Definition of Adynaton

Adynaton is a form of in which a statement is so extreme as to imply that it’s impossible. One of the most famous examples of adynaton in English is the phrase, “I’ll believe that when pigs fly.” The clear implication in this phrase is that pigs will never fly, and thus the speaker will never believe what is in question.

The word adynaton comes from the Greek word ἀδύνατον (adunaton), which means “unable” or “impossible.” The definition of adynaton developed from this idea of impossibility and became a hyperbolic figure of speech.

Common Examples of Adynaton

Stevie Wonder’s song “As” contains many examples of adynaton. Here is a brief excerpt of the lyrics, in which he explains how long he will love the woman he’s singing to:

Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea
Until we dream of life and life becomes a dream
Until the day is night and night becomes the day
Until the trees and seas just up and fly away
Until the day that 8x8x8 is 4
Until the day that is the day that are no more
Until the day the earth starts turning right to left
Until the earth just for the sun denies itself
Until dear Mother Nature says her work is through
Until the day that you are me and I am you

There are several idioms in many different languages that are adynaton examples, such as the following:

Significance of Adynaton in Literature

Adynaton examples were frequent in Classical literature, such as in the works of Ancient Greek and Roman poets and playwrights. It became less popular over time, and was barely used in the Middle Ages. Poets in the Romantic Era revived the literary device to some degree in order to show how their love was more endless than the most natural of events. Stevie Wonder’s song “As” follows in this tradition.

There are also countless examples in proverbs, legends, and examples of that contain adynata (the plural of adynaton). Characters in these stories are assigned impossible tasks which they are given to prove their mortality or unimportance. However, generally the characters in legends succeed through cunning or sheer strength, which can prove didactic in some cases. For example, Hercules is assigned impossible tasks but still succeeds. In the contemporary young adult novel The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster, the hero Milo is assigned impossible tasks by both demons and mentors; when he realizes what he is capable of, a mentor remarks, “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Examples of Adynaton in Literature

Example #1

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 25When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

(Mark 10: 23-27, King James Bible)

The remark that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” is one of the most famous examples of adynaton in all of Western culture. This quote is from the Bible, and is a phrase that Jesus used to explain what is important about a person’s nature. Wealth is not the important aspect. Notably, Jesus is using this adynaton example very purposefully, explaining that some things that seem impossible are possible through his teachings.

Example #2

MACBETH: Whence is that knocking?
How is ’t with me when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

In this excerpt from William Shakespeare’s of Macbeth, the character of Macbeth has just recently murdered King Duncan. He is feeling the extreme sensation of guilt when he remarks that it is not possible for “all great Neptune’s ocean” to “wash this blood / Clean from [his] hand.” Shakespeare cleverly uses this adynaton example in a different way than most writers. The character of Macbeth wonders if something that seems very possible can happen, and concludes that it cannot. His guilt is so great that not all the water in all of the oceans of the world can wash the blood from his hands. In fact, he imagines the opposite will occur; that the blood on his hands will turn the oceans red.

Example #3

MOTHER: Your promise, heart-and-hand, was meant?
BRAND: I’ll come the moment you repent. (moves closer)
But I must set conditions too.
All earthly bonds now binding you
you must cast off and freely waive,
and go down naked to your grave.
MOTHER: (strikes out wildly at him)
Part heat from fire, then, by that notion,
part frost from snow, wet from the ocean!
Ask less!

(Brand by Henrik Ibsen, trans. John Northam)

Henrik Ibsen’s play Brand centers around an idealistic Norwegian priest named Brand who often passes unfair judgment on others in his quest for righteousness. In the above excerpt, Brand has gone back to the place where he was born and learns that his mother robbed his father on his deathbed. Brand asks his mother to repent, but his mother says that he must “ask less.” She uses a few adynton examples in her reply, implying that it would be easier to “part heat from fire,” “part frost from snow, wet from the ocean” than for her to do what her son is asking.

Example #4

You will probably understand me better if I say plainly that the month was October and the day the thirteenth. I cannot, however, be so precise about the hour—one can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks—but it was between twelve noon and one o’clock in the afternoon.

(Claudius the God by Robert Graves)

In his sequel to his best-selling novel I, Claudius, Robert Graves uses an example of adynaton. The adynaton he uses—“one can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks”—is attributed to Seneca, the Roman philosopher. Graves most likely chose this adynaton in order to give his contemporary novel more of Classical feel.