Psychological Approaches to Greek Myths


One of the most important figures in the study of Greek mythology is Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychoanalysis. His general theory of psychology is summarized elsewhere; here we will be concerned chiefly with the central element in his theory of psychosexual development, namely, the Oedipus complex.

Carl Jung, a student of Freud, has had an arguably greater impact on the study of myth than Freud himself.

Freud and the Oedipus Complex

Problems with Orthodox Freudianism

The universalizing ideas of Freud beg many important questions about the nature of myth. In the first place, his account of human sexuality notoriously privileges the experience of the male over that of the female. In the second place, Freud obviously expressed himself in terms of canonical Western European culture. For him Sophocles' rendition of the Oedipus myth was a timeless expression of a trascendent truth, an insight into the human condition that was applicable to all cultures. Not that he neglected to allow for variations; indeed, his comments on the Oedipus myth in The Interpretation of Dreams illustrtate his belief that the motif occurs in a wide variety of disguised forms. Nevertheless, it is his opinion that the form of the myth familiar to the Greeks and dramatized by Sophocles reveals the reason for its power and universality, dealing openly as it does with feelings of violence and aggression towards the father and of erotic longing for the mother that Freud regarded as universal elements of every child's experience.

Jung and the Collective Unconscious

For Jung, the pattern represented by the Oedipus story was only one important pattern among the many that inform human experience. Understanding that the "universality" of the "Oedipus complex" really applies only to male experience, he posited an "Electra complex" as a complementary female version, basing himself on the behavior of Electra in Aeschylus' Oresteia, who shuns marriage after the murder of her father Agamemnon and helps her brother Orestes to avenge the murder upon their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Recognizing that Freud and, especially, Freud's followers put too much emphasis on the Oedipus myth alone, Jung posited the existence of many patterms, which he called "archetypes," within the "collective unconscious" of all people. Besides recognizing the inability of the Oedipal archetype to account for female experience, he also understood that ancient Greek culture was only one among many world cultures, and should not be regarded as the unique repository of all the archetypes that might exist within the collective unconscious. This led Jung to look especially to the classical civilizations of Asia in his effort to describe a universal mythology of the human psyche.
created 4/15/96; modified 2/4/97