In March of 1993, a new patient came to Freud, the American poet, Hilda Doolittle, better known to us by her pen name, H.D. The clouds of Nazism hung heavy over Europe that spring. H.D., severely traumatized by World War I, was frightened. She came to Freud, as she tells us, “in order to fortify and equip myself to face war when it came.” “With the death-head swastika chalked on the pavement leading to the professor’s door,” she wrote in her brilliant Tribute to Freud, “I must calm as best I could…my own personal little dragon of war-terror….”1

Freud also was possessed by the menace to civilization in Europe. Since Hitler’s rise to power, he was engaged at a new level of intensity with defining the nature of Jewishness, and the place of the Jews in the making of Western culture.

The transaction that ensued between the poet-patient and the professor must have been unique in the annals of psychoanalysis. Because both suffered acutely from the sense of a historical ending in modern Europe, their dialogue—even to the suggestive articulation of their powerful transferences—took the form of cultural discourse about antiquity, its symbols and their meanings. We have but one side of the discussion—H.D.’s; but her report makes us consider anew Freud’s lifelong attempt to build, in effect, a meaningful interpretation of Western civilization, and to find his own place in it.

Freud had a large collection of archaeological artifacts, in which H.D. evinced an immediate interest. A group of religious figurines stood arrayed on his desk “like a high altar,” she observed, in his study. From the assembled divinities, Freud chose a tiny Athena and offered it to his new patient, almost as if it were a flower. “‘This is my favorite,’ he said. ‘She is perfect…only she has lost her spear.”‘ H.D. felt the power of the gesture, and reflected on it. “He knew that I loved Greece…. ‘She has lost her spear’,” H.D. continues.2 She does not explore the sexual implication of the loss of the spear for the androgynous goddess, or its relevance to H.D.’s own bisexual proclivities. Nor does Freud, although he had done some revealing digging into Athena’s nature.

Athena and Hellas provided a common ground of culture between the Jewish professor and the Christian poet. It was a point of departure for a psycho-archaeological quest which soon led them to Egypt, first together, in the analysis; later, each on his own. There Freud and H.D. sought to decipher the origins of human culture in ways that would fortify both in defining their own natures amid the terrors of the modern world. H.D. recorded the yield of her dig in the long poem Helen in Egypt; Freud, in the work with which this essay is concerned, Moses and Monotheism.


That Athena should have been Freud’s favorite among his archaeological artifacts can come as no surprise. To anyone brought up in Austrian liberal culture in the midnineteenth century, as Freud had been, Athens served as a comprehensive symbol of all that culture held dear. When the Austrian liberals finally achieved a constitutional state in the 1860s, they placed a statue of Athena before their new Greek-style parliament building. Protectrix of the free polis, she was also goddess of wisdom, a symbol well-suited to a liberal elite that believed in the liberating power of science and reason.

What was true of the symbolism of Athena for politics acquired even greater force through Austrian education. Classical culture was the foundation on which Austria’s highly effective reformed elite education was built. Greek and Roman civilization provided a religiously neutral ground for constructing a secular liberal culture. For no social group did this have more decisive meaning than for the newly emancipated Jews. Their children could join their Christian schoolfellows in acquiring a common gentile culture, the religion of which was dead and hence no threat to their own. The classics and ancient history opened for the Jews a road to a deep cultural assimilation into the gentile world without implying either heresy or apostasy.

At home and in separate religious instruction, young Sigmund Freud studied Hebrew and Jewish culture. In school, the public realm, he became a Greek. Under Athena’s liberal aegis, he could draw deeply on both cultures, finding in the myths and ideas of Greeks and Hebrews the materials to construct his identity, his values, and his place in a culturally and politically divided modern society.

To use past cultures thus, as reservoirs of human models and symbols—literally, as food for thought—is not the same as exploring cultures as historically specific collective constructions. In his mature work, Freud, despite his enormous historical and cultural erudition, interested himself principally in the exploration of the universal nature and dynamics of the individual psyche from whatever culture it may have sprung. Only once did he attempt systematically to come to grips with the character and construction of a particular culture, as historians and anthropologists do. This task Freud undertook only at the end of his life, and with considerable hesitation, in Moses and Monotheism, where he tried to get at the nature of Judaism. Although deeply attached, and indebted, to Greece and Rome, he never considered analyzing either as a whole culture. Yet the way he related to them—and especially to Athena—sheds light on his deepest personal values and intellectual concerns.



