Vanitas by Pieter Claesz
So why would anyone put a candle about to go out, a skull, a withering flower, a watch, a cracked nut, and a letternote on a table together?
"He went back until he was ninety to see a
hat? Why didn't he just go back to the store and buy a new one?"
Mother's eyes hardened. "The story isn't about the hat, Jimmy."
"Sure, it is. The hat, the hat, that's all you talked about. Every other word was 'hat.'"
— The Man in the Ceiling by Jules Feiffer
Essentially, this is when something would normally stretch Willing Suspension of Disbelief
, but it is so central to the themes or premise of the story that it is allowed so that it can be used as a symbol.
It's considered deep and profound for some, dumb and pretentious for others.
A Natural Spotlight
is often this.
This rule is also related to the Anthropic Principle
. What Anthropic Principle
is for the existence of a work, Rule of Symbolism
is for the core meaning
of a work.
A Super Trope
to Crucified Hero Shot
, World of Symbolism
, Purple Is Powerful
, Symbol Motif Clothing
Compare Does This Remind You of Anything?
Contrast Faux Symbolism
(when something only appears symbolic), What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?
, Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory
(when people see symbolism in everything). See also Stock Monster Symbolism
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Anime and Manga
- Neon Genesis Evangelion is infamous for this... although what's actually symbolic and what's just window dressing is under considerable debate.
- This trope is almost entirely responsible for anime Hair Colors and Personality Blood Types.
- One Piece has a ton of things mostly justifiable by the symbolism involved. One example that stands out is the Rumbar Pirates' last song together: the entire crew getting up and singing while all suffering fatal arrow wounds then dying one by one is patently absurd, but it works because it drives home the sense of loss that the scene calls for.
- The Revolutionary Girl Utena movie runs almost entirely on this, containing such outrageous examples as constantly moving, modernist-esque buildings, surreal video sequences, and it's main character turning into a car for a final, dramatic chase sequence -the whole movie is intended to be just one big symbolic story about maturation and adolescence.
- Except possibly the car thing. At least one source claims Word of God is that the creator just wanted to turn a girl into a car.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica is full of this.
- Ergo Proxy... maybe.
- Magic in To Aru Majutsu no Index practically requires this trope to work, since magic relies on "idols" which use symbolism in order to draw power from the original. It's more obvious with the Roman Catholic Church's magic, especially that of God's Right Seat, in which each member represents an archangel of Christianity and has a unique power which draws from God.
- Descendants of Darkness sure loves its Cherry Blossoms of Death, whose short lifespan is apparently reflective of humanity, to a shinigami.
- Loveless. Butterflies, anyone? Since the manga is essentially about growing up and/or leaving behind the past to become something new.
- The Survey Corps in Attack on Titan have wings on their crest, representing freedom. Fitting, considering they are the division that spends the most time outside the Walls and scouting the world for humanity.
- Casshern Sins gives us Casshern's flesh and Luna's blood, both set up as a twisted version of the Eucharist.
- The Matrix is meant to be interpreted symbolically. That's half of what makes the first one so great. On the other hand, this trope is largely what did in the sequels, which sacrificed plot for thematic indulgences, meaningless symbolism and pointless digressions that just slowed the pacing to a halt.
- Citizen Kane is lauded by critics and hated by others for extensive use of this trope.
- Julie Taymor's version of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
- Equilibrium: Probably the only reason the drug ampules looks like bullets and the drug is injected with an apparatus that looks like a gun.
- Viviana's execution robe is blood red, the color of martyrs.
- Father extolls Prozium as the "opiate of the masses", a frequent variation on Karl Marx's view of religion as the "opium of the people".
- Takashi Miike's Gozu makes almost no sense at all without the realization that, not only is nearly everything symbolic, it uses symbols and tropes drawn from several entirely unrelated sources ( mainly Japanese and Greek mythology, as well as psychological metaphors for the main character's coming to terms with his homosexuality).
- Roger Ebert made an observation regarding the controversial ending of Taxi Driver: "The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level."
- Star Wars is rife with incidents of symbol-intensive, yet belief-defying events.
