I read a blog today that was suggesting the importance of religions as “embodiments of human ethics and ideals”. It appears the author is beginning a class that may cover this, and I look forward to future updates, as this premise disagrees with my own view of religions. But in this blog there is a line that stirred my interest: “Not only is religion the richest source of allusions in all cultures…” So, I asked myself if this premise sounded true. It did; allusions are all over the place, but the most commonly recognizable (and so most useful) seem to come from religions, either past or current. Western literature is filled with references to Thor, Odin, Aphrodite, Poseidon, and Chronos, as well as Jesus, Mary, Gabriel, and Moses just to name a few religious characters commonly alluded to (I hope I don’t need to list these, my list will get too long too fast). Compare that to some incredible works like Huxley’s “Brave New World”. I’m sure that there are allusions to this book, but I’m remiss to think of one.
This started me wondering how many allusions I’ve missed. Are there really tons of allusions to other literature that I just don’t know about because it’s not as commonly known as the stories about gods? Even Shakespeare allusion may be missed. I’d like to think I’d get a reference to “Romeo and Juliet” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but would I catch one to “Twelfth Night” or “Richard II”? It is certainly possible that there are many allusions to many great works that I don’t notice simply because I haven’t read that particular story. And as I think of where allusions in literature refer, I recall a lot more alluding to the literature greats like Dickens or Shakespeare. If nothing else, this seems like good incentive to re-read the “A Tale of Two Cities”.
If better writing is what draws more allusions, then perhaps references to religious texts are due to their literary greatness. “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are certainly good stories and the writings and translations have stood the test of time; but even they don’t carry the flow and rhythm of modern literature. That is, I’d much rather read Tolkien than Homer. But, these two books aren’t even religious texts about the gods; instead, they were considered tragedies about failed heroes and the gods. In fact, I am not familiar with any of the source religious texts of the Greek gods. Nor am I familiar with any texts that would have been considered holy in the tradition of the Norse gods. I am familiar with the Bible, but I find it terribly lacking as work of literature. Perhaps a more gifted literary critic than I can explain why, but the verse in the Bible seems to make the most exciting battles sound like reading a grocery list. And before any Christians come to the Bible’s defense ask yourselves what other book is bought by so many but read by so few? Even those that consider the Bible stories paramount to their lives typically prefer the versions prepared outside the Bible itself.
The point is allusions are made not to verse that is true, or great literature, but to stories that permeate our culture. This is where the power of allusion is held. As long as religious stories and characters are known to the general public, they will be a great source of allusions. All I need to do is say “Gabriel” or “Thor’s Hammer” and you have a full picture in your mind, whether or not you have actually read stories about them, you have heard enough to generate an idea of a powerful angel or an unstoppable war-hammer. It seems that we are fascinated with magic and stories about it. For maintaining popularity, religions have a benefit of being thought true; a story that people actually thought true at one time tends to be more interesting. Hence, many forms of mythology will be familiar to a broad audience. Writers not using this as a source for allusions would be wasteful.
One last thought on allusions: There is one other text that I know of that is widely alluded to, even by those who have not read the story (they will likely be fairly young). The story is 1984. We all know what is meant when we talk about “Big Brother”. Why is that?