Britannia, Marianne, & Columbia

In Christian liturgy there is an often-used salutation, ‘The Lord be with you’, and the congregation responds, ‘And also with you.’ Of course, English Christian liturgy is by and large derived from the Catholic Latin liturgy. The salutation in Latin is ‘pax vobis’, meaning ‘peace to you’. The greeting is often called, simply, ‘The Pax’. The word ‘Pax’, recurs in the Latin interpretation of the Gospels, which became the standard version, and Latin the standard language of the Church during the fourth century. ‘Pax’, however, is not simply a word which invokes the concept of peace, it goes deeper than that. Pax was a Roman goddess, the Roman goddess of Peace. And so ‘Pax’ is a word which invokes the personification of peace and all that entails: in peacetime there is social harmony, there’s prosperity (because trade can be conducted freely), and ‘Pax’ is also closely associated with the feminine or maternal spirit, for in peacetime things can be nurtured into life - new life can come forth - and as such ‘Pax’ is also closely associated with the season of Spring.

Within the pantheon of Roman gods, there is an interrelationship between the gods, an interrelationship which invokes an unconscious association between one personified concept and another, much like archetypes have an association. One God (or goddess in this case) associated with Pax, is Concordia. Concordia is the goddess who embodies, well, ‘Concord’ - the virtue of agreement between parties, between statesmen perhaps, or between spouses. And so it was, that in times of social unrest, social disharmony, Roman senators would gather together in Temples of Concordia to reaffirm their essential like-mindedness, their essential commitment to the majority of things which they (and society at large) held together in agreement, as opposed to the few, hot-button issues of the day which caused amongst them (and society) discord. Perhaps London should consider building itself a Temple to Concordia. I think we could do with one. And then a third Roman goddess, worth bringing in and considering, is Libertas, or Liberty, who is often associated in the Roman Empire with the freeing of slaves. This was represented by her holding out a Pileus, a felt cap, which was then given to a slave as a sign that they were now free.

So, here we have three ideas: peace, agreement, and liberty, being personified as Roman goddesses. And in being personified, as I’ve shown, they take on a much richer set of suggestive associations than the mere concepts do in and of themselves. And this points more generally to the richer, more suggestive nature of older languages. It was not possible to use a word like peace, agreement, or liberty, without drawing in this rich set of associations. It was common to represent ideas as gods or goddesses, and it was also common to personify abstract entities or geographical spaces as gods or goddesses as well. And it's these geographic or national personifications into gods or goddesses, which is the topic of my address this morning.

Roman Britannia

In the first Century BC, two legions led by Emperor Julius Caesar invaded Britain. In the following centuries they conquered the South of England, the West, and then on up into Northern England where Emperor Hadrian built his wall. They actually did go further up into Scotland as well. They attempted to build a second wall across the central belt of Scotland, roughly between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but it proved too difficult to defend and they pulled back. The Latin name for Roman Britain was Britannia, which did not refer to the whole of Great Britain, but only Roman Britain. As early as the second century, Roman Britannia came to be personified as a goddess, armed with a trident and shield, and wearing an ancient Greek helmet. Since then, the use of this personification has waxed and waned. Its use increased from the reign of Elisabeth I onwards - the goddess made an appearance on the farthing in 1672, and became increasingly important as a symbol of accord with the constitutional unification of England and Scotland in 1707.

The goddess Britannia has such a rich set of suggestive associations that are ever evolving, that it’s difficult to encapsulate her in a few words. There’s a 19th Century painting, by the Scottish artist William Dyce, that frames her persona well. The painting shows Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea, passing his crown to Britannia, the obvious inference being, now Britannia rules the waves. She stands there looking out into the sea, one hand holding up her trident, the other resting upon a lion. She is steadfast, a protector, representing naval superiority in the defence of her people, a people whom she looks over in a maternal fashion, invoking some of those other Roman virtues I previously mentioned - Pax, Concordia, Libertas - a symbol of British liberty and democracy. She became a particularly prominent figure during World Wars I & II, a propaganda tool, calling people throughout the Empire to rally forth.

The French counterpart to Britannia is the goddess Marianne. Marianne is historically much younger; she emerged as a symbol of the Republic during the French Revolution in the late 18th Century. Although unlike Britannia, she is much more singular in what she represents. She is a symbol of Liberty. So much so, that she can be directly paralleled with the Roman Libertas. If you think about the emergence of Marianne in Jungian terms, you could frame her as the spirit of Libertas being so repressed, so held down for centuries under European monarchies generally, and by King Louis XVI in particular, that all that pent up psychical energy bubbling away under the surface within the collective unconscious of the French landscape and people, all that energy, pent up, had to be ejected. And of course, forcefully, in a bloody way, it certainly was. Paralleling this is what happened in the American colonies. Again, there Libertas exploded onto the scene with fury, in that instance manifesting as the goddess Columbia, which I’ll come onto. So, what’s perhaps interesting in these observations, is we may have naturally regarded these goddesses of which I’ve been speaking as historical curiosities, but nothing more than that, but I would suggest that these goddesses were and are in fact real, and by real, I mean efficacious. They have a tangible effect upon reality, for indeed if they did not, why would these goddesses have been invoked in times of war?

‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delacroix

And yet today, Britannia, Marianne, and Columbia are waning in their significance, they’re disappearing as national symbols around which we rally, which is an interesting phenomena itself. Why might this be I wonder? I suspect it's because we’re in this new historical epoch known as the information age, and in the information age, an informed person does not possess an abstracted notion of the United Kingdom, the French Republic, or the United States. An informed person should know, they should know what the headline issues in those countries are, and who the leaders in those countries are, and if they don’t know, well in two seconds they can pull out their phone and find out. And the consequence of this is, when they do think of the United States for instance, what comes to mind for them is not an abstracted notion of that country. What comes to mind is the often divisive issues that they’ve just read about that week, whatever they may be, and the current sitting president, whomever that may be. And I believe this is very unfortunate. It gives them and us a very narrow, transitory, and fickle lens upon things.

I, like most of us I imagine, have been thinking about the cultural/political division in the West we have been reading so much about lately. I have said little on the subject, because it’s a problem which is not served by invoking shallow or partisan words. It’s a problem which needs our slow, introspective appreciation. And I just wonder if these goddesses of which I speak this morning may have something to say. What they represent is not the political psychodramas of the given week, but the far less transitory character of a nation. If only we could rediscover our common accord and reverence for our respective geographical gods, then perhaps we would gain some perspective, and see the divisive issues of our day in an appropriate light. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

In 1822, the young 19 year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson, having already graduated from Harvard, though not yet undertaken his training at the Divinity School to become a minister, was working in his older brother’s all-girls finishing school in Massachusetts, and, perhaps not surprisingly, he found the work deeply tiresome. He was far more invested, not in the work he was supposed to be doing, but rather in his own personal journals. Emerson’s journals, which he kept diligently every day over a sixty-year period, are really the crowning jewel of Emerson’s accomplishment, more important, many scholars would argue, than any of his sermons or essays that he would later write. His journal acted as a sort of testing ground for where he was able to record his observations, express himself freely, and draw unlikely parallels between ideas. Sometimes he would simply record what he read on any given day. In those journals he was able to unfold ideas, not necessarily knowing if they would lead him anywhere, just as an exercise of play and discovery. And I often think that’s what I’m doing up here. I’m exploring ideas, not really knowing at the offset if what comes together in the end will be something that I’m either happy with, or will resonate and stick with you all. It’s essentially a process of play. Sometimes edifying, sometimes not.

Anyway, 1822 working in this girls’ finishing school, he took a blank notebook, and began a new project. He titled the book the ‘Spirit of America.’ This was less than fifty years after the Declaration of Independence had been signed. In almost archetypal terms he describes [quote] “a living soul, which doth exist somewhere beyond the Fancy, to whom the Divinity hath assigned the care of this bright corner of the Universe.” Though he does not name her, he’s talking of the goddess Columbia. America’s newly emergent protectress of Liberty and Peace. His belief was that there is this vast force in America, beyond the superficial layer of things, and poetry and literature is needed for her energy to be channelled. He imagines a future in which America would be guided by her spirit.

‘American Progress’ (1872) by John Gast. Depicting Columbia and Western migration, towards America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’.

In Emerson’s life at the time, he was torn between his two callings, his calling to be a Unitarian minister, reinforced by his family’s long legacy, a nearly unbroken chain of ministers going back six generations, and his calling to be a poet/scholar, to approach the spirit behind nature, Columbia, and champion her cause. And of course, although he did have a brief ministry with the Unitarians, it’s that deeper yearning to bring about a fresh cultural and literary revolution in the States which is his enduring legacy. Emerson was certainly not the first to write of a personified America in this sense. That goes back to the 16th Century, when Europe first became aware of the Americas being out there. Then, however, she was personified as a wild woman, for the lands were untamed. In time though her image evolved. First when America was a British colony, she took on a persona somewhere between Britannia and Libertas, but as war was declared and America gained her independence, she unsurprisingly shed her similarities with Britannia, and became like Marianne another expression of Libertas, though with a Yankee flare. Columbia endured as a symbol throughout the 19th Century, until France gifted The Statue of Liberty, which more or less superseded Columbia. Although you could understand the statue of Liberty to be Columbia (she certainly would have influenced the design), she is more a straightforward expression of Roman Libertas.

These goddesses, encapsulating the essence of geographical place, seem to me, as I’ve been suggesting, a live phenomena. A tangible reality, that if taken seriously may allow us as individuals and society more broadly to not be swept up into the 24 hour news cycle, and whatever shallow drama is unfolding on the Western stage, but recognise the gradual evolving nature of things. Her betterment is not advanced with political point scoring in any given week, her betterment unfolds over eons. It unfolds with the evolution of ideas, with the gradual reorientation of priorities. It takes continuity of action and belief, it takes collective action, and sweeping shifts in sentiment. That way, as we look to her betterment, this land’s betterment, the ecological question, and the intellectual and spiritual health of a nation, we see, not in terms of our time, but in terms of hers.


Lewis Connolly