2015.0616 Research_symbol and metaphor

What Is the Difference between a Metaphor and a Symbol?

The difference between a metaphor and a symbol is that a metaphor is a direct substitution of one idea or object for another, while a symbol is used to imply something else. Metaphors change their surface meanings, but the inner meaning is unchanging. The surface meaning of symbols is less important than the inner meaning.

A metaphor and a symbol can be included in many forms of art and literature. A difference between them is that symbols are not used in rhetoric or discourse, whereas metaphors are. In rhetoric, metaphors are usually used as a story or as an extended anecdote. They are used to provide an example of the point the speaker or writer is trying to make.

Metaphors are continuous and can form parts of narrative. A long metaphor is known either as an extended metaphor or as an allegory. Films, poems and novels can include symbols, but only metaphors are used as a narrative device. Sometimes entire films, poems and novels are metaphors such as “Animal Farm,” which is an allegory about the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

One difference between a metaphors and symbols is that symbols are more succinct. The symbol can be a single person or object and can be inserted within a larger piece or narrative. Short metaphors, where there are like for like word substitutions, are not metaphors or symbols. Examples of these include metonymy and kennings, where words are replaced by others with the same basic meaning.

Carl Jung believed there was a separation between signs and symbols. His ideas on symbols relate to his ideas on archetypes. For Jung, Christ is a symbol for the self. In this sense, symbols are culturally specific, but also deeply personal. The meanings held within symbols are put there by humans .

The differences between a metaphor and a symbol in art is demonstrated by comparing a pair of paintings. Sandro Botticelli pained “La Primavera” in 1482, while Hans Holbein the Younger painted “The Ambassadors” in 1533. “La Primavera” is ostensibly about spring using a cast of mythological beings. “The Ambassadors,” on the other hand, is about a meeting between Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve.

On the surface “La Primavera” provides like for like substitutions of mythological figures for spring. It also may hark back to ideas concerning the blossoming of the whole world and the Garden of Eden. Others, such as Marsilio Ficino, see it as a metaphor for neoplatonic love. The difference between a metaphor and a symbol here is that the whole painting is one metaphor or allegory.

“The Ambassadors” uses symbols to provide additional information concerning who the figures are and the story behind their meeting. It does not attempt to tell a second story, but to provide additional information. For example, the lute next to Georges de Selve’s knee is a symbol of peace, but the cord is broken to symbolize discord.

Using Metaphors & Symbols

Movies themselves are metaphors for how humans experience life on a deeper level. Creating a unique language of metaphors and symbols for your film is a big part of being a visual storyteller. Symbolic images help us to understand abstract concepts that cannot always be translated into words. 

Metaphor = Action/Sound. Visual or auditory representation of a separate action, experience, or idea. A character blows out (action) a candle in a bedroom to show death of a loved one. 

Symbol = Object/Sound. Visual or auditory representation of another object. The candle (object) is in the shape of a ballerina to show grace and beauty.

Motifs = Collections. Collections of related metaphors or symbols used to represent a related concept. Lights or flames going on and off to show life or death states throughout a film.

Leit Motifs = Repetition. The repetition of identical metaphors or symbols to represent greater concept. The color of the candle is gold (valuable color), along with other gold symbolic objects and activities in each scene to show the overall concept of what is valuable in character’s life. 


Possible Metaphoric/Symbolic Meaning


Chivalry, spiritual carrier,surpremacy, generosity, courage


Queen of flowers, love, devotion, beauty, sweetness, creative powers


Chaos, destruction, welled-up emotions overflowing, retribution


Fertility, wine, pleasure, harvest, 


Source, life-giving, medicinal, spiritual refreshment


Death, rejuvenation, bloody, violent

Tattoo of sweetheart

“Lover” character trait, committed

Getting a tattoo

Transformation, rebel, outsider, change

The number “8”

Renewal, traveling between higher and lower worlds (spiders), resonance

Crops dying in field

Loss of life force

Heat waves on road

Angry emotions boiling over


Past experiences, hidden things, family patterns/secrets



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