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I need to define my terms quite carefully for this question. So the Mirriam-Webster definition of allusion is:

an implied or indirect reference especially in literature
i.e. a poem that makes allusions to classical literature

For clarity, then, I'm not talking about the age-old practice of writers taking direct inspiration from other works, such as the way Shakespeare and his peers "borrowed" older stories and rewrote them for the stage. I'm specifically talking about writers deliberately including pointers or references to an earlier work without specifically naming it, or copying parts of it.

By way of example, I'll offer the earliest one I can think of: Joyce's Ulysses from 1922. The author was wholly upfront about the fact that it contains multiple references to the Odyssey. But if he had not been, there is nothing absolutely obvious from the text to indicate the connection. Readers would have had to work it out from the title (a very big clue) and the way that the subject matter of each chapter has a very loose parallel to the stages of the Odyssey.

Joyce, like the other modernists, was creating these allusions deliberately as modernists self-consciously sought to situate their work within a larger literary tradition. The fact they did so indicates that earlier authors didn't always perceive that larger framework in quite the same way. I'm not terribly well-read in Regency or Victoria literature although it seems they did occasionally include allusions, particularly to the Bible or Shakespeare, although for questionable literary effect.

I'm interested in how this practice developed and culminated in the deliberate attempts at rich allusion in modernist literature, something which has persisted to the present day. So where did allusion begin, across novels, plays and poetry, and what was the literary purpose of the earliest example?

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Parody is a genre in which a writer makes a series of allusions to a specific work, or to the works of another writer generally, or to a whole genre or style. The target of a parody is usually not indicated explicitly, but left for the reader or audience to identify.

An early example of parody appears in the play The Acharnians (425 BCE) by Aristophanes. In this play, the Athenian Dicaeopolis, who has concluded a private peace treaty with Sparta, is confronted by a chorus of charcoal-burners from Acharnae, who threaten to kill him.

Dicaeopolis Nay, nay! have mercy, have mercy, Acharnians.

Chorus You shall die.

Dicaeopolis Well, blood for blood! I will kill your dearest friend. I have here the hostages of Acharnae; I shall disembowel them.

Chorus Acharnians, what means this threat? Has he got one of our children in his house? What gives him such audacity?

Dicaeopolis Stone me, if it please you; I shall avenge myself on this. (Shows a basket [of charcoal].) Let us see whether you have any love for your coals.

Chorus Great Gods! this basket is our fellow-citizen. Stop, stop, in heaven’s name!

Aristophanes (425 BCE). The Acharnians, lines 324–334. Perseus Digital Library.

This is a parody of a scene in the play Telephus by Euripides. The play has been lost, but we have a good idea of the plot from other sources. Telephus, son of Heracles, was king of Mysia, which was attacked by the Greeks on their way to Troy at the start of the Trojan War, and Telephus was wounded in the thigh by Achilles. An oracle told Telephus that the festering wound could only be healed by the one who wounded him, so he went to Argos in disguise as a beggar, and took Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, hostage, threatening to kill the boy unless Achilles healed him.

So this scene meets the requirements of the question: a reference from one fictional work to another that is not in the form of quotation, and not immediately clear from the text, unless you are familiar with the work being parodied.

We can be confident that Aristophanes intended a parody of Euripides’ Telephus, because shortly afterwards, Euripides himself is wheeled onto the stage to confirm it:

Euripides What rags do you prefer? Those in which I rigged out Aeneus on the stage, that unhappy, miserable old man?

Dicaeopolis No, I want those of some hero still more unfortunate.

Euripides Of Phoenix, the blind man?

Dicaeopolis No, not of Phoenix, you have another hero more unfortunate than him.

Euripides Now, what tatters does he want? Do you mean those of the beggar Philoctetes?

Dicaeopolis No, of another far more the mendicant.

Euripides Is it the filthy dress of the lame fellow, Bellerophon?

Dicaeopolis No, ’tis not Bellerophon; he, whom I mean, was not only lame and a beggar, but boastful and a fine speaker.

Euripides Ah! I know, it is Telephus, the Mysian.

Dicaeopolis Yes, Telephus. Give me his rags, I beg of you.

Aristophanes, lines 418–431.

In this dialogue, Aeneus, Phoenix, Philoctetes, and Bellerophon are other tragedies by Euripides: like Telephus, they are lost or survive only in fragments.

