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Understanding Biblical and Mythological Allusions Key allusions to enhance your understanding of literature, and some literary works in which they appear.

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Presentation on theme: "Understanding Biblical and Mythological Allusions Key allusions to enhance your understanding of literature, and some literary works in which they appear."— Presentation transcript:

1 Understanding Biblical and Mythological Allusions Key allusions to enhance your understanding of literature, and some literary works in which they appear

2 Biblical Allusions  Some key stories to know, from the Old and New Testaments  Some important motifs from the Bible  A few examples of works of literature in which allusions to these can be found  Many other motifs and archetypes central to literature come from the Bible, such as the opposition between good and evil and the journey or quest

3 1.Creation  “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  “There was nothing to say:/ Let there be light!/ All that story of Mr. God switching on day/ is just conceit” (D.H. Lawrence, “Let There Be Light!”).  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Gen. 1:26).  “Crawlin’ aboot like a snail in the mud,/ Covered wi’ clammy blae/ ME, made after the image o’ God - / Jings! But it’s laughable, tae” (Joe Corrie, “The Image o’ God”).  “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done…” (Gen. 2:2).

4 2. Garden of Eden/The Fall  “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal…” (Gen. 3:1).  “Incarnate devil in a talking snake…” (D.H. Lawrence, “Incarnate Devil”).  “…therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken” (Gen. 3:23).  All evil in mankind comes from “original sin,” which caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, a “paradise” on Earth.  John Milton – “Paradise Lost”

5 Emily Dickinson, “Eden is that old-fashioned House” Eden is that old-fashioned House We dwell in every day Without suspecting our abode Until we drive away. How fair on looking back, the Day We sauntered from the Door – Unconscious our returning, But discover it no more.

6 2.b. Fall of angels / Lucifer  Satan, or Lucifer, was originally an angel who was cast out of heaven (“fell to earth”) because of his ambition.  Also referred to as “the morning star” -“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!” (Isaiah 14:12).  “See Lucifer like lightning fall/ Dashed from his throne of pride” (John Keble, “See Lucifer like Lightning Fall”).  “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell” (Macbeth ).

7 3. Cain and Abel  “And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Gen. 4:8-9).  “Thus she sat weeping,/ Thus Eve our mother,/ Where one lay sleeping/ Slain by his brother” (Christina Rossetti, “Eve”).  Any example of fratricide may hearken back to the story of Cain and Abel.  Claudius, when attempting to pray: “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;/ It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,/ A brother’s murder” (Hamlet ).

8 4. Noah’s Ark / The Flood  “Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation… For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground’” (Gen. 7:1,4).  “They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life” (Gen. 7:15).  “Auld Noah was at hame wi’ them a’,/ The lion and the lamb,/ Pair by pair they entered the Ark/ And he took them as they cam’” (Hugh MacDiarmid, “Parley of Beasts”).  Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage

9 5. The Tower of Babel  “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ … And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…” (Gen. 11:1,4,6-8).  “Where once prayers said were unison,/ And conversations harmony,/ We now mistake our dearest loves;/ Crowds muddle in cacophony” (Laurance Wieder, “The Tower of Babel”).

10 6. Sodom & Gomorrah  “Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13).  “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:24-6).  “She only wanted to see the sky split open./ Surely everybody has wanted to see the sky split open?/ She is here when we pour at our table. / She is here when we pour in our sleep” (Albert Goldbarth, “Lot’s Wife”).

11 7. Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac  “After these things God tested Abraham… He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’” (Gen. 22:1,2).  “Then the angel returned, asking that I surrender/ My son as a lamb…” (Delmore Schwartz, “Abraham”).

12 8. Moses  The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and Pharaoh decreed that “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live” (Exodus 1:22).  Baby Moses was abandoned by his mother “among the reeds on the bank of the river” (Exodus 2:3) and found and raised by the daughter of the Pharaoh.  God appeared to Moses in a burning bush (“the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2).), instructing him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.  When Moses asked God for his name, “God said to Moses, ‘I am what I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’’” (Exodus 3:14).  Compare Iago: “I am not what I am” (Othello ).

