AP Literature Allusions

loaves and fishes
biblical; “Feeding the multitude” miracles of Jesus – after John the Baptist was killed in Bethsaida, Jesus visited the town of 5,000 and collected all the food available, 5 loaves and 2 fish, and he gave the food to his disciples to distribute among the town. Represents an almost miraculous abundance in the face of seeming scarcity.

historical; Persian Sassanid king Shahryar would marry a new virgin every day and have the previous days’ wife killed out of anger towards his first wife’s unfaithfulness, like this having killed 1,000 women.

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One day, Scheherazade volunteered to spend the night with the king. Being extremely knowledgeable, intelligent, witty, enchanting, and pleasant, she began telling a story to the king at night and she stopped in the middle of the story as she said that dawn was breaking and there was not enough time. The king decided to keep her for one more day so she could finish her story, and she would begin another one. Like this, the king, captivated by the intense stories, continued to postpone her beheading as Scheherazade told her stories. After 1,001 nights, Scheherazade told the king that she’d told 1,000 stories and she had no more to tell.

By that point, the king had fallen in love with her and decided to spare her life and make her his queen.Represents an amazingly brilliant and cunning storyteller.

Lot’s wife
biblical; God sent two angels to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but told the angels to spare Lot and his family. God demanded that Lot and his family flee the city without looking back or stopping, in order to escape to safety. As she fled, Lot’s wife, however, turned back to look at the destruction and was punished by God for not obeying instructions and was turned into a pillar of salt.Represents how looking back at one’s evil past, despite having known the dangers of doing so, can have a negative effect on one’s life.

mythological; in Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who was very well-known for his beauty. Noticing this, Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, managed to bring Narcissus to a pool of water. Narcissus was so entranced by the beauty he saw in his own reflection in the pool, that he fell in love with it. Due to his obsession with his beauty, Narcissus couldn’t bear leaving the sight of the beautiful image in the water, so he died on the spot.Represents an obsessive fixation and pride in oneself; the term narcissism is derived from this.

mythological; Two-faced Roman god of beginnings and passages; his two faces signified that he looked to the past and the future. January, the beginning of the year is named after him.Represents a sense of wisdom, but can also be used to represent duality, ambivalence, or two-faced hypocrisy.

All that glitters [glisters] is not gold
literary/historical; dates back to Aesop’s fables [needs source]? When gold miners panned for gold, many of them would mistakenly find pyrite, which is nicknamed ‘fool’s gold’ due to its resemblance to gold. Although the metal in their pans glittered, it was not gold.

Represents the idea that not all that seems good turns out to be so.

noble savage
literary; Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote that humans were noble savages in that although they were naturally animals, they all had minds and souls that allowed them to behave as good and noble beings.Represents the innate goodness in all human beings from birth.

magnum opus
literary; means “great work” in Latin, plural is magna opera.Represents someone’s greatest achievement.

literary; from Joseph Heller’s book of the same name. Speaking of the example that soldiers try to prove insanity to avoid fighting in war, but by asking for a sanity test, they are proving that they are fully sane, thus forcing them to fight.Represents a situation in which there is no way out. Essentially there is a loophole in a set of rules that creates a paradox, often indicating an abuse of power.

mythological; Cassand



literary; from George du Maurier’s novel Trilby, Svengali teaches Trilby how to sing through absolute and complete control over her, but when Svengali dies, Trilby is left without the manipulation and control of Svengali, and as a result she can no longer sing.Represents someone who exerts excessive control or influence over someone else, completely dictating what he or she is to do.

white elephant
historical; white elephants, or albino, are rare but do exist in India, Asia, and Africa. Because they were so rare and beautiful, they were often not put to work and given burdens like normal elephants were. In Siam, which is Thailand today, white elephants were once thought so precious that any white elephant would immediately become property of the King of Siam at birth. Unfortunately, it was a burden to care for the elephant, especially because it would not yield any profit through labor, unlike other elephants. So, the King would give white elephants as gifts to those he disliked in order to bring upon them burden and struggle to care for the beast.

Represents an object that is useless to the owner and may even be an inconvenience or burden to own.

tabula rasa
historical; tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate.” English philosopher John Locke used it to describe the mind of youth who were unexperienced.Represents something or someone that is completely unaffected or uninfluenced by anything. For example, in debate, if a judge is tabula rasa, it means that he/she will not use any prior knowledge of the topic in judging the debate. The judge’s mind will be a complete blank slate, with regards to the debate topic, going into the debate.

Sword of Damocles
mythological; in Greek legend, Damocles was a courtier of a Greek king, and Damocles would constantly flatter the king by commenting how wonderful and lavish his life was and what an amazing life he’d lived. The king, annoyed with Damocles’ flattery held a banquet at which Damocles was allowed to sit in the king’s chair, under a sword hanging from the ceiling by a thread.

