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10 Little Known National Personifications

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A national personification refers to the act of using a living or supposedly living creature to represent a country.

An example is Uncle Sam, who represents the United States. He dresses in US colors and is often used to depict the US in political cartoons.

National personifications could be used for propaganda or to just give people hope during times of war or natural disasters.

Likewise, they could be used by rivals of the countries to negatively depict the country.

 

10 The Bear, Russia

The bear is the national personification of Russia. It was also the national personification of the defunct Soviet Union.

The bear is a feature of Russian pagan beliefs and mythology, where it is associated with three goddesses: Mother Earth, Rusulka (the goddess of embroidery) and Baba Yaga (a witch and goddess of fertility).

Rusulka is sometimes depicted as a bear while Baba Yaga moves around with a bear.

In the 19th century, several British political cartoons negatively depicted Russia as a big, bad bear during a tense period when both countries engaged in serious rivalry over the colonization of Central Asia.

The image of the Russian bear did not fare well in the rest of Europe where it was viewed as a symbol of brutality and aggression.

It was used to evoke the feeling that Russia was a wild beast that needed to be put under control.

All these are contrary to Russia culture where bears are viewed as dull but friendly and protective animals.

Despite its negative attribution in Europe, the Soviet Union and later, Russia adopted the bear as its national identity.

Today, Russia is depicted as a bear even in the most pro-Russian cartoons. This is even when its perceived enemies are depicted as humans.

 

9 Miss Columbia, United States of America

Miss Columbia’s history could be traced to 1697 when Chief Justice Samuel Sewall wrote a poem suggesting Columbina as the name of the then British colonies that later became the United States.

Sewall formed the name by feminizing Christopher Columbus’s last name.

Seventy years later, an ex slave called Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem to General George Washington, where he referred to Columbina as Miss Columbia.

Miss Columbia was used in pro-American fashion during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and World War I.

She starred in political cartoons and in the song, Hail Columbia which was the unofficial national anthem of the United States until 1931 when it was replaced by The Star-spangled Banner.

Miss Columbia was sometimes used for less than ideal purposes like in 1920 when female members of the Ku Klux Klan used her during a protest.

However, her use went into decline during World War I and went into demise in the 1950s.

Some believe Miss Columbia went into decline because she was more suited for the colonies and not an independent United States.

Others think it was because she was more of a motherly figure, unlike the more aggressive Uncle Sam who became the ideal national personification after World War II.

A third theory suggests that Miss Columbia was superseded by Lady Liberty (used by courts of law) since both had similar characteristics.

This theory seems plausible since Miss Columbia never had a defined look and was often drawn as Lady Liberty.

 

8 John Bull, United Kingdom

John Bull first appeared in a series of cartoons titled The History of John Bull.

The cartoons were illustrated by Scottish doctor and satirist, John Arbuthnot, who depicted John Bull as a honest, bold and bad tempered man, just like the average Englishman.

John Bull is fat because fatness was attributed to good health at that time and his surname, Bull, was in reference to the Briton’s supposed love of meat.

John Bull wears a waistcoat made in the colors of the Union Jack and matches it with a tailcoat, a pair of breeches and a low topper hat. Sometimes, he is illustrated with a bulldog.

By 1762, other satirists had started using John Bull in their own cartoons.

During the Napoleonic Wars, John Bull appeared in several cartoons where he represented the average Englishman — who is ready to fight the French with his bare hands if it ever became necessary.

By the 1800s, John Bull had become more of a people’s person and was critical of the government.

His character frequently appeared in books and plays and his name was even used in the names of commercial products until he went into the decline in the 1950s.

 

7 Little Boy from Manly, Australia

In April 1885, a young boy wrote a letter to William Bebe Daley, the premier of New South Wales, offering his savings as a donation to the Australian army contingent that was preparing to sail to Sudan.

The donation was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald and was said to have been sent in by the Little Boy from Manly.

The Little Boy from Manly was actually 9-year-old Ernest Laurence, the son of Charles Laurence, a lawyer and former mayor of Australia’s Manly Council.

Cartoonist, Livingston Hopkins, sketched Ernest for The Bulletin, thus creating the image used for the boy till date.

Hopkins illustrated the Little Boy from Manly in series of political cartoons in response to national and international issues that concerned Australia.

Other artists joined the fad and started using the Little Boy from Manly to represent Australia after she gained independence.

 

6 Johnny Canuck, Canada

Johnny Canuck is the younger cousin of United States Uncle Sam and Britain’s John Bull.

He was created in 1869 and often featured in cartoons where he resisted being bullied by his two older cousins.

Johnny Canuck is often depicted as a lumberjack but is sometimes a farmer, rancher or soldier.

He was a staple of political cartoons for about thirty years after his creation but went into decline in the early 20th century.

Johnny Canuck returned in 1942 when cartoonist, Leo Bachle, recreated him as a teenage comic superhero. He was revamped as a superhero once again in 1975.