Once Freud had defined his scientific mission as the exploration of the buried reaches of the human psyche, he drew an analogy between his work in depth psychology and that of the archaeologist in exhuming and decoding buried cultures. It was only natural for this child of nineteenth-century Europe to give the highest place to the ancient cultures that were regarded as progenitors of his own: Greek and Roman, Hebrew, and, finally, Egyptian. Modern European cultures, by contrast, interested him little in his mature years. Yet as a young man Freud was drawn to two contemporary civilizations that meant much to his intellectual formation: those of England and France. They set a tone of duality that lasted all his life, and deserve a quick look, for they prefigured the aspects of gender in his later approaches to culture.3

Like many another Austrian liberal, Freud was a passionate Anglophile. After graduation from Gymnasium in 1875, he made a visit to England which, as he later said, “had a decisive influence on my whole life.” In 1882, deeply frustrated about his career, he wrote to his fiancée of his longing to escape from Vienna and “that abominable tower of Saint Stephen”—symbol of Catholic reaction. “The thought of England surges up before me, with its sober industriousness, its generous devotion to the public weal, the stubbornness and sensitive feeling for justice of its inhabitants….”4

As a university student, Freud found reinforcement for his admiration for England in two important professors: Franz Brentano and Theodor Gomperz. Both were exponents of English philosophic radicalism, the first in philosophy, the second in classics. On Brentano’s recommendation, Gomperz enlisted Freud to translate some of John Stuart Mill’s most radical essays, including “The Subjection of Women” and “Socialism.” Gomperz also imparted to the young Freud an interpretation of Greek culture consistent with his strongly moralistic Jewish heritage and the English utilitarian rationalism that continued the Puritan religious tradition in a militantly secular form.

Freud wrote of “taking up again the works of the men who were my real teachers, all of them English or Scotch; and I am recalling…the most interesting historical period, the reign of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell, with its lofty monument of that time, Paradise Lost.” 5 The future intellectual pioneer of sexuality was thus an admirer of the Puritans, the exemplars of libidinal repression. For they were the builders, stern and rational, of the liberal ego and the England Freud admired: a land of ethical rectitude, manly self-control, public order, and the rule of law—all the characteristics that Matthew Arnold associated with the Hebrews, but that Austrian liberals like Freud identified with Athena and the Greeks.

Three years after Freud considered taking refuge in England’s isle of masculine virtue, he fell in love with seductive, feminine Paris, where, in 1885, he went to study with Martin Charcot. Paris was for him the absolute antithesis of London: a place of danger, of the questionable, the irrational. Freud encountered the city in a spirit of adventure, thrilling and frightening. He opened himself to the world of forbidden fleurs du mal that the Anglophile and liberal Jew in him had until then rejected or avoided: the Roman Catholic Church, the bewitching power of the female, and the power of the masses.

Mindful of Freud’s hatred of Catholicism, and his longing to escape to England from the shadow of Vienna’s “abominable tower of St. Stephen,” one is surprised that he was awed by the beauty of Notre Dame. “This is a Church,” he wrote. “I have never seen anything so movingly serious and sombre.” As for the people of Paris, whom he observed in a year of anti-Semitic unrest, Freud found them frightening, “uncanny.” “They are people given to psychical epidemics, historical mass convulsions, and they haven’t changed since Victor Hugo wrote Notre Dame.”6

To the awe of the Church and the fear of the feverish crowd one must add one more element in Freud’s simplistic image of Paris: women. Both in the theater—especially that of the bewitching Sarah Bernhardt—and in the salon, Freud responded, as his letters show, with a quite new receptivity, both sensual and intellectual, to the magic of women.7 One can understand easily the feelings that underlay one of Freud’s later jokes: A married couple is discussing the future. The man says to his wife, “If one of us should die, I shall go to Paris.”


