Freud’s fetish for ancient Egyptology unveiled in new exhibit

Exhibition running through October 13 at London’s Freud Museum puts the father of psychoanalysis side by side with Sir Flinders Petrie, a pioneer of modern Egyptian studies

Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934. (Freud Museum London)
Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934. (Freud Museum London)

The significance of the mythological Greek character Oedipus to the development of Sigmund Freud’s theories is inarguable.

But 80 years after the psychoanalyst wrote his seminal work “Moses and Monotheism,” a new exhibition at his second London home, now the Freud Museum, reminds us of his less celebrated interest in Egyptian culture.

“Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt” aims to bring the father of psychoanalysis into dialogue with his contemporary, the father of Egyptology, Sir Flinders Petrie, who stumbled across a stone slab with what is believed to be the earliest Egyptian reference to Israel. The exhibit runs through October 13.

A reproduction of “Oedipus and the Sphinx,” the neoclassical painting by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, famously hung over Freud’s couch in his consulting room at Berggasse 19 in Vienna. And displayed on his bookshelves was a large etching of the Sphinx at Giza, along with a terracotta figurine, were among Freud’s prized objects.

Pioneer of Egyptology Sir Flinders Petrie. (Public domian)

These representations of the Sphinx testify to Freud’s broader preoccupation with Egyptian culture, which was manifest in his writings and hoarding of antique objects.

In the 2008 book “Reading the Sphinx,” Lynn Parramore wrote: “As Freud encouraged his patients to recall seemingly trivial memories to reconstruct their life story, Petrie succeeded in reassembling the past by piecing together seemingly inconsequential archeological fragments.”

Egyptian artifacts form the largest part of Freud’s collection and lie behind his “archaeological metaphor” – one of his most productive methods for exploring the psyche and developing the practice of psychoanalysis.

A unique refugee

In 1938 after the Gestapo arrested his youngest daughter Anna, Freud finally fled Vienna. Unusual for a Nazi refugee, he was able to leave with his possessions, including approximately 2,000 antiquities.

Freud later said, “The feeling of triumph on being liberated is too strongly mixed with sorrow for, in spite of everything, I still greatly loved the prison from which I have been released.”

‘Oedipus and the Sphinx,’ by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, famously hung above the couch in Sigmund Freud’s consulting room. (Freud Museum London)

He traveled to Paris and then London by train, a form of transport he disliked — his “libido [had been] awakened” as a young boy after seeing his mother naked on a train, and it was through this early experience that his theory of the Oedipus complex was developed.

On arrival at London’s Victoria Station, the train had to be rerouted to another platform in order to avoid the attention of the world’s press.

In London, the 82-year-old Freud, now dying from the jaw cancer that had plagued him for the last 16 years, worked in a unique environment of his own making surrounded by his books, his antiquities, and the original psychoanalytic couch.

Freud had developed a 20-a-day cigar habit, and even after being diagnosed with cancer would pry his mouth open with a clothes peg and lodge one in. He later remarked that, “I must be near my death — they’ve stopped telling me my cigars will kill me.”

He met with H.G. Wells, who proposed Freud be granted immediate British citizenship conferred by an act of Parliament. Freud was interested in the idea.

With only three months to live, he wrote to Wells, “You cannot have known that since I first came over to England as a boy of 18 years, it became an intense wish fantasy of mine to settle in this country and become an Englishman. Two of my half brothers had done so 15 years before. But an infantile fantasy needs a bit of examination before it can be admitted to reality.”

Ernest Jones, a neurologist and psychoanalyst who became Freud’s close friend and eventually, his biographer, said that Freud was enthralled by the treasures that London held.

“What meant most to him [in London] was the collection of antiquities, particularly the Egyptian ones, in the British Museum,” Jones said. “He did not go to any theater, because the evenings were given up to reading in preparation for the next day’s visit to the museum.”

And in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, the German Jewish otolaryngologist, Freud wrote: “Egyptian antiquities… these things put me in a good mood and speak of distant times and countries.”

A page from the Freud family Bible. (Freud Museum London)

The intertwined fates of Egyptology and psychoanalysis

“Between Oedipus and the Sphinx” explores the themes of Egyptomania, sexuality, and death, and brings objects from Freud and Petrie’s own personal collections together for the first time.

A gilded mummy mask. (Freud Museum London)

A photograph from Freud’s collection shows a statue of Akhenaten, an ancient Egyptian king who ruled during the 18th Dynasty between 1352-1336 BCE. Akhenaten, popularly known as the “heretic” pharaoh, would play an important role in Freud’s narrative of the birth of Western identity.

“Akhenaten stands out as perhaps the most original thinker that ever lived in Egypt, and one of the great idealists of the world,” said Petrie.

Egypt also played a prominent role in Freud’s writings. In his psychobiography of Leonardo da Vinci, the Egyptian goddess Mut holds the key to the artist’s sexual and creative identity. And in Freud’s final work, “Moses and Monotheism,” published in 1939, the father of psychoanalysis makes the scandalous claim that Moses was not a Jew, but an Egyptian.

Petrie was the UK’s first Professor of Egyptology, the first biblical archaeologist in Palestine, and an eccentric famed for excavating in a pink onesie. His insatiable curiosity that led him to unearth how ancient civilization lived, worked and functioned, is now in conversation with the founder of psychoanalysis.

This new exhibition allows the visitor an opportunity to see some never-before displayed Egyptian treasures from Freud’s collection up close.

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