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What Is Mythological Allusion?

Shakespeare often used mythological allusion in his plays.
"Romeo and Juliet" alludes to the mythological idea of the sun and moon battling each night.
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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 03 July 2014
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A mythological allusion is when a piece of art, literature or music hints at a piece of mythology. This mythological allusion could be with regard to the country’s indigenous culture or a reference to another culture’s mythology. Such allusions are not extended; they are not representations, metaphors or personifications. They are brief passing references to something mythological that is commonly understood by the viewer, reader or listener.

Mythology is a body of folklore from a common culture. Many mythologies have crossed cultural boundaries to form a pan-region, pan-religious or pan-continental mythology. Greek and Roman mythologies, for example, have become important to European folklore and identity as a whole. A bigger example is the effect of Jewish mythology on the whole world as brought about by interpretations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Any mythology attempts to not only collect folktales, but also to explain phenomena in the world, teach morals and to explain a people’s origin.

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An allusion is a figure of speech. Such figures are brief and short-lasting. This means the story or art work is not overtly or subversively dominated by the allusion, but uses it to augment the story being told. Allusions, including mythological allusions, are often called references and are used in literary works, art and TV shows to indicate knowledge of something or to pay homage to it. A good example of the use of references can be found in the TV shows and movies of director Edgar Wright and writer-actor Simon Pegg such as “Spaced,” “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”

William Shakespeare made much use of the mythological allusion in his dramatic plays. “Romeo and Juliet” uses a wide variety of puns, often sexual in nature, but also alludes to mythology. Romeo hopes the sun will vanquish the moon, meaning he will win Juliet, but it alludes to ideas in old mythologies such as Egypt of the moon and sun battling every night. In “The Tempest,” Shakespeare references unicorns, and in “As You Like It” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” he twice refers to Leander.

The “Harry Potter” series is another example of many a mythological allusion in action, as well as direct usage of mythological creatures, Remus Lupin being the most obvious lycanthrope since “An American Werewolf in London.” Remus’ name alludes to the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, twins cared for by a she-wolf. Harry Potter’s scar could be a mythological allusion to Cain and the manner of his adoption to Cyrus or Krishna. The books also allude to Snow White’s mirror and to the fearsome guard dog of Hell, Cerberus via Hagrid’s dog, Fluffy.

There are also many examples to be found in art. This includes works such as Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” as found in the Sistine Chapel. At the bottom of an otherwise ostensibly Christian work is Charon, the boatman who ferries soul across the River Styx.

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