Law stories are about people on edge. Laws are a mirror, holding up images of societal change to its face.
The events of men and women in desperate situations, entwined within the law in sometimes unbelievable ways, show us how a country deals with population growth, lack of resources and opportunities for all, immigrant expansion, open borders and fanatical hate.
In other words, laws paint a picture of how a nation suffers. For centuries, law makers have used history, mythology and icons to represent their goals and position. Justitia—or Lady Justice—is one of those representative symbols. But where did she come from and what does she stand for? We will explore some of that here.
There is an emblematic relief on a courthouse located above the 111 N. Hill Street entrance of the County Courthouse at Hill and 1st Streets in Los Angeles. It is a sculpture of Lady Justice. The San Diego History Museum describes her as standing to symbolize the fundamental goals and purposes of the building. She is beautiful but looks out with an impassive face. Central to the art, she is dressed in a judicial robe.
A globe is in her left hand and a sword is in her right. There is a scale of justice above her head adorned with an American eagle. On the viewer’s left is a kneeling male character that represents law, and on the right is another that stands for truth.
There is a similar sculptural element (in the Beaux Arts tradition) adorning the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., and dozens more across the country on federal buildings, courthouses, and on college campuses that teach law.
History of Law
Civilization first emerged some six thousand year ago. First, small agricultural villages sprung up in the Mesopotamia river valley near where the Tigris and Euphrates merged. Shortly thereafter, social communities with more complex rules for conduct became viable.
A civilization evolves only with the aid of a firm foundation, and establishing authority requires a balance between those doing the governing and those being governed. This practical peace calls for certain sophisticated divisions of command and labor.
Firm authority also requires acceptance. Mesopotamia, and later Egypt, had powerful kings and a priestly caste. Seeking social order, the people gave control to the man or woman who seemed to have some special wealth, power or cunning.
Hail Greece, Hail Rome
Two other great western civilizations helped to shape law’s early beginnings, Greece and Rome. In Greece, a great statesman, Solon, was the chief magistrate of Athens and he drafted a code which divided the classes based on income and property, granted citizenship to even the lowest peon, and his movement allowed men a chance to improve their status economically regardless of ancestry.
In Rome, laws were issued by assemblies made up of citizens who were in the army or who were landowners, and they dealt largely with public issues such as land distribution and military commands overseas. Laws that affected citizens were largely the work of individual magistrates who were elected or had the consent of their colleagues to govern.
Every culture has its own myths that help them to understand their customs and ways of viewing the world. Myths are typically about gods, goddesses and supernatural beings. The players possess powers and abilities not common to ordinary humans.
The stories may seem imaginative and typically all of them are outrageous but the people believed them as being true. For some, the tales had deep religious meaningfulness. They could be called pagans, people who pray to and make sacrifices to multiple gods and deities.
The gods and goddesses often have multiple names because the Romans adopted much of Greek mythology and made it their own, choosing a more Roman title or characteristic. This makes them “classical" stories.
Myths are important to us because their references are still all around us today. From pop culture to science, some examples are:
The sport shoe Nike was named for the goddess of victory
- The constellations in the sky are representative of gods and goddesses
- A lot of our colloquialisms are from mythology, like the words, “nymph," “mortals," and “Olympian"
Gods and Goddesses
Ancient deities had a lot of rolls. One powerful goddess gave us Earth, the sky and the sea, another helped crops grow and still another represented nature. There is even a god whose cries turn into “dew" which carpets the earth and sparkles in the morning sunlight.
There were goddesses who helped to inspire people called the Muses, and another group’s effort was put into childbirth and they decided who lived and died. There were also monsters and they were obstacles to overcome—or sometimes even pets.
Gods and Goddesses were not infallible. They made mistakes. They became jealous. They plotted revenge. They manipulated the people below. That’s why most of the stories have moral consequences—they teach lessons. Real life leaders in the Greek and Roman time period made fine use of the deities to help to control and instruct the people. Good plan.
Who Is Lady Justice?
Themis was the Greek guardian of divine law and order. Themis was also a goddess of prophesy and of oaths. With Zeus, her offspring included the Fates and Dike, goddess of mortal justice. Because of her gift of prophesy, she was in charge of the Delphic Oracle until she gave it to up to Apollo. In Roman mythology, she was named Justitia.
Because of all her talents and ability to dispense justice, she sat next to Zeus and offered advice.
The Romans put her on a coin where she is depicted wearing a diadem—a royal crown. On a second coin, Justitia carries an olive twig (she brought olives to Rome), and a scepter.
On buildings Justitia is dressed in flowing robes—for that judicial look. She is neither young nor old but looks every bit the stern warrior-type.
Scales of Justice
The scales of justice are the most important symbol that Justitia is shown with. This signifies that there should be a weighing of two sides in every dispute. That would most certainly call for impartial deliberation on the part of judges and juries. And finally, it depicts a fair balance between the interests of one individual and those of another.
For just purposes, she is always depicted wearing a blindfold—meaning justice should be blind to another person’s look or status. In earlier reproductions of her as a goddess she does not wear a blindfold because as an oracle and able to foretell the future, covering her eyes would be pointless.
Torch or Fasces
Sometimes she is shown holding the fasces—a symbol of judicial authority like a bundle of rods containing a blade or axe—and a flame or torch in her opposing hand that represents truth. Lady Liberty may also have been fashioned after her image.
There may also be a scroll within her reach as that would symbolize the passing of time and how life unfolds, along with education being a main objective of a responsible citizen and, thus, society in general. One interesting sidebar: There is a precept of law that says, “Ignorance of the law is not a defense."
Her sword of justice tells us that justice should be swift, hold power over us, and have might. The sword is typically double-sided with one side tilted toward Reason and the other toward Justice and can be dispensed either way depending on “for" or “against." It also reminds us that justice has as a mighty component, the power over life and death.