Oedipus Complex : What Can Freud Tell Us about Ancient Greece?

Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) has been an influential figure in the transmission and popularization of ancient myths and history, quite aside from his philosophy of the mind and the psychoanalytic method developed by him which have left a strong imprint on the way we now think and understand ourselves. The Oedipus-complex, for one thing, is probably better known than the Sophoclean play Oedipus the King, in which the events occur which became the conceptual building blocks of the now famous formulation of the Oedipus-complex.

Freud’s theory does not particularly enlighten — or at least enlightens only indirectly — the study of Sophocles. For instance, in the Oedipus complex theory, it is assumed that the young man sexually desires his mother, knowing that she is his mother, and desires to kill his father, knowing that he is his father. But in the Sophoclean version of this myth, everything revolves around the fact that Oedipus in fact does not know who his parents are since he grew up with adoptive parents. Only later does Sophocles‘ Oedipus discover that the woman he hastily married upon meeting her is in fact his mother, and that he inadvertently had previously killed his own father in a road fight with a man who, at that time, was a stranger.

The Sophoclean tragedy of Oedipus holds within it many questions and complexities about guilt, responsibility and blame in the scenario. How guilty is Oedipus of incest, and of patricide, since to his knowledge, these persons were rather a man and a woman he had never before met? Just like his marriage seemed to him a simple and legitimate affair, so too the road fight did not carry the intent to kill the opponent, and especially did not conceptualize the opponent to be his father. But, as Freud explains:

His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.

in: The Interpretation of Dreams, ch. 5


Freud made use of this legend to explain family dynamics and developmental issues in young adults which he studied at the time. As a keen collector of art and antiquities, he had surrounded himself with some 2500 antiquities by the end of his life, consisting of vases, sculpture fragments, and many figurines. Almost all of these are now on view at London’s Freud museum, his historic home, to which he transferred everything as he fled from Vienna at the onset of World War II. An enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, Freud was a keen art buyer, and involved in excavations in Hungary and elsewhere.

Throughout his opus, Freud drew analogies between the study of the human mind and the pursuit of archaeological digs, as he cultivated the view of the psyche and consciousness as layered and possessing deep and surface levels like the earth itself. Freud’s view was that the deeper, the more interesting, original, and sharply revelatory things one would find. Archaeology’s habit of collecting fragments of broken vases or sculptures, and bringing the pieces together in order to complete once again the picture of a now exploded reality, also found its way into Freud’s writings as a metaphor for how psychoanalysis can enter into the deeper levels of the mind and re-imagine the lost and forgotten elements. And there is more, besides Oedipus, besides the idea of archaeological excavations; Freud also used the word Thanatos, the Greek name for Death and the nether world, when he developed his thoughts on the human death wish which does seem to inhabit many persons at certain times in their development; or indeed Eros, the libidinal drive, again, Freud took straight from ancient mythology in order to give a palpable dimension to his explanations of psychology. At the time, psychology was a brand new field of study, attracting many sceptics and scoffers. References to the ancient Greeks were, in that sense, always a good idea, a way of showing one was well-educated and socially in a strong position.

It is thought that Freud’s strong commitment to the study of antiquity has its part to play in the naming process of his psychological insights. The Oedipus complex is discussed in the Interpretation of Dreams, which was first published in 1899; if we set that in parallel with the decade or so before the year 1899, we know that theatrical performances of Oedipus were popular in Vienna in this period, and were also very frequent. Philhellenism was in vogue at the time, in a multitude of incarnations, the theatre being only one of several media that enjoyed great influence at the time. Freud’s thought and his writings he has left as his legacy continue to fascinate and inform the way “we” think of mental processes and the psyche. And mediated through Freud, we also know something about Oedipus that continues to startle, and (darkly) fascinate.


The image shows Athena with the Medusa in her mirror; Athena is also sometimes represented with a shield embossed with the beheaded Medusa. It is said that Freud’s favourite piece from his own collection was a figurine of Athena with this beheaded Gorgon, as it symbolized at once the castration anxiety (the severed head) and a multitude of phallic replacement objects (the many snakes, the hair of the Gorgon).