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Pearl, miniature from Cotton Nero A.x. The dreamer stands on the other side of the stream from the Pearl-maiden. Pearl is one of the greatest allegories from the High Middle Ages. Pearl Poet.jpg
Pearl, miniature from Cotton Nero A.x. The dreamer stands on the other side of the stream from the Pearl-maiden. Pearl is one of the greatest allegories from the High Middle Ages.

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 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. [2] Many allegories use personification of abstract concepts.


Salvator Rosa: Allegory of Fortune, representing Fortuna, the goddess of luck, with the horn of plenty Salvator Rosa (Italian) - Allegory of Fortune - Google Art Project.jpg
Salvator Rosa: Allegory of Fortune , representing Fortuna, the goddess of luck, with the horn of plenty
Allegory of the recognition of the Empire of Brazil and its independence. The painting depicts British diplomat Sir Charles Stuart presenting his letter of credence to Emperor Pedro I of Brazil, who is flanked by his wife Maria Leopoldina, their daughter Maria da Gloria (later Queen Maria II of Portugal), and other dignitaries. At right, a winged figure, representing History, carving the "great event" on a stone tablet. Pedro I of Brazil and Charles Stuart .jpg
Allegory of the recognition of the Empire of Brazil and its independence. The painting depicts British diplomat Sir Charles Stuart presenting his letter of credence to Emperor Pedro I of Brazil, who is flanked by his wife Maria Leopoldina, their daughter Maria da Glória (later Queen Maria II of Portugal), and other dignitaries. At right, a winged figure, representing History, carving the "great event" on a stone tablet.
Marco Marcola: Mythological allegory Marco Marcola - Mitoloska alegorija.jpg
Marco Marcola: Mythological allegory

First attested in English in 1382, the word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the latinisation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoría), "veiled language, figurative", [4] which in turn comes from both ἄλλος (allos), "another, different" [5] and ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), "to harangue, to speak in the assembly", [6] which originates from ἀγορά (agora), "assembly". [7]


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. [8] 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.

Classical allegory

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. [9] 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." [10]

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 [11] ), 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 [12] ). 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. [13]

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. [14] Also, the Neoplatonic philosophy developed a type of allegorical reading of Homer [15] and Plato. [16]

Biblical allegory

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. [17] Also allegorical is Ezekiel 16 and 17, wherein the capture of that same vine by the mighty Eagle represents Israel's exile to Babylon. [18]

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." [19]

Medieval allegory

British School 17th century - Portrait of a Lady, Called Elizabeth, Lady Tanfield. Sometimes the meaning of an allegory can be lost, even if art historians suspect that the artwork is an allegory of some kind. British School 17th century - Portrait of a Lady, Called Elizabeth, Lady Tanfield - Google Art Project.jpg
British School 17th century – Portrait of a Lady, Called Elizabeth, Lady Tanfield. Sometimes the meaning of an allegory can be lost, even if art historians suspect that the artwork is an allegory of some kind.

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. [21]

Modern allegory

Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories which the author may not have recognized. 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. [22]

Poetry and fiction

Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's Allegory of Arithmetic, c. 1650 Allegory of Arithmetic - detail.JPG
Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's Allegory of Arithmetic, c.1650

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. [23] Yet, George MacDonald emphasized in 1893 that "A fairy tale is not an allegory." [24]

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 one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." [25]

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:

See also

Related Research Articles

Fire is one of the four classical elements along with earth, water and air in ancient Greek philosophy and science. Fire is considered to be both hot and dry and, according to Plato, is associated with the tetrahedron.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leaf by Niggle</span> Short story by J. R. R. Tolkien

"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 was reprinted in Tolkien's book Tree and Leaf, and in several later collections. Contrary to Tolkien's claim that he despised allegory in any form, the story is an allegory of Tolkien's own creative process, and, to an extent, of his own life, following the structure of Dante's Purgatorio. It also expresses his philosophy of divine creation and human sub-creation. The story came to him in a dream.

The concept of an archetype appears in areas relating to behavior, historical psychology, and literary analysis.

<i>Smith of Wootton Major</i> 1967 novella by J. R. R. Tolkien

Smith of Wootton Major, first published in 1967, is a novella by J. R. R. Tolkien. It tells the tale of a Great Cake, baked for the once in twenty-four year Feast of Good Children. The Master Cook, Nokes, hides some trinkets in the cake for the children to find; one is a star he found in an old spice box. A boy, Smith, swallows the star. On his tenth birthday the star appears on his forehead, and he starts to roam the Land of Faery. After twenty-four years the Feast comes around again, and Smith surrenders the star to Alf, the new Master Cook. Alf bakes the star into a new Great Cake for another child to find.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Parable</span> Short didactic story which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles

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.

<i>Logos</i> Concept in philosophy, religion, rhetoric, and psychology

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Greek words for love</span> Agápe, éros, philía, storgē, philautia, and xenia

Ancient Greek philosophy differentiates main conceptual forms and distinct words for the Modern English word love: agápē, érōs, philía, philautía, storgē, and xenía.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pherecydes of Syros</span> 6th-century BCE Greek mythographer and proto-philosopher

Pherecydes of Syros was an Ancient Greek mythographer and proto-philosopher from the island of Syros. Little is known about his life and death. Some ancient testimonies counted Pherecydes among the Seven Sages of Greece, although he is generally believed to have lived in the generation after them. Others claim he may have been a teacher of Pythagoras, a student of Pittacus, or a well-traveled autodidact who had studied secret Phoenician books.

<i>A Greek–English Lexicon</i> 1843–1940 lexicon by Liddell, Scott, Jones

A Greek–English Lexicon, often referred to as Liddell & Scott or Liddell–Scott–Jones (LSJ), is a standard lexicographical work of the Ancient Greek language originally edited by Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones, and Roderick McKenzie and published in 1843 by the Oxford University Press.

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sophia (wisdom)</span> Personification of wisdom in philosophy and religion

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 philosophía as used by Plato.

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The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936), by C. S. Lewis (ISBN 0192812203), is an exploration of the allegorical treatment of love in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which was published on 21 May 1936.

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.

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Further reading