Paris, and Freud’s quasi-stereotypical perception of it, provided the ideal setting for him to receive Charcot’s doctrine of hysteria, which opened the way to that questionable province of the psyche where Freud would do his pioneering work.

One cannot fail to be struck by the radical antithesis between Freud’s characterizations of English and French cultures. The Puritanrationalist spectacles he wore when he looked at England allowed him to see there nothing of the cathedrals, crowds, or women that so caught his eye in France. By contrast, the image of the feminine so dominated his perception in France, that the positivist, rationalist, masculine side of that country’s bourgeois culture never entered his field of vision. He made no attempt to establish any relationship between the contrasting values that attracted him in England and France. This polarity was subsequently to trouble both his experience of culture and his thought about it. He confronted it for the first time in his encounter with Rome, where male and female, ethics and aesthetics—in short, the ego-world of his England and id-world of his Paris—converged in an ambiguous symbiosis.


In the years 1895–1900, when Freud struggled toward the intellectual breakthrough embodied in The Interpretation of Dreams, Rome, mother of cities, came to occupy a crucial place in his life. When Freud discovered the analogy between depth psychology and archaeology, Rome was its focus. In 1896, he began his collection of archaic objects. He also spent passionate evenings with an archaeologist friend, Emmanuel Loewy: “He keeps me up until three o’clock in the morning,” Freud wrote. “He tells me about Rome.” Then a strange problem arose. He developed what he called his “Rome neurosis.” Freud, the avid traveler, could not get to Rome, though the city haunted his dreams. To do so, he had to dig up the Rome in himself, by analyzing his dreams.

I shall not deal here with Freud’s Rome neurosis and the way he resolved it psychoanalytically.8 What concerns me is rather his cultural perspective. Unlike his approach to either England or Paris, his perspective on Rome is Jewish, that of the outsider, but it is a double one. On the one hand, Rome is masculine, the citadel of Catholic power, and his dreamwish, as a liberal and a Jew, is to conquer it. On the other hand, other of his wishes show Rome as feminine, Holy Mother Church, promising gratification, and to be entered in love. His powers were too weak for the project of conquest, his conscience too strong for the opposite possibility, to embrace the Church in conversion. Hence the neurotic impasse. Freud found the roots of these wishes in his psyche: in his childhood relations to his Jewish father and to a beloved Catholic nanny. But Rome had brought into conjunction the feelings attached to masculine England and feminine Paris, tangled together. While Freud resolved the problems presented by Rome in his self-analysis by reducing them to family relations, the cultural problems of the Jew in a gentile world troubled him more than ever.

Once more Freud was drawn to the classical era for emotional comfort. This became clear when he overcame his Rome neurosis through self-analysis and, in 1901, was able to enter the city at last. Medieval and Baroque Rome evoked his hatred of Catholicism once more: “I found almost intolerable the lie of salvation which rears its head so proudly to heaven.” But beneath Catholic Rome was the city he really cherished: classical Rome, in which he became “totally and undisturbedly absorbed.” His feelings for it as the foundation of European civilization welled up as did Gibbon’s when he surveyed the ruined forum from the Capitoline. The focus of Freud’s pathos was, not surprisingly, Athena, in her Roman persona, Minerva. He wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, “I could have worshipped the abased and mutilated remnant of the Temple of Minerva.”9

Was Freud’s Roman Athena the same as the one that the liberals of Vienna had chosen as their symbol of rational wisdom and justice? One suspects that she was, for she filled him with a sense of serenity and intellectual security. But not for long.

Shortly before he described to Fliess his reaction to Rome, Freud had written him to announce his next big study. It would be called “Human Bisexuality.”10 Athena could well symbolize this more ambiguous and ambitious psychoanalytic enterprise, lying far beyond her orthodox nineteenth-century signification as goddess of rational order For Athena, as Freud would soon explain, was a bisexual goddess. In her rational, cool, and ascetic bisexuality Athena unified the ethical civic spirit that had so attracted him to manly England, and the questionable feminine beauty and irrational religious power that had so stirred him in seductive Paris. After his conquest of Rome, the pursuit of these related opposites led Freud to new cultural sites, to digs in strata lying deeper both in history and in his psyche than Greece and Rome; namely, to Israel and Egypt.