- Inception is filled to the brim with more things that could possibly be symbolic than you'll ever see. However, since most of the film takes place in peoples' dream and it's explicitly mentioned that artificially-created dreams only provide the frame, which is then filled in by the dreamer's subconsciousness, it's mostly justified.
- The Dark Knight Saga. Batman watches over Gotham from high ground once per movie, combines with Cue the Sun across the films: Batman Begins is at pre-dawn, The Dark Knight is at daybreak, and The Dark Knight Rises is in morning twilight.
- The Dark Knight Rises when bats randomly appear just before Bruce attempt the jump that will succeed and finally climb out of the Pit.
- American Beauty: Everything. The director goes into great detail in the commentary about it. Its ripe for Media study classes.
- Done In-Universe by the eponymous heroine of That Lady In Ermine wears an ermine coat to show her majesty to an invading army, along with bare feet to show humility.
- Black Swan would also invoke this trope. For instance, Mila Kunis's character Lily wears her hair out during ballet training and doesn't bother to do any warm-ups. It's to demonstate her free-spirited nature, even though no ballet studio on Earth would let her get away with either of those things.
- Sucker Punch, when you have a metaphor/fantasy scene, inside another metaphor/fantasy scene, which all reverts around another metaphor/meaning.
- From The Sixth Sense. Would you really expect a woman to wear a bright red dress to a funeral? You would if she's the killer.
- In the Disney animated feature film, The Lion King, the symbol that made sure Simba overcame his unnecessary guilt, was during the cleansing rains pouring down on Pride Rock after the final battle, a wildebeest skull is washed away by the torrent.
- In the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a scene takes place in a bathhouse which produces an usually high amount of steam. The symbolism comes from the fact that in this scene Rosencrantz first notices that one of the players is an Expy of himself, and he begins to suspect that things might be more than they seem. In essence, Rosencrantz is finally seeing through the fog.
- The film version of Being There ends with Chance The Gardener walking on water.
- Two paintings play a symbolic role in Skyfall. When Bond first meets Q in an art museum, Q talks about the painting of a once-powerful warship, now in decrepit shape, being towed to the breakers, with the obvious insinuations about the aging Bond. At the end of the film, when Bond has gotten his Bond-esque confidence and skills back and meets Mallory/M in his new office, there a painting of another warship in the background. This one is in its prime and furiously blasting away in battle.
- In Film/Batman, the Batwing flies into the air directly in front of the moon to make the Batman symbol, then flies back down, with no explanation as to why Batman would just fly up for a second.
- TRON: Legacy:
- Kevin Flynn is God to the programs, and Jesus in terms of artistic direction. One noticeable scene is when he puts up his hood and walks into the wild after Clu's rebellion, kinda like how Jesus walked into the desert to be tested. Also, if Flynn is God, Sam and CLU are Jesus and Lucifer, respectively, and the ISOs are humanity.
- Clu's Carrier is different from Sark's; when viewed from the side, it looks an awful lot like a sword.
- The arrival of the son of the creator is heralded by a star in the east. (At one point, Sam mentions they're going "east" to the portal.)
- Flynn's confrontation with Clu has hints of the parable of the Prodigal Son (a father figure accepting/welcoming back his wayward son).
- The Last Circus works as an allegory of the Spanish Civil War with the protagonist and antagonist representing the Republicans and the Fascists respectively.
- In the Donner Cut of Superman II , Clark gets his powers back by Jor-El giving him the last of his life energy or something through a shiny projection of himself...or something. Irrelevant as the scene is designed to bring full circle the words spoken by Jor-El back in the first Superman film and furthering the Christ/God/Father/Son themes. "The son becomes the father, the father becomes the son."
- Throughout The Bourne Series, water symbolizes death. In The Bourne Identity, Jason was discovered in the middle of the ocean after having been shot by Wombosi's men, without any memory of his life beforehand. In The Bourne Supremacy, Marie gets shot while driving, taking their jeep off the bridge to the water below, and we later learn that Jason's first Treadstone mission took place on a rainy night. And in The Bourne Ultimatum, it's shown in flashbacks that, as David Webb, he was waterboarded into becoming Jason Bourne when he first joined Treadstone, and in the end, he falls into the water after apparently being shot, mirroring his first appearance.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Incredible Deadly Viper offering the Baudelaires an apple to cure the medusoid mycelium in The End.
