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Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

To celebrate the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the national symbol of the United States and the original alternatives contemplated by the founding fathers (a post which was awesome since it was filled with turkeys, rattlesnakes, killer whales, and eagles).  This year, I concentrate on a national mascot whom we all feel much more ambivalent about.  I am talking, of course, about the somewhat awkward and unsettling figure of Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

The concept of Uncle Sam as a fictional stand-in for the government of the United States emerged during the War of 1812 when a meat supplier stamped his meat crates with “U.S.” and soldiers joked that this meant came from “Uncle Sam” (in fact “Uncle Sam” is mentioned in the Revolutionary-era song “Yankee Doodle” but it is unclear if he is a symbol of the nation or just, you know, somebody’s uncle).   By 1816 Uncle Sam was the subject of humorous political tracts and by the time of the civil war he was a universally known representation of the United States government.   Uncle Sam is traditionally portrayed as a thin patrician man with a snow white chin beard.  He is dressed in a stars & stripe suit complete with an American flag themed hat.  The comic portentousness of the figure has made Uncle Sam popular with America’s supporters and detractors both—so one might see him waving a flag and marching in a patriotic parade in Texas (as at the top) or on Iranian government broadsheets deviously backstabbing the Iranian people for oil.  For example, here he is, portrayed as Yama, devouring the entire world through consumer culture and war.


For a time Uncle Sam stood only for the government whereas the citizenry itself was represented by Brother Jonathan, a long-winded New England tradesman in a frock coat and striped pants (Brother Jonathan himself had begun as a symbol of New England, but gradually came to represent the whole nation).   By mid-nineteenth century Brother Jonathan was subsumed into Uncle Sam, who has remained more-or-less the same since that time (though sometimes he bulks up in muscle or in flab—depending on the cartoonist’s agenda).

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Uncle Sam is frequently bowdlerized to sell cigars, financial vehicles, petrol, or what-have-you.  During the golden age of comics, Uncle Sam even became a sort of nightmarish DC comic book hero: he was an extra-temporal super ghost (summoned by the founding  fathers) who possessed dying patriots with superhuman powers in order to fight fascists and pirates…or something.  Frankly, the concept may have needed some work.

Excuse me?

Excuse me, but, what?

Uncle Sam is used by too many people for too many reasons, and he is just not as magnificent as an Eagle.  Even at his best, he is rather clownlike and awkward.  Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, America was represented by Columbia, a beautiful warrior goddess with a Phrygian cap and a bustier spangled with stars!  Curses!  How did we trade down to end up with a Jefferson Davis lookalike dressed like a pimp?

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business...

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business…

Looking even further back, Columbia herself even seems to be a rip-off of Britannia, the trident-wielding, Minerva-hatted, warrior goddess who has been a symbol of Britain’s suzerainty since Roman times.  Both Cousin Jonathan and Uncle Sam seem like line-extensions of the immensely popular John Bull.  Maybe the idea of personifying nations as people is flawed.  Having a frightening mascot in a strange primary color costume might be the right thing for a minor-league baseball team, but it ill-becomes the glory and complexity of our nation.  Perhaps we should just stick with the majestic eagle which cannot be made to look so absurd….

No!  Darn it!

No! Darn it!

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death.   The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep).  Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being.  He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child.  Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch.  Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase,  Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase, Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood.  The Keres represented violent senseless death.  They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities.  The Keres were associated with  the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it.  Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments.  When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood.  Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:

The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
(verses 248-257)

Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind.  The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat.  The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure kraterca. 4th century B.C.)

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure krater
ca. 4th century B.C.)

The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon.  Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition.  Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed.  However they were a part of classical thought.  It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld.  The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.keres

In the Northern Hemisphere today is the first day of winter.  As always, this change of season occurs on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Last night was actually the longest evening of the year—so I suppose we can now look forward to the gradual return of the sun bit by bit (even as the weather worsens for the true cold of January and February).

To celebrate winter (admittedly my least favorite season), here is a gallery of winter personifications.  Each wears an icy crown and most of them look cold, haughty, indifferent, or cruel.  I am including these ice kings and queens under Ferrebeekeeper’s mascot category even though they are not really cheering for a team or a product.  “Personification” seems close enough to the definition of mascot to ensure that I won’t get in trouble from WordPress (although, as ever, I invite any comments or aeguments below).

Snow Queen (by Vladislav Erko)

Winter King and Queen (Source unknown)

Old fashioned cartoon Ice Monarch

Katy Perry? How did you get in my blog and why are you dressed as queen of winter?

Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз) “Grandfather Frost” plays a similar gift-giving role to Santa Clause in Slavic Cultures

Title Character from “The Snow Queen” by Birmingham Repertory Theatre

The Ice King, a villain from “Adventuretime” on Cartoon Network

The Ice Princess Tatiana from Dolphin Mall in Miami.  She looks like she’s saying “I don’t know where you parked your car.”

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch of Narnia (possible pretender to the throne of winter)

“snow king” card

A snow queen halloween costume available for sale online

From the Illamasqua Art-of-Darkness makeup collection (click for link)

I would hang around and make some funny comments about all of the monarchs of winter but all of the white hair and piercing eyes are starting to weird me out a little (to say nothing of Katy Perry’s vacuous stare).  Have you ever noticed how summer, spring, and fall are not represented as maniacal tyrants with wicked crowns?  I’m looking forward to getting back to those other seasons.  In the mean time have a wonderful winter!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2023