Before we follow Freud on his explorations of these more remote cultures, let us pause with him, in the middle of the journey, on the acropolis of Athens. Freud visited it in 1904. In sharp contrast to his golden moment in Rome, where he had “worshipped in the ruins of Minerva’s temple,” Freud felt on the heights of Athens an unsettling malaise. He later analyzed that experience in an essay, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis” (1936), concluding that his joy had been undermined by guilt.11 His whole acquired classical culture, which had served as solid common ground between Christian and Jew, now appeared to him under the aspect of apostasy from the Jewish tradition to which his uneducated father had resolutely clung. Thenceforth, the road to Israel beckoned.

A few years later, returning to Rome, Freud felt again a flash of the apostate’s guilt. This time it was in confronting Michelangelo’s Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Freud at first identified himself with the mob of backsliders to the golden calf upon whom the angry prophet’s eye is turned, “the mob which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.”12 But then Freud detached himself from this guilt as a Jew. Michelangelo’s Moses, he argues in his famous essay of that name, is not the “historical figure,” the tablet-breaking angry prophet of the Bible. He is rather an exemplar of masculine moral control over the instincts, who governs his rage for the sake of his cause.13 Most of Freud’s biographers agree in seeing this interpretation of Moses as connected with his tension with his followers over his effort to make a gentile, C.G. Jung, his successor as head of the psychoanalytic organization so that psychoanalysis might not be a purely Jewish science. Freud found in Moses a model from which to draw strength as the embattled, patriarchal leader of his movement. Far from assaulting the father in identification with the backsliding mob of sons, Freud was hardening himself to being a powerful father himself, as he confronted his fractious followers. Freud’s interpretation of Moses celebrates manly self-control and the triumphant repression of instinctual forces.

The second road that led away from Athens ran in an almost opposite direction, to Egypt. At one level, this would seem a logical counterpart to Freud’s renewed preoccupation with his Jewishness. Israel, and especially the two biblical figures that most engaged Freud from childhood on, Joseph and Moses, were fundamentally defined in relation to Egypt.14 Yet after 1900 Egypt fostered in Freud interests that were in drastic contradiction to the faith of his fathers and even to the male orientation of psychoanalysis—interests closer to his new project of 1901, “Human Bisexuality.” For Egypt was a land of the primal mothers, and of religiously expressed bisexuality. It touched ultimate and even dangerous questions of the psyche to which Freud had devoted scant attention before he fell under Egypt’s spell.

Ever since the Renaissance, Egyptomania had periodically seized the European imagination. That mysterious land promised access to the womb of culture and the tomb of time, to the original and the hidden, the voiceless (“infans”) childhood of humanity. In the fin de siècle it was the finds of archaeologists that aroused anew the desire to decipher the culture of the Nile, as the philologists had done a century before. Their work swept the educated public in its wake.

Freud caught the fever. By 1906 at the latest, his intoxication with things Egyptian far exceeded his earlier infatuation with Rome. He began to build a substantial library on Egypt. The most tangible evidence of his passion was in his large collection of artifacts, today preserved in the Freud Museum in London. In it Egyptian culture was the most strongly represented. Six figurines represented members of Egypt’s polytheistic holy family: Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Egypt soon dominated Freud’s consulting room, in photos and in stone reliefs of Osiris and his family at the doorway to Freud’s study. Freud meditated upon—virtually communed with—his ancient statuettes, not only at the desk where H.D. had noticed them and where he worked under their gaze, but even at the dinner table.15

Another index of the strength of his addiction is Freud’s behavior on a week’s visit to his beloved London in 1908, his first since 1875. This time it was not the virtuous character of English culture that captured him. Though he did some sightseeing, Ernest Jones reports, “What meant most to him [in London] was the collection of antiquities, particularly the Egyptian ones, in the British Museum. 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.”16

As early as 1907, Freud turned the attention of a prized new disciple, Karl Abraham, toward Egypt. On Abraham’s first visit to Vienna, Freud not only him gave his “first Egyptological lessons,” but even put two little Egyptian figurines in his guest’s briefcase as a surprise farewell gift.17 The lesson took; five years later, Abraham in turn surprised Freud, presenting him with a brilliant psychoanalytic study of the pharaoh who was later to be the central figure in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Freud wrote his friend in delight and gratitude: “Amenhotep IV in psychoanalytic illumination! That is certainly a big step in ‘orientation”‘—the pun in German also implies turning toward the East.18

