is a word of Greek origin, meaning literally “speaking differently.” Normally, it involves seeking a second and deeper meaning behind that which is at first apparent in a mythological account. In the ancient world, the idea appears in several other literary traditions. In Hebrew, the term midrash (“investigation”) denotes a process that often leads to explanations on allegorical lines. In Egyptian, the expression used most often to introduce an alternative explanation was ky djed (ky ḏd; “another saying”). The resulting ideas often imply types of metaphor and symbolism. A related form is the parable.

No particular literary form is, however, tied to the use of allegory. The expressions used—as for instance in the Egyptian and Greek examples cited—seem fairly close, but the literary types may range widely.


In the ancient cultures, allegory was not a normal feature of the earliest literary texts. It belongs, rather, to the later phases, when the understanding of those texts posited certain difficulties and challenges. A reflective approach to traditional ideologies was thus involved, and in Egypt the first profusion of allegorical explanations occurred during the New Kingdom, in the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead). During the sixth century BCE and later, several Greek philosophers, including Pherecydes of Syros and Theagenes of Rhegium, used allegory in a way that revealed their motivations. They were concerned to achieve rational explanations in matters relating to conceptions of the gods, particularly those portrayed in the works of Homer and Hesiod. At the same time, some philosophers went beyond their critique of religion, notably Xenophanes, famed for his dictum: “If oxen, horses and lions had hands or could paint, then the horses would make horselike images of the gods, and the oxen would make ox-like images, and fashion the gods' bodies in their own likeness.” He also said that “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything which brings shame and reproach among men: theft, adultery, and fraud” (see Edward Hussey, The Presocratics, London, 1972, p. 13).

Among those who were later prepared to use allegory was Plato, whose parable of the Cave in his Republic is an attractive example. Later still, Plutarch often followed Plato; his treatment of Egyptian material shows a variety of method. The Stoics were keen allegorists, and among their proposals was an attempt to gloss over Homer's account of the adultery of Aphrodite, the wife of Hephaestus, with Ares. According to the Stoics that episode should not be taken literally; the basic meaning was astral, signifying the coming together of two planets, those of Aphrodite and Ares. Plutarch was rather scornful of this, and he defended Homer, arguing that Homer was giving a moral lesson on the perils of licentious conduct.

Although Egyptian religion was, in general, deeply concerned with ethical issues—as can be seen in the importance ascribed to the judgment of the dead and to the all-pervasive influence of maat (mʒʿt; “justice”), the motivation behind its use of allegory seems to relate rather to the quest for valid and correct information about religious matters, often with the sense that this information may be somehow hidden and that access to it must be urgently sought. Spell 17 of the Book of the Dead is replete with allegory, and throughout its questions and answers this urgency is tensely conveyed. The text's earliest form is known from the Coffin Texts, Spell 335, “renowned for its glosses,” as M. Heerma van Voss remarked in his masterly study of 1963, in which he assigned the text to the ninth or tenth dynasty. In it, we constantly meet the Egyptian expression, ky djed, cited above. Its use varies. Sometimes it introduces a different reading; at other times it adduces explanations by way of a commentary; and among those explanations some are allegorical. The New Kingdom versions are more detailed in their annotations, which often follow a question, such as “What is this?” A striking example occurs with a vignette showing two lions, back to back, beneath the sign of the horizon.

Middle Kingdom texts read:

"To me belongs Yesterday; I know Tomorrow. This is Osiris. As for Yesterday, this is Osiris. As for Tomorrow, this is Re."

New Kingdom versions read:

"What, then, is this? As for Yesterday, this is Osiris. As for Tomorrow, this is Re, on that day when the enemies of the lord of all will be destroyed and when his son Horus will be established as ruler. This is the day when we shall remain in festival. This is the disposal of the burial of Osiris by his father Re."

The two lions below the sign of the horizon also carry the symbolism of Yesterday and Tomorrow as applied to Osiris and Re. A feature of allegory is the inclusion of an interplay between the abstract and the concrete, that metaphysical ideas, in this case referring to time and eternity, are incorporated into the symbols.

