Freud’s Egyptian Dig

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,…

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