13 9. The Exodus  After ten plagues afflicting the Egyptians, Moses led his people out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, to escape slavery at the hands of the Pharaoh.  After escaping Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light…” (Exodus 13:21).  “When Israel out of Egypt came/ Safe in the sea they trod;/ By day in cloud, by night in flame,/ Went on before them God” (A.E. Housman, “When Israel out of Egypt Came”).  Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai – “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction’” (Exodus 24:12).

14 10. Jericho  Joshua led the Israelites against the city of Jericho: “So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat…” (Joshua 6:20).  “O, not by trumpets shall the walls go down!” (Phyllis McGinley, “Women of Jericho”).

15 11. Jephthah’s daughter  “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘if you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s…” (Judges 11:30-1).  After he won the battle, “Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him” (11:34).  Before being sacrificed, Jephthah’s daughter asked for two months to “wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity” (11:37).  Hamlet, to Polonius: “Oh, Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!” ( ).

16 12. David & Goliath  David, “a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance” (1 Samuel 17:42), killed Goliath, a champion of the Philistines, with a slingshot and a stone.  “‘All you get in this war,’ he said, ‘is one little David against another.’ Then he threw and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.’ Robert wondered if the bitterness was only the twist in his throat as he threw the stone – or was it really that Taffler wanted the war to pit him against Goliath?” (The Wars 31-2).  “He was thinking that perhaps he'd found the model he could emulate - a man to whom killing wasn’t killing at all but only throwing. Bam! A bottle. A man to whom war wasn't good enough unless it was bigger than he was. Bam! A David. A man who made his peace with stones” (The Wars 32).

17 Emily Dickinson, “I Took My Power in My Hand” I took my Power in my Hand – And went against the World – ’Twas not so much as David – had – But I – was twice as bold – I aimed my Pebble – but Myself Was all the one that fell – Was it Goliath – was too large – Or was myself – too small?

18 13. King Solomon  God granted Solomon great wisdom: “I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).  Two women both claimed to be the mother of an infant. Solomon decreed that the child should be cut in half, and then gave him to the woman who was unwilling to see the child harmed, declaring her the true mother.

19 14. Job  Job was an honorable servant of God: “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1).  God agreed to let Satan inflict suffering upon Job, to prove his faithfulness, and Job refused to curse God, even after his family was killed and all his possessions destroyed.  Eventually, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job… and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).

20 15. Ecclesiastes  Several key motifs come from the book of Ecclesiastes, which emphasizes repetition and mystery in human existence.  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Eccl. 1:2-4).  “As he said vanity, so vain say I,/ Oh! vanity, O vain all under sky” (Anne Bradstreet, “The Vanity of All Worldly Things”)  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…” (Eccl. 3:1-2).  “To everything - turn, turn, turn/ There is a season - turn, turn, turn/ And a time for every purpose under heaven…” (The Byrds, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”).

21 16. The Trinity  The motif of a tripartite God (father, son and holy ghost – like in Don McLean’s “American Pie”) has become a major archetype in literature.  “Batter my heart, three person’d God” (John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV).

22 17. The birth of Christ  “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  Joseph, who was from Nazareth, took Mary to Bethlehem, where the child was born “and laid… in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).  “Strange news! a city full? will none give way/ To lodge a guest that comes not every day?” (Sir John Suckling, “Upon Christ his Birth”).

23 18. John the Baptist  The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth was barren, and said that she would bear a son and that his name would be John.  John baptized many people in the name of God: “John beheld the great and holy,/ Hailed the love of God supreme;/ O how gracious, meek, and lowly,/ When baptized in Jordan’s stream!” (Christopher Smart, “The Nativity of St. John the Baptist”).  John was imprisoned by Herod, and Herod promised Salome, the daughter of his brother’s wife, to grant her anything she might ask. Salome asked for “the head of John the Baptist here on a platter” (Matthew 14:8).