Today, Johnny Canuck is the unofficial logo and team mascot of Canada’s Vancouver Canucks.

 

5 Zé Povinho, Portugal

Unlike most other national personifications, Zé Povinho represents the masses and is very critical of the government. He was created by cartoonist, Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, in 1875.

Zé Povinho is usually depicted as a scapegoat who is always at the receiving end of any political misfortune.

In one cartoon, he was asking the Portuguese president why he needed to be the one to repay the country’s debt since he earned the minimum wage.

The president told him to pay up because he could not afford it even though he earned “just” €10,000 a week.

Zé Povinho does not always concentrate on criticizing the Portuguese government. He has also featured in cartoons targeted at international organizations.

When the Moody Corporation reduced Portugal’s credit rating in 2011, Zé Povinho was illustrated in a cartoon where he gave the corporation the manguito aka the Iberian slap — the Portuguese equivalent of the middle finger.

 

4 Zealandia, New Zealand

Zealandia has been used as the national personification of New Zealand since the late 19th century. She is said to be the daughter of Britain’s national personification, Britannia.

Zealandia is the inspiration for the lady on New Zealand’s coat of arms. She stands to the left of the shield, holding the flag of New Zealand.

On the coat of arms, Zealandia represents the non-indigenous citizens of New Zealand while a Māori warrior or chief on the right side of the shield represents the indigenous citizens.

She was also used in postage stamps, poetry, political cartoons and songs, and is the basis of the song “All Hail! Zealandia!”

Zealandia has not always been used in support of New Zealand’s indigenous whites alone.

At a time, she was the symbol of the Māori’s resistance to the injustice meted on them by Britain.

Despite this, her use went into decline in the early 20th century and many New Zealanders today do not know of her.

 

3 Britannia, Britain

Britannia is often illustrated as a warrior armed with a trident and a shield.

She is associated with the sea and even has her own sea themed song titled Britannia rules the waves.

Britannia has been used as the female personification of Britain since 43 AD when the Romans invaded and conquered Britain. At the time, the Romans called Britain, Britannia.

Britannia is modeled after Barati, a Phoenician water goddess that has existed for millenia.

The name Barati was derived from the Barat clan, who lived in Sumeria about 7,500 years ago. Barati means “belonging to the Barats”.

Other goddesses modeled after Barati are Bairthy of ancient Egypt, Brito-Martis of ancient Greece and Fortuna of ancient Rome.

In Britain, Britannia is revered as a symbol of unity, liberty and strength. Like Uncle Sam, her increases during difficult periods like wars.

She also appears on the logo of the Bank of England and has been featured in pennies used in the United Kingdom since 1797 until 2008.

However, it seems like Britannia is slowly leaving public consciousness as only one in four Britons recognize her.

 

2 Bharat Mata, India

The first documented use of the name, Bharat Mata, was in a satirical piece written in 1886.

However, there are claims that she first appeared in a play of the same name, which was performed in 1873.

What is not disputed is that the first drawing attributed to her was a 1905 painting by Abanindrinath Tagore, who illustrated her as a four handed goddess.

The drawing does not resemble the Bharat Mata of today because it was not supposed to be Bharat Mata. It was originally titled Banga Mata (“Mother Bengal”) but for some reasons, Tagore changed its name to Bharat Mata.

These days, Bharat Mata is illustrated as a two-handed goddess superimposed on a map of India. She holds an Indian flag and has a lion behind her.

There are speculations that her current look was inspired by Britain’s Britannia, who sometimes has a lion behind her.

Bharat Mata and the ensuing phrase “Bharat Mata ki Jai” remain controversial in India where members of parliaments are expected to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” while students are expected to write it on their admission forms.

Indian Muslims and Sikhs regard her as a Hindu idol and refuse to recognize her as a symbol of the nation. This has often led to violence.

 

1 Marianne, France

France’s Marianne is an offshoot of the goddess of Liberty. Her name was formed by combining two popular French names, Marie and Anne.

She first appeared in 1789 when she was used as the symbol of the first French Revolution.

Revolutionaries even wore the red Phrygian cap she also wore, as another symbol of their resistance.

The red Phrygian cap traces its origin to ancient Rome when slaves wore them to show that they were free.

When France became a republic in 1792, revolutionaries swapped all portraits of the king with that of Marianne. The portrait they used actually belonged to the goddess of Liberty.

The original Marianne looks more violent than today’s Marianne.

Then, she wore her red Phrygian cap atop a spike.

To her left was a bunch of sticks and an ax. This represented her ability to beat with the sticks and behead with an ax.

This should surprise no one. Over 40,000 people were beheaded in France after the revolution.

Marianne was improved to look less warrior-like and more motherly over the years.

A 1793 calendar showed her reading a book and surrounded by other symbols of knowledge.

These days, she represents a wife, mother and most importantly, a free woman.

However, she has no agreed look and has been and is still being modeled after several women, even if they are not French.

President François Hollande once had her modeled after Inna Shevchenko, an Ukrainian feminist.

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