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Róheim, Géza

Róheim, Géza



Géza Róheim, anthropologist and psychoanalyst, was born in Budapest in 1891 and died in New York in 1953. Róheim came from a family of wealthy merchants. Even in his preschool years he showed a more than ordinary interest in myths and fairy tales, and while still a high school student he became an expert in Hungarian folklore. At the age of 18 he wrote an essay, “Dragons and Dragon Killers” (1911), that presaged some of his later psychological and cultural theories. Róheim’s interest in mythology and folklore continued throughout his life: when he was only five he read Alicein Wonderland and the Arabian Nights, and in his last major work, The Gates of the Dream (1952), he discussed what he considered to be one of the basic themes of Alice, her fall into the rabbit hole.

Róheim attended the University of Budapest, until his interest in ethnographic research led him to the University of Leipzig to study under Karl Weule and to the University of Berlin to study under Felix von Luschan. While in Germany, he became acquainted with Freud’s writings, including the psychoanalytic interpretation of culture first proposed in Totem and Taboo.

After having received his Ph.d., Róheim returned to Budapest, where he became a staff member of the Hungarian National Museum. It was at this time that he underwent his first psychoanalysis, with Sandor Ferenczi. The dual nature of Róheim’s training made it possible for him to do pioneering work as the first psychoanalytic anthropologist. His work in the early 1920s clearly reveals his unusual conceptual equipment. In 1921 he delivered a paper on Australian totemism (published in an extended version in 1925), for which he received the Freud prize in applied psychoanalysis. In the same year, he published a paper on “Das Selbst” (“The Self”) that anticipated psychoanalytic ego psychology by almost two decades. Again, Róheim’s treatise “Nach dem Tode des Urvaters” (1923) reveals his application of anthropological research to Freudian concepts. Although he accepted Freud’s postulation of the primal horde and the Cyclopean family, Róheim insisted that the “eating of the overlord” represented nothing more than the reversion to a fantasy pertaining to the oral stage of human development. This theory foreshadowed his shift from Freud’s phylogenetic explanation of culture (in terms of the sense of guilt and the experience of sin and atonement, arising from Oedipal conflicts during the phallic stage) to an ontogenetic one.

With the encouragement of Freud himself, and assisted by Princess Marie Bonaparte, another of Freud’s disciples, Róheim sought to find anthropological evidence to validate Freud’s theories and set out in 1928 on the first field expedition undertaken by a psychoanalytically trained anthropologist. His research was particularly focused on the western tribes of central Australia (Aranda, Pit-chentara, Pindupi, Yumu, Nambutji). His stay in central Australia was followed by a nine-month visit to Sipupu, Normanby Island, in the D’Entre-casteaux group. His aim was to study a matrilineal society closely resembling that of the Trobrianders, whom Malinowski had made the focus of his field observations. Róheim also visited briefly among the Yuma Indians on the borders of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. It was his research among the Australian aborigines, however, that provided the basis for his revised psychoanalytic theories.

Freud’s conception of the relationship between human culture (particularly totemism, religion, and social structure) and the vicissitudes of the primal family has found little confirmation in biological or anthropological evidence. Some evidence for the Cyclopean family, as conceived by Freud, may be adduced from the life of anthropoids, especially that of the baboon horde (Zuckerman 1932), but it must be remembered that this study was made of apes in captivity. Although the primal horde theory does seem to be useful in the interpretation of numerous myths and religious practices, serious doubt as to the validity of the hypothesis that memories may be inherited led Róheim to base his field work and his clinical observations on the theory that cultural patterns and institutions can be explained in large measure by the biologically conditioned crucial role of the specific infantile situation, such as separation anxiety, together with the largely environmentally conditioned prevailing libidinal trend.

Róheim thus proposed an ontogenetic theory of culture, with special emphasis on the role of biology and anatomy, that depended heavily on the findings of the Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk (1926). According to Bolk, comparative morphology reveals that the human individual shows many traits of neoteny, such as hairlessness, the form of the ear muscles, Mongoloid development, orthognathy, the central position of the foramen magnum, relative brain weight, certain variations of the jaw, persistent cranial sutures, and the tendency toward brachycephaUzation. However, among the higher anthropoids, the eruption of the milk teeth starts almost immediately after birth, and shortly after the growth of the second milk molar the first permanent one appears. This rather rapid change demands an equally rapid development of the jaw as well as of the entire skull. In man, on the other hand, there are two intervals that impose retardation. The milk teeth are fully grown only toward the end of the second year, so that the human child depends on sucking rather than on biting for a much longer period. After the second year there is an interval of about four years before the first permanent molars come through.