24 19. Judas  “Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him” (Matthew 26:14-6).  “Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him” (Matthew 26:48-9).  When Judas saw Jesus condemned, he repented, brought back the silver, and hanged himself.

25 20. Peter’s denial of Christ  “Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples” (Matthew 26:34-5).  “A servant-girl came to [Peter] and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before all of them…” (Matthew 26:69-70).  “…even the Prince/ of the Apostles so long since/ had been forgiven, and to convince/ all the assembly/ that ‘Deny deny deny’/ is not all the roosters cry” (Elizabeth Bishop, “Roosters”).

26 21. Pilate  “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” (Matthew 27:24).  Bloody/dirty hands become associated with guilt.  Macbeth, after killing Duncan: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ clean from my hand?” ( ).  Lady Macbeth, washing her hands while sleepwalking

27 22. The crucifixion  Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, and his cross was carried there by a man named Simon.  “They stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head” (Matthew 27:28-9).  “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, … ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:45-6).

28 Andrew Lansdown, “Golgotha” Finally, one arrives at the place Of the skull because there is nowhere Else to go. And there before the face Of bone one pauses to despair. The culmination of all evil Is displayed before one’s eyes: Man’s heart conspired with the devil And cared little for disguise.

29 23. Resurrection  Before his death, Jesus predicted that he would be crucified and would rise again three days later.  “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’” (Luke 24:5-7).  “May then sins sleep, and deaths soon from me pass,/ That waked from both,/ I again risen may/ Salute the last, and everlasting day” (John Donne, “Resurrection”).

30 24. Apocalypse  The Book of Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, describes the second coming of Christ and the “Apocalypse” or end of the world.  Many works of literature (and movies) refer to images found in this book, like the four horsemen or the last trumpet.  This is where Christ is referred to as Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet): “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8); “Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’” (Rev. 21:5).

31 Allusions from Classical Mythology  Some key stories to know from ancient Greek and Roman mythology  Some important characters to recognize  A few examples of works of literature in which allusions to these can be found

32 1. Prometheus  Prometheus, a Titan, created man out of earth, in the image of the gods.  Prometheus brought fire to man by lighting his torch at the chariot of the sun (with help from Athena).  He was punished by Zeus by being chained to a rock, where a vulture perpetually ate his liver.  “Or, like the thief of fire from heaven,/ Wilt thou withstand the shock?/ And share with him - the unforgiven-/ His vulture and his rock?” (Lord Byron, “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte”).

33 2. Persephone  Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and she was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld to be his wife.  Demeter sought her daughter everywhere and, once she learned where Persephone had been taken, begged Zeus to intervene and force her return.  Zeus agreed that she should be returned, on the condition that she had not eaten anything during her stay in the underworld.  Unfortunately, Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, and so a compromise was reached; she was to spend half the year with her mother and the other half in the underworld with her husband.  This story is used to explain the changing of seasons. During the winter months, Demeter punishes the earth with winds and cold, and when her daughter returns, she unleashes the beauty of spring.

34 3. Perseus and Medusa  Perseus, who was a son of Zeus (conceived when he impregnated Danae with a ray of light), killed Medusa by using his shield to reflect her gaze, and then used her head as a weapon in his further battles.  Pegasus, a winged horse, was created by Medusa’s blood sinking into the earth after Perseus cut off her head.  Perseus married Andromeda, who he rescued from a sea monster.  Medusa was a Gorgon, a group of monstrous women with snakes for hair, whose gaze had the power to turn men to stone.

35 4. Jason & the Argonauts  Jason took a crew of fifty men (called Argonauts after their ship, the Argo) on a quest for the Golden Fleece, which eventually led them to Colchis.  Medea, the daughter of the King, who was also a sorceress, helped Jason complete the quest, and in exchange he promised to marry her.  After she killed his uncle, Jason had Medea imprisoned, and, as revenge, she killed their children and fled to Athens.  Her story is told in Euripides’ Medea. In addition, the cauldron and chants of the witches in Macbeth can be read as an allusion to Medea and her spells.

