Psychoanalysis of Myth 4

Sigmund Freud

Freud's Moses and Monotheism

In Moses and Monotheism, which was published in 1939, the same year Freud died, he boldly repeats his theory from Totem and Taboo, although having received substantial criticism for it, during the quarter-century since he presented it. If anything, he proclaims it with even less reservation:

       That conviction I acquired a quarter of a century ago, when I wrote my book on Totem and Taboo (in 1912), and it has only become stronger since. From then on I have never doubted that religious phenomena are to be understood only on the model of the neurotic symptoms of the individual, which are so familiar to us, as a return to of long-forgotten important happenings in the primeval history of the human family, that they owe their obsessive character to that very origin and therefore derive their effect on mankind from the historical truth they contain.

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Psychoanalysis of Mythology. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Psychoanalysis of Mythology
by Stefan Stenudd
This book examines Freudian theories on myth and religion, from Sigmund Freud to Erich Fromm. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

       He gives a narrated form of summary of the primordial event of the father murder, more precisely and to the point than in his earlier book, and begins it with the following reservation, which was more vaguely implied in Totem and Taboo:

The story is told in a very condensed way, as if what in reality took centuries to achieve, and during that long time was repeated innumerably, had happened only once.

       Certainly, it has the flavor and characteristics of a story, or a myth. Because of its fluent clarity, its added detail from his version in Totem and Taboo, and its similarity to many a myth, I can't resist repeating it in its entirety:

The strong male was the master and father of the whole horde, unlimited in his power, which he used brutally. All females were his property, the wives and daughters in his own horde as well as perhaps also those stolen from other hordes. The fate of the sons was a hard one; if they excited their father's jealousy they were killed or castrated or driven out. They were forced to live in small communities and to provide themselves with wives by stealing them from others. The one or the other son might succeed in attaining a situation similar to that of the father in the original horde. One favored position came about in a natural way: it was that of the youngest son, who, protected by his mother's love, could profit by his father's advancing years and replace him after his death. An echo of the expulsion of the eldest son, as well as of the favored position of the youngest, seems to linger in many myths and fairy-tales.

       The next decisive step towards changing this first kind of "social" organization lies in the following suggestion: the brothers who had been driven out and lived together in a community clubbed together, overcame the father, and — according to the custom of those times — all partook on his body.

Cain kills Abel. Bible illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866.
Cain kills Abel. Bible illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866.

       In Moses and Monotheism, Freud expands and clarifies his theory somewhat. He specifies the stages gone through by mankind as a whole, in comparison to the individual neurotic stages of "early trauma — defense — latency — outbreak of the neurosis — partial return of the repressed material." The analogy makes additional sense, since he claims that: "the genesis of the neurosis always goes back to very early impressions in childhood." Also for mankind, the father murder supposedly took place at an early stage, a childhood of sorts, of its development. He describes the process:

Mankind as a whole also passed through conflicts of a sexual aggressive nature, which left permanent traces, but which were for the most part warded off and forgotten, later after a long period of latency, they came to life again and created phenomena similar in structure and tendency to neurotic symptoms.

       The latency mentioned, which exists both in the individual and the collective, is a sort of mental period of incubation, where the traumatic event is forgotten to the conscious mind, but remains subconsciously and gains strength, so that when it erupts, it is much more potent than it was at the time of the traumatic event:

It is specially worthy of note that every memory returning from the forgotten past does so with great force, produces an incomparably strong influence on the mass of mankind, and puts forward an irresistible claim to be believed, against which all logical objections remain powerless — very much like the credo quia absurdum.

       He compares this phenomenon to the delusion in a psychotic, having a long forgotten core of truth that upon reemerging becomes both distorted and compulsive.

       As a consequence of this latency, Freud needs to explain how something forgotten can remain through generations, to emerge in people as a very vivid and powerful memory of sorts. In Totem and Taboo he supposed no forgetting of the father murder, on the other hand he did not specify that the memory was kept through the generations. What was implied was an established totemism, containing the trauma of the father murder and continuing to be obeyed, long after the actual event had been forgotten. In Moses and Monotheism he introduces latency, the suppressed memory able to reemerge, and therefore needs to explain this process. Doing so, he comes strikingly close to Carl Jung's theories of the collective unconscious and the archetypes.

       Freud states very clearly that people did forget about the initial event:

In the course of thousands of centuries it certainly became forgotten that there was a primeval father possessing the qualities I mentioned, and what fate he met.

       He uses the analogy with the individual, whose traumatic memory is repressed, buried deep in the unconscious, but has not disappeared, wherefore it can emerge, and when doing so has the intensity described above. Both the individual and the collective has this ability:

I hold that the concordance between the individual and the mass is in this point almost complete. The masses, too, retain an impression of the past in unconscious memory traces.

       Such repressed memories may emerge in certain circumstances. With collective memories, this is most likely to happen because of recent events, which are similar to those repressed.