The king wanted to teach Damocles that along with the privileges of kingship, there were always dangers to be aware of, which kept the king on edge.Represents a situation in which a person is aware of potential danger.

golden calf
biblical; in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was on Mt.

Sinai to get the ten commandments from God, the people melted down their gold jewelry and ornaments and crafted a golden calf, and they began to worship it. When Moses returned, he was angry to see the people worshiping an idol and he broke the stone tablets with the commandments on them.Represents an object, especially a material object, that is worshipped, even if it’s not worthy of worship.

Crossing the Rubicon
historical; in 49 BCE, Julius Caesar returned to Rome with his army, after being exiled. In order to get there, they had to cross the Rubicon river, where they were forbidden to go. If Caesar’s army didn’t win there, Caesar would have been executed. It was a do-or-die situation.

Represents a situation in which one crosses the point of no return.

Achilles heel [or Achilles’ heel]
mythological; in Greek mythology, it was foretold that Achilles would die young. While he was a baby, his mother took him to the river Styx, which was believed to bestow invincibility upon anyone who bathed in it. However, his mother held him by the heel when she dipped him in the river, so his heel was not bathed in the water. In battle later, Achilles was killed by a poisonous arrow that got lodged in his heel, where he was not invincible.

Represents a single weakness or flaw (can be fatal) in overall strength.

mythological; in Greek mythology, the Sirens were femme fatales, meaning female seductively beautiful creatures whose charm ensnared lovers into dangerous and potentially fatal situations. Sirens lured sailors to shipwreck by using their enchanting music and voices.Represents a situation in which something is hard to resist and tempting, but if pursued, will ultimately lead to a detrimental conclusion.

thirty pieces of silver
biblical; Judas Iscariot was a disciple of Jesus and he agrees to hand Jesus over to the chief priests for thirty silver coins, but Jesus is later arrested. Eventually, out of remorse Judas returns the thirty silver coins before hanging himself.Represents a situation in which one sells out, or betrays, another.

ivory tower
biblical; from the Song of Solomon: “Your neck is like an ivory tower,” it is meant to represent noble purity, and was later used as an epithet for Mary.

Represents a place of unworldly or impractical isolation, usually where intellectuals disconnect themselves from the real world for other esoteric purposes.

The Sound and Fury
literary; from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth is notified that his wife is dead and he gives a famous soliloquy on the inevitability of death, stating that really it doesn’t matter.Represents an huge, passionate, and hyped uproar that is actually meaningless and unimportant.

Gordian Knot
mythological; in Greek legend, Gordius was a king who tied an extremely complex knot, after which an oracle prophesied that whoever should untie the knot would become the new king and rule all of Asia. Alexander the Great undid the knot by cutting it with his sword.

Represents an extremely difficult and complex problem. To “solve the Gordian Knot” means to solve the complex enigma easily and decisively.

pound of flesh
literary; from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a moneylender, agrees to finance a fleet of ships for Antonio, a merchant. In the contract, Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment should anything happen to the ships. When the ships are lost at sea, Shylock insists that he have a pound of flesh, as the contract demanded. Antonio is only spared because the contract did not say that Shylock can take Antonio’s blood, and there is no way to remove a pound of flesh without blood.Represents someone’s insistence on being repaid, even if the repayment will destroy or harm the debtor.

Tower of Babel
biblical; in the Book of Genesis, Noah’s descendants settled in the plain of Shinar and built a city and the tower of Babel to bring them closer to the heavens.

After seeing the tower, God, concerned that man was becoming too powerful, decided to create chaos by introducing different languages. This confused the people and created a cacophony of different languages spoken, which made everyone mutually incomprehensible.Represents a noisy confusion of voices, or a diverse, but chaotic mixture of languages.

mythological; prometheus was a demigod who created man and loved him unconditionally, but when he gave fire to man zeus was like nahhh u dun messed up so he chained him to mount olympus and had an eagle eat his liver out every dayRepresents one who must suffer due to overstepping boundaries.

the handwriting on the wall
idiomatic; The expression originates from the Book of Daniel (Old Testament), from the handwriting on the wall that was witnessed at a banquet hosted by King Belshazzar. As those at the feast profaned the sacred vessels pillaged from the Jerusalem Temple, a disembodied hand appeared and wrote on the palace wall the words, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”. The visionary Daniel was summoned and interpreted this message as the imminent end for the Babylonian kingdom.

That night, Belshazzar was killed and the Persians sacked the capital city.Represents a predetermined future and a sign that a bad event is imminent.

witch hunt
historical; Originated from the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.Represents a campaign against a certain group of people who hold beliefs against traditional ideas.

mythological; Greek mythlogy, created by Zeus and Mnemosyne; nine children known to be the goddesses of music, art, and science.Represents a source of inspiration or artistic, creative endeavors.