36 5. The labours of Hercules  Hercules was another son of Zeus and a mortal woman, so Hera hated him from his birth.  She sent two serpents to destroy him in his cradle, but he strangled them with his hands, an early sign of his great strength.  Hercules was forced to perform twelve impossible labours, such as killing the Nemean lion and the Hydra, and he completed them all.

37 6. Minos, Theseus, Icarus  Minos, King of Crete, had a monster called a Minotaur, which was kept in a labyrinth designed by Dædalus.  Theseus slew the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth by following a thread he had unraveled on the way in.  When Dædalus lost the favour of King Minos, he was locked up in a tower. To escape, he made wings, which were held together with wax, for himself and his son Icarus, and warned his son not to fly too close to the sun.  Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned.  “with melting wax and loosened strings/ Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings…” (Erasmus Darwin).  “And, like Icarus, the rocket foolishly soared too high…” (Kent Brockman, The Simpsons).

38 Allusions to Icarus This painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” is by 16th-century Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel, and is the subject of two poems in The Broadview Anthology: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams (p. 436), and “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden (p. 553).

39 7. Orpheus & Eurydice  Orpheus was a renowned musician, the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope.  His wife, Eurydice, died shortly after their wedding, and Orpheus went to the underworld to find her.  He charmed the inhabitants of Hades with his music, and was permitted to take Eurydice away with him on the condition that he not turn to look at her until they had reached the world above.  Orpheus glanced behind him, and Eurydice was lost forever.  “But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;/ Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!” (Alexander Pope, “Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day”).  Orpheus died when he was torn apart by women observing the Bacchanalian feast. They left only his head and his lyre.

40 8. The Trojan War  This war between the Greeks and the Trojans began over Helen of Troy, who was supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world (“the face that launched a thousand ships” – Marlowe, Doctor Faustus).  Helen was married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and was taken away by Paris, son of Priam, the king of Troy.  All of the gods were involved in this war – Aphrodite on the side of the Trojans, and Athena and Hera on the side of the Greeks, among others.  The “Trojan Horse” incident occurred during this war.  Some key characters to know: Achilles (and his heel), Agamemnon, Hector, Paris  The story of the Trojan War is most famously told in Homer’s Iliad.

41 9. The travels of Odysseus  Odysseus (or Ulysses) fought in the Trojan War, and afterwards had many adventures trying to make his way back home to Ithaca.  His story is told in Homer’s Odyssey.  Key characters to know: Penelope – his wife, who had to hold off suitors for a total of 20 years while waiting for her husband’s return, Telemachus – his son, the Cyclops, the Sirens, who tempt men to their deaths with singing  Tennyson – “Ulysses”  Margaret Atwood – “Siren Song”

42 10. Aeneas and Dido  Aeneas also fought in the Trojan War.  He was destined to found the city of Rome, so his love affair with Dido, the Queen of Carthage, ended in tragedy when he left, called by the god Mercury, and she stabbed herself on her already-lit funeral pyre.  His story is chronicled in Virgil’s Aeneid, which famously begins “I sing of arms and the man” (alluded to in the title of Wilfred Owen’s WWI poem, “Arms and the Boy”).

43 11. Oedipus and his family  It was prophesied by the Delphic Oracle that Oedipus would marry his mother (Jocasta) and kill his father (Laius) and, although he tried to run away, he unwittingly did just that.  After they realized what they had done, Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself.  His younger daughter, Antigone, took care of him until his death, and then became the subject of her own tragedy when she buried her brother Polyneices against the wishes of the king, Creon, her uncle.  The story of the “House of Thebes” is most famously told in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonnus, and Antigone (collectively referred to as the Theban plays).

44 Other sources for Greco- Roman mythology  There are countless other Greek and Roman myths which are the subject of literary allusions.  For further reading, consult:  Bulfinch’s Mythology (online at  Edith Hamilton - Mythology  Ovid’s Metamorphoses


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