       Now, Freud speculates that the individual does not have only personal memories stored in the unconscious, but also: "what he brought with him at birth, fragments of phylogenetic origin, an archaic heritage." He does not try to explain how such a memory can be kept and transported through the generations, but finds support for it in observations of patients. When they react to early traumata, when an Oedipus or castration complex is examined, other than purely personal experiences seem to emerge. These make more sense if regarded as somehow inherited from earlier generations. Freud believes that they are part of what he calls the archaic heritage.

The castration of Uranus, by Giorgio Vasari, 16th Century.
Cronus castrates Uranus, by Giorgio Vasari, 16th Century.

       He also uses the argument of "the universality of speech symbolism," the ability to have one object symbolically substituted by another, especially strong in children. This symbolism is also at work in dreams, and Freud regards it as an ability inherited from the time that speech was developing. He is rather diffuse here, since he gives no examples of what kinds of objects and symbols he refers to.

       He does admit that the science of biology allows no acquired abilities to be transmitted to descendants, but boldly states: "I cannot picture biological development proceeding without taking this factor into account." He also compares with animals, which he regards as fundamentally not very different from human beings in this aspect — the archaic heritage of the "human animal" may differ in extent and character, but "corresponds to the instincts of animals."

       What makes a memory enter the archaic heritage is if it is important enough or repeated enough times, or both. Regarding the primeval father murder, he is quite certain:

Men have always known — in this particular way — that once upon a time they had a primeval father and killed him.

       These theories have a striking resemblance to Jung's ideas of the collective unconscious and the archetypes. They even use similar ways to argue for their theories. Still, Freud makes no mention of Jung, and no comparison with his models. They were, of course, distanced since decades, and not on speaking terms — but it is highly unlikely that Freud was not aware of Jung's theories, which were well developed and widely known in the time of Moses and Monotheism. It is also quite unlikely that Freud would not recognize and ponder the similarities.


Freud gives two examples from biblical events, on which to apply his theory: that of Moses and of Jesus. About Moses, Freud claims that he was not Jewish but an Egyptian, befriending a Jewish tribe, taking it out of Egypt and converting it to his monotheistic religion, that of pharaoh Ikhnaton, the Aton religion of a single sun god. The reason for a monotheistic god at all appearing in otherwise abundantly polytheistic Egypt, Freud finds in the imperialistic success of Egypt, immediately preceding the cult of Aton: "God was the reflection of a Pharaoh autocratically governing a great world Empire."

       Then Freud imagines a fate of Moses, similar to that of the primeval tyrant father:

The Jews, who even according to the Bible were stubborn and unruly towards their law-giver and leader, rebelled at last, killed him, and threw off the imposed Aton religion as the Egyptians had done before them.

       The idea of Moses being killed by the Jewish tribe, Freud readily admits to have picked up from a 1922 text by German theologist and biblical archaeologist Ernst Sellin (1867-1935).

       Later on, Freud has this Jewish tribe meet and join with another, and as part of the compromise between them, they adapted the worship of a volcano-god Jahve, influenced by the Arabian Midianites. In an effort to release themselves of the guilt for having killed Moses, that tribe insisted on proclaiming him the father of this new monotheistic religion. In that way, they were almost accomplishing the father worship, which Freud makes the basis of his theory on the origin of religion. Another consequence was:

In the course of time Jahve lost his own character and became more and more like the old God of Moses, Aton.


Freud moves on to compare the story of Moses with that of Jesus, who was also sacrificed — but willingly, as a symbolic amends for a primordial father murder:

A Son of God, innocent himself, had sacrificed himself, and had thereby taken over the guilt of the world.

The adoration of the shepherds, by Rembrandt 1646.
The adoration of the shepherds, by Rembrandt 1646.

       Jesus, proclaimed the son of god, i.e. the symbolic foremost son of the murdered father, the leader of the rebellion, shoulders the responsibility for the father's death and suffers the equivalent punishment for it. Thus the other sons, the rest of mankind, can in their minds feel forgiven by the father. This is a process reminding of the Greek concept of catharsis, a cleansing bringing relief. Freud sees it approaching and unavoidable, because "a growing feeling of guiltiness had seized the Jewish people — and perhaps the whole of civilization at that time — as a precursor of the return of the repressed material." To Freud, the primordial father murder is the true 'original sin'. And of course he sees the Holy Communion as an example of the totem feast, where the totem animal was ritually consumed.

       Freud finds a significant difference in the fates of Moses and Jesus — the former being a father figure, the latter that of a son. Therefore, he sees the Mosaic religion as essentially focused on the father, whereas Christianity is focused on the son:

The old God, the Father, took second place; Christ, the Son, stood in his stead, just as in those dark times every son had longed to do.


No doubt, Christianity has several elements leading to somewhat similar impressions, with a sacrificed prophet teacher, a ritual meal of the martyr's flesh and blood, et cetera. The killing and dividing of a primal being is a common motif among creation myths — oddly not used as an example by Freud, although he must have come across such examples, for example in the Norse mythology.

