often acknowledged that many, if not most, of the founding figures of early America were Freemasons. Could it be that this small group of men, working with the vast repository of Masonic symbolism, crafted a symbol to forge a specific path forward into the future? Is it coincidence that Columbia led the waves of settlers of the New World from ‘sea to shining sea’, transporting the light of civilization from its birth on the Eastern horizon to its maturity in the West? Though she has been subsumed in popular understanding by the withered visage of Uncle Sam, Columbia keeps constant vigil from the forgotten and overlooked corners of American history and geography, a testament to a different time. She may remain cloaked behind the veil she draws so closely to her breast yet the light of her torch still burns for those with eyes to see.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
~ Emma Lazarus, 1883