Archaeology and the analyst

2 mins read
Sigmund Freud’s study at 20 Maresfield Gardens, north London. As well as the famous analytic couch, Freud brought with him a large number of books on archaeology and ancient Egyptian figurines. (Image: Freud Museum London / K Urbaniak)

When the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud left Vienna after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, he was – unlike most other refugees – able to bring many of his possessions to his new home in north London. Freud only lived at Maresfield Gardens for a year, as he died in 1939, but it was established as a museum according to the wishes of his daughter Anna Freud, another psychoanalyst, who lived there until her death in 1982. Today, the atmospheric former home and workplace of the two psychoanalysts offers an intimate insight into their lives, practices, and interests.

In the case of Sigmund Freud, Egyptology was a particular passion, as a new exhibition, Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt, investigates. He kept up to date with the work of his contemporary Sir Flinders Petrie (also a Hampstead resident) and said he read more archaeology than psychology. He even likened his procedure of delving into the mind to ‘the technique of excavating a buried city’.

A bronze figurine of Isis suckling Horus from the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC). (Image: Freud Museum London)

Among the possessions Freud brought with him from Vienna were his famous analytic couch, a large number of books (among them a great many on archaeology), a sizeable collection of antiquities, of which Egyptian figurines are especially plentiful, and artworks showing magnificent ruins and figures from mythology such as Oedipus and the enigmatic sphinx. A selection of these have been brought together for the special displays )along with loans of artefacts excavated by Petrie and his team from UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology), revealing the pervasive influence of ancient Egypt.

Egypt is overwhelmingly present in Freud’s work and, quite literally, in his workspace, where the desk, cupboards, and shelves are crowded with objects. Its powerful influence appears to stretch back into his childhood, when his father gave him a copy of Ludwig Philippson’s Jewish Bible, with the original Hebrew text, German translation, and an abundance of woodcut illustrations, some featuring scarab beetles and vulture-headed gods. Touchingly, for Freud’s 35th birthday, his father had the bible re-bound in leather and added a dedication. In The Interpretation of Dreams (in which he compares deciphering dreams to deciphering hieroglyphs), Freud describes a frightening dream he had as a young boy. His mother was carried by ‘strangely draped and unnaturally tall figures with birds’ beaks […] derived from illustrations to Philippson’s Bible. I fancy they must have been gods with falcons’ heads from an ancient Egyptian funerary relief.’

A steatite mother-son pair of the deified pharaoh Amenophis I and Ahmose-Nofretiri from the 18th Dynasty (1390-1353 BC). (Image: Freud Museum London)

A child’s relationship with its mother is an important one, and it is something that preoccupied Freud, perhaps most popularly demonstrated by the Oedipal complex. This interest can be traced in some of the objects on and around his desk too, such as a bronze figurine of the goddess Isis and her infant son Horus, and an amulet of Mut, a goddess about whom Freud wrote, ‘It would be interesting to enquire how it could be that the ancient Egyptians came to choose the vulture as a symbol of motherhood’ in his essay ‘Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood’.

Despite only being in London for a short period, it was while living at Maresfield Gardens that Freud completed his last major work, Moses and Monotheism. The book draws on the history of Akenhaten as well as on archaeologist James Henry Breasted’s 1933 tome The Dawn of Conscience, and reflects that the psychoanalyst’s fascination with Egypt truly lasted a lifetime.

Further information

Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt runs at the Freud Museum London until 27 October 2019. Admission: £9 (£5-£7 concessions).
Website: freud.org.uk

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