Often, an anagogic interpretation is used to understand allusions to the afterlife. That is, the Christian afterlife as it’s described in the Bible and in other religious documents. When using an anagogic interpretation, the reader understands the text and elevates it. It is, as a famed religious scholar noted, a way of “reasoning upwards.”
The term anagogic is not commonly used. It’s a way of describing one possible interpretation of text, usually religious texts, or ones that have a Christian tone/meaning. If one takes an anagogical interpretation of a text, they’re reading between the lines looking for allusions to the afterlife and the spiritual.
On one level a text might appear to be a story about simple secular concerns but after using this type of interpretation one might realize that there are religious/spiritual elements to the story as well. There might be symbols, phrases, or images that relate the secular to the spiritual, specifically to concepts of Heaven.
The term “anagogical” is most commonly used when researchers and scholars are talking about the Christian biblical scriptures. It is one of four ways that the scriptures are understood or interpreted. The other three are:
The latter, tropological, is an unusual word as well. It refers to interpreting things with morality in mind. It is used when someone is interpreting the Bible figuratively as filed with stories that are meant to convey a moral life, rather than one that’s telling history as it happened. For a time, this method of interpretation was closely associated with allegorical. But, eventually, the Church made a distinction between the two.
Today, allegorical meaning assumes that the Bible has many different levels of meaning and spirituality. It is more closely connected to spirituality than it is to story-telling.
Finally, there is the literal or historical meaning of the Bible. It is self-explanatory in that one focuses on reading the passages of the Bible as though they are documenting historical fact.
Examples of Anangogical Interpretations
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Dante himself stated that The Divine Comedy can be interpreted in several different ways. First, there is a literal and allegorical meaning. But, the latter can be divided into both moral and anagogical meanings as well. For example, one can read the lines of The Divine Comedy and learn things about living a good life. But, they can also read those same lines and take a spiritual meaning from them. They might provide spiritual direction or speak to the Christian God’s intentions for humanity and the afterlife. Here are the few most famous lines from the epic poem:
Thus it was up to God, to Him alone
in His own ways – by one or both, I say –
to give man back his whole life and perfection.
But since a deed done is more prized the more
it manifests within itself the mark
of the loving heart and goodness of the doer,
the Everlasting Love, whose seal is plain
on all the wax of the world was pleased to move
in all His ways to raise you up again.
This section of text can be found in the third book of The Divine Comedy, Paradiso. In it, Dante travels through Heaven, guided by his true love, Beatrice, a symbol of theology.
Exodus 14:21, The Bible
In Exodus 14:21, readers encounter the story of the parting of the Red Sea by Moses. He stretched out his hand, and God drove the sea back by a wind, making the land dry. Here is a version of the text:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided,and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
When interpreting these events in an anagogical sense, one can understand the parting as God’s way of paving a direct path to Heaven for humanity. Following this path, one can reach their spiritual destination.
Anagogical interpretation is concerned with interpreting texts’ relevance to one’s ascendancy to Heaven. Taking this mode of interpretation allows readers to engage with the spiritual elements of a written work. It is usually associated with the scriptures.
Allegorical interpretations are concerned with the meaning behind a text, while anagogical is specifically interested in the spiritual sense, especially as it relates to the afterlife.
The anagogical level is a way of interpreting a text. If one uses it, they’re going to be seeking out a spiritual interpretation of a literary work, statement, image, symbol, etc.
Related Literary Terms
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Apologue: a short story, sometimes a fable, that shares a moral lesson. For example, kindness is more important than power, or love triumphs over hate.
- Exemplum: a short story, narrative, anecdote, or tale that’s used in literature to explain moral reasoning.
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.