The Scales of Justice

Even though all Western cultures represent justice in the same way — a female figure holding scales and a sword, sometimes wearing a blindfold — only the sword and blindfold come from Western sources. The scales of justice originated in a more ancient civilization, and today’s common representation of justice only came together gradually over centuries.

 

A typical representation of justice

The most recent addition is the blindfold. It did not feature in the early Roman representation of justice called Iustitia, but appeared later to represent impartiality, as justice is supposed to be the same for everyone, regardless of appearance, gender, wealth or any other characteristic. The blindfold, however, is the one feature that is not always present, even in more recent representations.

F. W. Pomeroy, Lady Justice, 1880s, Old Bailey, London

 

Unlike the blindfold, the sword was a key attribute of Roman Iustitia, which cut through conflicts and punished the guilty. Ironically, the sword of justice was and still is a double-edged sword in every representation.

The Ancient Greek goddess of divine justice and order, called Themis, was not clearly said to carry a sword, nor was her daughter Dikē, goddess of human justice, but modern statues of these two goddesses often include one, perhaps by association with Iustitia.

As for the pair of scales, it represents the weighing of evidence, first recorded not in Ancient Greece but in the Ancient Egyptian myth of the Weighing of the Heart.

 

Papyrus of Hunefer, detail, c.1285 BC, British Museum, London

 

In Ancient Egyptian culture, Maat was the goddess of truth, justice and order. When someone died, it was believed that their heart was weighed by the god Anubis against the feather that Maat always wore in her hair, an ostrich feather representing truth and justice.

 

Statue of Maat, 6th-3rd century BC, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

If the person had committed a crime, their heart would be heavier than the feather and Ammit, the demon with the head of a crocodile, would eat the heart, dooming the person’s soul to stay forever in the underworld and never find rest.

 

Papyrus of Ani, detail from Plate 3, c.1200 BC, British Museum, London

 

It is not clear to what extent Maat and the Weighing of the Heart influenced Greek and Roman representations of justice, but the first version of the scales is definitely Egyptian.

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