Not many of us know that a goddess stood behind our founding fathers in America’s struggle for independence. And she has served as a national symbol ever since then, which continues to irritate some religious conservatives. These days when questions about the role of religion in our society have become especially acute, on this July 4th it is timely to remember the mythology of our nation’s goddess.
Lady Liberty’s name comes from the Roman goddess Libertas, but she had a Greek precursor, the goddess Eleutheria (meaning “freedom” or “liberty” in Greek). Zeus in his role as protector of political freedom also was known as Zeus Eleutherios (“Zeus the Liberator”), in whose name a stoa at the Agora in Athens was built after deliverance from the Persians. Eleutheria was actually an epithet of Artemis, for whom we have much mythology, but no mythology in her aspect as Eleutheria survives, only her face on some coins.
The mythology of Libertas is richer. She rose to national prominence in connection with the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE. She was venerated by and was a symbol of the Junia family, which was instrumental in overthrowing Rome’s last king, the tyrannical Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. After the overthrow of the kingship, resentful nobles hatched a plot to regain power, but it was foiled by Vindicus, a slave of one of these noble families (the Vitellii) who reported the plot to the Senate, and so the new Republic was saved. In due course several temples were built in honor of Libertas and her face appeared on coins, but unfortunately none of the temples or any statues to her have survived.
Having escorted the Republic into being, her role then evolved into one of overseeing the manumission of slaves. In the city of Rome, the master would take his slave before the Temple of Liberty, where a Roman official pronounced the slave free while touching him with a rod called the vindicta, in honor of Vindicus. The freedman then cut his hair and received from his former master a white robe and a cap of white wool resembling a beehive. Accordingly, the symbols of Libertas became a rod (or pole) surmounted by the cap, a broken scepter (symbolizing the overthrow of monarchy), and a cat (symbolizing watchfulness).
The continents and many countries are represented by allegorical female figures. After North America was discovered and was being settled by Europeans, it came to be symbolized by a mythical Native-American figure known as the Indian Queen. In the early portrayals, she was a portly, matronly figure depicted in the abundant nature of America, which reflected the European fascination with the exotic New World. As tensions between Great Britain and her American colonies grew, the Queen morphed into the younger, thinner, Indian Princess, who sported a feathered headdress and skirt, whose complexion was lighter, and who took on a martial profile as both representation and protector of the colonists against the King and his own female protector, Britannia (see illustration immediately below).
(Above: Engraving from 1774, from Britain but pro-American, entitled Liberty Triumphant. It shows the Indian Princess leading the Sons of Liberty, crying “Aid me, and prevent my being fetter’d.” Clements Library, Univ. of Michigan.)
Over the course of the American Revolution and its aftermath Liberty came to supersede the Indian Princess in her role. This was made possible because Liberty had enjoyed a revival in Europe (especially during the Dutch struggle against Spain and their assuming a republican form of government) and crossed the Atlantic. Thus, when the Stamp Act was repealed, people in New York celebrated by erecting a ship’s mast as a Liberty Pole, which was an outgrowth of Libertas’s vindicta. In Boston, Paul Revere struck a coin portraying Liberty seated on a globe holding her rod in one hand and scales on the other, with her cat at her feet, and around the edge the words “Goddess Liberty”; on the reverse side was Janus (his two faces representing Whigs and Tories) the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, the future and the past, doors and passages. She was also featured on early designs of our Great Seal.
The female figure of Columbia also became a nickname for America, starting even before the revolution. She was an evolution from Lady Liberty, likewise holding the rod with cap, but by the end of the 18th century the only evidence of the link with Liberty was the Phrygian cap, a symbol in the French Revolution (by which time Liberty’s own cap had changed to this as well). She appeared in names, such as the District of Columbia, Columbia University, Columbia the capital of South Carolina, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and Columbia Pictures. After the erection of the Statue of Liberty, that image gradually superseded Columbia (look at the symbol of Columbia Pictures!), and she had all but disappeared by the 1920s.
In the mid-19th century when the U.S. Capitol was being rebuilt, a statue was needed atop its new dome. For this the sculptor Thomas Crawford designed a bronze statue of a female allegorical figure largely the same as Liberty/Columbia, called the Statue of Freedom (or Armed Freedom, or Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace), which is nearly 20 feet tall. In Crawford’s original design she held a rod reminiscent of the vindicta and wore the liberty cap, originally that of liberated slaves in Rome and which had been adopted with alternations by American and French revolutionaries. But in charge of the Capitol’s reconstruction was the southerner Jefferson Davis, who would later become President of the Confederacy. He rejected the cap as an affront to slaveholders, although in his official explanation his argument was that such a symbol was “inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.” In Crawford’s revised design, she became more martial in appearance, holding a sheathed sword instead of a rod and wearing a military helmet reminiscent of Minerva (see illustration left). The helmet, which featured an eagle’s head and a feather arrangement, and also her robe fringed with fur, were also designed to recall Native American motifs. When the statue was ready to be installed in 1863, it was symbolically hoisted (in pieces) by former slaves.
The goddess most famously appears in the statute entitled Liberty Enlightening the World, now known simply as the Statue of Liberty. The idea was hatched in 1865 as the American Civil War was ending. At a dinner party in Paris two Freemasons and abolitionists, the law professor and historian of America Édouard René de Laboulaye and the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, together floated the idea of providing a gift to the American people on the centennial of American independence, to which France’s friendship had been key. But what shape this gift would take and when it would be created was delayed by two events. One was the Franco-Prussian war, but in the end its result was the downfall of the repressive regime of Napoleon III (who supported the Confederacy), followed by efforts to establish a stable new republic, which might benefit from American support. The other was Bartholdi’s project to build a lighthouse in Egypt at the entrance to the Suez Canal, which was nearing completion. For that he designed a statue of a woman holding a torch aloft, much like the Statue of Liberty. But when that project fell through in 1869 Bartholdi turned his attention to providing a similar monument for America. In 1871 he traveled here to drum up support, and he succeeded. Freemasons were active on both sides of the ocean in funding and organizing the project.
Bartholdi’s design was a reworking of his earlier Suez vision, but this time the lady was Liberty, who by then had long been staple symbol in both America and France. Also, her traditional connection with the freeing of slaves was especially fitting in the aftermath of the Civil War. She was dedicated on October 28, 1886, in a Masonic ceremony. Some religious conservatives at the time objected to a pagan goddess serving in such a role. One commentator, writing in the American Catholic Quarterly Review in 1880 (vol. 5, pp. 587-97), objected to the erection of this “idol of a heathen goddess . . . holding her torch to proclaim that mankind receives true light, not from Christ and Christianity, but from heathenism and its gods.”
Our embracing the goddess Liberty, however, stems not from religious motives (pagan or otherwise), but from a neoclassicist revival and our embracing classical ideals of civil liberty and the freeing of slaves that she best represented. She deserves a place in the symbolism of our nation and its holiday, and as we celebrate it we should be thinking about the ideals that she embodies. And if you happen to visit Paris, stop by the replica of the Statue of Liberty on the Ile aux Cygnes. It is one of many replicas in Paris and around the world.
I wish to thank my wife Elena (my own goddess) for inspiring and helping with this post.
© Arthur George 2015