Miriam Leonard, professor of Greek literature and its reception at University College London (UCL), reports on a new exhibition at the Freud Museum supported by a public engagement grant from the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS).

For a number of years I have been exploring Sigmund Freud’s interest in antiquity. I have been repeatedly struck by the way that the Greco-Roman world competed with other ancient societies to inspire his theories about the history of the human psyche. This research gave me the idea for an exhibition, which explored Freud’s relationship to Egypt. The exhibition, Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt, is taking place at the Freud Museum in London and runs until 27 October.


Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (Wikimedia Commons)

A painting of Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx hangs over the psychoanalyst’s couch in the museum. The significance of the figure of Oedipus to the development of Sigmund Freud’s thought is well known, but the presence of the Sphinx in this picture highlights Freud’s less celebrated interest in Egypt and other non-European ancient cultures. Freud had a very extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as frequently writing about Egypt in his psychoanalytic works. The antiquities collection is linked to his interest in archaeology, which provided him with one of the most productive metaphors for exploring the layers of mind. Freud formulated his archaeology of the mind in tandem with important developments in professional archaeology and Egyptology.

Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), the first professor of Egyptology in the UK, was an almost exact contemporary of Sigmund Freud and is generally considered one of the founding figures of modern archaeology. The exhibition brings the Freud Museum’s Egyptian antiquities into a dialogue with UCL’s Petrie Museum. In particular, it highlights the overlap between Freud and Petrie’s fascination with the figure of Akhenaten.

In 1891, Petrie conducted the first systematic excavation of Amarna, the site of the heretical Pharoah’s capital city. It was Petrie’s finds that enabled ancient historians to understand the religious and cultural revolution which took place during his reign. Freud followed these excavations with great interest and Akhenaten became the hero of his last major work, Moses and Monotheism, published from London in 1939.

In this book, Freud makes the scandalous claim that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian. He speculates that Moses was born an Egyptian noble and was a follower of Akhenaten. Akhenaten abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced the exclusive worship of the sun god, Aten. Freud believed that it was Akhenaten’s monotheism which lies behind the Jews’ own adoption of a monotheistic religion. He also claimed that the Jews, impatient with the harsh strictures of his monotheistic religion, murdered Moses. The history of ancient Judaism is the site of an oedipal murder whose consequences for the Jewish people continued to be felt into his lifetime.

Alongside the exhibition, Ivan Ward (deputy director of Freud Museum) and I have been collaborating with the award-winning screenwriter Michael Eaton, who is writing a play based on a fictional encounter between Freud and Flinders Petrie in which they discuss their competing visions of archaeology, ancient cultures, and the history of the psyche. On 12 October, Michael Eaton will be reading extracts of the new play at the major conference which accompanies the exhibition. And on 26 September, he will be taking part in an event at the Petrie Museum exploring Egyptomania in the time of Freud.

Miriam Leonard is professor of Greek literature and its reception at University College London. Her research explores the intellectual history of classics in modern European thought from the 18th century to the present.

Read the original article on the ICS blog.