The Freud Museum


Greek and Roman Antiquities

Horse and Rider

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This highly stylized figure of a horse and rider merges man and animal into one entity, the rider seems to grow from the horses back. Although their significance is not clear, models and carvings of horses and horsemen were always popular in ancient Greece in graves or on tombstones. They may well have been intended to underline the heroic character of the dead person as a warrior or a hunter.

Freud used the metaphor of a man riding a horse to describe the relation between the ego and id:

“The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that normally control over the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.”

This figure is an especially apt image for this metaphor because Freud conceived the ego as differentiating out of the id, and hence, horse and rider are joined into one composite body.


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Eros was the Greek god of love. He is often represented in flight, carrying a lyre or a bow and arrow. Freud’s collection includes at least six statues of this kind, and in his work he identified the basic life instinct as Eros. In defining Eros as the life instinct or the libido, Freud referred to the classical concept of love:

“We are of the opinion, then, that language has carried out an entirely justified piece of unification in creating the word ‘love’ with its numerous uses, and we cannot do better than take it as the basis of our scientific discussions as well. By coming to this decision, psychoanalysis has let loose a storm of indignation, as though it had been guilty of an outrageous act of innovation. Yet it has done nothing original in taking love in this wider sense. In its origin, function, and relations to sexual love, the ‘Eros’ of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love force, the libido of psychoanalysis. (SE, 18, p91)

In Civilization and its Discontents (1931) Freud also described the history of civilization as “the struggle between Eros and death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species”. (SE 21, p122)



Venus was the goddess of love and beauty in the classical world. Here, she stands in a relaxed position, her left foot just behind her right. Her head is turned slightly to her left; in her right hand she holds out a strand of her hair, while in her left hand she holds a mirror into which she stares. Such statuettes are found in considerable numbers throughout the territory of the Roman Empire.

This Venus admiring herself in the mirror may have held a special interest for Freud in his theorizing about women. In his essay On Narcissism he states:

“[W]e are postulating a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in some cases manifest itself in a dominating fashion in object choice... Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object. Strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man’s love for them. Nor does their need lie in the direction of loving, but of being loved; and the man who fulfils this condition is the one who finds favour with them... The great charm of narcissistic women has, however, its reverse side; a large part of the lover’s dissatisfaction, of his doubts of the woman’s love, of his complaints of her enigmatic nature, has its roots in this incongruity between the types of object-choice.” (SE, 14, pp88-89)

Discussion topic and question: Beauty and narcissism. Do you think women are more narcissistic than men?



The goddess Artemis, huntress and patroness of wild creatures, is recognizable by her hunting dress of short tunic, mantle, and boots with turned down flaps. She is shown in rapid movement to the right, her right arm flung out ahead, while her left, wrapped in the mantle, hangs at her side.

Images of androgynous, childless women intrigued Freud. Artemis, like Athena, is chaste and masculinized. Both are virgin goddesses of aggression: Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, armed with arrows; Athena is goddess of war (as well as a goddess of wisdom) and holds a spear.



This solid-cast figurine of Athena presents the goddess of wisdom and war in a frontal pose, with her left hand raised to hold a spear, now lost. In her lowered hand she carries a patera (libation bowl) decorated with petal design.

Freud displayed his attachment to this bronze Athena, goddess of war and patron of the arts, by placing her in the centre of his desk and by selecting her as the sole piece to be smuggled out of Austria in 1938, when the loss of his entire antiquities collection was threatened. It could be said that this was his ‘favourite’ piece.

In a short manuscript dated 1922 (SE, 18, p273), Freud discusses the sexual symbolism of the decapitated, serpent-tressed head of the Medusa, which Athena customarily wears on her breast plate. According to Freud, decapitation represents castration, and the horrifying decapitated head of Medusa symbolizes the female genitals, which lack a phallus. Freud asks us to see how strange it is that the fear in this myth is associated with the sight of something, rather than any threat which the object of fear might pose. Paradoxically, he says, the snakes which adorn the head of the Medusa serve to mitigate the image of castration by symbolically replacing the penis which has been lost. In relation to the figure of Athena Freud says the following:

“This symbol of horror is worn upon her dress by the virgin goddess Athena. And rightly so, for thus she becomes a woman who is unapproachable and repels all sexual desires - since she displays the terrifying genitals of the Mother. Since the Greeks were in the main strongly homosexual, it was inevitable that we should find among them a representation of woman as a being who frightens and repels [a male] because she is castrated.” (p274)

Nothing is more contentious in Freud’s work than his theories of the ‘castration complex’ and ‘penis envy’, and many people have argued that these concepts show Freud’s commitment to a theory of female sexuality in terms of its relation to a male norm. Freud first used the term ‘castration complex’ in his paper The Sexual Theories of Children, to describe one of the theories about the origins of sexual difference to which some children subscribe. That is, children may assume that sexual identity is defined by something which is detachable from the body. This is the abstract principle underlying the theory of the castration complex, and one which may be the source of much anxiety in children.



