As a literary device or artistic form, an allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event can be interpreted to represent a hidden meaning with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.
Writers and speakers typically use allegories to convey (semi-)hidden or complex meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, or events, which together create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning the author wishes to convey.Many allegories use personification of abstract concepts.
First attested in English in 1382, the word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the latinisation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoría), "veiled language, figurative",which in turn comes from both ἄλλος (allos), "another, different" and ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), "to harangue, to speak in the assembly", which originates from ἀγορά (agora), "assembly".
Northrop Frye discussed what he termed a "continuum of allegory", a spectrum that ranges from what he termed the "naive allegory" of the likes of The Faerie Queene , to the more private allegories of modern paradox literature.In this perspective, the characters in a "naive" allegory are not fully three-dimensional, for each aspect of their individual personalities and of the events that befall them embodies some moral quality or other abstraction; the author has selected the allegory first, and the details merely flesh it out.
The origins of allegory can be traced at least back to Homer in his "quasi-allegorical" use of personifications of, e.g., Terror (Deimos) and Fear (Phobos) at Il. 115 f.The title of "first allegorist," however, is usually awarded to whoever was the earliest to put forth allegorical interpretations of Homer. This approach leads to two possible answers: Theagenes of Rhegium (whom Porphyry calls the "first allegorist," Porph. Quaest. Hom. 1.240.14-241.12 Schrad.) or Pherecydes of Syros, both of whom are presumed to be active in the 6th century B.C.E., though Pherecydes is earlier and as he is often presumed to be the first writer of prose. The debate is complex, since it demands we observe the distinction between two often conflated uses of the Greek verb "allēgoreīn," which can mean both "to speak allegorically" and "to interpret allegorically."
In the case of "interpreting allegorically," Theagenes appears to be our earliest example. Presumably in response to proto-philosophical moral critiques of Homer (e.g. Xenophanes fr. 11 Diels-Kranz), Theagenes proposed symbolic interpretations whereby the Gods of the Iliad actually stood for physical elements. So, Hephestus represents Fire, for instance (for which see fr. A2 in Diels-Kranz ). Some scholars, however, argue that Pherecydes cosmogonic writings anticipated Theagenes allegorical work, illustrated especially by his early placement of Time (Chronos) in his genealogy of the gods, which is thought to be a reinterpretation of the titan Kronos, from more traditional genealogies.
In classical literature two of the best-known allegories are the Cave in Plato's The Republic (Book VII) and the story of the stomach and its members in the speech of Menenius Agrippa (Livy ii. 32).
Among the best-known examples of allegory, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, forms a part of his larger work The Republic. In this allegory, Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained in a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall (514a–b). The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows, using language to identify their world (514c–515a). According to the allegory, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality, until one of them finds his way into the outside world where he sees the actual objects that produced the shadows. He tries to tell the people in the cave of his discovery, but they do not believe him and vehemently resist his efforts to free them so they can see for themselves (516e–518a). This allegory is, on a basic level, about a philosopher who upon finding greater knowledge outside the cave of human understanding, seeks to share it as is his duty, and the foolishness of those who would ignore him because they think themselves educated enough.
In Late Antiquity Martianus Capella organized all the information a fifth-century upper-class male needed to know into an allegory of the wedding of Mercury and Philologia, with the seven liberal arts the young man needed to know as guests.Also the Neoplatonic philosophy developed a type of allegorical reading of Homer and Plato.
Other early allegories are found in the Hebrew Bible, such as the extended metaphor in Psalm 80 of the Vine and its impressive spread and growth, representing Israel's conquest and peopling of the Promised Land.Also allegorical is Ezekiel 16 and 17, wherein the capture of that same vine by the mighty Eagle represents Israel's exile to Babylon.
Allegorical interpretation of the Bible was a common early Christian practice and continues. For example, the recently re-discovered Fourth Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus of Aquileia has a comment by its English translator: "The principal characteristic of Fortunatianus’ exegesis is a figurative approach, relying on a set of concepts associated with key terms in order to create an allegorical decoding of the text."