- The book of Revelation/The Apocalypse of St. John in The Bible: It was primarily an indictment against Rome, and wouldn't have made it past the Roman censors had its author(s) not hidden their message under a heap of symbolic language. ("The seven heads are seven hills").
- The Discworld novel Monstrous Regiment relies on this a lot. The events and reveals near the end of the book rely heavily on the fact that they are extensions of the premise.
- The Toni Morrison novel Sula has the Deweys - three unrelated boys who are all given the same name and treated as interchangeable, subsequently becoming Single Minded Triplets who are somehow all child-sized after a decade or so. The bizarre, unlikely biology at work here is that they represent the larger social effects of stereotyping.
- The weird... meteor... giant "A"... THING that appears in the sky about midway through The Scarlet Letter.
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has Chief Bromden's role as narrator and the specifics of his hallucinations. Bromden's hallucinations (his belief in everyone receiving mechanical implants, his Mind-Control Conspiracy theory "The Combine," etc.) guide the book's symbolism.
- Thomas Pynchon's Magnum Opus Gravitys Rainbow is so rife with symbolism integrated magnificently into the story (even much of the squick is symbolic!) that there's plenty of symbolism to be seen even when it might not be there at all!
- The Wheel of Time has symbolism from almost every mythological source around, and somehow integrates it into the story all the time without sounding pretentious.
- The series could easily be accused of Faux Symbolism, since it tends to throw in names from dozens of mythologies without always drawing meaningful parallels to the myths. However, due to the nature of the series's cosmology, even the meaningless symbolism has meaning, since it ties into the theme of how myths are misremembered and misinterpreted as they fade over time.
- William Golding had a plane evacuating children from England crash in the Pacific rather than the Atlantic Ocean in Lord of the Flies specifically so that he could contrast his setting with that of another book, which also featured an island in the Pacific.
- Lord of the Flies is loaded with this. Why does Piggy's hair remain short and neat while the other boys sport shaggy, unkempt hair? Because he is the symbolic embodiment of reason and intelligence.
- In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen Meany himself seems to base his actions on this principle; for instance, he repeatedly uses the loss of limbs in symbolic gestures
- In the first Harry Potter book, Harry is trapped by Professor Quirrel, but Quirrel is unable to kill Harry because the love from Harry's mother, who sacrificed herself to save him had a lasting effect on him that prevented a loveless, heartless person like Quirrel from being able to touch him. Normally, this could be seen as a flawed Deus ex Machina ending, but the symbolism of Lily Potter's love, and the moral message that it brings to readers, makes this more than acceptable. It helps that it's not simply dropped, and remains a major plot element throughout the series. In fact, we later find out that there are are at least six different factors involved that had never been combined before.
- Same with Harry pulling Godric Gryffindor's sword out of the Sorting Hat in the second book, to demonstrate that a person's choices are what ultimately determines what kind of person they are. Of course, it could have just been sent to Harry by Dumbledore. If this is the case, then it's a subversion.
- In The Pale King, The IRS seal depicts the mythical hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera, which represents those who are stuck doing the difficult and unpopular work.
- The Fractured Fairy Tale short stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Everything in them. Almost none of them make any sense at face value.
- The book The Rules of Survival deals with a teenage boy and his younger sisters living with their abusive mother. The cover? A picture of a bowl of broken glass with a spoon sticking out of it.
- During a flashback to his college years, Stuttering Bill Denbrough, one of the heroes of Stephen King's It lampshades this trope by asking the professor (and students) in his creative writing class, "Why does everything have to have hidden meaning? Can't you guys just let a story be a story?" When the Professor sarcastically asked the exasperated Denbrough if he thought people like Shakespeare and Hemmingway were "just writing stories", Denbrough replies, "Yeah, pretty much." The professor suggests Denbrough "has a lot to learn".
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy starts Season 6 by clawing her way out of her grave into the night, beginning a year-long Heroic BSOD. She ends the season climbing out of another grave into the light, having rediscovered the value of living.
- Smallville, being a show on the teenage years of Superman, has a large amount of these.
