What Does Gilead Symbolize? Uncovering the Deeper Meanings of the Word

In Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there exists a society known as Gilead. For readers and viewers alike, Gilead is a symbol of oppressive patriarchy, where women are reduced to mere vessels for childbearing and devoid of any personal agency. Although set in a fictional future, Atwood’s portrayal of Gilead highlights the very real dangers of religious extremism and totalitarianism.

At its core, Gilead symbolizes the dangers of unchecked patriarchy and the power dynamics that arise as a result. In Gilead, men hold all the power and women are stripped of their autonomy, their voices silenced and their bodies controlled. But beyond this, Gilead is also a stark reminder of the dangers of theocracy, where religious extremism is elevated above all else, leading to the suppression and persecution of those who don’t conform to the narrow interpretation of the dominant religion.

As we explore the world of Gilead, it becomes clear that its symbolism extends far beyond the pages of this novel or the television adaptation. Indeed, Gilead serves as a warning about the dangers of allowing extremist ideologies to take root in our societies, and how easily we can slide towards authoritarianism if we’re not careful. As such, Atwood’s portrayal of Gilead is both a critique of current power structures and a warning about the future if we don’t take action to prevent it.

Gilead’s Biblical Origins

Gilead is a significant and symbolic place in the Bible, often associated with healing and restoration. The name Gilead comes from Hebrew, meaning “heap of witness” or “mountainous region” and features prominently in the Old and New Testaments. According to the Bible, Gilead was a place of refuge and safety, a land of milk and honey where God’s people could find a respite from their struggles and trials.

  • In the book of Genesis, Gilead is the location where Jacob and Laban made a covenant, marking the boundary between their two territories.
  • In the book of Judges, Gilead is the birthplace of Jephthah, who became a mighty warrior and judge over Israel.
  • In the book of Jeremiah, Gilead is the place where the prophet instructs his people to go and find healing for their wounds.

Gilead is also mentioned in the New Testament, where it is referenced as a place of spiritual healing and restoration. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who finds a wounded man along the road and takes him to an inn in Gilead to be cared for.

The symbol of Gilead has been used by many writers and artists to represent healing, rest, and refuge. In Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Gilead is a dystopian society that has perverted the idea of healing and restoration into a tool of oppression. The use of the name Gilead in this context is a powerful commentary on the dangers of using religion as a tool of political control.

Book Chapter/Verse Description
Genesis 31:48 Jacob and Laban made a covenant at Gilead.
Judges 11:1 Jephthah was born in Gilead and became a mighty warrior and judge over Israel.
Jeremiah 8:22 Jeremiah instructs his people to go to Gilead to find healing for their wounds.
Luke 10:34 The parable of the Good Samaritan takes place in Gilead, where the wounded man is taken to be cared for.

In conclusion, Gilead’s Biblical origins are deeply rooted in the themes of healing, restoration, and refuge. Its significance and symbolism have been used throughout history in various contexts to represent these values, making it a powerful and enduring symbol in both literature and religion.

The significance of the name “Gilead”

The name Gilead holds great significance in the book “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Here are some subtopics that will help us explore what Gilead symbolizes:

The religious connotations of Gilead

  • The name “Gilead” is derived from the Hebrew word “gil’ad,” which means “heap of witness” or “rocky region.” This is significant because it alludes to the biblical story of Jacob and Laban, who built a heap of stones as a witness to their covenant (Genesis 31:47).
  • Gilead is also the name of a region east of the Jordan River in the Bible. It was known for its healing balm (Jeremiah 8:22), which is a nod to the idea of Gilead as a place of refuge and healing in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
  • In the book, Gilead is presented as a hyper-religious regime that uses biblical language and imagery to justify its policies. This is exemplified by the fact that the Aunts (female enforcers of the regime’s rules) are named after biblical figures like Lydia and Sarah.

The duality of Gilead

Gilead is presented as a place of both cruelty and compassion. It is a society that has emerged from the chaos of a civil war, and its leaders believe that they are establishing a new, more moral order. However, this comes at the cost of individual freedom and human rights.

The regime’s strict gender roles are perhaps the most obvious example of this duality. Women are stripped of their rights and reduced to the roles of Wives, Marthas, or Handmaids, depending on their social status and fertility. They are also subjected to frequent public executions and acts of violence.