The Book of the Dead has provided many examples of particular objects being allegorized in mythical terms. In Spell 99, many nautical objects are treated in this way. It is said of a vessel for baling out water: “Thy name is the hand of Isis wiping out the blood from the Eye of Horus”; and the phrase “knowing the souls” in several spells implies a knowledge of many secret second meanings.

Ritual and Narrative.

Symbolism is a part of every religion; and religious ritual imparts to acts, sayings, and objects a number of ideas relating to myth or history. The Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus, a work from the early Middle Kingdom, gives instructions for ritual proceedings in which objects and actions were often assigned second meanings that were connected with royal ceremony and the myth of Osiris.

Egypt has provided a number of narrative compositions that clearly belong to the category of allegory. For example, the Late period Egyptian story, “The Blinding of Truth,” was edited by Alan H. Gardiner. Although the papyrus is marred by missing material, especially the opening section, three main characters appear: Truth, his younger brother Falsehood, and Truth's unnamed son. The story began with the statement that Truth borrowed an elaborate knife from Falsehood and then lost or damaged it. Falsehood reported the matter to the Ennead, with the demand that Truth should be blinded and made his doorkeeper. That demand was accepted and enacted by the Ennead. Then, a sensual lady enabled Truth's son to be procreated, born, and educated; yet his schoolmates taunted him as having no father. Truth's son proceeded to seek revenge by charging Falsehood, his uncle, before the Ennead with the offence of stealing his wonderful ox. The Ennead endorsed the charge. The end of the story then refers to the blinding of Falsehood, so a just retribution seems thus to be achieved. Since the two main characters were presented as personified abstractions, in his analysis Gardiner was led to claim that “surely this must be the earliest example of allegory in the manner of John Bunyan.” Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678 and 1684) certainly used this technique, with figures like Giant Despair, Mr. Wordly Wiseman, Hopeful, and Ignorance, and a similar mode applied to places.

Gardiner is clearly right in seeing the theme as “a but thinly disguised version of the legend of Osiris,” with Truth in the role of Osiris, Falsehood in that of Seth, and Truth's son in that of Horus. The Sensual Lady, he admits, is quite unlike Isis, unless we recall the procreative initiative of Isis, even in the context of death. What Gardiner missed was the closer parallel in the feud of Horus and Seth; the part played by the Ennead points to the similar situation in The Contendings of Horus and Seth, which treats the ancient myth with a touch of burlesque. Unlike the story about Truth and Falsehood, the Contendings does not bear the stamp of allegory; “The Blinding of Truth” is partly allegorical, because it abandons the simple telling of the myth.

The “Tale of the Two Brothers” derives from the nineteenth dynasty. A feature of the story is a false charge of adultery, made by the wife of one of the brothers against the other. Anubis and Bata are the names of the brothers, and both were divine names in Egypt, but the mythological details are not otherwise known. John A. Wilson referred to the story as a folktale, while Helmuth Jacobsohn was able to find in it a plethora of traditional beliefs. It is indeed a gripping tale, adorned with marvelous metamorphoses. Wilson maintained that “it served for entertainment”; no deeper purpose was apparent. In contrast, “The Quarrel of the Head and the Belly,” a short work from the twenty-second dynasty, is plainly didactic and allegorical, using the interdependence of parts of the body in its plea for cooperation. The theme also appears later, in the Roman author Livy, in the speech of Menenius Agrippa before the Roman Senate; it is also in the Aesopic fable about the quarrel of the Belly and the Feet; and it even appears in the Pauline doctrine (1 Cor. 12.12) of the early Christian church, to emphasize a community of members of one body.

Almost in a class of its own is “Astarte and the Tribute of the Sea,” which has been shown to belong to a basic myth prevalent in the maritime cities of the eastern Mediterranean, reflecting the struggle between land and sea. The Egyptian tale would be “a translation of one version of the story … owing much to the foreign community in Memphis” (Redford, 1992).

The Animal Fable.