- The Prisoner is nothing but this Trope.
- In Breaking Bad, the plane crash at the end of Season 2 and Gus' death and last moments of life at the end of season 4 are somewhat out of place in an otherwise subtle and highly realistic show, but the symbolic point they make, especially of the former, are very important to the series.
- Also, most of the Cold Open scenes in general, specially in season 2 and 5.
- In Wizards of Waverly Place, when Justin and Harper find Alex who is painting in an artists alley she's painted her first initial surrounded by a circle. That symbol also happens to be the universal symbol for anarchy. Symbolic much?
- A lot of the criticism leveled at the new Battlestar Galactica came from the tendency of the writers to draw thematic and symbolic parallels to real-world events, even when it didn't make sense for the world of the show. Many saw the show as a 9/11 allegory, even though the damage the Cylons inflicted on the humans was incalculably greater than that of the terrorist attacks on America. The absurdity of a room full of reporters questioning the president was pointed out many times — it was meant to resemble the real-world political situation, but a population of less than fifty thousand could not possibly need that many competing news organizations. The abortion storyline was meant to challenge the audience's ideas about real-world abortion, but the fact that the fleet would have a very hard time supporting a bunch of helpless infants clearly made Roslin's decision unfeasible.
- Vanitas paintings, about the transitory nature of life, are usually still lifes of the most incongruous objects, all chosen to reflect some aspect of it.
- Mage: The Awakening has a lot of this, mostly because it internally posits magic that works according to symbolic principles. Most monsters and phenomena, several organizational principles, and the Supernal Realms operate according to symbolic logic. There's even a Sourcebook filled with plot hooks referencing Tarot Motifs (such as a man who overcame his addictions and became a stable, fulfilled and productive family man and community paragon who makes a metal sculpture of a T-Rex that can come to life and will serve whoever defeats it, representing Strength).
- The Rose Tattoo has roses and rose-flavored things everywhere, starting with the names of Rosario delle Rose, the original owner of the tattoo, and his daughter Rosa.
- The overbearing Winter versus Summer in Celebration, the Spiritual Successor to The Fantasticks.
- There were a few instances in Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem which stretched the audience's Willing Suspension of Disbelief but had symbolism instead. For example, when Johnny ("Rooster") beats the bongo drum heavily in the last scene to "summon giants", after a few moments, the audience then hears three loud stomps in a similar style to footsteps, then on the last stomp the stage blacks out instantly, ending the play. It's unlikely there were actually giants in context to the rest of the play, so it can be interpreted more easily as a metaphor (which carries symbolism) rather than a literal event.
- In John Milton's Comus, the spirit makes a point that the dull herb that can break magic has a golden flower "in another country".
- Cryostasis Sleep Of Reason might be the single greatest example of this in video games, much of the plot is symbologically told through a fairy tale. The monsters quickly turn from Ice Zombies to weird abstract demons, and God help you if you attempt to make any non-symbolic sense of the ending, hell, God help you if you attempt to make sense of anything after you enter the Prison.
- The whole of Silent Hill 2 itself is pretty much 80% symbolism. Another notable example — one of many — is when, near the beginning of the game, James stumbles across a bloody corpse that looks exactly like him slouched in an armchair, in front of a TV blaring static; a splatter of blood is also present on the TV, implying suicide. This would later be some pretty huge (and not to mention tragic) foreshadowing, when James watches a tape near the end of the game that reveals he murdered his wife, Mary. Fittingly, one of the several endings available includes poor James drowning himself. In addition, Freud would have had a field day with Team Silent — don't even mention how Pyramid Head essentially looks like a walking penis.
- In The World Ends with You, Joshua's air attack stance looks like a crucifixion pose, and he attacks with beams and spears of light surrounded by glowing cherubs and angelic wings. Also, his name is derived from the same name from which the name of Jesus comes. At the end of the game, it turns out he is the Composer, which is essentially the god of the UG, and that he has decided to destroy Shibuya because the people have faltered, a la God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Megumi refers to him, the pronouns are always capitalized; a tradition usually associated with the Abrahamic God.