At the same time, Gilead is presented as a place of community and solidarity. Handmaids are grouped in pairs, and they are encouraged to share their experiences and support each other. This dual nature of Gilead points to the complexity of human societies and the fact that even oppressive regimes can have positive aspects.

The geographic boundaries of Gilead

Gilead is surrounded by borders and checkpoints, and its leaders are constantly paranoid about infiltration by “Mayday,” an underground resistance movement. This emphasis on boundaries and borders reflects the regime’s desire for control and its fear of external influences.

At the same time, Gilead’s borders can also be seen as a symbol of its vulnerability. The regime is surrounded by enemies, both real and imagined, and it is constantly on the brink of collapse. This tension between control and vulnerability is a defining feature of Gilead, and it underscores the fragility of authoritarian regimes.

Symbolism of Gilead Meaning
Religious connotations Gilead as a religious regime that uses biblical language and imagery to justify its policies.
The duality of Gilead Gilead as a place of both cruelty and compassion.
The geographic boundaries of Gilead Gilead’s borders as a symbol of its desire for control and vulnerability to collapse.

Overall, the name Gilead is rich in symbolism and meaning. It alludes to biblical stories, reflects the duality of human societies, and underscores the tensions between control and vulnerability in authoritarian regimes.

The Geography of Gilead in the Bible

When we read about Gilead in the Bible, we are presented with a region that holds significant importance in both the Old and New Testaments. The geography of Gilead is deeply intertwined with the stories of the Israelites and their journey through the wilderness, as well as the teachings and parables of Jesus Christ.

  • Gilead as a place of refuge: In the book of Genesis, Gilead is mentioned as a place where Jacob fled to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. The region is described as a land of rocky terrain, perfect for hiding and taking refuge from enemies. This idea of Gilead as a sanctuary is reinforced in the book of Jeremiah, where God promises to heal his people in Gilead, and in the book of Hosea, where Gilead is described as a place of comfort for the people of Israel.
  • Gilead as a symbol of wealth and prosperity: In the book of Numbers, we learn that Gilead was a land rich in natural resources, with an abundance of plants and trees providing balm, myrrh, and other valuable commodities. This made Gilead a coveted region, sought after by outside forces and often the site of conflict. However, Gilead was also known for its successful people, including the warrior Jephthah and the prophet Elijah.
  • Gilead as a metaphor for physical and spiritual healing: The idea of Gilead as a place of healing is pervasive throughout the Bible. In the book of Jeremiah, God promises to heal his people in Gilead, and in the book of Joel, the prophet talks about a “fountain” in Gilead that will cleanse the sins of the people. This image is also present in the New Testament, where Jesus mentions the balm of Gilead as a metaphor for spiritual healing.

As we can see, Gilead symbolizes many things in the Bible, from safety and refuge to wealth and prosperity. It is also a symbol of healing, both physical and spiritual. By understanding the geography of Gilead and its importance in biblical history, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the rich symbolism and meaning contained within the text.

The meaning of Gilead in literature and pop culture

Gilead, a biblical location mentioned in the Old Testament, has made its way into numerous works of literature and pop culture over the years. While it may have different meanings depending on the context, there are some recurring themes associated with this ancient land.

  • Healing and restoration: In the Bible, Gilead is described as a place where healing balm is found (Jeremiah 8:22). This image of healing and restoration is often evoked in works of literature. For example, in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Republic of Gilead claims to be a place of order and stability after a period of chaos and decline. However, this sense of restoration comes at a steep price for the protagonist and other women in the story.
  • Spiritual significance: Gilead is also associated with spirituality and faith. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead,” the protagonist John Ames is a pastor who lives in a small town in Iowa named after the biblical location. The book is a meditation on God, grace, and the complexities of human relationships. Gilead becomes a symbol of the protagonist’s own sense of spiritual calling, as well as the history and tradition of his family.
  • Biblical allusions: Many works of literature and pop culture use Gilead as a way to evoke a sense of biblical tradition and history. This is particularly common in American literature, where writers often draw on the imagery and language of the Bible. For example, in Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon,” the character Pilate Dead is associated with Gilead and its healing balm. This biblical allusion becomes a way to explore the character’s own sense of identity and history as an African American woman.