In 1910, the consequences of Freud’s interest in Egypt appeared for the first time in his published work. As his road to Jewish culture had passed through the Renaissance via the art of Michelangelo, so he made his way to Egypt through the art of Leonardo da Vinci. In Moses, the problem was patriarchal control; in Leonardo, it was homosexuality.19 Freud analyzed a childhood memory of Leonardo’s in which he is visited in his cradle by a vulture that strikes his mouth with its tail. Freud sees Leonardo’s homosexuality in this infantile fantasy: the vulture represents a new figure on the psychoanalytic scene: the phallic mother. Freud grounds his analysis of Leonardo’s dream on the vulture-headed Egyptian mother-goddess, Mut. She is one of Egypt’s original hermaphroditic divinities who survive alongside later gods who are sexually more differentiated. Freud makes the analogy between the symbolic culture of Egypt, in the childhood of the race, and the infantile fantasy of the (pre-oedipal) individual. He sees the androgynous gods of Egypt as “expressions of the idea that only a combination of male and female elements can give a worthy representation of divine perfection.”20

Suddenly, in this connection, Athena herself reappears in the text on Leonardo. Locating her origins in Egypt, Freud describes her now as a Greek descendant of an Egyptian phallic mother-goddess, Neith of Sais.21 From this line of inquiry into bipolar unities also developed Freud’s later interpretations of the Gorgon Medusa, the snakes on whose head are penises threatening castration. It was the Gorgon’s fierce face that adorned the breast and shield of Athena to keep her male antagonists at bay.

In 1910, Freud published another result of his Egyptian explorations, this time concerning language. The article, “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words,” took the form of a review of a book published almost three decades earlier. Its author, the philologist Karl Abel, demonstrated that, in the primal language of Egypt, a single word denoted both an idea and its opposite; i.e., both strong and weak, both light and dark. Freud noted that this linguistic finding about primal language was the same as his own view of dreams. “Dreams feel themselves at liberty…to represent any element by its wishful contrary.”22 Primal words thus have the same character as the primal bisexual divinities of Egypt; they constitute a unity of opposites. Only later are they split into autonomous antithetical, or complementary, terms.

Some of Freud’s boldest later inquests into female psychology and the pre-oedipal mother (“Female Sexuality” [1931], “Contributions to the Psychology of Love” [1918]) might be traced back to the study of Egyptian culture that so fired his imagination in the prewar years. They suggested new psychoanalytic ideas that could break through the essentially male confines of most of his cultural theory, especially Totem and Taboo But the turn to Moses and the saving of the Jews led Freud away from the new veins he had opened in his first Egyptian dig.


Moses and Monotheism, written in the 1930s, explores as history the problem Freud had explored in his own psyche in analyzing his “Rome neurosis”: the relation of Jew and gentile. The work is both Jewish history and Egyptian history.

As Jewish history the book centers on two sensational, antitraditional ideas. The first is that Moses was not a foundling Jew but a high-born Egyptian. The second is that, after the Exodus, Moses was killed by the more primitive of the Jews who could not abide the severity of his law. Both these notions link the Jews, as Freud explicitly aims to show, to the world of the gentiles: the first, culturally, to the Egyptians; the second, by analogy to the crucifixion, to the Christians. With these identifications of Jew and gentile through Moses, Freud accomplishes two things: first, he vindicates the Jewish people by defining them as carriers of the high civilization first achieved by Egypt. Second, in his myth of the killing of Moses, Freud gives the Jews a basis for abandoning their exclusivist self-definition, which in his view prevents them from realizing, as Christians do, their own universality. For that, Freud says, the Jews must recognize as Christians do their own patricidal crime, and assume its guilt as participants in the brotherhood of mankind.

