Allusion can be used to create a sense of deeper understanding using recognizable objects, people, or events in writing. When used metaphorically, allusion can be an even more powerful and persuasive literary or rhetorical device. Also, historical and literary events or people can be used to make comparisons. “She’s such an Einstein” means that the person being referred to is smart. “She’s no Venus de Milo!” means that the person being referred to is not attractive.

In writing nonfiction or dealing with abstract information or concepts, writers may use allusions to create mental hooks on which readers can hang information and make it easier to learn. When interacting chemicals, for example, are compared to Jekyll and Hyde, you can easily visualize these chaotic interactions, and you might remember more of the information as a result.

Sources for Allusion and Commonly Used Allusions

Four types of allusions are discussed below. Each type includes examples.

  1. Mythological
    A marble statue of Achilles. The statue, which is finely detailed, shows Achilles wearing a plumed helmet, leaning backward, looking into the sky.

    Source: “Statue of Achilles at Achilleion,” Jennifer Slot, Flickr

    Achilles: A great Greek warrior born of a mortal and Zeus

    During the Trojan War, he was shot by an arrow in his only weak spot—his heel—and was killed. The one vulnerable spot in an otherwise invulnerable person or thing is usually referred to as an "Achilles' heel."

    An oil painting from the Renaissance. Oedipus, an older man, throws an arm back dramatically as if in agony. His daughter looks sorrowfully at her father as she walks away.

    Source: “Oedipus at Colonus” by Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, 1788, at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photograph by Mary Harrsch, Flickr.

    Oedipus: Character in an ancient Greek play who was abandoned at birth by his parents

    Oedipus tried to avoid a prophecy that he would eventually kill his father and marry his mother. When individuals have severe issues with their parents, they are sometimes said to have “Oedipal Complexes.”

  2. Religious

    A detailed oil painting from the 16th Century, showing the Garden of Eden. In the center of the painting, Adam and Eve stand naked before God, who is wearing rich robes and instructing them. The foreground is filled a bounty of animals, cattle, lions, foxes, monkeys, and a unicorn—many of these animals are in pairs, a male and a female animal. The background of this detailed picture shows other parts of the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden—the creation of Adam and Eve, and the two of them being chased out of the Garden of Eden by an angel.

    Source: “The Garden of Eden” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

  3. Garden of Eden: The biblical “garden of God,” described most notably in the book of Genesis 

    According to the Bible, the first woman on Earth was Eve and the first man on Earth was Adam. They lived in the Garden of Eden. A reference to the Garden of Eden usually alludes to a place of beauty and lost innocence.

    An oil painting from the Renaissance. Job sits, looking sorrowful, while a fire rages in the background. Job’s wife pours water over his shoulders.

    Source: “Job and his Wife” by Albrecht Dürer, Wikimedia Commons.

    Job: The central character of the book of Job

    He was a biblical figure possessing great wealth, whose faith was tested when he lost everything. References to Job are usually made when someone is facing a tough situation, multiple losses, or is experiencing a period of overwhelming grief.

  4. Historical

    A stark photograph of Adolf Hitler. He is wearing a military coat, a Swastika on his arm. He looks sternly into the distance, looking serious, grim, and determined.

    Source: Adolf Hitler, Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Wikimedia Commons.

    Adolf Hitler: The ruthless dictator of the German Third Reich during World War II

    Hitler's supremacist and racially motivated policies resulted in the systematic murder of eleven million people, including an estimated six million Jews, and directly or indirectly in the deaths of between 50 and 70 million people in in World War II. A reference to Hitler usually means evil personified.

    A marble statue of Achilles. The statue, which is finely detailed, shows Achilles wearing a plumed helmet, leaning backward, looking into the sky.

    Source: “Thomas Alva Edison” by Abraham Archibald Anderson, photograph by Cliff1066™, Flickr

    Thomas Edison: The inventor of the light bulb and phonograph

    He is a well-known, genius inventor and is sometimes referenced in descriptions of unusually bright, scientifically-minded individuals.

  5. Literary

    A painting of Ophelia.

    Source: “Ophelia” (Ophelia Drowning by Paul Albert Steck), photograph by litmuse, Flickr

    Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

    She becomes mentally unstable and drowns mysteriously, possibly from suicide. An allusion to Ophelia may be used when describing a woman who has become mentally ill.

    A marble statue of Casey, leaning on a baseball bat while standing with legs crossed and one hand on hip.

    Source: “Mighty Casey,” Knilram, Flickr

    Mighty Casey: A great fictional baseball player

    Baseball fans count on him to win the big game; unfortunately he strikes out and loses it instead. References to the Mighty Casey suggest not being able to come through in the moment of greatest need or perhaps simply not being able to control most or all of the variables.

What Allusions Would You Use?

For this activity, you will use a graphic organizer. You can download it and type your responses onscreen or print this file and write your answers. Follow the directions in the graphic organizer and return to this lesson when you are finished. Graphic Organizer Instructions