Red herring
literary; fish that use their pungent smell to throw the hounds/dogs off of the trail.Represents throwing something or diverting something off course.

Albatross around one’s neck
idiomatic; A mariner shoots an albatross that was following the ship (albatross following ship is good luck) and the crew regards this as an act that will curse the ship. The mariner feels as though he is blamed for the curse and has the figurative burden of wearing the albatross carcass around his neck.Represents a psychological burden that feels like a curse.

historical; Bedlam was the nickname of the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, a mental institution. Represents something that is wildly chaotic or extremely noisy; raucous

mythological; Nemesis is the Greek goddess of retribution and revenge, an incarnation of the gods’ revenge on anyone who violated their laws. The revenge of the gods was inescapable to anyone who violated the laws. Represents an agent of punishment or a challenge or opponent that cannot be avoided or defeated.

Don Quixote/Quixotic
literary; Don Quixote is a romance written in the 1600s by Miguel de Cervantes.

The hero, Don Quixote, loses his wits from reading too many romances, and he sets off on his own knightly adventures, accompanied by his sidekick, Sancho Panza. The two have various comic adventures.Represents someone who is foolish or impractically idealistic.

sold down the river
historical; During the early- to mid- 19th century in the American South, slaves were transported down the Mississippi River for sale to plantations where the work was harder.Represents someone who betrays others for his/her own benefit.

literary; In his novel 1984, George Orwell used the term “doublespeak” to refer to a type of propaganda practiced by thestate in which language is used ambiguously.

(ex: Defense Department was called Ministry of Peace)Represents an intentional use of evasive or ambiguous language.

biblical; According to the Book of Leviticus, each year on the Day of Atonement, a priest would symbolically place the sins of the Israelites on a goat and then send it out into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it. Represents someone or something that takes the blame for another’s misdeeds.

mythological; The phoenix is a mythological bird that, at the end of its life cycle, ignites itself and is reborn as a baby phoenix from the ashes.Represents a rebirth, immortality, or a renewal.

forbidden fruit/fall from grace
biblical; Adam and Eve’s fall from the state of innocence.

When they ate of the forbidden fruit, they were cast out of the Biblical Garden of Eden; Represents any indulgence or pleasure that is considered illegal or immoral; a sin

mark of Cain
biblical; According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, God rejected Cain’s grain offering while accepting the animal offering of his brother Abel. Out of jealousy, Cain murdered his brother and was compelled by God to wander the earth as “a fugitive and a vagabond.” Lest someone slay Cain and end his misery, “the Lord set a mark on Cain.”Represents a person’s sinful nature.


Jim Crow
historical; Comes from the Jim Crow Laws which were state and local laws in the US that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities w/ a supposed “separate but equal” status for Black Americans.Represents being separate but “equal.”

Lost Generation
historical; It was the generation that came of age during World War I.

It was a group of writers who felt like they were lost and alienated from other people because of the lack of spirit and how they couldn’t follow their values anymore because of war. The term was made popular by Ernest Hemingway who used it in his novel “The Sun also Rises”. Represents being delusional with something.

To go native
historical; An expression used when people adopted a way of life of a place or environment that is different from one’s own, especially a less developed country.

Represents changing oneself for the ways of a new environment.

The American Dream
historical; Refers to the ideals of freedom of opportunity that people beheld to exist in U.S.A.

Represents the idea that anyone can be successful by putting in hard work.

The Exodus
biblical; The story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt following the death of Joseph, their departure under the leadership of Moses, the revelations at Sinai, and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan.Represents a departure or emigration, often by a large group of people.

literary; Franz Kafka: German writer who often portrayed man’s fear, isolation, and bewilderment in a nightmarish dehumanized world in his books.

Represents a senseless, disorienting, or nightmarish situation.

historical; An ancient city in Mongolia where the Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan, had a magnificent residence. Made famous by the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Represents any place that is magnificent, beautiful or almost magical.

historical; 1815 Battle of Waterloo near the Belgian village of Waterloo; final battle of Napoleonic wars where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated.Represents one’s ultimate and decisive defeat (meeting one’s Waterloo).

Faustian bargain
historical; Faust is the protagonist in plays by Christopher Marlowe. In the plays Faust makes a pact with the devil exchanging his life for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Represents a sacrifice of oneself or one’s values in exchange for one’s desires.

To avoid one like the plague
historical; the Black Death, or bubonic plague, was a deadly infectious disease in the Middle Ages in Europe and killed almost 200 million people. The plague spread very quickly and was almost impossible to avoid or eradicate.Represents doing whatever is necessary to avoid someone or something; avoiding at all costs.