Powers need not be ancient to be venerable. Because we Pagans frequently seek out ancient sources for our spiritual inspiration, we may ignore the more modern concepts that can bring the same. For some time now, Columbia — as represented by the Statue of Freedom which rests on top of the US Capitol building — has had a place on my altar. I work with her as the goddess of America and as the genius loci of this land.
When I started the Pagan Blog Project, I sort of decided that I wasn’t going to use any letters to talk about specific powers that I work with. I realize, though, that I tend to reach for powers that others may not and therefore sharing how and why I work with them may be of interest to others. Especially with respect to Columbia, because of her more recent personification, and with Eris, because of her darker connotations and history, I think it’s important for me to share my thinking as to why these powers speak to me. Hell, if even one other Erisian out there who’s also Pagan reads that article (when it’s online in a few weeks) and realizes that they’re not “doing it wrong,” it’ll be worth it. But, I digress.
Columbia as a name for America was first encountered in the 1700′s. At that time, it was common for various European countries to use Latin names to describe themselves (e.g. Gallia for France, Britannia for Britain, Caledonia for Scotland, Hibernia for Ireland, etc.) and the American colonists did the same. It was even used during the coronation of George III (you know, the one that found us revolting) in a poem:
Behold, Britannia! in thy favour’d Isle;
At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
The prince referenced therein being the newly crowned king. The term, in other words, had become accepted as a reference to the colonies prior to the revolution.Columbia has a history rife with contradiction. She’s connected to ideas of liberty, justice, and freedom, but she was also used as an image for the manifest destiny of the American nation to reach from sea to shining sea ignoring, of course, the fact that many, many people already lived there. In the painting to the right, you can even see that as she leads settlers westward, she brings the light of American progress into lands shrouded by darkness. While this was likely a foundational and uplifting message to the settlers, I suspect the Native Americans whose land we took had a different view of things.
Even the Statue of Freedom became contentious during it’s development. It was being created in the mid 1850′s before the American Civil War. At this time, Jefferson Davis — later the president of the Confederacy but currently a Senator from Mississippi and the Secretary of War — was in charge of the Capitol building’s construction. The original design of the statue had not an eagle-feathered helmet but a Phrygia cap which was seen in ancient Rome as a symbol of the pursuit of liberty and freedom and was also connected with the emancipation of Roman slaves. The sculptor was from the North and Secretary Davis felt that the cap was too strongly connected to abolitionist ideals. He (unfortunately) demanded that the design be changed to what we see today.
I believe in a process theology. This means that I see divinity not as an unchanging, perfect ideal but rather something that shifts and changes with the times. For me, I attribute this shifting and changing as a process similar to evolution, but the comparison is a problem considering that we don’t tend to see our powers as having generations that would give rise to genetically superior mutations within a species, but again, I digress.
Part of this theology informs me that new ideas and concepts can be elevated to divine status in an apotheosis-like way. Columbia was never a specific person who became divine, as apotheosis would technically require, but the ideals she represents are timeless. You could say that she is but the modernized, Americanized version of Libertas, and I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you. But, I think her quality as an American goddess separates her from that Roman one.
For my part, I see her as something like an older sister. I feel like she relates to us with something that’s one part rueful acceptance of our faults and another part hopeful. She can see the long arc of history bending toward justice over our nation’s history, and I choose to believe that we can reach out to her for guidance as we navigate the tumultuous waters of American civil life.