Mythology and Psychoanalysis

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The closest psychoanalytic definition of the term mythology, found in dictionaries, is a "set of beliefs and ideas about a single concept imposed on the members of a group." Professor Jean Rudhart of the University of Geneva notes that a myth is a story that "signifies differently than conceptual speech and contains a deep meaning that is distinct from its surface meaning" (1981).

We can assume that, for Sigmund Freud, myth, "signifying differently" and distinct from the apparent meaning of conceptual speech, represented "with the introduction of the reality principle one species of thought-activity [that] was split off; it was kept free from reality-testing and remained subordinated to the pleasure principle alone" (1911b, p. 222). We can easily recognize the creation of fantasies described in Freud's "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b). In the same sense the role of myth, collective or individual, would correspond to the religious and cultural fantasies that influence, introduce, or modify ego ideals and the pre-oedipal and post-oedipal superego; they also promote various identifications and sublimations. Additionally, mythology, being a part of the cultural heritage of the collectivity, and transmitted "phylogenetically" or diachronically through oral traditions, contributes to the formation of primal fantasies, the family romance, and "cultural romances" (Nicolaïdis, 1988).

A distinction between myth (the production of desire through fantasy) and history (an event-driven narrative corresponding to the reality principle) could be made through the use of the concepts of conjunction and structure. In this sense history would be a "conjunction" having an event-driven continuity and a fantasy-driven discontinuity, while mythology (myths) would be a "structure" having a fantasy-driven continuity and an event-driven discontinuity. However, myth structures the desire of a group of individuals. This distinction brings us back to Freud's abandonment of his neurotica, of the actual seduction (letter to Fliess, October 15, 1897), which until then had been the etiology of the neuroses (event-driven history). To ground his new theory, he made use of the Oedipus myth and the history of Hamlet, as dramatized by Shakespeare.

In this way the Oedipus complex was born as humanity's universal core. Later on, the myth of Narcissus (1914) became the link between the first and second topographical subsystems. We know that throughout his work Freud made reference to mythic characters and contexts as metaphors for the evolution of psychic reality. He clearly expressed the closeness between myths and fantasies, the products or creations of drives, when he wrote, "The theory of instincts is so to say our mythology. Instincts are mythical entities, magnificient in their indefiniteness" (1933a, p. 95). The fact that the role of myth in psychoanalytic theory is obvious presents the following questions: Why was Freud's thinking, influenced by the neopositivism of his time, oriented toward myths? Why did he emphasize some myths and ignore others?

At the beginning of his career, Freud constructed a "psychic apparatus" that he tried to connect with the neuroses (Project for a Scientific Psychology, 1950c [1895]), but he repudiated the essay for the remainder of his life. He did so following the introduction of psychic reality, although the concept forced him to contradict the scientific and cultural climate of his age and his own tradition as a neurologist. For, to some extent, he separated the psyche from its biological substrate. But by claiming to be an atheist, and certainly an agnostic, there was no question for Freud of attaching the psyche (the soul) to religion, or a mystical or metaphysical concept. On the other hand, because he acknowledged that the illusion he criticized played an important role in the shared life of mankind, he sought this illusion (of the imagination) in myth. Because fantasy fell halfway between the real and the imaginary, myths, at least some of them, fell somewhere between the mysticism of religion and the reality of desire. Thus the mythologies closest to the mental apparatus and psychosexual evolution reinforce and are mirrored in his conception of "psychic reality".

Reading the index to the Standard Edition, we find that Faust and Hamlet are the most frequently cited texts. With respect to mythic texts strictly speaking, Greco-Roman mythology is the most prevalent. Germanic-Scandinavian mythology is absent in Freud's writings. The mythology and art of Egypt are of interest to Freud and he writes often of Amenophis IV-Akhenation (with respect to monotheism) and he mentions Isis and Osiris. He is familiar with the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad of India, where the genesis of the world is described on the basis of the Aturan (the self or ego); he quotes Ramakrishna and Vivekananda but never the Veda or the revelations of Brahma. The Buddhist concept of nirvana serves as a metaphor of instinctual economy. He also cites the epic of Gilgamesh. The Bible is found throughout his work but as a religious reference rather than a mythic context. He does comment on the dilemma of Abraham and Isaac, and the dream of Solomon, but for Freud the mythical hero of the Bible is Moses, because of his strength and spirituality. Fascinated by Roman statuary, especially Michelangelo's Moses, Freud devoted his last book to the legend of Moses. Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-1938]) is an anthropological construct, where the eternal Freudian quest for the origin of mankind and the evolution of civilizations unfolds, especially in the transition from the matriarchy to the patriarchy, which is presented as a victory of spirituality over sensuality. Concerning this, Freud writes, "An echo of this revolution seems still to be audible in the Oresteia of Aeschylus" (p. 114).

