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The Psychology of Allegory and Metaphor

What's the difference between an allegory, a metaphor, a simile, and an analogy?

Key points

  • One way of understanding the allegory is by understanding the smaller metaphor.
  • A metaphor is a sentence or short segment equating two seemingly unrelated things; similes and analogies might be considered types of metaphor.
  • Unlike other literary devices, the metaphor and its subtypes are not merely ornamental but cognitively respectable ways of knowing.
 Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
"Narcissus" by Caravaggio (c. 1598).
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What is an allegory?

An allegory (Greek, "a speaking about something else") is a complete and cohesive narrative, for example, a fable or a myth, that seems to be about one thing but is actually about another. Or, to put it differently, it is a story with two (or more) meanings: a superficial, literal meaning, and a deeper, figurative one.

Allegories are often described as "extended metaphors," so one way of understanding the allegory is by understanding the smaller metaphor. Whereas an allegory is a complete narrative that seems to be about one thing but is actually about another, a metaphor is a sentence or short segment that equates two seemingly unrelated things.

For example, take this couplet from the Song of Solomon:

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

The first verse consists of two metaphors ("I am the rose of Sharon," and "I am the lily of the valleys"), and the second verse consists of a simile.

Allegories, Metaphors, and Similes

What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? In two words, not much. Whereas a metaphor says that something is something else, a simile says that it is like or as something else. A simile might be considered a type of metaphor, as might also an analogy, which involves drawing a comparison for the purpose of explaining or clarifying an idea. In fact, the second verse from the couplet that I quoted ("As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters") is more properly an analogy than a simple simile. Metaphors, similes, and analogies are figures of speech, which are a type of literary device (also called, depending on the context, a rhetorical device or poetic device).

But unlike other literary devices, such as alliteration, metonymy, and parallelism, a metaphor is not simply ornamental but a cognitively respectable way of knowing. The metaphor and its subtypes enable an abstract idea to be grasped in terms of a more concrete and familiar one. What’s more, the superimposition or juxtaposition of two superficially dissimilar ideas brings out any hidden or secondary correspondences between the two. This is not unlike formal deductive logic, which marries two ideas to give birth to a third—and is, in fact, much more common, and arguably the principal form of human reasoning.

In the words of Aristotle:

It is a great thing, indeed, to make a proper use of the poetical forms, as also of compounds and strange words. But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.

The force of a metaphor depends above all upon its freshness and originality, in some sense, upon its disruptive qualities. If a metaphor is overused, it becomes a cliché, and some metaphors are so old and tired that they are no longer visualized or even thought of as metaphors. For example, in English (as opposed to, say, Spanish), we tend to talk of time in terms of space and distance, even if we are no longer aware of doing so: "I won’t be long," "Let’s look at the weather for the week ahead," "His drinking finally caught up with him."

Metaphors such as these that are no longer visualized are called dead metaphors, and language is full of them. Indeed, an argument could be made that all language is either onomatopoeic (or imitative, like "cough" and "gargle") or metaphorical. The word "metaphor" derives from the Greek for "a carrying over," so is itself a metaphor.

Here’s a metaphor, or arguably a simile, by Joseph Campbell:

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer… it seems to me to be an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Unlike tired or dead metaphors, fresh metaphors such as this one are experienced as beautiful and pleasurable, beautiful because they are so simple and succinct, and pleasurable because, like humor, which they sometimes contain, they increase our cognitive range and flexibility.

In the words, again, of Aristotle:

To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us are the pleasantest.

Now back to the allegory. Like the metaphor, the allegory serves to convey abstract and at times subversive ideas in more concrete and condensed forms that then become symbolic of the ideas, making them easier to reveal or conceal or otherwise play with. When an abstract notion is given the form of a person or animate being, this is known as personification, which is common in allegory. For example, in Greek myth, Narcissus is a personification of vanity and self-absorption, and Icarus of hubris.

As I discuss in my new book, The Meaning of Myth, an important advantage of the allegory is that it can be approached on more than one level, meaning that people can enjoy an allegory on many levels and see in it as much or as little as they are prepared to see—or, indeed, whatever they want to see, bending the allegory to the curve, or twist, of their minds.


Bible, OT, Song of Solomon 2:1-2 (KJV).

Aristotle, Poetics, Trans. I Bywater.

Campbell J (1988), The Power of Myth.

Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk 3, Trans. GA Kennedy.

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