Favorite Greek & Biblical Allusions

Christianity evolved in a Roman/Greek world and English evolved largely in a Christian milieu.  Consequently English is peppered with words and expressions that allude to both Biblical and Greek stories/myths.  How important is it to know these stories to use the allusions?  How important is it to not let these allusions disappear from English?

Language evolves and words/phrases die as they loose users. Biblical and Greek phrases were used much more in the past then they are today — often, in my opinion, to show erudition [intentional ironic choice of wording].

Whereas today, to have meaningful conversation it is not Greek myths or Biblical stories that are needed to understand common conversations, but a certain fluency in sports, commercials, movies, TV shows, songs, politics and celebrity gossip.  Here are two such images found recently in European magazines — one Classical Greek, one Classical Hollywood.

Merkel devours Greece Merkel as “The Terminator”

Occasionally, an allusion to science graces our language too, but like the ancient myths, few of the speakers who use the expression really understand the science behind it.  But does this matter?  For most of the time, the listener knows the meaning of the phrase.

Question to readers: Which Biblical or Greek myth expressions would you feel sad for when or if they atropy and die in the English language?  What are some of your favorite classic allusions?

Here are the favorite literary allusions submitted by readers so far:

Greek Allusions

Biblical Allusions

  • good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-29)
  • forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:17)
  • throw the first stone (John 8:7)
  • pearls before swine (Matt 7:6)
  • handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5)
  • thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel 6)
  • go the extra mile. (Matt 5:41)
  • the blind leading the blind! (Luke 6:39)
  • You reap what you sow. (Gal 6:7)
  • doubting Thomas (John 24)


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

32 responses to “Favorite Greek & Biblical Allusions

  1. Earnest

    I like “beware Greeks bearing gifts”.

  2. Great example, Earnest:
    (A) Hard to think of a substitute expression (can you?)
    (B) I’d wager that those who use it often know the allusion

    Most would know that it refers to the Trojan horse. But I doubt they would know that:
    (1) Where we get the story. The more educated may guess the Illiad or the Odyssey and be wrong — it was Virgil’s Aeneid. Well, apparently Homer’s Odyssey “mentions” it.

    (2) Where is Troy
    (3) Why the Greeks attacked Troy
    (4) Who said the line: Laocoon

    Not that any of that really matters, because the principle is simple: Someone may be offering you a benefit but deep behind that apparent benefit is treachery.

    I am sure their are others sayings that capture this in the world. I wonder if there are modern movie ideas that will be substituted for it eventually as we stop studying ancient Greek myths since, unlike the old days, people are not impressed if you know the myths. to some degree but only minimally —

  3. While not a Christian myself, I do like several sayings and terms that have come to us from the Bible. Terms such as “good Samaritan,” “forbidden fruit,” and “throwing stones” make the language a little more colorful, and I’d hate to see them go.

  4. Thanks Ahab !
    I used the inspiration of your and Earnest’s suggestions to update both the post and change the title. Hope you enjoy the changes.

  5. Last night I was watching a not-terribly-classical political news program, when one of the guest analysts remarked that the economy was Obama’s “Achilles’ heel.” Still later in the show, someone mentioned the recent Supreme Court decision on Obama’s health care program had “opened a Pandora’s box” of legislative griefs. I thought, ‘Oh, so Greek mythology lives in the American language, even if we don’t require students to read Plato or the Iliad anymore!’ I would think however, that anyone living in Washington D.C. would have a hard time forgetting these classical allusions: the city is filled with Greco-Roman references and architecture, from blind Justice to the portico of the Supreme Court building. Should we forget where these cultural mementos come from, we will be poorer, not just linguistically or historically.

  6. @ Hangaku,
    Interesting — we had the same thoughts at the same time, Jung would love that. I will add the two you mentioned assuming you’d be sad if they left our the English language. BTW, do you speak Japanese?

  7. Sukoshi! (A little!) When I was a child, my parents didn’t want me to speak Japanese at home because they were afraid it would hold me back in school. Later however, they sent me to classes every Saturday to learn how to read and write Japanese. Perhaps because I’ve always enjoyed reading, that part of the language has stuck better. But my younger daughter, who has a gift for picking up languages, became quite fluent in high school and later majored in East Asian languages in college. Now she corrects me when I try to speak, which is quite humbling. I do wish I’d been encouraged to speak the language at home. The bilingual students I used to teach seemed to pick up on concepts a lot quicker than their monolingual classmates.

  8. CRL

    Awww, I preferred the old post title.

    I think most mythological allusions are alive and well today. At very least, I hope the common ones such as “Achilles heel” and “Pandora’s box” (the latter is one of my personal favorites) haven’t survived for millennia only to atrophy and die within my lifetime. I’d be a bit embarrassed to be part of the generation that slacked off and erased its history in the process.

    Personally, I’d be sad to watch references to Sisyphus go. Even if they’ve never been fully integrated into the English language, they really do describe a certain sort of bad day better than anything else.