But it is Totem and Taboo (1912-13a) that unquestionably remains Freud's laboratory on the question of origins, primal fantasies, and the origin of fantasy, even the origin of myth and its role in structuring "psychic reality". In the first part of the book, Freud generalizes his thinking, quoting several historians of primitive peoples, but without reference to a specific mythology. In evoking the guilt arising from the totemic meal, or "tragic fault," he writes, "In particular, I have supposed that the sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have had no knowledge of that action" (pp. 157-158). The first two-thirds of the book refers to the fear of incest, to taboo, and the ambivalence of the feelings associated with animism, magic, and the omnipotence of ideas. Throughout the work Freud attempts, using analogies from mythology, to structure this primitive-instinctual inconsistency, sometimes expressed by legends dominated by magical or animist thought, with a kind of anthropological coherence. The omnipotence of ideas provides him with an opportunity to quote Hamlet and create a connection between animist thought and obsessive representations, but it is chapter IV, "The Return of Totemism in Childhood," that marks a turning point toward "Occidental" psychopathology and the mythology that masks it.

Freud gradually abandoned pre-Hellenic "mythology," which had been necessary until then to identify primitive thought. In analyzing totemism and the totem meal, he notes that their content coincides (1912-13a, p. 132). He begins with the sacrifice, "the sacred act par excellence," quoting often from The Religion of the Semites (1889) of W. Robertson Smith: "The primitive animal sacrifice was already intended to replace a human sacrifice, the solemn killing of the father." Freud remarks that, analogically, Christ, in sacrificing his own life, freed all other men from original sin. However, the doctrine of original sin for Freud is of Orphic origin. To support his hypothesis he introduced the pre-Olympian myths (Orphism), the Titans, who killed and cut into pieces the young Dionysus-Zagreus. Using this information, Freud again returns to Greco-Roman mythology to house the fantasies and psychopathology of his psychoanalytic theory. By insisting on the importance of the "tragic fault," he writes that "the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex. This is in complete agreement with the psychoanalytic finding that the same complex constitutes the nucleus of all neuroses, so far as our present knowledge goes" (1912-13a, p. 156). He shows that the "modernity" of this myth conforms to the actuality of the neuroses of the modern world.

Freud, in "Why War?" (1933b [1932]), wrote to Albert Einstein, "It may perhaps seem to you as though our theories are a kind of mythology and, in the present case, not even an agreeable one. . . . Our mythological theory of instincts makes it easy for us to find a formula for indirect methods of combating war. If willingness to engage in war is an effect of the destructive instinct, the most obvious plan will be to bring Eros, its antagonist, into play against it" (p. 212).

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), he situated this antagonism: "If . . . we are not to abandon the hypothesis of death instincts, we must suppose them to be associated from the very first with life instincts. But it must be admitted that in that case we shall be working upon an equation with two unknown quantities" (p. 57). Here, Freud acknowledges his scientific dissatisfaction and refers to a myth, an "instinct to restore an earlier state." This is the myth of Aristophanes in the Symposium of Plato, where there is a question of the primal physical bisexuality of human beings. He mentions this myth again in "Why War?"

Greco-Roman mythology fascinated the inventor of psychoanalysis not only because of its consistency in terms of fantasy (Didier Anzieu, 1970; André Green, 1969/1979; Graziella Nicolaïdis, Nicos Nicolaïdis, 1994), but also because of the role of Eros and sexuality in this mythology-religion, where carnal pleasure was not considered a sin but as a right that God or nature had given to man. This mythology alleviated Freud's guilt, so to speak, by legitimizing infantile sexuality and adult sexuality, the fruits of his own discovery.

To conclude, it can be said that mythology and some myths or "mythemes," condensing and displacing the representations of drives, have served as metaphorical models for several fundamental fantasies in the theory of psychoanalysis.

Nicos NicolaÏdis

See also: Alpha-elements; Amplification (analytical psychology); Animistic thought; Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Archaic mother; Archetype (analytical psychology); Autobiographical Study, An ; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; China; Complex; Cultural transmission; Dream symbolism; Eros; Fascination; Heroic identification; Interpretation of dreams (analytical psychology); Jung, Carl Gustav; Myth; Narcissism; Oedipus complex; Projection and "participation mystique" (analytical psychology); Psychoanalysis of Fire, The ; Psychology of the Unconscious, The ; Reverie; Reversal into the opposite; Screen memory; Secret; Self (analytical psychology); Sociology and psychoanalysis, sociopsychoanalysis; State of being in love; "Theme of the Three Caskets,The"; Transgression.


Anzieu, Didier. (1970). Freud et la mythologie. Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse, 2, 114-145.

Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

Green, André. (1979). The tragic effect: The Oedipus complex in tragedy (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1969)

Nicolaïdis, Nicos. (1988). La théophagie. Oralité primaire et métaphorique. Paris: Dunod.

Nicolaïdis, Graziella, and Nicolaïdis, Nicos. (1994). Mythologie grecque et Psychanalyse. Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé.

Rudhardt, Jean. (1981). La fonction du mythe dans la pensée religieuse de la Grèce. Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 19 (58), 177-187.

Further Reading

Arlow, Jacob. (1982). Scientific cosmogony, mythology, and immortality. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 51, 177-195.