The particular Egypt that Freud provides as setting for his Moses story in the 1930s is strikingly different from the land of bisexual religion and primal mothers that claimed his attention before World War I. We should see it as a second Egyptian dig. Freud concentrates now on a later phase of Egyptian history, the reign of Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten. That pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty was the nearest thing Egypt produced to a European enlightened despot of the eighteenth century, like Joseph II of Austria. Akhenaten was a man after Freud’s heart, a rebel reformer. Establishing a monotheistic cult of an abstract sun god, Aton, the pharaoh suppressed the polytheistic religion of Egypt. Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult stressed not salvation, but truthfulness, ethics, and justice. His was an elitist creed developed “in deliberate hostility to the popular [religion].”23 But when Akhenaten died, his victory over the superstition and darkness of Egyptian polytheism was swept away by a counterreformation, much as the Emperor Joseph II’s enlightenment had been by Catholic reaction.

According to Freud, Moses, the Egyptian nobleman, member of Akhenaten’s intellectual elite, was caught in the Götterdämmerung of Egypt’s enlightenment. Moses was one who, as Freud put it, “lost his fatherland” when the values it stood for under his pharaoh were destroyed24 like the enlightened anti-Nazi gentiles in Freud’s time. Determined to rescue the pharaoh’s cultural achievement from the counterreformation, Moses chose as his vehicle the Jews, a poor alien people settled in a border province, who worshiped a primitive tribal God. In effect, Moses made Egyptians out of the Jews so that they might preserve the highest culture that his country had achieved. He gave them three Egyptian gifts: monotheism, the ethical code of the Aton cult, and the practice of circumcision. With these three gifts of Egyptian enlightenment Moses created the most fundamental characteristic of Jewish culture ever after: Geistigkeit. That term embraces spirituality and intellectuality. It is the opposite of Sinnlichkeit, the realm of the senses. It is London as opposed to Paris. The eternal task of Geistigkeit is to control Sinnlichkeit and the instincts that drive it. That is what civilization is all about.25 The Egyptians achieved it first in Akhenaten’s brief moment in history. Moses imparted its essentials to the Jews to save it and cultivate it for the future.

It was a man’s job. Not for nothing did Freud entitle his book in German Der Mann Moses. He did not say Der Mensch Moses. Mann conveys what Freud wanted: manliness, maleness and its attributes: courage, force, principle, uprightness.26 One recalls his earlier political-cultural heroes, Hannibal and Oliver Cromwell. Moses, the able, masterful aristocrat who, Freud fantasizes further, might have aspired to rule Egypt as Akhenaten’s successor. In any case it fit his nature to plan for the Jews: “to found a new empire, to find a new people [ein neues Reich zu gründen, ein neues Volk zu finden…].”27 Freud associated Moses’ imperial manliness, of course, with his Geistigkeit. Demanding of the Jews renunciation of the instincts, Moses liberated the Jews not so much from Egyptian bondage as from their own instinctual drives. A father to the childish people, he transformed them into a father-people, exemplifying the victory of male abstraction, the central prerequisite of civilization, over female sensuality and materiality. Thanks to their intellectual and ethical strength, the Jews as Kulturvolk par excellence would always be attacked whenever repressed instinct broke loose in civilized society; thanks to the same masculine virtues, they would have the power to endure in adversity.

The ideal historical base for Freud’s final exploration in culture in Moses and Monotheism, we must be now realize, is no longer Greece, but Egypt. In the Egypt of his second dig, the Jews acquired an honored place in gentile history such as neither Athens nor Rome nor the classicism of the Austrian Gymnasium could provide them. For in Egypt, the Jews became the Kulturvolk that rescued the highest gentile civilization from the unholy alliance of priests and ignorant people; just as, in modern times, the Jews and cultured gentiles were, through exodus and exile, saving Europe’s enlightenment from Hitler.


Let us look now at the Egyptian side of the equation. What has Freud done with Egyptian history to sustain his image of Moses? And, in so doing, what has he done to his previous excavations of Egypt for the psychoanalytic understanding of culture?

In his first Egyptian dig, Freud’s findings were related to bisexuality, the phallic mother, the union of opposites in religion and even in language, In the second dig, undertaken in search of the origins of the Jews, we find a different Egypt, one wholly characterized by masculine cultural achievements, with Geistigkeit and instinctual repression at the center.