The scholia on the play indicate that some of Dicaeopolis’ tragicomic dialogue is adapted from corresponding passages in Euripides.

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  • 1
    Yes, this is a good example, thank you. I had a feeling this was quite an ancient technique but it's useful to have it verified.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 15, 2023 at 16:16
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    @MattThrower Aristophanes' plays are chock-full of parodies and other literary references: see Schlesinger (1936), "Indications of Parody in Aristophanes". Mar 15, 2023 at 21:28
  • Euripides does this in his Electra, which is otherwise a serious work. His Orestes attempts to prove his identity in the exact same ways as in Aeschylus’ play by the same name, but in this version, Electra points out that none of it proves anything. We also have the original (as well as Sophocles’ version).
    – Davislor
    Mar 16, 2023 at 19:04
  • And of course, the Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad, itself referencing or summarizing many earlier stiries. (And might not have been written as “fiction.” It’s at least loosely based on historical events.)
    – Davislor
    Mar 16, 2023 at 19:06
  • While Aeschylus’ Electra is not the original version of the tale, it is at least the specific one Euripides is parodying.
    – Davislor
    Mar 16, 2023 at 19:10
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Enuma Elish is a Babylonian creation myth that probably dates back to the late 2nd millennium BC (O'Brien & Major, 10). The fourth tablet (out of the seven that make up the entire myth) contains a description of a fight between Marduk and Tiamat (see the translation on pages 22–23 in O'Brien & Major).

The royal inscriptions of Sennacherib (704-681 BC; Oppenheim, 87) contain a report of the Battle of Halule which has been compared with the fight between Marduk and Tiamat in Enuma Elish. In the creation myth, the deliberations and preparations before the fight are describe in much more detail than the fight itself, which takes up only a dozen lines (lines 93-104 in O'Brien & Major, p. 22). Oppenheim does not consider the style of this passage particularly poetic and adds (p. 253–254),

Quite different is the way in which the battle of Sennacherib is presented. It is told in fifty long lines and exhibits such brio, such patent delight in the furor and the joys of the fight, that one forgets it is—formally—written in prose. The imagery is vivid and novel and judiciously mixes crass naturalism with a hectic flight of religious imagination. In short, it mirrors the existence of an established literary tradition that well knew how to utilize the formal and lexical possibilities of the language, (…)

The phrase "royal inscriptions" at first sight suggest "non-fiction", but these text are an unusual genre. First, when they describe a king's heroic achievements or the interventions of deities in battles, "they shift perceptibly from the wearisome patter of official diction into a style that can only be described as poetic" (Oppenheim, 253). The comparison between Enuma Elish and the royal inscriptions of Sennacherib are only one illustration of this. Second, the inscriptions were apparently not meant for dissemination. Most of them were actually embedded below a temple or a palace, where only a deity could read them. And even those that were visible were not meant to be read (Oppenheim, 147–148).

Even though these inscriptions have some basis in fact, they are meant to glorify the rulers. According to Oppenheim, the stylistic changes the inscriptions underwent can only be understood when they "are linked with their literary background". (Oppenheimer discusses this in a chapter entitled "Historical Sources or Literature?".) With this in mind, the royal inscriptions of Sennacherib seem sufficiently literary to count their allusion to Enuma Elish as a literary allusion.

References

  • O'Brien, Joan; Major, Wilfred: In the Beginning: Creation Myths from Ancient Mesopotamia, Israel and Greece. American Academy of Religion, 1982.
  • Oppenheim, A. Leo: Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Revised edition. The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

(Wikipedia articles were not used as sources.)

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The Instruction of Ptahhotep is an old Egyptian wisdom text, similar to a book of proverbs or a Mirror for Princes. Wikipedia says it was written during the Fifth Dynasty, though the Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim argued that it was most likely from the late Sixth Dynasty. Either way, that puts the latest plausible date as circa ~2200 BCE. There are allusions to specific proverbs in Middle Kingdom texts. The Satire of the Trades references Ptahhotep's eighth maxim without directly citing the original work:

When an official sends you a message
Tell it as he told it,
Don't omit, don't add to it.

By comparison, here's Lichtheim's translation of the original:

If you are a man of trust,
Sent by one great man to another,
Adhere to the nature of him who sent you,
Give his message as he said it.

