Between Oedipus and Freud

Freud and Egypt at the Freud Museum London

When Freud was young he was haunted by a nightmarish dream.

I saw my beloved mother, with a peculiarly peaceful, sleeping expression on her features, being carried into the room by two (or three) people with bird’s beaks and laid upon the bed.

The uncanny figures resembled the Egyptian gods, especially Horus. As a young Jewish boy, he was taught Hebrew from the Phillipson’s Bible (One of the books on display ).

Freud grew up to be an “obsessive” collector of such objects, which are currently on display at the Freud Museum in London.

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The Sphinx

At the heart of the Freudian mythos is the tragedy of Oedipus: the young boy who kills his father and marries his mother. Freud would have known there was more to the story than a will to desire. The story is more about how powerless humans are in the hands of fate.

Freud replaced the concept of fate, with the concept of the unconscious.

In the story, the Sphinx plays an important but secondary role. She stands on a roadway asking travellers a riddle. If they cannot answer it, they are sent to their deaths. Oedipus is able to answer it and the shock kills the Sphinx (or she flies away or Oedipus kills her). He carries on his way, kills his father and marries his mother.

The Sphinx was an Egyptian creature: half woman, half lion. The imagery carried into the Greek world, through pots especially. Eastern and African objects were valued as luxurious goods.

There is something uncanny about her presence in classical myth. She is a figure at once both Greek and un-Greek.

Sphinx-like can refer to an inscrutability. This is as much a result of the Great Sphinx at Gize, with its enigmatic smile as the Sphinx of Oedipus.

In his consulting rooms in Vienna and London, were two prints of sphinges. The first was a copy of Ingres’ ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’ and the second was a print of the ‘Sphinx at Giza’.

Professor Miriam Leonard asks “What would have happened if Freud had taken the Sphinx rather than Oedipus as his point of departure?” She points out for Freud, the destruction of the Sphinx was a precursor for the destruction of the father. This is an interesting question, modern humans are like so many sphinges asking themselves unasnwerable questions.

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Isis the mother

A family tension lies at the beating heart of Egyptian religion, as it has survived to us through Plutarch and other classical authors.

Osiris is killed by his brother Set and dismembered. His distraught widow Isis searches the land of Nile for the parts of her dearly departed with the help of the mighty god Anubis (the son of her husband and her sister, in some accounts). She finds all the parts except for the penis, which she fashions from mudclay. She brings Osiris back to life and procreates with him to engender Horus.

Here the mother figure is powerful, redemptive and protective. Sex is central to the family unit, but it is not sublimated.

Images of Isis nursing Harpocrates (Horus the child) were widespread through Egypt and then through the Greek and Roman lands. They symbolised not just motherhood, but love and caring in an unsettling and complex world.

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Freud and his collections

The most moving part of any visit to the Freud Museum in Vienna is its bare walls. It was in Bergasse 19, a tastefully bourgeois apartment in Vienna’s Alsergrund district, that Dr Freud met his patients and created his theories of the unconcious. It was here that he met the Wolfman, Dora and Anna O.

The museum is empty now. After years of success, the Freud family was forced to flee in 1938 when the Nazis came to power in Austria and the country became unified with Germany . They were able to take all their possessions with them (which was rare). The empty rooms bear witness to the Shoah.

The family eventually settled in St John’s Wood in London, as solidly bourgeois as Alsergrund. The large suburban houses set back from quiet roads with their tasteful front gardens is very different from the Neo-baroque of nineteenth century Viennese apartments.

It is in 20 Maresfield Gardens, a small house in the Queen Anne Style, that you will find Freud’s possessions. His study and library, which also acted as his examination room, is full of books and various curios including many antiquities.

Freud and Archaeology

Freud likened psychoanalysis to archaeology. He read field reports with great interest. In particular, he was interested in the work of Flinders Petrie and especially his excavations at Amarna.

The digs at Armana revealed the capital city of the heretic king Akhenaten. The Armana period saw two short lived cultural revolutions. The first was iconographical: Akehnaten and his wives, were portrayed in an androgynous style. This includes the famous Nefertiti bust. The reasons for this are still unclear, but androgyny has links to wider Egyptian myths (such as the story of Isis). The second  change was religious. Akhenaten introduced a monotheistic (if we can call it that) worship of the sun disk, the Atun. Akhenaten’s reforms were short lived. After his death, his son Tutankhamun, reversed his father’s policies and moved the capital back to Thebes. (Or more correctly this was done by his advisers, especially his grand-uncle Ay)

Freud was fascinated by this.

His last major book, written in London, was Moses and Monotheism. He argued that Moses was an Egyptian follower of the religion of Akhenaten who fled with his followers after the death of the pharaoh. His follower’s murdered him when they found his strictures too rigid. The guilt of this primordial murder, led to the veneration of the figure of “Moses”.

The links between ancient Egypt and Judaism (and Christianity) are central. Egypt is the location of one of the central stories of Judaism, the Exodus. The Egyptians are the great Other of early Jewish history. They were the great enemy, when pharaoh sent his chariots. But they were also the great worldly seducer: the Jewish people who successful fled the Red Sea and who were led by a fiery pillar, also sought comfort in traditional Egyptian religion: when their borrowed gold composed The calf in Oreb.

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A small criticism I have is that the exhibition does not delve into the actual acts of acquisition. It would have been good to have some mention of the colonial frameworks which made it possible for rich Europeans, like Freud, to buy the heritage of a colonised country and the impact this had on the countries and archaeology itself. Although, given the size of the exhibition, it would not have been possible to dedicate too much space to this topic.

Otherwise an essential show this autumn. Five stars.