In pursuit of this difference, I began to look at Freud’s sources. The trial led first to, of all places, Chicago. James Henry Breasted, founder of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, published in 1905 The History of Egypt, a great classic of its time, and Freud’s principal source. Breasted had written his doctoral thesis in Berlin on the hymns of the sun god Aton. There he showed the world’s earliest monotheism being born in poetry. Then, in his comprehensive history, Breasted charted Egyptian culture as it struggled out of chthonic darkness to the achievement of rational enlightenment in the reign of his hero, Akhenaten. In the progressivist spirit of America’s New History, which had a principal center in Chicago, Breasted made of Egypt a model for the entire history of Europe, at a time when Greeks and Hebrews were both still in a primitive state.

As Freud was a secularized Jew seeking roots deeper and anterior to those of his faith. Breasted was a secularized Protestant Christian engaged in the same quest: to deny to their respective traditions their claims to be the divinely ordained founders of civilization by exalting Egypt as creator of the first enlightenment culture. Even as Freud began work on Moses and Monotheism, Breasted was publishing a popular book on Egypt under the title The Dawn of Conscience (1933)—what Freud would have called “the origins of the super-ego.” Breasted included in its preface an explicit expression of concern about revived anti-Semitism, in order to offset the fact that he was undermining the Judaeo-Christian claims to primacy in creating our civilization.

Freud’s portrait of Akhenaten and his religious revolution is firmly grounded in Breasted’s account, which stresses cultural characteristics Freud associates with Jewish Geistigkeit: monotheism, rationalism, the construction of an ethical code, and even circumcision. But Breasted includes another aspect of Akhenaten’s culture nowhere mentioned in Freud: a rich sensuality. No Egyptian nobleman could have escaped it.

If the god Aton was dematerialized, the earthly life and cultural forms of his cult were far from it. Breasted shows how the art of Akhenaten’s reign broke the stiff, hieratic geometrical tradition of Egypt in favor of a sensuous, naturalistic plasticity worthy of art nouveau. Frescoes depicting Akhenaten and his beautiful queen Nefertiti in tender communion, or playing lovingly with their daughters radiate the joy of Sinnlichkeit.

“To the sensitive soul of this Egyptian dreamer,” Breasted says, “the whole animate world seems alive with the presence of Aton:…the lily-grown marshes, where the flowers are ‘drunken’ in the intoxicating radiance of Aton….” “The deepest sources of power in this remarkable revolution,” the Emersonian Breasted concludes, “lay in this appeal to nature, in this admonition to ‘consider the lilies of the field’.”28

None of the sensual side of the Akhenaten culture described by Breasted appears in Freud’s account. Freud selected from Breasted’s History only what connects the Egyptian enlightenment to the Geistigkeit he sees in the Jews. In his own copy of Breasted’s history, Freud marked only the passages that sustained this theme. The rest—and the richer information on the sensuous culture of Akhenaten in The Dawn of Conscience—he ignored.

Another omission in Freud’s book is even more astonishing. Neither in text nor in footnotes is there any reference to the one major psychoanalytic study of Egyptian culture: Karl Abraham’s “Amenhotep IV.” This was the long article with which, as I have mentioned, Abraham, the faithful disciple, had surprised the master in 1912.29 He wrote it under the stimulus of Freud’s interest in bisexuality and its presence in his Leonardo analysis and in Egyptian religious culture.

Abraham’s psychoanalytic portrait of Akhenaten centers squarely on the pharaoh’s androgynous nature. Reared by a powerful mother to whom he remained passionately attached, Akhenaten lived in a permanent state of anger against his strong father. Akhenaten’s self-representation in art, no less than his behavior, showed striking androgynous characteristics. It was also marked by allusion to the most primitive styles. Identifying his god Aton with the first sun god, and claiming descent from him, Akhenaten outflanked his father, Amenhotep III, and replaced his god, expunging their very names from the monuments. His archaism, Abraham argued, betrayed a well-known neurotic symptom: the fantasy of high parentage.

