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What is Personification?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Personification is the act in speech and writing of giving inanimate objects, abstract concepts, or actions human or near human characteristics. This is different than anthropomorphism, which gives animals both human personality and behavior. It is a type of metaphor, since it is a metaphoric way of spicing up writing, and making the abstract more relatable.

Though personification is a frequent literary device in poetry, it is also in daily common speech. For example, a person might look at a clock and say, “Time just got away from me.” This suggests that the concept of “time” has self-will, and the person was attempting wrestle with time to stay put. Time however “got away.”

Even young children use this device regularly. A child might be asked if he threw a pencil. The child might reply, “I didn’t throw it. It threw itself.” While the child here uses personification as an evasion tactic, he is still giving the pencil somewhat human characteristics that it does not possess.

In literature, it is easy to find examples: fog “creeps,” thoughts “explode,” trees “menace,” and clouds “portend.” Death becomes a “messenger.” These examples are all ways in which a writer can make ordinary objects or abstract concepts essentially come alive and provide more of an emotional feel for the reader. The examples above also give the things human characteristics, which connect to the reader’s understanding of the human world, and human actions.

In the magazine In Context, Joseph Campbell gave an interview in 1985 where he suggested that personification was one way in which those following a religion came to terms with the huge and abstract concept of God. Of course, the Bible says that Man is made in “God’s image.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this immediately personifies God: He is male and looks like a man.

This allows for people to more readily keep to the concept of a personal God, since he is like a father, who looks very much like human beings. Earlier religious concepts also suggest personification of a number of things present in the environment or in the stars.

Animism sees aspects of the divine in simple natural elements, like the sun, the moon, the trees, or the river. By ascribing human intent or characteristics to these objects, better understanding of what constitutes a deity or multiple deities is reached.

If the sun laughs when it is high in the sky, or the moon sleeps, these astral bodies are suddenly human and therefore a person can relate to them. Conversely, when the sun is described in purely scientific terms, it often becomes remote and impersonal. It may be understood scientifically, but is much harder to “get” emotionally.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon351258 — On Oct 12, 2013

God is not a male or a female, but you don't know if God could be either. God is the one who helps us what are we worrying for. It is God who answers our prayers so it does not make a difference. Both man and woman make up God's image.

By anon69666 — On Mar 09, 2010

As this is a very interesting article, god is always referred to as male but this doesn't make females any less in god's image. it says he created "man" in his own image which seem to suggest "mankind" not the literal male human.

By anon56100 — On Dec 11, 2009

God is neither male nor female, he is spirit. We call God (the father of christ) a he because that is how god works, through males, men. God created adam, then the animals and then eve (and only because adam whined). It's not that god doesn't respect female life, you just have to admit that that's where all the trouble started. So out of respect for God's preferences and God's chain of command (god, man, woman) and the fact that he resided in a male body, we call god he.

By anon24555 — On Jan 13, 2009

Regarding the above post:

"However, the only reason we call God "He" is because in English it sounds disrespectful to say "it" - there is not a gender ascribed to god in either religion."

When something in English has no gender, we don't refer to it as "he". It is referred to as "she". For your argument to make sense, we would need to refer to God as she by default.

Also, God made man in his image and made him a partner that became the woman. Not that he made them both in his image. Man came first, then woman.

By WGwriter — On Apr 11, 2008

Interesting point. I think however, the move toward considering God as female in both Judaism or Christianity, or considering God as asexual is recent. The Catholic Church for instance did an excellent job of assigning gender to God for many centuries, despite earlier texts and perhaps suppressed texts suggesting a less gender-specific God.

Nevertheless, Man is considered as created in God's image, but the man referred to in Genesis is Adam, from whom woman is created. And woman looks very different than man, one must admit. Moreover, we refer to God the father, almost never the mother, in most Christian churches in the West, as did Jesus, according to the majority of the New Testament.

I'd be very interested if you belong to a sect of Christianity where that is not the case and would name it; since that would seem to differ from a traditional gender assigned God.

By dfrum32 — On Apr 11, 2008

"God" in that last line should be capitalized!

By dfrum32 — On Apr 11, 2008

I disagree with this part:

"In the Judeo-Christian tradition this immediately personifies God. God is male and looks like a man."

Man being made in God's image refers to both Adam and Eve, meaning that both male and female are part of god's image - that neither men nor women completely sum up the image of God. There are parts of the Old Testament that refer to God as a mother who does not forget the baby at her breast, etc. I think it is completely wrong to say that in Judaism or Christianity, God is depicted as male.

Jesus is male, because Christians believe that he actually became a man, which is different than personification. However, the only reason we call God "He" is because in English it sounds disrespectful to say "it" - there is not a gender ascribed to god in either religion.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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