In the Greek legend of Thebes, the Sphinx was a monster, half-lion, half woman, who destroyed those who could not answer her riddle: “What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and on three in the evening?” Oedipus answered that it was Man, who first crawls on all fours, then walks upright, and in old age needs a stick as a third leg.

The figurine is apparently solid, and was originally covered in white slip, now discoloured. The Sphinx sits solidly on her haunches, facing forward. Her breasts are prominent, her legs and paws sturdily modelled. Her body is slim, and her wings are precisely modelled and neatly curled above her back.

Athenian Red-Figured Hydria


The scene on this small hydria (water jar) shows Oedipus seated before the Sphinx. Oedipus is seated upon his mantle, which covers a rock. Naked except for the pilos (cap) on his head, he leans on the pair of spears held in his right hand. His left hand seems to make a conversational gesture toward the Sphinx, who sits bolt upright on a curiously rendered rock, facing him. Behind her stands a youth, also armed with two spears and with a mantle over his shoulders.

For Freud, no myth attained a greater explanatory power in relation to psychoanalysis than that of Oedipus. The influence of his classical education is readily apparent in the crystallization of his ideas on the human condition in his concept of the ‘Oedipus Complex’. Reviewing his dreams and self-analysis, and drawing on his knowledge of Greek tragedy, Freud observed patterns of experience within himself that he believed universal in human behaviour:

“I have found, in my own case too, being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood... If this is so, we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the objections that reason raises against the presupposition of fate... The Greek legend seizes upon a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he senses its existence within himself. Everyone in the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy and each recoils in horror from the dream fulfilment here transplanted into reality, with the full quantity of repression which separates his infantile state from the present one.” (SE, 1, p265)

On Freud’s 50th birthday and in recognition of the key role that the Oedipus legend played in the development of psychoanalysis, Freud’s colleagues presented him with a medallion bearing a portrait of Freud on one side, and Oedipus and the Sphinx on the other, with the quote from Sophocles, “He who knew the famous riddle and was a most powerful man”. There is also a copy of Ingre’s picture Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in Freud’s study.

Question: Freud asserts that we have experienced emotions and phantasies in childhood of which we are not aware in later life. Does that seem feasible? Does it seem feasible that these emotions may involve our parents? Could there be anything 'sexual' about these feelings?



This container for perfumed oil or incense is in the form of two adjoining heads set back to back. The heads are those of a satyr and a maenad, male and female followers of Dionysos, god of wine. Satyrs are mischievous and amorous creatures, part-man, part-beats; maenads are their female counterparts, who symbolize impulse and abandon. Both heads are carefully modeled and finished, and bronze vases such as this are fairly commonly found in Etruscan tombs of the 3rd century B.C.

Freud, the profound dualist, owned several two-faced figures. As early as 1899 he possessed a stone Janus head, and he kept this double-headed balsamarium on his desk in later years. Dualism runs throughout Freud’s thinking, appearing in such fundamental dichotomies as the pleasure principle verses the reality principle, sexual instincts verses ego instincts, libido verses aggression, and Eros verses Thanatos. Likewise, central to this object is the notion of the basic bisexuality of all human beings, which Freud discussed in his fundamental work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

Head of Demeter


This small terracotta head has been identified as Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility and harvests. Freud, having read Ovid, clearly knew the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. In the myth, Persephone plucks a narcissus from the ground which had been placed there by her father Zeus. The ground opens up and she is kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld, and brother of Zeus. Demeter, her mother, becomes dejected at the loss of her daughter, and wanders the earth as a disfigured old woman. Eventually she turns her aggression upon those who have betrayed her and causes a cruel famine to spread across the land. Zeus is forced to return Persephone to her, but Hades slips a pomegranate seed into her mouth (symbolic of heterosexual union) and thus secretly binds him to her. The myth ends with a compromise - Persephone is partly returned to her mother, but she must spend six months of the year in the underworld. When mother and daughter are united the earth is fertile, but when Persephone returns to Hades, Demeter is melancholy and winter sets in over the land.

Although this myth addresses the theme of mother-daughter relations, which Freud eventually came to recognize as central to female development, he never chose to interrogate this exemplary myth in terms of his own important question: “What does the little girl require of her mother?” (SE, 21, p235)

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