Definition of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics and qualities to animals or deities. In examples of anthropomorphism, the animal or deity in question is actually behaving like a human, such as in the case of talking animals or deities involving themselves in the affairs of humans as in ancient Greek dramas.

The word anthropomorphism comes from a combination of the Greek words ánthrōpos and morphē, meaning “human” and “form,” respectively.

Difference Between Anthropomorphism and Personification

The definition of anthropomorphism and the definition of personification are very similar, as they both involve attributing human emotions and qualities to non-human beings. Personification, unlike anthropomorphism, can relate to inanimate objects and concepts as well, such as talking about “blind justice” or “whispering trees.” Anthropomorphism also is different in that it involves imagining an animal actually displaying human traits such as speaking or wearing clothing, whereas personification is the projection of traits onto something that is not actually acting in a human way.

Common Examples of Anthropomorphism

There are many obvious examples of anthropomorphism in popular culture. Most team mascots are examples of anthropomorphism, and there are many anthropomorphic mascots for brands as well, such as the Aflac Duck, the Energizer Bunny, and the GEICO Gecko. Animals are also very popular in tales for children. Here is a list of popular cultural icons that are anthropomorphism examples:

  • Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends
  • Thomas the Tank
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Brian from Family Guy
  • Sonic the Hedgehog
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Aladdin’s Magic Carpet, as well as Abu the Monkey and Iago the Parrot

Significance of Anthropomorphism in Literature

Examples of anthropomorphism have been a part of human culture for millennia. Many ancient tales and fables feature animals or deities as main characters who speak, have feelings, and make complex decisions. These tales and fables were often used to teach lessons and impart wisdom. Some famous authors of anthropomorphic tales have argued that the clear fiction of the story—the listeners are quite aware that animals do not talk—allows for greater truth to be told.

While anthropomorphism was widespread in ancient cultures, and still is to the present day, the term first came into usage in the 1700s as a heresy in Christianity to depict God as having human characteristics. Different religious have dealt with the concept of anthropomorphism differently; in some religions the God or gods have human forms and characteristics (Greek mythology and Hinduism), while in others this practice is expressly forbidden (Judaism and Islam, for example).

Examples of Anthropomorphism in Literature

Example #1

Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame on us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given.

(The Odyssey by Homer)

Most, if not all, Greek tales includes deities who have human forms, emotions, and motivations, and meddle in the affairs of the mortals. Even Zeus, king of the gods in Greek mythology, is not above jealousy, anger, and revenge. In this quote from Zeus in Homer’s The Odyssey, he laments the fact that humans blame gods for their own problems and seems resentful of this. However, it is quite true that he is the source of many problems that humans have in Greek tales, as when he is displeased for whatever reason he causes trouble.

Example #2

A Lion once fell in love with a beautiful maiden and proposed marriage to her parents. The old people did not know what to say. They did not like to give their daughter to the Lion, yet they did not wish to enrage the King of Beasts.

(“The Lion in Love” from Aesop’s Fables)

This is an excerpt from one the many Fables written by Aesop, a man living in ancient Greece. Most of his stories include examples of anthropomorphism, as in the above tale. In this short story, a lion falls in love and is able to propose marriage. Clearly there is the assumption that the lion can talk to the girl’s parents. It is interesting, however, that they still treat him like an animal, calling him the “King of Beasts.” The boundary between the human and animal world in Aesop’s Fables is thin and mutable.

Example #3

“Come soon,” said Mother Wolf, “little naked son of mine; for, listen, child of man, I loved thee more than ever I loved my cubs.”

(The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling)

Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Jungle Book, later animated as a Disney movie, includes many talking animals as characters who either befriend the human child Mowgli or antagonize him. Mowgli is first raised by a family of wolves, the mother of which clearly cares for him. Later Mowgli makes friends with the panther Bagheera and the bear Baloo, while running into trouble with Ka the snake and the tiger Shere Khan. All of these animals and many more have complex emotions and have conversations with Mowgli. Finally, however, Mowgli leaves the animal world to find a more permanent place in the world of humans.

Example #4

Charlotte had written the word RADIANT, and Wilbur really looked radiant as he stood in the golden sunlight. Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When Charlotte’s web had said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.

(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)

Charlotte’s Web is a favorite children’s tale with includes a spider and pig who become friends. It’s through the ingenuity of Charlotte, the spider, that Wilbur the pig is saved from slaughter. Wilbur and Charlotte have conversations and act in human-like ways, such as Charlotte’s ability, as described in the above passage, to write words within her web.

Example #5

They believed that I was the monster that dwells in what they call the Chamber of Secrets.

(Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling)

A recurring character in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling is the gigantic spider, Aragog. Aragon is able to speak English to Harry and other characters, but does so only when necessary. The assumption is that the character Hagrid has only civilized Aragog as far as can be done; Aragog still maintains beastly qualities. However, Aragog does have some human emotions, such as love for Hagrid. There are a few other examples of anthropomorphic characters in J. K. Rowling’s series, such as the talking ghosts like Nearly-Headless Nick, and creatures such as Dobby and Nagini.

Example #6

Sometimes the work was hard; the implements had been designed for human beings and not for animals, and it was a great drawback that no animal was able to use any tool that involved standing on his hind legs. But the pigs were so clever that they could think of a way round every difficulty.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is an example of anthropomorphism written for adults. Orwell uses the animals on a farm to represent real people who had a role in the Russian Revolution. The pigs in this novel represent the leaders of the revolution, and their subsequent corruption. In the above excerpt, there is a nod to the fact that the animals are not fully equipped to run the farm, and yet come up with other creative solutions.

Test Your Knowledge of Anthropomorphism

1. Which of the following statements is the best anthropomorphism definition?

A. Attributing certain characteristics or actions to an animal or deity such that the being acts in a human way.
B. Projecting human emotions onto an intangible concept.
C. Transforming from a human into an animal.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following sentences is an example of anthropomorphism?

A. The lava rolled angrily down the volcano, devouring everything in its path.
B. Fluffy the bunny got dressed and cooked herself some breakfast.
C. The dogs barked at each other from across the park.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is an example of personification and C is an example of animals acting normally as animals.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series is not an example of anthropomorphism?

A. Treebeard, the Ent
B. Smaug, the Dragon
C. Aragorn, the Ranger
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. Aragorn is the only human of the above examples.[/spoiler]