The Freud Museum


The Work of Religion in Development

from The Wolfman case history

The Wolfman is so known because of a recurring nightmare the patient had as a child, in which he saw seven wolves sitting menacingly in a tree outside his bedroom window. In his book (From the HIstory of an Infantile Neurosis 1918) Freud describes the various phases of the Wolfman's development in childhood. In particular he charts the change from his phobia of wolves to a period of intense religious piety. In the process Freud shows the psychical 'work' that religion is performing for the child, helping to maintain a certain equilibrium in the face of dangers from the internal and external world.

The following passages are taken from two different sections of the book.

When he was four and a half years old, and as his state of irritability and apprehensiveness had still not improved, his mother determined to make him acquainted with the Bible story in the hope of distracting and elevating him. Moreover, she succeeded; his initiation into religion brought the previous phase to an end, but at the same time it led to the anxiety symptoms being replaced by obsessional symptoms. Up to then he had not been able to get to sleep easily because he had been afraid of having bad dreams like the one he had had that night before Christmas; now he was obliged before he went to bed to kiss all the holy pictures in the room, to recite prayers, and to make innumerable signs of the cross upon himself and upon his bed. ....

The transformation did not occur spontaneously, through internal development, but through an outside influence. Its visible effect was that the patient's relation to his father, which stood in the foreground, and which had so far found expression in the wolf phobia, was now manifested in obsessional piety. I cannot refrain from pointing out that the course of events in this part of the patient's history affords an unmistakable confirmation of an assertion which I made in Totem and Taboo upon the relation of the totem animal to the deity... The totem, I maintained, was the first father-surrogate, and the god was a later one, in which the father had regained his human shape. And we find the same thing with our patient. In his wolf phobia he had gone through the stage of the totemic father-surrogate; but that stage was now broken off, and, as a result of new relations between him and his father, was replaced by a phase of religious piety.

The influence that provoked this transformation was the acquaintance which he obtained through his mother's agency with the doctrines of religion and with the Bible story. This educational measure had the desired effect. The sadistic-masochistic sexual organization came slowly to an end, the wolf phobia quickly vanished, and, instead of sexuality being repudiated with anxiety, a higher method of suppressing it made its appearance. Piety became the dominant force in the child's life. These victories, however, were not won without struggles, of which his blasphemous thoughts were an indication, and of which the establishment of an obsessive exaggeration of religious ceremonial was the result.

Apart from these pathological phenomena, it may be said that in the present case religion achieved all the aims for the sake of which it is included in the education of the individual. It put a restraint on his sexual impulsions by affording them a sublimation and a safe mooring; it lowered the importance of his family relationships, and thus protected him from the threat of isolation by giving him access to the great community of mankind. The untamed and fear-ridden child became social, well-behaved, and amenable to education.

The chief motive force of the influence which religion had on him was his identification with the figure of Christ, which came particularly easily to him owing to the accident of the date of his birth. Along this path his extravagant love of his father, which had made the repression necessary, found its way at length to an ideal sublimation. As Christ, he could love his father, who was now called God, with a fervour which had sought in vain to discharge itself so long as his father had been a mortal. The means by which he could bear witness to this love were laid down by religion, and they were not haunted by that sense of guilt from which his individual feelings of love could not set themselves free. In this way it was still possible for him to drain off his deepest sexual current, which had already been precipitated in the form of unconscious homosexuality; and at the same time his more superficial masochistic impulsion found an incomparable sublimation, without much renunciation, in the story of the Passion of Christ, who, at the behest of his divine Father and in his honour, had let himself be ill-treated and sacrificed. So it was that religion did its work for the hard-pressed child—by the combination which it afforded the believer of satisfaction, of sublimation, of diversion from sensual processes to purely spiritual ones, and of access to social relationships.

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