As you can see, Gilead has taken on a variety of meanings and associations in literature and pop culture. Whether it represents healing and restoration, spirituality and faith, or biblical tradition and history, this ancient land continues to captivate writers and readers alike.

Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale”

In Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Republic of Gilead is a dystopian society where women have been stripped of their rights and reduced to breeding machines. The novel has become a touchstone for feminist literature and a warning against the dangers of religious extremism.

Symbol Meaning
Red cloak and white bonnet The uniform of the handmaids, indicating their role as reproductive vessels for the ruling class.
Eyes The secret police of Gilead, tasked with rooting out dissidents and enforcing the regime’s strict codes of behavior.
The Wall A grim reminder of the punishments doled out by Gilead’s ruling council. Rebels, homosexuals, and other undesirables are hanged here.

Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale” represents a cautionary tale about what can happen when religious fundamentalism is taken to an extreme. The novel’s themes of power, control, and resistance continue to resonate with readers today.

Gilead’s Association with Healing and Medicine

Gilead is often symbolized as a place of healing and medicine, largely due to its biblical origins and connection to the balm of Gilead. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Gilead is described as a place with healing properties, known for its medicinal balm made from the resin of the storax tree. This reputation has carried over into modern interpretations of Gilead, particularly in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its subsequent TV adaptation.

  • The handmaids in the novel are referred to as “salvagable” by the government of Gilead, implying that their fertility is valuable for the future of humanity. This ties into the idea that Gilead is interested in preserving life and healing the damage caused by societal problems such as infertility.
  • Medicine is also a prominent theme in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with the characters frequently discussing various methods of contraception and fertility treatments. This ties into the idea that Gilead is interested in using medical interventions to control and manipulate its citizens.
  • Additionally, Gilead is portrayed as having a sophisticated medical facility called the Rachel and Leah Center, where the handmaids are subjected to intense physical and psychological testing. This reinforces the idea that Gilead is interested in medical experimentation and control.

Overall, Gilead’s association with healing and medicine is deeply intertwined with its oppressive and controlling nature. While the concept of using medicine to heal societal problems is admirable, in the case of Gilead it serves as a tool for furthering their oppressive agenda.

The role of Gilead in historical conflicts and warfare

Gilead, a region mentioned numerous times in the Bible, was located east of the Jordan River in present-day Jordan. In ancient times, Gilead was known for its balm and spices, which made it a center of trade and commerce. However, Gilead was also a witness to many historical conflicts and wars.

Here are some of the roles that Gilead played in historical conflicts and warfare:

  • In the time of the Judges, the Israelites fought a war against the Ammonites, who had oppressed them for 18 years. Jephthah, a Gileadite, was chosen as the leader of the Israelite army and led them to victory against the Ammonites.
  • In the time of Saul, the Philistines and the Israelites were engaged in a fierce battle. During the battle, Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua were killed, and Saul himself was severely injured. The Philistines eventually won the battle and beheaded Saul, taking his armor and weapons to their temple in Gath. However, the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who had been rescued by Saul in an earlier battle, retrieved Saul’s body and buried it under a tamarisk tree in Jabesh.
  • During the time of David, Gilead was conquered by the Israelites from the Ammonites. Later, the Arameans, led by King Hazael, attacked Gilead and captured it, along with the city of Ramoth-Gilead. However, Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army, orchestrated a coup and became king. Under Jehu’s leadership, the Israelites were able to take back Gilead and defeat the Arameans.

In addition to these historical events, Gilead was also known for its medicinal balm, which was said to have healing properties. The balm of Gilead was mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of healing and restoration:

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” – Jeremiah 8:22

Historical Event Gilead’s Role
War between Israelites and Ammonites Jephthah, a Gileadite, led the Israelite army to victory
Battle between Philistines and Israelites Men of Jabesh-Gilead retrieved and buried Saul’s body
Aramean attack on Gilead Under Jehu’s leadership, the Israelites were able to take back Gilead and defeat the Arameans

Gilead’s role in historical conflicts and warfare was significant, as it was a region that witnessed many battles and conflicts. However, Gilead was also a symbol of healing and restoration, as its balm was said to have medicinal properties. Today, Gilead continues to be an important region in the Middle East, with a rich history and culture.