  9. So interesting, Sabio. I think that words and phrases never truly die off so long as there’s people around to remember and use them. I can tell you that in our state at least there are “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people who a. attempt first aid on someone who needs medicine or b. transport wildlife (which is technically not allowed) if they are injured, so long as the citizen is taking the animal to a licensed facility.

  10. @ Hangaku :
    Cool story about your daughter — what is she doing now. Can she tell us if she knows of any Greek or Biblical expressions that creeped into East Asian languages. I know of none. Instead, Japanese children must memorize hundreds of sayings coming from classical Chinese (Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and folk origin).

    @ CLR :
    I add Sisyphus to the list — thanx. We have lost many sayings in the past. English use to contain expressions that are no longer used. See here for many examples slang that have died or are atrophying. I wager that many Biblical allusion (esp. used by poets) are not longer used and Biblical literacy has withered.

    @ amelie :
    Good Samaritan is a great expression. For fun I added:
    pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). Odd meaning — only found in Matthew. Not sure what Jesus was saying — but it don’t sound like the cute, cuddly Jesus many people imagine.

  11. CRL

    I would say there is a difference between slang terms and contemporary allusions (such as those on the list you linked me) and classical allusions. Slang, by its very nature, comes and goes. Greek and Biblical myths and allusions have been, and, I believe, will be preserved, in part because they are old and “classic.” People may only reference and study them so they can sound intelligent, but they will reference and study them nonetheless.

  12. My daughter just received her MFA in digital animation, so she’s presently looking for a job in that field. In the meantime she teaches ESL at the art academy where she received her degree. She pointed out that Japanese literature developed somewhat uniquely, combining its own native folk culture with influences from Confucian China and Buddhist Tibet and India. Judeo-Christian texts and Greek mythology were introduced very late in Japan’s history and hence hasn’t had much impact on the language. You can find a number of Japanese sayings than parallel Western ones, like “stumble seven times, success at eight” (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again) or “The child of a frog is a frog” (like father, like son). But I’ve had to explain phrases like “Achilles’ heel” and “pearls before swine” to my parents. Neither of them are Christian nor well-versed in classical mythology, and they seem content not to know. “To not know is Buddha.” (Ignorance is bliss!)

  13. TWF

    I think I mentioned these to you a while back, Sabio, but there is:

    “see the hand writing on the wall” (Daniel 5)
    “thrown into the lion’s den” (Daniel 6)

    I would hate to see them go, too.

    As opposed to erudite purposes, I think many Bible references were used because it was familiar subject matter, and still is to a large extent in the US. As we fall away from religion, and as the internet offers more esoteric entertainment, common references for lasting, “classic” allusions seem to be becoming extinct.

    Of course, some allusions do live on and even have their meanings evolve well after their common subject matter falls from familiarity, like “the rule of thumb.”

  14. Earnest

    What would a woman think of me if I called her a Jezebel?

  15. @ CRL :
    You are absolutely right. I was being lazy and could only find those slang examples. But I am convinced that many Biblical allusions have faded too. I wish I could find a source of examples or had a mind which could remember such things.

    Maybe Earnest supplies a good example: “She is a Jezebel!
    I don’t know what that means, though I have heard it. I’d wager is has been used far more in the past. Wait! I have an idea:
    (1) Let’s look it up on “Wiki” where I learn of this transition of meanings in the “Cultural symbol” section:
    (a) false prophet
    (b) fallen or abandon women
    (c) promiscuity

    (2) Now I will use NGram to search for mentions of “… a Jezebel” . Look at how it has withered. So much so that I wouldn’t understand the allusion. Heck modern American culture has so many more direct and colorful ways to describe “promiscuity” and mentioning it is not taboo so allusions aren’t needed, perhaps. No wonder Jezebel withered.

    Also, check out how “Herculean” withered too.

    Does that help, CRL? You were right in chastizing me and thanks for driving me for examples. I wish I had many more. I am sure tons of them are there — especially with the Greek Myths. I will add these to the post as examples: thanx again.

  16. @ Earnest,
    Great — see my comment to CRL. Thanks.

    @ TWF,

    Thanks — added them.
    lion’s den” has withered too. I know that allusion.

    handwriting on the wall” rose to a peak in the 40s and then withered — I wond er why. That is a good example of an allusion that I know how to use, but have no clue of the Biblical context.

    I am sure, since you have done a great study of the Bible, these are all now very clear to you.

    And perhaps you were right — Bible stuff was added because it was familiar stuff. That is, folks read precious little but had preachers read to them. But I think the Greek stuff had a bit more of the erudition flavor. Hmmmm, hard to prove — just a feeling. Any thoughts?

    Interestingly, last night a friend likened his company’s business situtation to a scenario in “Princess Bride”. I’ll send him a note to try and remember. But I had to ask him to explain the phrase because I did not watch the whole film attentively.

