Personification is the act in speech and writing of giving inanimate objects, abstract concepts, or actions human or near human characteristics. This is different than anthropomorphism, which gives animals both human personality and behavior. It is a type of metaphor, since it is a metaphoric way of spicing up writing, and making the abstract more relatable.
Though personification is a frequent literary device in poetry, it is also in daily common speech. For example, a person might look at a clock and say, “Time just got away from me.” This suggests that the concept of “time” has self-will, and the person was attempting wrestle with time to stay put. Time however “got away.”
Even young children use this device regularly. A child might be asked if he threw a pencil. The child might reply, “I didn’t throw it. It threw itself.” While the child here uses personification as an evasion tactic, he is still giving the pencil somewhat human characteristics that it does not possess.
In literature, it is easy to find examples: fog “creeps,” thoughts “explode,” trees “menace,” and clouds “portend.” Death becomes a “messenger.” These examples are all ways in which a writer can make ordinary objects or abstract concepts essentially come alive and provide more of an emotional feel for the reader. The examples above also give the things human characteristics, which connect to the reader’s understanding of the human world, and human actions.
In the magazine In Context, Joseph Campbell gave an interview in 1985 where he suggested that personification was one way in which those following a religion came to terms with the huge and abstract concept of God. Of course, the Bible says that Man is made in “God’s image.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this immediately personifies God: He is male and looks like a man.
This allows for people to more readily keep to the concept of a personal God, since he is like a father, who looks very much like human beings. Earlier religious concepts also suggest personification of a number of things present in the environment or in the stars.
Animism sees aspects of the divine in simple natural elements, like the sun, the moon, the trees, or the river. By ascribing human intent or characteristics to these objects, better understanding of what constitutes a deity or multiple deities is reached.
If the sun laughs when it is high in the sky, or the moon sleeps, these astral bodies are suddenly human and therefore a person can relate to them. Conversely, when the sun is described in purely scientific terms, it often becomes remote and impersonal. It may be understood scientifically, but is much harder to “get” emotionally.