Phrygian cap

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the Illyrian headgear. For the medical term, see Phrygian cap (anatomy).
Bust of Attis wearing a Phrygian cap (Parian marble, 2nd century AD).

The Phrygian cap is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward, associated in antiquity with the inhabitants of Phrygia, a region of central Anatolia. In early modern Europe it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty, through a confusion with the pileus, the felt cap of manumitted (emancipated) slaves of ancient Rome. Accordingly, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap; in artistic representations it signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty.



Paris of Troy wearing a Phrygian cap. Marble, Roman artwork from the Hadrianic period (117-138 CE).

For the ancient Greeks, the Phrygian cap indicates non-Greek "barbarism" (in the classical sense).[1] The Phrygian cap identifies Trojans such as Paris in vase-paintings and sculpture, and it is worn by the syncretic Persian saviour god Mithras and by the Anatolian god Attis who were later adopted by Romans and Hellenic cultures. The twins Castor and Pollux wear a superficially similar round cap called the pileus.

The Phrygian cap is sometimes associated with the headdress that was worn by King Midas to hide the donkey ears given to him as a curse by Apollo, although according to Ovid, Midas hid his ears beneath a purple turban.[2] Phrygians, however, were shown wearing the distinctive cap in illustrations on Greek vases,[3] and such images predate the earliest surviving literary sources: a mid-6th-century Laconian cup depicts the capture of Silenus at a fountain house, by armed men in Eastern costume and pointed caps.[4]

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.

In the later parts of Roman history, the god Mithras — whose worship was widespread until suppressed by Christianity — was regularly portrayed as wearing a Phrygian cap, fitting with his being perceived as a Persian god who had "come out of the East".

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

In late Republican Rome, pileus, the cap of freedmen served as a symbol of freedom from tyranny. A coin issued by Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger in Asia Minor 44–42 BC, showed one posed between two daggers[5][6] During the Roman Empire, the pileus was worn on festive occasions such as the Saturnalia, and by emancipated slaves, whose descendants were consequently considered citizens of the Empire. In early modern Europe, pileus was confused with the Phrygian cap. This is often considered the root of its meaning as a symbol of liberty.

Revolutionary icon[edit]

French revolutionaries wearing Phrygian caps and tricolor cockades

In revolutionary France, the cap or 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.[7] To this day the national emblem of France, Marianne, is shown wearing a Phrygian cap.[8] The caps were often knitted by women known as Tricoteuse, who sat beside the guillotine during public executions in Paris and supposedly continued knitting in between executions.[9]

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.[10] The bust of Voltaire was crowned with the red bonnet of liberty after a performance of his Brutus at the Comédie-Française in March 1792. The spire of Strasbourg Cathedral 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 Reign of 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 coat of arms of Haiti, a country established by rebellious slaves, has a Phrygian cap on top of a palm tree.

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.


During political tumult in France,[when?] chief executive Adolphe Thiers "had made any display of the Phrygian cap a punishable offense" (along with singing La Marseillaise and celebrating Bastille Day).[11] The ban was ended in 1870,[11] and by 1880 (as historian Philip Nord tells us), the political climate had changed, previous disapproval ended, and "revolutionary symbols—the cap, the holiday, the anthem--had become constituent parts of a national heritage consecrated by the state and embraced by the public."[11]

Use in American iconography[edit]

United States of America[edit]

A Phrygian cap on the Seal of the U.S. Senate.
A Phrygian cap on the seal of the U.S. Department of the Army.
A Phrygian cap on the flag of the U.S. Army.

The Phrygian cap has been used to symbolize liberty in numerous countries of the Americas. For example, starting in 1793, U.S. 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 (as part of its official seal), New Jersey, and New York, as well as the official seal of the United States Senate, the state of Iowa, the state of North Carolina (as well as the arms of its Senate,[12]) 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". The cap was not included in the final bronze version that is now in the building.[13]

Latin America[edit]

The coat of arms of Haiti includes a Phrygian cap on top of a palm tree, signifying the country's foundation by rebellious slaves

Many of the anti-colonial revolutions in Latin 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 Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

The Phrygian cap in Latin American coats of arms

Literary and popular culture references[edit]

  • 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 English poet and artist William Blake wore a Phrygian cap to demonstrate his solidarity with the French revolutionaries.
  • The popular comic/cartoon characters The Smurfs are famous for their white Phrygian caps. Their leader, Papa Smurf, wears a red one; other Smurf characters 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.
  • Christine, the mistreated heroine of Howard Pyle's Cinderella-inspired fairy tale "The Apple of Contentment", wears a Phrygian cap in Pyle's illustrations.
  • The song "Then She Appeared" by rock group XTC contains the line "Dressed in tricolour and Phrygian cap".
  • French marine explorer and aqua-lung inventor Jacques Cousteau wore a red Phrygian cap.[citation needed]
  • Much in reference to Jacques Cousteau, the main character and his team in the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou all don red Phrygian caps.
  • Jaq and Gus, the two main mice characters in the Disney animated feature Cinderella, wear small Phrygian caps; Jaq wears a red one while Gus wears an aquamarine color.
  • In the popular video game series The Legend of Zelda, the protagonist, Link, wears a green Phrygian cap.
  • Another video game series, Assassin's Creed, mentions the Phrygian cap along with the Masonic Eye in the game Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
  • The cartoon character Cheech Wizard wore a Phrygian hat instead of a pointed wizard's hat.
  • The term "Phrygian cap" has been adopted to describe a particular type of common anatomical variant of the gallbladder as seen on ultrasound imaging.[14]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2009) Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 181.
  3. ^ Lynn E. Roller, "The Legend of Midas", Classical Antiquity, 2.2 (October 1983:299–313) p. 305.
  4. ^ Noted in Rolle 1983:304 and note 33.
  5. ^ An 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 (Spring 1981:283–312) p. 290, note 9.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Albert Mathiez, Les origines des cultes révolutionnaires, 1789–1792 (Paris 1904:34).
  8. ^ Richard Wrigley, "Transformations of a revolutionary emblem: The Liberty Cap in the french Revolution, French History 11(2) 1997:131-169.
  9. ^ William J. Cooper, and John McCardell. "Liberty caps and liberty trees." Past and Present 146.1 (1995): 66-102.
  10. ^ Harris 1981:284, fig. 1. Most of the details that follow are drawn from Ms Harris.
  11. ^ a b c Philip G. Nord (1995). The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France. President & Fellows of Harvard College. 
  12. ^ "Senate of North Carolina", College of Arms Newsletter, No. 8 (March 2006), London: College of Arms, retrieved 2008-01-13 
  13. ^ Gale, Robert L. (1964), Thomas Crawford: American Sculptor, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, p. 124.
  14. ^ Middleton, WD, Kurtz AB, Hertzberg BS. Ultrasound: the requisites 2nd ed. 2004 Mosby pp. 30

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]