A veritable richesse of the animal fable genre is offered by Egypt and by the cultures of the Near East. Several instances were transmitted to Europe through the medium of Aesop, the Greek writer of the sixth century BCE. Their influence reached as far as the seventeenth-century French fables of Jean de La Fontaine and the eighteenth-century Russian fables of Ivan Andreyevich Krylov; and, in a wider sense, even to Animal Farm (1946) by George Orwell. That animal fables are intrinsically allegorical is shown by their aim, not at the life of animals, but at the human predicament. The Egyptians lived very close to their domesticated animals and had a long tradition of hunting wild animals in the desert and the Nile Delta. Moreover, their worship of various animal deities was based in their religious experience; this did not prevent them indulging in a playful and satiric approach to the animal world.

A feature of the abundant animal fable material left by the ancient Egyptians is its often combined pictorial and literary qualities. The pictures frequently show animals performing in the manner of human beings, as in the charming scene from the Satirical Papyrus, now in the British Museum, where an antelope and a lion are shown playing a board game; the lion raises a playing piece with an expression of triumph. This material often revels in the reversal of roles, showing, for example, cats serving a mouse-lady or foxes guarding a herd of goats.

At times, the fable has been drawn from mythology but was given a didactic emphasis. Such is the fable of the “Lion and the Mouse,” which is part of a Demotic work that relates the return of the sun god from Nubia. It tells that a lion spared the life of a mouse and was, in return, when caught in a hunter's net, helped by the mouse to escape, as the mouse gnawed through the bonds. The moral allegory is stressed: do unto others as you would have others do unto you—even the weakest can help the strongest. The story is found also in the Aesopic corpus, but Emma Brunner-Traut (1989) has been able to demonstrate the priority of the Egyptian form.

“The War of the Frogs and Mice” is attested in Egypt in pictorial form only, with cats replacing the frogs. It is likely that a literary text existed too, one parallel to the Greek Batrachomyomachia, a post-Homeric parody of the Iliad. The Egyptian depictions are amusingly composed, especially that of a mouse-pharaoh in his chariot attacking a formidable cat-fortress. The folly of war is suggested, but the tone is lighthearted rather than didactic.

Hieroglyphic Writing.

In the Hellenistic and Roman eras, allegory in its Greek form had a tremendous impact on the development of the major religions. Philo of Alexandria was a whole-hearted allegorist, as was Origen, also in Alexandria; in each case, the main impetus was in line with the moral urge of the earlier Greek innovators—a desire to guard the integrity of writings regarded as canonical. At that time, both the Hebrew Bible and the early Christian writings needed some defense. Gnostic and Hermetic writings, then, also contained allegorical explanations, but in their cases, Egyptian influence must be assessed as well.

A striking feature of the approach developed by Greek authors was the belief that Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was essentially allegorical in principle. A suggestion of this may be seen in Plutarch's comparison of proverbial sayings, as used by Pythagoras and the mode of hieroglyphic writing. The proverbial sayings are figurative in style (e.g., “Do not sit on a bushel”), and this implies that hieroglyphs employ pictures metaphorically. No such implication is given by Herodotus, who described two types of writing, the hieroglyphic and the Demotic, but with no hint of a symbolical theory. When we reach Diodorus Siculus, the first-century BCE Greek historian, however, a clear statement appears that the basic principle of the hieroglyphs was allegorical. By and large, the same was true of Plutarch, but his more than thirty linguistic references to Egyptian show some complexities. Sometimes he was thinking of ideograms, which can stand by themselves. Like Diodorus and later writers, Plutarch ignored the basic phonetic element.

This position was consolidated by Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, all Neoplatonists. Books dealing specifically with hieroglyphs included one by a much earlier writer, Chaeremon, who became a tutor of the Roman emperor Nero. His book gave examples only by scattered quotations. His example from Psellus included the dictum rendered as “Egyptian wisdom is to say all things symbolically.” This was typical of accepted opinion even in the first century CE, and Chaeremon was an “Egyptian Priest and Stoic Philosopher.”