Gilead as a Symbol of Hope and Redemption

Gilead, the setting of Margaret Atwood’s novel by the same name, is a symbol of hope and redemption for many characters throughout the story. The oppressive society, ravaged by disease and infertility, represents a bleak future for the people of the Republic of Gilead. However, amongst this darkness, there are glimmers of hope that keep characters moving forward with a sense of purpose.

  • The Number Seven: A recurring motif throughout the novel, the number seven represents completeness and perfection. This symbolism is seen in Gilead’s seven districts, seven ranks of Angels, and even the main character, Offred, is referred to as the Handmaid, which has seven letters. The significance of this symbolism is showcased in various parts of the novel, such as when Offred reflects on her life before Gilead and counts to seven to find a sense of completion and perfection in her memories. This symbolism gives characters a sense of purpose, as they strive for perfection and completeness within their oppressive society.
  • Redemption through Rebellion: The hope for redemption is also found in the characters’ acts of rebellion against the oppressive society of Gilead. The actions of resistance, such as passing on forbidden information or refusing to participate in the regime’s rituals, offer a sense of redemption and agency to characters who have been stripped of their rights and identities. Offred’s relationship with the Commander, and later on her involvement in the resistance movement, offers a sense of hope and a purpose beyond her role as a Handmaid that she never thought possible.
  • The Power of Language: Another symbol of hope in Gilead is language itself. The power of words and language is showcased through the forbidden books and the subtle ways in which the characters use language to resist the regime. The act of reading, for example, becomes a form of rebellion, a way to connect to the past and preserve a sense of self in the present. The power of language is also displayed in the use of code words or secret messages, a way to communicate and resist without being caught by the regime.

In conclusion, through various symbols and motifs, Gilead represents a glimmer of hope for characters in a bleak and oppressive society. The symbolism of the number seven represents a sense of completeness and perfection, while the acts of rebellion and the power of language offer a way for characters to find redemption and a sense of purpose beyond their roles in Gilead.

The themes of hope and redemption provide a message of resistance and perseverance that resonates with readers long after finishing the novel.

Gilead’s Connection to Purity and Righteousness

Gilead, the fictional country in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” symbolizes purity and righteousness in a number of ways. One of the most prominent examples is through the use of the number 8.

The number 8 is significant in Christianity, Judaism, and other religions as a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings. Gilead embraces this symbolism by dividing the year into eight parts, with each part corresponding to a biblical phrase or event. These eight parts are known as the “New Eight Beatitudes” and are meant to create a sense of order and purpose within the society.

  • The first part, “Blessed are the silent,” is meant to recognize the value of silence and contemplation.
  • “Blessed are the fruitful” emphasizes the importance of fertility in Gilead’s society.
  • In “Blessed are those who mourn,” individuals are encouraged to grieve the loss of the past world and accept the new one.

The rest of the New Eight Beatitudes follow suit, emphasizing the value of obedience, loyalty, and a strict adherence to the gender roles enforced in Gilead.

In addition to the use of the number 8, Gilead also uses religious iconography and language to reinforce its connection to purity and righteousness. For example, Handmaids wear red, which in Christianity symbolizes the blood of Jesus and martyrdom. This emphasizes the Handmaids’ perceived purity as vessels for carrying out God’s plan for procreation.

Overall, Gilead’s use of the number 8 and other religious symbolism serves to create a sense of order and righteousness within its society. However, this strict adherence to religious principles ultimately leads to the oppression and subjugation of individuals who do not fit neatly into the society’s predetermined roles.


Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale” symbolizes purity and righteousness through the use of the number 8, which is a significant number in many religions. Gilead uses religious iconography and language to create a sense of order and purpose, but ultimately this leads to the oppression of individuals who do not fit into the predetermined roles.

Subtopics Key Points
The New Eight Beatitudes Gilead’s society is divided into eight parts, with each part corresponding to a religious phrase or event
Religious Symbolism Handmaids wear red to symbolize purity, while other religious iconography and language is used to create a sense of righteousness
Oppression and Subjugation Gilead’s strict adherence to religious principles ultimately leads to the oppression of individuals who do not fit into the predetermined roles

The metaphorical use of Gilead in poetry and song lyrics

Throughout history, Gilead has been used as a powerful metaphor in various forms of literature and music. It represents different things to different writers and artists, but its symbolism remains consistent – a place of healing, refuge, and hope.