       On the other hand, it is also easy to find myths and religions with little or no trace of such a beginning. Freud's conclusion seems more likely in the sphere of Judeo-Christian religion, with a sole high god of male characteristics worshiped. In religions swarming of gods of both genders — such as the Indian and Japanese ones — the conclusion makes far less sense. Freud's religion is a male one, which he readily admits in Totem and Taboo:

In this evolution I am at a loss to indicate the place of the great maternal deities who perhaps everywhere preceded the paternal deities.

       He seems to think that maternal gods dominated prior to the father murder, but were substituted with a high father god as a result of it. Society as a whole evolved to a patriarchy, for the same reason:

With the institution of paternal deities the fatherless society gradually changed into a patriarchal one. The family was a reconstruction of the former primal horde and also restored a great part of their former rights to the fathers. Now there were patriarchs again but the social achievements of the brother clan had not been given up and the actual difference between the new family patriarchs and the unrestricted primal father was great enough to insure the continuation of the religious need, the preservation of the unsatisfied longing for the father.

       Again, this chain of events seems more likely in a society with a clearly monotheistic religion, like the Judeo-Christian sphere.

       In Moses and Monotheism he slightly altered his views on a mother goddess and a matriarchate, as mentioned above.

The fall, by Michelangelo 1512.
The fall, by Michelangelo 1512.

       Guilt, too, is much more present in Judeo-Christian religion than in many others. This part of his theory is far weaker than that about an actual battle between father and sons. The Bible has no problem with guilt felt for and punished through generations, nor did the bourgeoisie Europe of the turn of the century that was Freud's — but in a time far preceding the Bible and places far remote from Europe, we have little to confirm any such persistence and dominance of that emotion. Instead, history tells us that people have not had that much trouble ridding themselves of any guilt, even when performing worse acts than that of killing a tyrant father. Certainly, there are emotions that torment all members of our species, and rule over many of our actions — but Freud fails to prove that guilt is one of them, outside of his own closest frame of reference.

The social perspective

Nevertheless, Freud's bold thesis gives food for thought. Certainly, sexuality, death, and the complications of blood relations appear as themes in countless myths — as they do just about constantly in our own minds. Man is a flock animal, subject to a lot of struggle in the process of reproduction. There is a competition about the females in several species, including our own, and a strong male might not be satisfied by a first choice only, but strive to exclude the other males from approaching any of the females. If any species would have found the solution of the suppressed males joining and thereby overpowering the leader, this would be most likely with mankind. Freud's theory may be a relevant rendering of a primeval 'democratization' of sorts among savages, allowing for more frequent and evenly distributed procreation — but as a theory of the origin of religion, it seems awkward when applied to the variety of beliefs and rituals around the world.

       Freud's perspective on religion, ritual and myth has added surprisingly little to research in those fields. It seems to be sort of a dead-end. Whether the worship of a god stems from some kind of savage making amends or not, the theory gives few tools for further understanding. In literature on the subject, it is treated as little more than a parenthesis, mentioned in passing as an oddity that would have been forgotten if it were the work of a lesser known figure than the father of psychoanalysis.

       I am not sure that Freud's view is unworthy of some additional considerations. What we call religion has been an integrated part of human life as far back as we can see, and the role it has played may very well need tools like Freud's to be understood. The dynamics of the 'herd' or tribe or flock, for one thing, is something more complex than the workings of genetics and instinct — the instruments of psychology and sociology need also to be applied.

       One valuable ingredient in Freud's theory is that it focuses on the social perspective, not just the individual — much more so than that of Jung. Freud's psychology places the individual right in the middle of the group, of society. Most — if not all — of the individual's psychology is explained as a dynamic and often troublesome relation to the others of the group. Generally speaking, Freud's psychology deals with the individual's frustrations in trying to adapt to the group.

       In Moses and Monotheism he makes the clear distinction between the individual and the collective perspective, that the psychopathology of human neurosis belongs to individual psychology, "whereas religious phenomena must of course be regarded as a part of mass psychology." This is also evident in the structure and practice of most religions: they regulate how the individual should behave in order to comply with the needs of the group. In this way, religions are social laws, claiming a higher justification. They are also, with their rituals and myths, instruments by which the individual gains some aid in adapting to them.

       This function of religion, which Freud is no stranger to, can be approached by his method, and a continued development of it. This is less likely to take place within the field of psychology, though, than in for example social anthropology, which deals with man's behavior in a more concrete setting.


Carl G. Jung

Psychoanalysis of Myth

  1. Introduction
  2. Sigmund Freud
  3. Freud's Totem and Taboo
  4. Freud's Moses and Monotheism
  5. Carl G. Jung
  6. Jung's Archetypes
  7. Jung's Collective unconscious
  8. Applying Jung to myth
  9. Conclusions: Personal myth

© Stefan Stenudd 2006

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Creation Myths: Emergence and Meanings
Psychoanalysis of Myth: Freud and Jung
Jungian Theories on Myth and Religion
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Psychoanalysis of Mythology - the book
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Theories through History about Myth and Fable
Genesis 1: The First Creation of the Bible
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Xingu Creation
Archetypes in Myth

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

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I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.