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Phrygian cap

The Phrygian cap is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward, associated in antiquity with the peoples of Anatolia, whence the name "Phrygian", a province in central Asia Minor. In the western provinces of the Roman Empire it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty, perhaps through a confusion with the pileus, the manumitted slave's felt cap of ancient Rome. Accordingly, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap.



In Antiquity, the Phrygian cap had two connotations: for the Greeks as showing a distinctive Eastern influence of non-Greek "barbarism" (in the classical sense) and among the Romans as a badge of liberty. The Phrygian cap identifies Trojans such as Paris in vase-paintings and sculpture, and it is worn by the syncretic Hellenistic and Roman saviour god Mithras and by the Anatolian god Attis. The twins Castor and Pollux wear a superficially similar round cap called the pileus.

The Phrygian cap that was also worn by King Midas to hide the donkey ears given to him as a curse by Apollo, was first referred to in Aristophanes' Ploutos (388BC) but illustrated in vase-paintings a generation earlier.Lynn E. Roller, "The Legend of Midas", Classical Antiquity, 2.2 p. 305. Greeks were already picturing the people of Midas wearing the tall peaked caps before the earliest surviving literary sources: a mid-sixth century Laconian cup depicts the capture of Silenus at a fountain house, by armed men in Eastern costume and pointed caps.

In vase-paintings and other Greek art, the Phrygian cap serves to identify the Trojan hero Paris as non-Greek; Roman poets habitually use the epithet "Phrygian" to mean Trojan. The Phrygian cap can also be seen on the Trajan's Column carvings, worn by the Dacians, and on the Arch of Septimius Severus worn by the Parthians.

The Macedonian, Thracian, Dacian and 12th-century Norman military helmets had a forward peaked top resembling the Phrygian cap called Phrygian type helmets.

In late Republican Rome, the cap of freedmen served as a symbol of freedom from tyranny. A coin issued by Brutus in Asia Minor 4442 BC, showed one posed between two daggersAn example from the De Salis collection, in the British Museum, is noted by Jennifer Harris, "The Red Cap of Liberty: A Study of Dress Worn by French Revolutionary Partisans 1789-94" Eighteenth-Century Studies 14.3 p. 290, note 9. . During the Roman Empire, the Phrygian cap was worn on festive occasions such as the Saturnalia, and by former slaves who had been emancipated by their master and whose descendants were therefore considered citizens of the Empire. This usage is often considered the root of its meaning as a symbol of liberty.

Revolutionary icon

In revolutionary France the cap, the bonnet rouge, was first seen publicly in May 1790, at a festival in Troyes adorning a statue representing the nation, and at Lyon, on a lance carried by the goddess Libertas.Albert Mathiez, Les origines des cultes revolutionnaires, 1789-1792 .. To this day the national emblem of France, Marianne, is shown wearing a Phrygian capRichard Wrigley, "Transformations of a revolutionary emblem: The Liberty Cap in the french Revolution, French History 11(2) 1997:131-169..

In 1792, when Louis XVI was induced to sign a constitution, popular prints of the king were doctored to show him wearing the bonnet rouge. The bust of Voltaire was crowned with the red bonnet of liberty after a performance of his Brutus at the Comedie-Francaise in March 1792. The spire of the cathedral in Strasbourg was crowned with a bonnet rouge in order to prevent it from being torn down in 1794.

By wearing the red Phrygian cap the Paris sans-culottes made their Revolutionary ardour and plebeian solidarity immediately recognizable. During the period of the Great Terror, the cap was adopted defensively even by those who might be denounced as moderates or aristocrats and were especially keen to advertise their adherence to the new regime.

The cap was also incorporated into the symbol of the late 18th century Irish revolutionary organisation the Society of the United Irishmen. The English Radicals of 1819 and 1820 often wore a white "cap of liberty" on public occasions.

Use in American iconography

United States

The Phrygian cap has been used to symbolize liberty in numerous countries of the Americas. For example, starting in 1793 United States of America coinage frequently showed liberty wearing the cap or, on many 19th Century pieces, holding it on a Liberty Pole. The cap's last appearance on circulating coinage was the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, which was minted through 1947 (and reused on the current bullion American Silver Eagle). The U.S. Army has, since 1778, utilized a "War Office Seal" in which the motto "This We'll Defend" is displayed directly over a Phrygian cap on an upturned sword. It also appears on the state flags of West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, as well as the official seal of the United States Senate (left), the state of North Carolina and on the reverse side of the Seal of Virginia.

In 1854, when sculptor Thomas Crawford was preparing models for sculpture for the United States Capitol, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later to be the President of the Confederate States of America) insisted that a Phrygian cap not be included on a statue of Freedom on the grounds that, "American liberty is original and not the liberty of the freed slave"Gale, Robert L. (1964), Thomas Crawford: American Sculptor, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, p. 124. The cap was not included in the final bronze version that is now in the building.

The seal of Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, also contains a Liberty Cap. The college, endowed by Founding Father John Dickinson at the behest of Benjamin Rush, was the first to be chartered in the new Republic.

Latin America

Many of the anti-colonial revolutions in Mexico and South America were heavily inspired by the imagery and slogans of the American and French Revolutions. As a result, the cap has appeared on the coats of arms of many Latin American nations.

The cap had also been displayed on certain Mexican coins (most notably the old 8-reales coin) through the late 19th century into the mid-20th century. Today, it is featured on the coats of arms or national flags of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia, Haiti, Cuba, Bolivia and Paraguay.

The Phrygian cap in Latin American coats of arms

Coat of arms of Argentina

Coat of arms of Bolivia

Coat of arms of Colombia

Coat of arms of Cuba

Coat of arms of El Salvador

Coat of arms of Haiti

Coat of arms of Nicaragua

Reverse side of the Flag of Paraguay

Literary and popular culture references

Washington Irving propounded the surprise of his famous protagonist, Rip Van Winkle, by noting among the unexpected details of the re-awakened Rip's newly post-revolutionary village a "tall naked pole, with something on it that looked like a red night cap..."

The revolutionist protagonists of Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress often wear a liberty cap. It is referred to exclusively as such. It becomes a fashion article at one point, and is once placed on a telephone terminal open to the A.I. character "Mike."

The popular comic / cartoon characters The Smurfs, are famous for their white Phrygian caps. Their leader, Papa Smurf, wears a red one, with other Smurf characters that wear "differently" styled hats, usually still having the Phrygian cap as the crown of their unique headgear.

Cornish piskies wear Phrygian caps symbolising proto-Celtic origins and magical powers in Mystic Rose - Celtic Fire by Toney Brooks.

The song Then She Appeared by rock group XTC contains the line "Dressed in tricolour and Phrygian cap"

See also


Liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata)

Pileus (hat)

Liberty pole

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