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Parable, Myth, and Allegory

Parable, Myth, and Allegory

Author: Ted Fairchild

Distinguish between parable, myth, and allegory as forms of instructional religious narrative.

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Hello. Welcome. Today we're going to look at some of the different ways that religious principles are communicated within religious text and the customs and practices of their traditions. We'll distinguish between parable, myth, and allegory. And we'll look at a few examples of how they are applied in the text and the teachings of a few of the religions.

We're going to start with parable. A parable is a form of narrative, usually a shorter story, told for the purpose of teaching a religious lesson, usually with a moral significance. So it has a didactic intention and structure.

In Christianity, parables were a common method of instruction and guidance in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. However, Judaism and its long tradition was no stranger to parable, which are called mashal or nimshal in Hebrew. In the Torah, Solomon's Song of Songs is a short, intense, and passionate book that uses the allegory of the love between man and woman to communicate the boundless love between God and the Israelites. These parables are usually read during Passover to celebrate the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

In the Christian Bible, in the book of Matthew, there is the parable of the sower-- sower with an o, someone who plant seeds. And in this context of Christianity, there's something else we should mention before we read the parable. Parables were also a safe way to communicate controversial and even dangerous ideas and themes. The broad message that Jesus was bringing to the world suggested many challenges to the status quo, challenges to the idea of a divine emperor ruling the state, and the many challenges to the Jewish tradition.

In the Gospel of John, it says, Lord, we don't know where you are going so how can we know the way. Jesus responds, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This idea that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and could guide people to God was, therefore, shrouded in a prose. It had to be covered and shrouded in a prose that often took the form parable and nuance. In the parable of the sower, a planter goes out with his back of seeds to his day's work.

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, behold, a sower went forth to sow. And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside and the fowls came and devoured them up. Some fell upon stony places where they had not much earth. And forthwith, they sprung up because they had no deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched. And because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns and the thorns sprung up and choked them. But other fell into good ground and brought forth fruit, some in hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

So the message, the didactic teaching, is that only those eyes to see and ears to hear will bear the fruit of salvation. Fertile soil symbolizes reception and perception of the truth-- the way, the truth, the life. And the didactic structure uses one or more everyday situations as a port of entry for the mystery.

So there is one general context, the sower who goes out to do his work in the fields, but there are four setting, so to speak. And each one-- the wayside, the stony path, the thorn bushes, and the good ground of fertile soil-- they all represent some aspect of ourselves, some part of ourselves-- the part that snatches up the truth without respect, the part that finds joy in the truth but when challenged and difficulty arises, they can't stay with it for lack of roots.

And the third situation-- one hears the truth but from among the thorns, which represent worldly preoccupation and vices, greed, et cetera. So in truth, the ears to hear are not available. And finally, the part that hears and understands and bears the fruit and yields a bounty.

So now let's look at myth. Myth is a commonly held belief that has little rational justification, not provable with empirical data. So it's neither rational nor irrational. And myths are not relics that have importance only for history.

There are many beliefs based on myth that are part of spiritual and religious life and tradition, which aren't necessarily provable in the usual sense of the word. They have more to do with collective knowledge and wisdom based on the stories that these myths portray, non-rational or even extra-rational. Beliefs of this sort often form the ground and justification for engaging with myths, like creation stories, for example.

This is the project of religion, you could say, to link the conscious realm of experience and sensation with the deep forms of some essential truth. And while these truths are, in the usual sense, not provable, they are nevertheless true from an anthropological, sociological, and psychological perspective. And finally, many of our commonly held beliefs might be thought of as missed. For example, the line from Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence-- we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator.

These lines from the Declaration of Independence can't be empirically proved. The idea of equality can't hold really. But what this form of prose is pointing to-- what the myth functioning as a spiritual guide, in fact-- well beyond the context of just the Declaration of Independence-- is the relationship between the idea of self-evident and endowed by the creator. And this myth is referred to as a guiding principle built into our personal and political judgments, perhaps for billions of people.

Our last literary device we'll discuss the allegory. Allegory compares things that are usually thought of as being dissimilar. It conveys its message by often referring to this dissimilarity, bringing insight into the original situation. A good example of this is from Buddhism.

And it's called the allegory of Enyadatta. She's a beautiful woman who looks in the mirror one day to discover that she has no head. She freaked out, running everywhere, asking people where it was and what happened to it. Well, everyone told her not to worry, that it was right where it should be and has been all along-- on her shoulders, as beautiful as ever.

Well, the allegorical symbol here is the head, which refers to her Buddha Nature, her true nature and perfection. Buddha Nature is a foundational principle in Buddhism. And this narrative, using allegory, is intended to bring attention to that truth. The truth that it's our Buddha Nature, our perfection, is always there. That we just simply can't see it.

So now we can quickly summarize and review. We started with parable. And we used examples from Judaism, from the Song of Songs. And then we looked at the example from the New Testament from the parable of the sower. And parables, generally, have the intention of teaching some kind of moral lesson. It's a shorter narrative.

Myths are of any length. But they generally are non-rational. Yet, they form the foundation for many beliefs, religious and nonreligious. And we used the example from the Declaration of Independence and the idea of equality.

And then we looked at allegory, which uses comparison to shed light on something. It's an extended comparison, intended to bring some kind of insight into the initial relationship.

Notes on “Parable, Myth and Allegory”



Image of The Sower, Creative Commons, 


Terms to Know

An analogy or illustration that draws comparisons between two apparently dissimilar situations at many points, most often with the effect of casting the original situation in a different light.


A story that typically aims to make a single teaching point, rather than make an extended comparison.


Non-prose speech or writing that typically expresses ideas indirectly and metaphorically, and/or which uses specific forms of meter and rhythm.


Language that is written or spoken without poetic rhythm or structure.