Akhenaten made his god a god of love, a completely spiritualized ideal father. “He had sublimated his aggressive instinctual impulses to an extraordinary extent,” Abraham maintains, “and had transformed them into an overflowing love for all beings, so that he did not use violence even against the enemies of his empire.” Though Abraham saw Akhenaten as a predecessor of Moses as monotheist, “[his] conception of god has more in common with the Christian than with the Mosaic conception.” A God of love.30 Finally, Abraham stresses the tremendous influence of women—especially Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti, and his mother, Tiys—on his court and cult.31 If ethical Geistigkeit was one aspect of the monotheistic god Aton, intense, aestheticized sensuality was the other. Freud left this dual character out of his account.32

The project of vindicating the Jews as a masculine Kulturvolk led Freud in effect to ignore in his second Egyptian dig the conceptual treasures he had unearthed in his first. He abandoned the shafts he had himself opened into a bisexual theory of cultural development. He expurgated or repressed the knowledge of Breasted and Abraham, his best informants, with respect to the integration of Sinnlichkeit with Geistigkeit, female with male, in the culture of Akhenaten. Freud paid a price for his suppression of the truth about the androgynous pharaoh, a price not without its irony: In making Moses an Egyptian, he had ended by making Akhenaten a Jew.


Our story has been one of a dualism that worked itself out again and again in Freud’s explorations in culture: in the 1880s, there was puritan, manly England versus fascinating, feminine Paris; in the 1890s anxiety-provoking Rome, with its menace of masculine papal power conflated with the temptation of the Church as Holy Mother; in the 1910s, virile Michelangelo contrasted with androgynous Leonardo; and finally, Egypt: the land of primal bisexual culture confronting the enlightened patriarchal despotism of Akhenaten/Moses.

What, in all this, has become of Athena, who had accompanied Freud throughout his cultural odyssey? After the experience on the acropolis in 1904 Freud left her with a sense of guilt about their relationship. In 1910, in the swamplands of the Nile, he found her in a primal form, a phallic mother-goddess. How she would have shocked the good liberals of Vienna who had chosen her as the virginal symbol of their rational polity!

In Moses and Monotheism, Athena appeared once more, though only in a footnote. There Freud speculated on the origin of Athena’s Greek persona: A great earthquake, such as he thought might account for the tidal wave that swallowed the Egyptians in the Red Sea, had also sealed Athena’s destiny as a mother-goddess. Like the matriarchal goddess of Crete, Freud suggested, she had lost all credibility when her womanly powers failed to protect the Greeks against the volcanic eruptions of nature. Then male gods like “earth-shaking Zeus” took over. The mother-goddess Pallas Athena, Freud tells us, “was demoted to a daughter, robbed of her own mother, and through the virginity imposed upon her, permanently excluded from motherhood.”33 Thus denatured by her father Zeus, she had henceforth to serve his patriarchal purposes as intellectual brainchild. We recall Freud’s words on Athena to H.D.: “She is perfect…only she has lost her spear.” In the light of Freud’s suppression of bisexuality in his final work of cultural analysis, those words on Athena have a melancholy ring.

In May 1938, Freud fled Vienna for England, the land of civic virtue to which he had thought of emigrating over fifty years before. Taking the Orient Express westward to London, he stopped for a night at the other favored city of his youth, Paris. There he enjoyed the hospitality of a princess, his disciple Marie Bonaparte. She put into the old man’s hands his favorite statuette, Athena. She had smuggled it out of Vienna when he feared his collection of artifacts might be lost.34

Freud carried Athena on to London himself. It was his last voyage with that old bisexual companion from antiquity, whose changes had recorded so faithfully the changes in Freud’s understanding of humankind. But as he left for London, it was not to Athena that his thoughts turned to define his situation. “I compare myself,” he wrote to his son Ernst, “with the old Jacob, whom in his old age his children brought to Egypt.”35

For the sake of the Jews in Hitler’s Götterdämmerung, Freud seems to have banished from his mind the promising insights into sexuality and culture he had found for us in Egypt, and abandoned them in Moses and Monotheism. Now he could go to England to die with his historical illusions, a Jewish patriarch in the enlightened gentile country of his youthful dreams.

Copyright © 1993 by Carl E. Schorske

This Issue

May 27, 1993