The Hieroglyphica of Horapollo was first published in Greek in 1505 CE. Deriving probably from the fifth century CE, the book deals with each hieroglyph separately, explaining the sign and its meaning along accepted allegorical lines. Despite this initial obstacle, the work is by no means entirely misleading. On occasion, it is absolutely correct, as when it says that the sign for a fish denotes “hate”; sometimes it appears as an ideogram for the Egyptian bwt, with that meaning.

Remarkably, the symbolical theory proved persistent. One reason was its apparent agreement with Neoplatonist thought, which was still flourishing in Europe during the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century, Ficino's Hermetic translations were published, and Hermes Trismegistus confirmed the European interest in Egypt. In spite of some misleading ideas, this interest appealed strongly to the German artist Albrecht Dürer, who produced in about 1517 his splendid triumphal arch to honor Maximilian I, the German emperor, and to the Italian artist, Pinturicchio, who depicted Osiris, Isis, and Apis for the Borgia rooms in the Vatican.

Providing texts for European art works based on Egyptian obelisks has caused some problems. In later centuries, the Rosicrucians and Freemasons claimed to follow Egyptian ritual modes, which resulted in anti-Christian accusations; yet they still flourish today as secret societies. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791) has close links with the Masonic movement and the mysteries of Isis. As for the allegorical basis of hieroglyphs, Jean-François Champollion, the founder of modern Egyptology, ended all that in 1822 with his translation of the Rosetta Stone.

See also EGYPTOMANIA; SCRIPTS, article on Hieroglyphs; SYMBOLS; and WISDOM TRADITION.


  • Assmann, Jan. Zeit und Ewigkeit im alten Ägypten. Heidelberg, 1975. Deals with the Two Lions depicted in Book of the Dead, Spell 17, but examines the concepts in great detail.
  • Brunner-Traut, Emma. Altägyptische Märchen. 8th ed. Munich, 1989. Offers translations and commentary and includes the best introduction to the Egyptian animal fable.
  • Clark, R. T. Rundle. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London, 1959.
  • Gardiner, Alan H. Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum. 3d series. London, 1935. Contains much commentary.
  • Griffiths, John Gwyn. “The Tradition of Allegory in Egypt”. In Religions en Égypte hellénistique et romaine, edited by P. Derchain. Paris, 1969.
  • Griffiths, John Gwyn. Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride. Cardiff, 1970.
  • Heerma van Voss, M. S. H. G. De oudste Versie van Dodenboek 17a. Leiden, 1963. Deals with the earliest form, that in the Coffin Texts.
  • Hersman, Anne B. Studies in Greek Allegorical Interpretation. Chicago, 1906.
  • Iversen, Erik. The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition. Copenhagen, 1961; repr. Princeton, 1993. An impressive study, much used here for the postclassical era.
  • Iversen, Erik. Egyptian and Hermetic Doctrine. Copenhagen, 1984. Makes several new contributions.
  • Jacobsohn, Helmuth. Die dogmatische Stellung des Königs in der Theologie der alten Ägypter. Ägyptologische Forschungen, 8. Glückstadt, 1939, repr. 1955.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley, 1973–1980. Volumes 2 and 3 contain the tales.
  • Lloyd, Alan B. Herodotus. 3 vols. Leiden, 1975–1988.
  • Morenz, Siegfried. Die Begegnung Europas mit Ägypten. Berlin, 1968. Covers roughly the same ground as Iversen's Myth of Egypt, but is less trenchant in criticism of the classical tradition.
  • Naville, Edouard. Das Aegyptische Todtenbuch der XVIII.bis XX. Dynastie. 3 vols. Berlin, 1886, repr. Graz, 1971.
  • Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992.
  • Wente, Edward F. “Late Egyptian Stories”. In The Literature of Ancient Egypt, edited by W. K. Simpson. New Haven, 1972. Offers translations and comments.
  • Wilson, John A. “Translations of Egyptian Texts”. In Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ANET), edited by James B. Pritchard, 3d ed. with supplement. Princeton, 1969.

J. Gwyn Griffiths