Myth of the Birth of the Hero, The

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In Otto Rank's view, this book was the first to attempt a psychoanalytical interpretation of myths: In it he declared that psychological reality is responsible for organizing what is narrated by the myth or the story. This work, a "cornerstone" of the psychoanalytical study of mythology (Theodor Reik), and written at Freud's request, did indeed open up original perspectives in the methodological approach to the problem of the formation and function of myths.

Breaking away from the naturalist analysis of mythology, Rank founded his study on the parallel between dream and myth and on the concept proposed by Freud of the "family romance of neurotics." Rank also composed a Legend of Lohengrin (1911) in which he tested out his hypotheses and convincingly demonstrated their plausibility.

The Myth of the Birth of the Hero is in three parts. In the first, Rank establishes the universality of the myth of the hero; then he sets out his central hypothesis by bringing out the role played by unconscious psycho-sexual life in myth formation. When it comes to the myth of Oedipus, Rank emphasizes the resistance aroused by the psychoanalytical hypothesis, opposed as it is to the naturalist interpretation, which sees in myth nothing more than personified natural processes. In the second part, Rank surveys a wide range of myths, eighteen in all, garnered from different cultures: Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Germanic, Celtic, and Latin. Then he isolates their recurrent themes so as to bring out the structure of what he calls a "typical legend." The myths of Gilgamesh, Cyrus, Moses, Jesus, Oedipus, Tristan, Romulus, Siegfried, and Lohengrin are all analyzed in this way. The survey is completed in part three by references to research on Melanesian, Mexican, North American, African, and other corpuses.

The third part of the work centers on uncovering the typical legend from characteristic elements encountered in the survey, which Rank summarizes in these terms: the hero is the child of parents from a high stratum of society, often of divine or royal origin; his birth is preceded by difficulties in his conception (chastity, sterility, clandestine intercourse). During pregnancy, a presage warns of this birth and announces that the child's father is in danger; as a result, the child is condemned to death by exposure, usually on the initiative of the father or a substitute figure, and more often than not he is set adrift in a casket; the child is then saved and suckled by an animal or by a woman of humble condition; once he has grown up, he undergoes many adventures during which he finds his noble parents and takes revenge on his father; he is recognized and attains glory and renown.

Rank leaves to the process of interpretation the task of bringing out the meaning of the typical legend: this is a rigorous and relatively modern position, that draws support from divergences or variants between myths in order to establish or question the hypotheses proposed. The overall pattern of his interpretation can be seen in the way typical dreams shed light on the analysis of different elements of the myth. His analysis is thus conducted like that of a dream: a myth is the realization of an unconscious desire, and myth is constructed by the same processes as dreamdisplacement, condensation, considerations of representation, and symbolization.

Rank provides a precise analysis of certain of the myth's elements, starting out from typical dreams: thus the hidden meaning of the "mytheme" of exposure is elucidated by the analysis of dreams of birth, which leads him to suppose that "the same symbolic expression dominates the language of dream and that of myth simultaneously." The desire expressed by the myth of the hero is the oedipal desire for triumph over the father, and the theme of rebellion against the father, which dominates in the theme of exposure, also illuminates the theme of the father's secondary elevation to the rank of king and the theme of rescue. The concept of the "family romance of neurotics" allows Rank to specify how, in the imagination of prepubertal daydreams as well as in myth narratives, we find represented both the desire to get rid of parents for whom one feels little esteem and replace them by others who are nobler and more prestigious, and at the same time questions about the knowledge of sexual processes, procreation, birth, and the mother's body. This parallel between the tendency to family romance and the tendency to evoke the myth of the hero means that Rank can establish an analogy between the ego of the child and the hero. Rank notes that in literary creation the hero represents the poet himself, an idea that Freud took up at the end of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c).

The work ends with two important considerations: the one concerns the genesis and function of the myth of the hero in social life and in individual and collective processes of identification; the other concerns the pathological role of the hero and the relations between myth and delirious fantasies of descent.

The wealth of themes dealt with in this book, and the originality of its approach, meant that it became extremely influential: It inspired major works by Géza Róheim and Carl G. Jung, among others.

RenÉ KaËs

See also: Birth: Hero (myth of the); Moses and Monotheism .

Source Citation

Rank, Otto. (1909). Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden. Leipzig-Wien: F. Deuticke; (1952). The myth of the birth of the hero; A psychological interpretation of mythology. (F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe, Trans.). New York: R. Brunner.


Róheim, Géza. (1945). Eternal ones of the dream: A psychoanalytic interpretation of australian myth and ritual. New York: International Universities Press.

Sellier, Philippe. (1970). Le mythe du héros. Paris: Bordas.

Valabrega, Jean-Paul. (1980). Phantasme, mythe, corps et sens: Une théorie psychanalytique de la connaissance. Paris:Payot.