- Corpses show up in crucifixion poses all over Bioshock, but a half dozen show up in the lobby of Andrew Ryan's office. Appropriate, since the player spends the game listening to the audio logs of how Ryan goes from Anti-Villain to It's All About Me through a series of characters with a desire to stop Ryan, only to find all their corpses mounted to columns.
- In Final Fantasy VII the name of our very The Ace is a symbol: Zack (of course short for Zachery...) means "Memory", ...
- The Final Boss of Final Fantasy IX, Necron, is one of the biggest cases of Giant Space Flea from Nowhere in the industry, but fans of the game justify his appearance with this. The main theme of the game is that everyone and everything wants to live, and even the Big Bad Kuja is only trying to kill everyone because his own life has been robbed from him by his father, Garland. Necron is the Anthropomorphic Personification of death, and shows up in the end to give the heroes a chance to literally defeat Death itself.
- Metal Gear Solid 2 - just about the whole game from Raiden's capture onward, but with special emphasis on the "She is Lady Luck!" scene. Hideo Kojima has stated that the scene where the miraculous bullet strikes Snake's handcuffs and allows him to break out of them, but Raiden remains struggling as Snake dives into the sea, is the most blatantly symbolic scene in the game. Metal Gear Solid 4's ending probably falls under this trope as well, since it revolves around (implausibly) killing off the older generation to make way for the new generation, the game's main theme.
- Fallout 3 has Abraham Lincoln's head missing from his memorial, which was taken over by slavers. The head is in the possession of a group of escaped slaves who want to take it back to the memorial and use it as their headquarters. One wonders how a huge stone head found its way from downtown Washington DC to a building several miles away, but the symbolism of re-attaching Lincoln's head is more important.
- If you talk to the slavers, they'll explain that they defaced the statue to erase Lincoln from known history. It's hard to incite a slave rebellion if your fellow slaves think that nobody has ever successfully abolished slavery.
- Persona 3 - The Mole reveals himself and captures the heroes, and then sets them up on crosses while he flaunts his victory. Seems to come from nowhere at first, but when you consider the ending in which the protagonist sacrifices his life to save mankind from a being that arose because of the collective sins of man...
- Likewise, the powerful shadows in Persona 4 represent sides of the characters' inner selves that they would prefer to keep concealed so naturally, when you finally see them, the symbolism just slaps you around with a fresh tuna. A caged bird? A gigantic over-muscled *thing* with flowers for a head? A half-man half-woman robot thing? Yeah.
- This tends to be the only strong defense for Red Dead Redemption's ending. John Marston's death makes the entire game essentially a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story and leaves the player to play as a character who is widely considered to be The Scrappy, but the symbolism of a large number of government agents shooting down one of the last aging gunslingers ties into the game's theme so well, it works.
- The Neverhood abounds with symbolism related to the Garden of Eden, from the setting itself (which is a kind of Eden-gone-sideways) to the main villain's plot (he stole his leader's crown—the only thing in The Neverhood he wasn't allowed to have—and therefore corrupted it). There's even the fact that said villain, Klogg, is actually the protagonist's older brother. If this sounds heavy-handed, though, don't worry—despite the symbolic story, the game itself is mostly just randomness, slapstick, and cool claymation.
- The old RTS 7th Legion has much symbolism related to the Apocalypse.
- Yume Nikki takes place in a Dream Land. Being more dream-like than usual, the game is composed entirely of this and Rule of Scary.
- In Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk II, this is how fans think of the Ruling Ending: Even if you end the Console Wars by having one Super Console that plays everything, piracy will always continue to exist. With only one super console, the industry will stall without competition. And the gaming world will not improve without competition, will fall apart sooner or later.
- The Ancient Cistern in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has a deep symbolic relation with Eastern folklore, subtly referencing the events of the story The Spider's Thread.
- On their episode on Metroid: Other M, the guys at Unskippable had fun pointing all the obvious mother/child related symbolism (The title being an anagram of Mother, forming the abbreviation Mom. The baby's cry alarm. The bottle station shaped like a baby's bottle) in the intro. Paul eventually declares "I am starting to think this is just a symbolic dream Samus is having."