  • In the Bible, Jeremiah references Gilead as a place of healing and asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
  • In Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Gilead is a dystopian society where women are stripped of all their rights and forced into reproductive slavery. It is a symbol of oppression and loss of freedom.
  • In the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” the lyrics mention “a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.” Gilead is used as a symbol of heaven, a place of rest and comfort after death.

One particular aspect of Gilead’s symbolism is its association with the number nine. In numerology, the number nine is often considered a sacred number, representing spirituality, faith, and attainment. Gilead’s reference to the number nine is found in the Bible, specifically in the book of Genesis. Jacob names a pile of stones after making a covenant with Laban, and gives it the name Galeed, which means “witness heap,” or “heap of witness”, but also translates to “hill of testimony”.

Galeed Gilead
Hebrew name for a pile of witness stones set up by Jacob and Laban Region east of the Jordan River known for its balm of Gilead, which is used as a healing ointment
Named for the witness of the covenant made between Jacob and Laban Symbolizes healing from physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds
Associated with the number nine in numerology Also associated with the number nine in numerology

The use of Gilead in poetry and song lyrics adds a layer of depth to the symbolism associated with it. It offers solace and comfort to those who seek it, and it represents the power of healing and the ability to transcend the limitations of this world. Gilead is a testament to the enduring human spirit and our ability to overcome even the harshest of circumstances.

Gilead’s Representation in Visual Art and Religious Iconography

Gilead is a fascinating biblical place with multifaceted symbolism, represented in various art forms and religious iconography for centuries. The following subtopics explore Gilead’s representation in visual art and religious iconography in more detail, including the number 10’s symbolism.

Number 10 Symbolism

  • The number 10 has great significance in Gilead, signifying completeness and wholeness in the biblical text.
  • The ten plagues in Egypt culminating in the liberation of the Israelites.
  • The Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, representing the foundation of Jewish and Christian ethics and morality.

Moreover, the ten virgins’ parable is often associated with Gilead. The story narrates ten virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom, with five foolish and five wise, and only the latter enter the wedding feast with the bridegroom. The parable highlights the importance of preparedness and vigilance to attain eternal salvation.

The number 10 is depicted in various art forms and religious iconography. For instance, the ten Commandments tablets are visible in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, where God is giving them to Moses. In some Christian catacombs, ten doves are portrayed around a beehive, signifying Christian piety and the Holy Eucharist’s importance. Further, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, ten bishops often surround Christ in icons, representing the apostles.

The number 10’s significance in Gilead’s representation in visual art and religious iconography has further deepened the place’s symbolism in the biblical text as a place of wholeness and completeness.


Gilead’s symbolism is complex, varied, and rich, and these subtopics only brush the surface of its representations in visual art and religious iconography. Nevertheless, the number 10’s symbolism in Gilead highlights the place’s importance, emphasizing preparedness, vigilance, and a strong foundation of morals and ethics for a fruitful life.

What Does Gilead Symbolize FAQs

1. What is Gilead?

Gilead is a fictional dystopian society in Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It is a totalitarian state that has replaced the United States.

2. What does Gilead symbolize?

Gilead symbolizes the dangers of totalitarianism and religious extremism. It shows how a society can become oppressive when extreme beliefs are taken to the extreme.

3. What are some of the key motifs in Gilead?

Some of the key motifs in Gilead include religion, fertility, and gender roles. These motifs emphasize the overarching theme of oppression and control.

4. How is the character of Offred used to symbolize Gilead?

The character of Offred is used to symbolize the oppression and violence of Gilead. Her experiences show the audience the horrors of life in such a society.

5. What are the colors associated with Gilead?

The colors associated with Gilead are red and black. Red symbolizes the handmaid’s blood and fertility, while black symbolizes death and oppression.

6. What is the purpose of the Ceremony in Gilead?

The purpose of the Ceremony in Gilead is to ritualize sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation. The Ceremony is a way for the government to control fertility.

7. How does Gilead mirror our world?

Gilead mirrors our world by showcasing the dangers of extremism and the need for continued vigilance against oppression. It serves as a warning against the excesses of religion and political ideology.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to read about what Gilead symbolizes. The themes explored in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are timely and relevant today more than ever. Remember to stay vigilant against extremism and never take your freedoms for granted. Visit us again later for more insights and analysis of your favorite dystopian novels.