The Freud Museum


Religion as an attempt to master the oedipus complex

Preface to Reik's Ritual: Psycho-analytic Studies (1919)

"Otto Rank, in a large volume on the incest complex (1912), has produced evidence of the surprising fact that the choice of subject matter [for myth and literature], especially for dramatic works, is principally determined by the ambit of what psychoanalysis has termed the 'Oedipus Complex'. By working it over with the greatest variety of modifications, distortions and disguises, the dramatist seeks to deal with his own most personal relations to this emotional theme. It is in attempting to master the Oedipus Complex - that is to say a personís emotional attitude toward his family, or in the narrower sense towards his father and mother - that individual neurotics come to grief, and for this reason that complex habitually forms the nucleus of their neurosis. It does not owe its importance to any unintelligible conjunction; the emphasis laid upon the relation of children to their parents is an expression of the biological facts that the young of the human race pass through a long period of dependence and are slow in reaching maturity, as well as that their capacity for love undergoes a complicated course of development. Consequently, the overcoming of the Oedipus complex coincides with the most efficient way of mastering the archaic, animal heritage of humanity. It is true that that heritage comprises all the forces that are required for the subsequent cultural development of the individual, but they must first be sorted out and worked over...

To find the starting point for the psychoanalytic opinions upon religious life we must go one step further. What is today the heritage of the individual was once a new acquisition and has been handed on from one to another of a long series of generations. Thus the Oedipus complex too may have had stages of development, and the study of prehistory may enable us to trace them out."

Freud then goes on to describe his theory of the primal horde, the killing of the chief, and so on, which he says result in "the appearance of the first social ties, the basic moral restrictions, and the oldest form of religion, totemism."

"But the later religions too have the same content, and on the one hand they are concerned with obliterating traces of that crime or with expiating it by bringing forward other solutions of the struggle between fathers and sons, while on the other hand they cannot avoid repeating once more the elimination of the father".

Religion, therefore, for Freud, is caught within an irrevocable contradiction. It is a 'compromise solution' to a traumatic evolutionary process which is constitutive of the human species. I think Freud would therefore say that there is no such thing as a 'modern' religion - all religions must partake of the same infantile and primitive roots which are universal factors of the human condition.

from Totem and Taboo (1913)

"When Christianity first penetrated into the ancient world it met with competition from the religion of Mithras and for a time it was doubtful which of the two deities would gain the victory. In spite of the halo of light surrounding his form, the youthful Persian god remains obscure to us. We may perhaps infer from the sculptures of Mithras slaying a bull that he represented a son who was alone in sacrificing his father and thus redeemed his brothers from the burden of their complicity in the deed. There was an alternative method of allaying their guilt and this was first adopted by Christ. He sacrificed his own life and so redeemed the company of brothers from original sin.

The doctrine of original sin was of Orphic origin. It formed a part of the mysteries, and spread from them to the schools of philosophy of ancient Greece. Mankind, it was said, were descended from the Titans, who had killed the young Dionysus-Zagreus and had torn him to pieces. The burden of this crime weighed on them. A fragment of Anaximander relates how the unity of the world was broken by primæval sin, (Une sorte de péché proethnique Reinach, 1905-12, 2, 75 ff.) and that whatever issued from it must bear the punishment ...

There can be no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was against God the Father. If, however, Christ redeemed mankind from the burden of original sin by the sacrifice of his own life, we are driven to conclude that the sin was a murder. The law of talion, which is so deeply rooted in human feelings, lays it down that a murder can only be expiated by the sacrifice of another life: self-sacrifice points back to blood-guilt. And if this sacrifice of a life brought about atonement with God the Father, the crime to be expiated can only have been the murder of the Father.

In the Christian doctrine, therefore, men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primæval deed, since they found the fullest atonement for it in the sacrifice of this one son. Atonement with the father was all the more complete since the sacrifice was accompanied by a total renunciation of the women on whose account the rebellion against the father was started. But at that point the inexorable psychological law of ambivalence stepped in. The very deed in which the son offered the greatest possible atonement to the father brought him at the same time to the attainment of his wishes against the father. He himself became God, beside, or, more correctly, in place of, the father. A son-religion displaced the father-religion. As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son ó no longer the father ó obtained sanctity thereby and identified themselves with him. Thus we can trace through the ages the identity of the totem meal with animal sacrifice, with theanthropic human sacrifice and with the Christian Eucharist, and we can recognize in all these rituals the effect of the crime by which men were so deeply weighed down but of which they must none the less feel so proud. The Christian communion, however, is essentially a fresh elimination of the father, a repetition of the guilty deed. We can see the full justice of Frazerís pronouncement that 'the Christian communion has absorbed within itself a sacrament which is doubtless far older than Christianity'. (Frazer, J. G. Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild Vol 2: The Golden Bough, 3rd edition, Part V)"


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