- What Braid is seemingly about is a man called Tim trying to rescue a princess from an evil monster. What Braid is really about, and who or what Tim, the Princess and the Monster represent is a topic that is heavily debated, with ideas ranging from the game being about one man's slip from sanity, the relationships between men and women in general, a man trying to fix a crumbling relationship, a man learning that some mistakes cannot be reversed, a man stalking an innocent women etc. It's kinda Mind Screwy, you see. The most accepted theory is that Tim is a scientist on the Manhattan Project and the Princess is the Atom Bomb but even that is contested. However, what the game is actually about is entirely up to you, as Word of God refuses to elaborate.
- The boy that Shepard sees killed at the start of Mass Effect 3 and repeatedly dreams about is outright stated to be the symbol that this time Shepard can't save everyone. The appearance of the boy as a visual representation of the Catalyst symbolizes that Shepard can end the war but still can't save everyone: either the friendly AIs like EDI and (possibly) the geth, Shepard, or Shepard's physical body and humanity, have to be sacrificed.
- OFF. Is it a straight After the End story? Is it a deconstruction of blank-slate protagonists with a goal to defeat everything? Is it the story of a man fleeing from his abusive, clingy girlfriend? Is it a look at single-minded obsession, perhaps even obsessive-compulsive disorder? Or is it, as the LP claimed, all about a male stereotype systematically destroying femininity and what he perceives as negative male stereotypes? Worse still, the author refuses to comment on it, preferring to go on about his boat.
- The web series Broken Saints is loaded with this.
- Each season of the French Canadian post-apocalyptic Webseries Temps Mort could be compared to a period of the prehistoric era.
- The first is the pre-sapiens era where everybody was on is own.
- The second the time when humans was nomad.
- The third the beginning of sedentarism
- The finale being a clear reference to the myth of Moise, symbolise the dawn of civilisation.
- Lampshaded by Young Man in the final episode of Perfect Hair Forever.
"I wish that these cats and hot dogs weren't symbolic of anything, and this was all just a big anime mind-EFF!
- Takanuva's reanimation at the end of BIONICLE: Mask of Light is one of the biggest ass pulls in the story, but the creators wanted to very blatantly make it clear that three of the main characters each represented one of the story's three virtues: Hahli stood for Unity for uniting the villagers, Jaller represented Duty for doing his work without question, and Takua/Takanuva was all about Destiny, accepting his fate and becoming the hero Takanuva who defeated the Big Bad. In order to drive the symbolism home, he ends up being reduced to his mask, but is immediately brought back to life by Turaga Vakama loudly proclaiming which virtue each of them represented, placing Jaller, Hahli and the mask onto a UDD symbol engraved into the floor. It's never explained how this brought Takanuva back, nor why he lost his body in the first place.
- Blanket statement: most works that attempt to justify a Deus ex Machina as evidence of fate intervening in somebody's favor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is usually an attempt to use this trope.
- As much as crucifixion has been used for symbolism through the years, the symbolism of the most famous crucifixion was that the punishment was given to slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state.
- The crucifixion (as opposed to other methods of execution) was seen by the Roman Empire as too harsh a punishment for actual Roman citizens. Thus, it was used only for slaves (who were citizens of other nations brought to Rome as captives) and pirates (citizens of NO nation) within Roman borders; it was used for non-citizens in Roman-held territories, like the most recognized case. Incidentally, the cruelest punishment for Roman citizens was not considered to be execution, but exile, either to Roman territories away from the centre of power, or (gads!) outside Roman borders altogether, for those particularly heinous offenders. However, exile was much more Serious Business in those days, when travel wasn't as quick and safe and most civilizations weren't as welcoming of new additions to their populace.
- And that's just the Roman perspective. Consider the Jewish perspective: crucifixion is hanging a man on a tree until dead. The Torah says, "God's curse is on the one who hangs upon a tree." Thus, to be hung on a tree was the most horrible fate imaginable to a Jew, because it meant being cursed by God. In Jesus' case, the New Testament accepts this notion and uses it in light of Isaiah 53: "It was our iniquities He bore, and by His stripes we are healed." Therefore, the position of the New Testament is that God's curse DID fall upon Jesus while He was on the Cross (which is why He said, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?") but that's because He took the curse of our sins onto Himself.