The psychological consequences of neoteny, according to Róheim and additional explorations by Muensterberger, stem chiefly from man’s prolonged dependence on maternal care. The so-called ego functions reflect the long period of human infancy; indeed, the various psychological processes do not reach maturity until the second decade of life. The human child, more than any other mammal, is in constant need of protection and nourishment provided by an external agency. The bond created by physiological necessity develops into a necessary emotional and social tie, forcing the human being to attain and maintain continuous relationships with other people. Like several other psychoanalysts, Róheim considered this dual bond to be a peculiarly human predicament. Moreover, this protracted symbiotic relationship forms the nucleus of wider social cohesion and organization. In its negative aspect of dependence and jealousy, it is the source of feelings of anxiety and helplessness and of fears of castration and separation.

This uniquely human dual bond leads to the differentiation of ego and nonego, of a self and an external world. It produces man’s predominant aim, which is to gain contentment and happiness and to avoid discontent and disillusionment. Attachment to the mother is the first source of pleasure, and disillusionment and anxiety are created by her absence. Thus, from a psychobiological point of view, the human organism can discharge tension only through another organism; the infant is anaclitic. The dual bond also leads to the differentiation of ego and id, which are essentially one in lower animals. “Instincts” (built-in behavior patterns) are replaced by learned behavior patterns.

Róheim’s dream theory is constructed on the analogy of the infantile experience of initial acceptance of the outside world as only an intermediary aim on the path of withdrawal from that world. His emphasis on the significance of particular fantasies experienced during the process of falling asleep is related to his ontogenetic approach. He related the sense of falling that is characteristic of the hypnagogic state to the inherent desire to return to the dual-unity situation that denies the separation of the child from the mother. He suggested that in sleep we return to the intrauterine situation and that dreams are attempts to re-establish contact with reality. In other words, dreams are efforts to reverse the regressive condition caused by sleep and therefore constitute a defense against the reinfantilization represented by sleep.

The ontogenetic theory of culture explains man’s pattern of separation (anxiety, ambivalence, aggression) and subsequent reunion as a repetition of the fundamental duality of the mother-child relationship. The reaction to absence or frustration is aggression and/or anxiety. The pattern also appears in numerous primitive ceremonies and religious rituals, including the killing and oral introjection of the totem animal, behavior which, according to Róheim, represents aggression as a reaction to separation anxiety, followed by reunion or the covenant (1945). Similarly, the Oedipus complex is not the result of inherited memory images; it is the inevitable outcome of the human family and its extended period of infancy. Totemism, in this view, is merely one of the most frequently used of the several available solutions to the Oedipal nature of man.

Using his own field observations as examples, Róheim was able to show the development of specific cultural patterns or group ideals. Among the aborigines of central Australia, the typical infantile trauma is the alknarintja situation: the mother lies on top of the boy infant, ostensibly to protect the child. Evidence from myths, dreams, and rituals suggests that the child experiences this “protection” as a threat to himself when he is in a helpless, passive, inverted position. The institution of phallic ceremonialism, based on the exclusion of women and the projection of the threatening mother image onto the dangerous phallic female demons, is an attempt to ward off the early traumatization of the boy infant. Thus, this simple example from Pitchentara society shows how the crucial elements in the infantile situation lead to reaction formations, which then become institutionalized. The smaller and more self-sufficient a society, the greater the likelihood that specific cultural patterns in the relationship between mother and child will produce a prevalent personality type in the society, that is, a greater psychological similarity among the members of that society.

As Róheim put it: “Man has invented culture because of his delayed infancy or intolerance of tension. In our own attempt to master reality we create a society, i.e., a well-functioning symbiotic mode of existence. Instead of parricide and incest, we have the super-ego and group formation, instead of ’clutchings’ to archaic objects we have ’seekings’ of new substitute objects. Adaptation then becomes a favorable solution between narcissism and object-cathexis” (1943, pp. 77–80). Hence, in Róheim’s view, culture is a defense system against the fear of object loss and the separation anxiety that sacrifices immediate gratification and the monopolization of maternal love for a modicum of security and partial gratification.

Warner Muensterberger And Bill Domhoff

[For the historical context and subsequent development of Róheim’s ideas, seeCulture and personalityandMyth and symbol.]


1911 Särkänyok és särkänyölő hősök (Dragons and Dragon Killers). Ethnographia (Budapest) 22:129–142, 193–209.

1921 Das Selbst. Imago 7:1–39.

1923 Nach dem Tode des Urvaters. Imago 9:83–121. 1925 Australian Totemism: A Psycho-analytic Study in Anthropology. London: Allen & Unwln.

1941 Die psychoanalytische Deutung des Kulturbegriffs. Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und Imago 26:9–31.

1943 The Origin and Function of Culture. Monograph No. 6. New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Monographs.

1945 War, Crime and the Covenant. Monticello, N.Y.: Medical Journal Press.

1952 The Gates of the Dream. New York: International Universities Press.


Bolk, Louis 1926 Das Problem der Menschwerdung. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

Muensterberger, Warner 1955 On the Biopsychological Determinants of Social Life. Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences 4:7–25.

Zuckerman, Solly 1932 The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes. New York: Harcourt.

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Róheim, Géza (1891-1953)

RÓHEIM, GÉZA (1891-1953)

Anthropologist and psychoanalyst Géza Róheim was born in Budapest on September 12, 1891, and died in New York on June 7, 1953.