Allegory has an ability to freeze the temporality of a story, while infusing it with a spiritual context. Mediaeval thinking accepted allegory as having a reality underlying any rhetorical or fictional uses. The allegory was as true as the facts of surface appearances. Thus, the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam (1302) presents themes of the unity of Christendom with the pope as its head in which the allegorical details of the metaphors are adduced as facts on which is based a demonstration with the vocabulary of logic: "Therefore of this one and only Church there is one body and one head—not two heads as if it were a monster... If, then, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they necessarily confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ." This text also demonstrates the frequent use of allegory in religious texts during the Mediaeval Period, following the tradition and example of the Bible.
In the late 15th century, the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia , with its elaborate woodcut illustrations, shows the influence of themed pageants and masques on contemporary allegorical representation, as humanist dialectic conveyed them.
The denial of medieval allegory as found in the 12th-century works of Hugh of St Victor and Edward Topsell's Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (London, 1607, 1653) and its replacement in the study of nature with methods of categorisation and mathematics by such figures as naturalist John Ray and the astronomer Galileo is thought to mark the beginnings of early modern science.
Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories which the author may not have recognised. This is allegoresis, or the act of reading a story as an allegory. Examples of allegory in popular culture that may or may not have been intended include the works of Bertolt Brecht, and even some works of science fiction and fantasy, such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.
The story of the apple falling onto Isaac Newton's head is another famous allegory. It simplified the idea of gravity by depicting a simple way it was supposedly discovered. It also made the scientific revelation well known by condensing the theory into a short tale.
While allegoresis may make discovery of allegory in any work, not every resonant work of modern fiction is allegorical, and some are clearly not intended to be viewed this way. According to Henry Littlefield's 1964 article, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , may be readily understood as a plot-driven fantasy narrative in an extended fable with talking animals and broadly sketched characters, intended to discuss the politics of the time.Yet, George MacDonald emphasised in 1893 that "A fairy tale is not an allegory."
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is another example of a well-known work mistakenly perceived as allegorical, as the author himself once stated, "...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."
Tolkien specifically resented the suggestion that the book's One Ring, which gives overwhelming power to those possessing it, was intended as an allegory of nuclear weapons. He noted that, had that been his intention, the book would not have ended with the Ring being destroyed but rather with an arms race in which various powers would try to obtain such a Ring for themselves. Then Tolkien went on to outline an alternative plot for "Lord of The Rings", as it would have been written had such an allegory been intended, and which would have made the book into a dystopia. While all this does not mean Tolkien's works may not be treated as having allegorical themes, especially when reinterpreted through postmodern sensibilities, it at least suggests that none were conscious in his writings. This further reinforces the idea of forced allegoresis, as allegory is often a matter of interpretation and only sometimes of original artistic intention.
Like allegorical stories, allegorical poetry has two meanings – a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.
Some unique specimens of allegory can be found in the following works:
Some elaborate and successful specimens of allegory are to be found in the following works, arranged in approximate chronological order:
"Leaf by Niggle" is a short story written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1938–39 and first published in the Dublin Review in January 1945. It can be found, most notably, in Tolkien's book titled Tree and Leaf, and in other places. This is notable because the book, consisting of a seminal essay called "On Fairy-Stories" and "Leaf by Niggle", offers the underlying philosophy of much of Tolkien's fantastical writings.
The concept of an archetype appears in areas relating to behavior, historical psychology, and literary analysis.
Chronos, also spelled Khronos or Chronus, is the personification of time in pre-Socratic philosophy and later literature.
The Allegory of the Cave, or Plato's Cave, is an allegory presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare "the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature". It is written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e).
A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. A parable is a type of metaphorical analogy.
Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, uses the Chariot Allegory to explain his view of the human soul. He creates this allegory in the dialogue through the character of Socrates, who uses it in a discussion of the merit of Love as "divine madness".
Logos is a term in Western philosophy, psychology, rhetoric, and religion derived from a Greek word variously meaning "ground", "plea", "opinion", "expectation", "word", "speech", "account", "reason", "proportion", and "discourse".
Arete is a concept in ancient Greek thought that, in its most basic sense, refers to 'excellence' of any kind—especially a person or thing's "full realization of potential or inherent function." The term may also refer to excellence in "moral virtue."