    LOL @ “rule of thumb” — very cute. You are a riding the swelling wave — check out its Ngram.

  17. Earnest

    @ Sabio: for “handwriting on the wall”, see Daniel chapter 5.

  18. TWF

    I may be with you on the Greek-elite connection, but as Hangaku pointed out, our art and architecture in our capitol borrows heavily from Greek culture and mythology. It may be that in the past Greek myths were better known by all, possibly again owing to the limited resources. Now, it does seem to me that, besides Achilles Heel and Pandora’s Box, other Greek allusions are somewhat erudite.

    Funny you mention “The Princess Bride,” as I was thinking last night that movies may be our only modern source for allusions which can be widely recognized, and only certain movies at that: “Star Wars”, “The Matrix”, and other movies of similar scale of reception.

    In fact, I was thinking that I guy I was having a debate with recently reminded me a lot of Vizzini from “Princess Bride”. 🙂

  19. CRL

    True. I think Biblical examples are fading, as people become a little less religious, and, more importantly, I think, religious people become a little less educated (even about their own religion.)

  20. theartofsciences

    I wash my hands.
    The burden of the cross began to be increasingly heavy on his shoulders.
    He extended his hands over the water and told the fishermen to throw the net and the catch was abundant.
    Sodome and Gomorrhe.
    My favorite is “to be or not to be, that is the question”, relevant more to Shakespeare.

  21. Psalm 68:19 totally dies in the English language. It reads “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden; the God who is our salvation.” But in Hebrew it can read like that or like “Blessed by the Lord, who daily gives us our burden; the God who is our salvation.” The first is a light and fluffy “opiate of the masses” phrase and the second shows a little harder God, one that makes demands of us and we can’t shrug off the responsibility of “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly” (Micah 6:1-8).

  22. @ Luke, Interestinging difference in translations. BUt I have no idea what that has to do with this post. Can you help me with that?

  23. Two ways. Answering your question: Which Biblical or Greek myth expressions would you feel sad for when or if they atropy and die in the English language? What are some of your favorite classic allusions?

    This verse gets a lot of air time in my setting when people are going through a hard time. “Let Go and Let God” is spawned from this passage. Yet the verse is double-edged. The short-hand would be “God gave, you must deal.” or “Go with God, do your part.” Something like that.

    Clearer? Sorry, sermon writing day, I’m a bit distracted.

  24. Yeah, I’ll bet it is distracting to surf while writing a sermon. I hope the sermon is not suffering as well. 🙂

    If you look at the table in the post I give examples of ALLUSIONS.

    I don’t think you get the point of the post. Yes, I understand what you feel about that verse, but I am talking about common simple allusions in daily language to Greek myths or Bible stories etc. I would think you could come up with a few good ones if you took your time to understand the post.

  25. Take time and understand my comment: “Let Go and Let God” is a common simple allusion in daily language to Psalm 68:19 that doesn’t work when you actually read what the psalmist is trying to say.

  26. @ Luke,

    Ah, so the “Allusion” you would hate to see atrophy is “Let Go and Let God”? [Which you mentioned in your second comment]

    (1) I have never heard that expression in common language but maybe it is common in some Christian circles. This ngram search shows its recent rise — it was not a common allusion of the past. It is probably growing in mainline or evangelical or pentacostal circles, don’t you think.

    (2) I was asking for allusions you would be sad to see go — sounds like you’d be happy to let that one atropy if biblical literacy keeps dropping.

    (3) So hopefully you can see that I was asking readers for something rather different from your example (again, see the table). But I get what you were thinking now.

  27. 1. Growing bigtime in Evangelical circles now crossing over into my context of Mainline.

    2. I’m mixed on the phrase. Sometimes it’s appropriate; sometimes you should stop obsessing over something and ride it out. But when I ask Evangelicals where this is in the Bible, and they point to that psalm it makes me angry (and shows that Biblical literacy is dropping even in circles that view it as “THE word of God.”)

    3. Gotcha on what you’re asking, sorry I didn’t take my time. Here’s more Biblical says that I would be sad to see go:
    Go the extra mile. Matt 5:41
    It is like the blind leading the blind! Luke 6:39
    You reap what you sow. Galatians 6:7
    Pearls before swine. Matthew 7:6
    Doubting Thomas. John 24

  28. @ Luke,
    There ya go, thanx. Great examples in # 3 — I will add them. As you can see, we already had “Pearls before swine” — it was one I added. 🙂

  29. I think it’s kind of neat that the first Merkel image is actually a double allusion to the Goya painting and Classical Greek mythology.

  30. Achille’s heel and pandora’s box are always fun to use!

  31. My favorite ‘religious’ saying is:
    “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess, all right, but no Messiah.”
    Monty Python’s Life of Brian. 😉

  32. @Drkshadow : Indeed!

    @ SocietyVS : Yes, I like those too.

    @ Arkenaten : Yeah, but as I told Luke, those aren’t the sort of allusions I am speaking of. See the list in the table.

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