Born to a prosperous family of Jewish merchants, as a child Géza had a passion for folk tales and while a high school student he delivered a paper before the Hungarian Ethnological Society. At the University of Budapest he studied geography, linguistics, philosophy, law, and literature; then, in Berlin and Leipzig, anthropology and the history of religion. Because anthropology was not yet a fully developed discipline, when he received his doctorate in 1914 his examination was in geography. As an assistant librarian in 1917 in the Széchenyi Library of the Hungarian National Museum, Róheim essentially specialized in folklore. In 1918 he married Ilona, who would become his partner in anthropological research.

Róheim had become acquainted with psychoanalysis while a student, and his first article "Dragons and Dragon Killers," published in 1911, brought a psychoanalytic perspective to the explanation of myths. In 1916 he began analysis, first with Sándor Ferenczi and later with Vilma Kovács. In Spiegelzauber (Mirror Magic), first published in 1919, Róheim made extensive use of Freud's recently developed theory of narcissism.

During Béla Kun's short-lived communist revolution in 1918, Róheim helped reorganize the Hungarian National Museum, where he held the first chair of anthropology at the University of Budapest. But when the regime failed after just three months, Róheim lost his academic position. Henceforth he made a living through analytic practice and by giving occasional courses in English.

In 1921, Róheim received the Freud Prize for his study "Das Selbst" ("The Self") and for his paper on Australian totemism delivered at The Hague Congress in 1920. In 1927, when Bronislaw Malinowski famously contested the existence of the Oedipus complex in matrilineal societies, Róheim had the task of gathering material to refute the ethnologist's arguments. Several expeditions, beginning in 1928 and sponsored by Marie Bonaparte, enabled Róheim to do field work in Central Australia, New Guinea, Normanby Island, and in Arizona among the Yuma.

From this work in the field Róheim developed his major themes. In 1932 he published "Psychoanalysis of Primitive Cultural Types" and arguably his central work, The Riddle of the Sphinx, appeared in 1934. He emphasized the significance of the primal scene and, relying on work in comparative anatomy by German physiologist Ludwig Bolk, attempted to demonstrate the role of fetal characteristics in human mental life, which he believed had important and to some extent pathogenic consequences.

In the autumn of 1938, after the rise of fascism and with war fast approaching, Róheim emigrated to the United States. He first settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he practiced as a psychoanalyst at the State Hospital for the Insane; he subsequently settled in New York. As a non-medical analyst, Róheim was not accepted into the New York Psychoanalytic Society, nor could he find an academic appointment. His work, based on a systematic human psychology, found little support among the functionalist ethnologists then predominant in the universities, while he himself remained critical of cultural anthropology. Ever creative and intrepid, Róheim organized a seminar in his home that brought together, among others, anthropologists Weston La Barre, Werner Münsterberger, and Georges Devereux. In 1947, he undertook a new expedition among the Navajo.

Róheim left a considerable body of work that includes some one hundred fifty studies and a dozen books on a host of topics in anthropology, sociology, history, mythology, folklore, and psychoanalysis. To him is owed a method of applied psychoanalysis buttressed by field investigation. He developed an ontogenetic theory of culture and, citing Ferenczi, he contended that a foundational trauma lies at the root of each culture. Also, influenced by Melanie Klein, Róheim offered an account of basic human activities, emphasizing the significance of fantasies of destruction and reparation. Marked by a deep cultural pessimism, Róheim always pointed to the cultural superiority of "primitive" people while viewing Western societies as dominated by anal retentiveness and reaction formations.

Éva Brabant-GerÖ

See also: Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Ethnopsycho-analysis; Hungarian School; Hungary; Magical thinking; Myth; Oedipus complex; Primitive horde; Second World War: The effects on the development of psychoanalysis; Sociology and psychoanalysis/sociopsychoanalysis.


Róheim, Géza (1919). Spiegelzauber. Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.

. (1932). Psychoanalysis of primitive cultural types. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 13: 2-224.

. (1934). The riddle of the sphinx. London: Hogarth Press

. (1943). The origin and function of culture. New York: Nervous and mental disease monographs 3.

. (1955). Magic and schizophrenia. New York: International Universities Press.

. (1992). Fire in the dragon and other psychoanalytic essays on folklore (Alan Dundes, Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Róheim, Géza

Géza Róheim, 1891–1953, Hungarian anthropologist and psychoanalyst. He was educated at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Budapest (Ph.D., 1914). From 1928 to 1931 he did fieldwork in central Australia, in Duau (Normanby Island), and in the SW United States. In 1939 he entered private psychoanalytic practice in New York City. Róheim was a creator of the first rank in the field of psychoanalytic study of society and culture and in the field of personality problems. His books include The Origin and Function of Culture (1943), Psychoanalysis and Anthropology (1950), and The Gates of the Dream (1952).

See study by P. A. Robinson (1969).

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