Ancient Greek philosophy differentiates main conceptual forms and distinct words for the Modern English word love: agápē, érōs, philía, philautía, storgē, and xenía.
Pherecydes of Syros was a Greek thinker from the island of Syros. Pherecydes authored a cosmogony, derived from three divine principles, Zas (Zeus), Cthonie (Earth) and Chronos (Time), known as the "Pentemychos". It formed a bridge between the mythological thought of Hesiod and pre-Socratic philosophy. His work is lost, but it survived into the Hellenistic period and we are informed on part of its content indirectly. Pherecydes was said to have been the first writer to communicate philosophical musings in prose. Aristotle regarded him partly a mythological writer and Plutarch, as well as many other writers, gave him the title of Theologus.
Allegorical interpretation of the Bible is an interpretive method (exegesis) that assumes that the Bible has various levels of meaning and tends to focus on the spiritual sense, which includes the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense, as opposed to the literal sense. It is sometimes referred to as the quadriga, a reference to the Roman chariot that was drawn by four horses.
Sophia is a central idea in Hellenistic philosophy and religion, Platonism, Gnosticism and Christian theology. Originally carrying a meaning of "cleverness, skill", the later meaning of the term, close to the meaning of Phronesis, was significantly shaped by the term philosophy as used by Plato.
The four senses of Scripture is a four-level method of interpreting the Bible. This method originated in Judaism and was taken up in Christianity by the Church Fathers.
Anagoge (ἀναγωγή), sometimes spelled anagogy, is a Greek word suggesting a "climb" or "ascent" upwards. The anagogical is a method of mystical or spiritual interpretation of statements or events, especially scriptural exegesis, that detects allusions to the afterlife.
The Three Philosophers is an oil painting on canvas attributed to the Italian High Renaissance artist Giorgione. It shows three philosophers – one young, one middle-aged, and one old. The work was commissioned by the Venetian noble Taddeo Contarini, a Venetian merchant with an interest in the occult and alchemy. The Three Philosophers was finished one year before the painter died. One of Giorgione’s last paintings, it is now displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The painting was finished by Sebastiano del Piombo.
In Greek mythology, Cronus, Cronos, or Kronos was the leader and youngest of the first generation of Titans, the divine descendants of the primordial Gaia and Uranus. He overthrew his father and ruled during the mythological Golden Age, until he was overthrown by his own son Zeus and imprisoned in Tartarus. According to Plato, however, the deities Phorcys, Cronus, and Rhea were the eldest children of Oceanus and Tethys.
The One Ring, also called the Ruling Ring and Isildur's Bane, is a central plot element in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954–55). It first appeared in the earlier story The Hobbit (1937) as a magic ring that grants the wearer invisibility. Tolkien changed it into a malevolent Ring of Power and re-wrote parts of The Hobbit to fit in with the expanded narrative. The Lord of the Rings describes the hobbit Frodo Baggins's quest to destroy the Ring.
Monogenes (μονογενής) has two primary definitions, "pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship" and "pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind". Its Greek meaning is often applied to mean "one of a kind, one and only". Monogenēs may be used as an adjective. For example, monogenēs pais means only child, only legitimate child or special child. Monogenēs may also be used on its own as a noun. For example, o monogenēs means "the only one", or "the only legitimate child".
Many interpreters of Plato held that his writings contain passages with double meanings, called allegories, symbols, or myths, that give the dialogues layers of figurative meaning in addition to their usual literal meaning. These allegorical interpretations of Plato were dominant for more than fifteen hundred years, from about the 1st century CE through the Renaissance and into the 18th century, and were advocated by major Platonist philosophers such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Syrianus, Proclus, and Marsilio Ficino. Beginning with Philo of Alexandria, these views influenced the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic interpretation of these religions' respective sacred scriptures. They spread widely during the Renaissance and contributed to the fashion for allegory among poets such as Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare.
On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey is a treatise by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. It is an exegesis of a passage from Homer's Odyssey, which Porphyry interprets as an allegory about the cosmos and the soul.