On July 4, Independence Day is celebrated with American flags, fireworks, and images of Uncle Sam. Do other countries have their own national personifications, too?
Yes. Uncle Sam’skin generally fall into two categories: Personifications of a nation itself and personifications of its people. Personifications of Western nations tend to be beautiful women in the model of Athena, clad in robes, often carrying a sword, and surrounded by national symbols. Marianne, the embodiment of France, is one of the best known, as is the female figure Brittania. Popular personifications, meanwhile, tend to capture the national character. England’s John Bull, for example, supposedly represents the British everyman: a stout, middle-aged yeoman with common sense and a suspicion of authority. Same with Germany’s Deutscher Michel, a simple man usually depicted wearing a nightcap as a symbol of innocence. Zé Povinho, Portugal’s working-class everyman, mocks the elites. Uncle Sam is a special case: He’s not exactly the personification of America—that would be the goddess-like Columbia, who first appeared during the Revolutionary War—nor does he represent the people. Rather, he stands in for the U.S. government.
Each character has its own origin story, but most turn up first during wartime. The term “Uncle Sam” began as a reference to the United States government during the war of 1812, but the image of an old man with a goatee was popularized by the famous World War I recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg. (Uncle Sam and John Bull appeared together for decades in political cartoons in both countries.) France’s Marianne emerged during the French Revolution as a symbol of reason and liberty. Bharat Mata, a sari-clad mother goddess who symbolizes India, was born during that country’s independence movement in the 19th century.
Personifications are often surrounded by other national symbols, too. Italia Turrita, the womanly representation of Italy, wears a “mural crown” symbolizing the country’s great cities and holds ears of corn that symbolize its agrarian tradition. Germania’s crown of oak leaves supposedly represents heroism, her sword symbolizes power, and the hemp branch means peace. Britannia often appears above waves, emphasizing the nation’s geography.
Some personifications have strong political associations. Ireland, for example, was long represented as Hibernia by pro-union Brits, who depicted her as the helpless younger sister of Brittania. Irish nationalists, meanwhile, would use Kathleen Ni Houlihan, an old woman who needs to be protected from the British colonists. Srulik, the adorable young cartoon character who came to represent the state of Israel in the 1950s, was seen as a repudiation of the anti-Semitic drawings that depicted the country as a conniving old man. Handala, the iconic cartoon symbol of the Palestinians, is depicted facing away with his hands behind his back.
They also interact. Mother Russia, for example, was famously depicted leading Marianne and Britannia into battle during WWI. The 19th-century alliance between Italy and Germany was consecrated in a painting by Johann Friedrich Overbeck that shows the two women Italia and Germania nuzzling. *
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.