While the only surviving copies of the Satire are from the New Kingdom, Egyptologists date it to the Middle Kingdom, which means it's from no later than 1650 BCE.

After writing that up I reread the question and saw you wanted a fictional example. Fortunately, we have a case of that too! The Eloquent Peasant is a mix of narrative and poetry, also from the Middle Kingdom, that also references The Instructions.

References

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The Bible is loaded with allusions to other books of the Bible, without explicitly saying so, presuming the reader is already familiar with it. Less commonly, the Bible also makes allusions to (sometimes explicit references, other times allusions) 3rd party non-Biblical works - sometimes fiction (that everyone knew was fiction), sometimes history records (i.e. annals of the kings, or annals of religious groups), sometimes artistic works, sometimes philosophical works, sometimes Hebrew, sometimes Gentile, sometimes pagan.

I'm interested in how this practice developed... So where did allusion begin, across novels, plays and poetry, and what was the literary purpose of the earliest example?

There are several literary purposes of the Bible's allusions. One is to establish theological concepts, that later can be referred to and built further upon. Basically serving the theological equivalent of a Design Pattern (computer programming), Trope (entertainment), and technical inspeak (e.g. in engineering). Complex ideas can be easier to comprehend if you break them into bite-size self-contained chunks that can be referred to with a single word or sentence. Like lego blocks, you use multiple self-contained concepts to build a larger structure.

Another Biblical purpose of allusion is to reference history, to then explain something philosophical or theological on top of it. If I want to draw a theological lesson out of WW2, I don't need to re-explain what WW2 was, I can just say, "When Hitler invaded France...". Since the Bible contains a lot of Israel's history, authors in later parts of the Bible can make reference to earlier parts of the Bible using a mere phrase from that earlier part, to reference and then build upon a whole chunk of history.

Sometimes the Bible just mentions the history itself, "...the two tablets of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the sons of Israel...",
sometimes it references the work explicitly, "In the Laws of Moses..."/"The commandments of the Lord",
sometimes it just makes allusions, "you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.". (tablets of stone here is a reference to the ten commandments, but whereas God's finger carved the ten commandments in stone tablets, God is (symbolically) writing his Words on their hearts).

Another literary purpose of allusion in the Bible is to reference other concepts that are disagreed with, and then provide a theological rebuttal to them, or to reference a non-Biblical idea someone already agrees with, a then use it as a jumping off point to direct them toward God.

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. [Allusion to Seneca the Younger] Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. [Another Seneca allusion] And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ [Aratus] Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. [Seneca] Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.”

Paul quotes Plato and Plato-Socrates several times in other letters, who lived 450 years before Paul. But as you can see in the above passage, he also alludes to Seneca the Younger quite a few times, who was a prominent Greek philosopher who was alive and popular at the same time Paul was engaging in ministry.

Paul, in his arguments, very very often references Greek philosophy, since he was classically taught as a Roman citizen, and his ministry was mostly to Greek areas of the world. He was not stealing from Plato to speak to rural non-Greeks unfamiliar with Plato's works, but was quoting Plato and Seneca to speak to highly educated Greeks in large wealthy Greek cities who would instantly recognize the allusions.

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  • Hi Jamin, the Bible consists of many books from different periods of time. You would significantly improve your answer if you could specify what books you are referring to and what their approximate year (or perhaps century) of composition is.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 17, 2023 at 16:51
  • While @Tsundoku is right about that improving the answer, it's already very good with lots of interesting detail. Thank you. Welcome to the site.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 17, 2023 at 17:00
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    Since the question is about fiction and your answer is about the Bible, I assume you consider the Bible as fiction for the purpose of this question?
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 17, 2023 at 19:58
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    Please note that considering the Bible fiction is a bit of a contentious point on this site; while the matter of if it's fiction or not is not a matter that we're going to solve on this site, we do generally prefer other sources when explicitly discussing fiction.
    – Mithical
    Mar 19, 2023 at 16:28
  • I don't think this posts fully answer's the OP's question though - not only is the Bible a collection of various different texts written in different time periods, but you'd need to show pretty substantial proof that the books written later (like the New Testament which were all written sometime in the ADs) were in fact some of the earliest examples of allusion. Mar 19, 2023 at 23:47

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