Between Oedipus and the Sphinx

Editorial, July 2019

Siggy Freud will be the new Aristotle.

David Jones, painter and poet. 


The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist, must uncover layer after layer

of the patient’s psyche, before reaching the deepest, most valuable treasures.

 The Wolf Man (Sergei Pankejeff) on Freud’s methods.

In the summer and autumn of 2019, several writers went up to Hampstead to see an exhibition at the Freud Museum London. At 20 Maresfield Gardens stands the building where Freud lived after escaping the Nazis in Vienna, being forced to leave his long-time home and practice at Berggasse 19. Freud’s London building is redbrick and handsome, with white window frames and detailing, and an inviting powder-blue door. The house is stuffed with antiquities from all over the world. Like ancient Greece’s links to Egypt, Freud’s Hellenic attachment is well known. But at the Freud Museum was a special exhibition, Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt, curated by Professor Miriam Leonard (University College London), exploring Freud’s ‘enduring fascination with Egypt evident both in his writings and in his collection of antiquities.’ Putting the exhibition in context Professor Miriam Leonard writes: 


‘A painting of Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx hangs over the psychoanalyst’s couch in the museum. The significance of the figure of Oedipus to the development of Sigmund Freud’s thought is well known, but the presence of the Sphinx in this picture highlights Freud’s less celebrated interest in Egypt and other non-European ancient cultures. Freud had a very extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as frequently writing about Egypt in his psychoanalytic works. The antiquities collection is linked to Freud’s interest in archaeology, which provided him with one of the most productive metaphors for exploring the layers of mind. Freud formulated his archaeology of the mind in tandem with important developments in professional archaeology and Egyptology. Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), the first Professor of Egyptology in the UK, was an almost exact contemporary of Sigmund Freud and is generally considered to be one of the founding figures of modern archaeology. The exhibition brings the Freud Museum’s Egyptian antiquities into a dialogue with UCL’s Petrie Museum. In particular, the exhibition highlights the overlap between Freud and Petrie’s fascination with the figure of Akhenaten. In 1891 Petrie conducted the first systematic excavation of Amarna, the site of the heretical Pharoah’s capital city. It was Petrie’s finds which enabled ancient historians to understand the religious and cultural revolution that took place during his reign. Freud followed these excavations with great interest and Akhenaten became the hero of his last major work, Moses and Monotheism, published from London in 1939. In this book Freud makes the scandalous claim that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian. Freud speculates that Moses was born an Egyptian noble and was a follower of Akhenaten. Akhenaten abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced the exclusive worship of the sun god, Aten. Freud believed that it was Akhenaten’s monotheism which lies behind the Jews’ own adoption of a monotheistic religion. He also claimed that the Jews, impatient with the harsh strictures of his monotheistic religion, murdered Moses. The history of ancient Judaism is the site of an oedipal murder whose consequences for the Jewish people continued to be felt into his lifetime.’

The exhibition, and the suffusion of Egyptomania in Freuds life and works, provided five of our writers with inspiration, each taking a different path. These works form the first part of this special issue of Pericles at Play


Harriet Rix opens with Notes on The Male Sphinx, bringing us a dialogue on and around Alfred Kubin’s beguiling, melancholic, and devilish artwork, the ‘Male Sphinx’ (1901–03). Her characters lose fragments of themselves in the drawing, in conversation about the drawing, in using the drawing to talk. Forced into tortured and distorted reality like the sylph and the male sphinx above them, they deny Freud’s archeologies of gender and dream. We watch in mute pain and pleasure as life and ekphrasis blur.


The tabulated block lines of Ayelet Wenger’s poem Deuteronomy act like a deconstruction of the edifice of the Freudian past, engaging with Freudian thought in both delicate and violent ways. The debunked hero insists on the absence of the past, autochthony and memory, creating an awareness of its power, and a codified pattern for trans-national patricide. 

Mixing ancient Egyptian religion with the texts of psychoanalysis and an embodied Freud,  Jordan Maly-Preuss asks what Freud’s large collection of shabtis would say if given voice. In the prose poem Freud’s Shabtis Speak, the shabtis that cluttered Freud’s desk and house affect and guide him towards the underworld / subconscious. We feel the pressure of silenced voices as we slip towards its panoramic climax. 

Richard  G. Ll. Kendall takes us off on what seems to be a classic bit of Euro tourism in late capitalism, but things soon become strange, wry, and unpredictable as colossal statues prompt musings on history, myth, and a daring, heretical rewrite of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Malta and Monotheism follows several curveballs to plop us down far from where we expected in a game of lost origins and antiquity-trumping.

Tom Willis plots a relationship between the scrambled war-diaries of an SOE agent in Egypt and Crete during WWII, and the palimpsest of an editor’s life in the present. In doing so he exposes the contradictions inherent in editing “family history” which has already been written, the contradictory chiaroscuro of the past, and the demands of the present. Future and past warp as they influence each other, Freud looms large, war crackles and fizzes, and inheritances are unwanted in A Time of Lost Inertia.


For the second part of the issue, we return – as ever – to Greece, searching for a more oblique look at Freud in diverse forms, from oral poetry to modernist prose to contemporary Greek verse. We begin with a new translation of the medieval Greek folk ballad, the fight between Tsamados and his son. The theme belongs to a long Greek tradition of father-son conflict, from Cronus and Zeus respectively, to the story of Alexander and Nectanebo, to the Oedipus myth. The parallels with Oedipus grow when we consider the orphan-hood of the young man and the unwitting intrusion of the father into his son’s care-free existence. Upon another reading, the monstrous figure of Tsamados could be considered a sphinx-like character, an autochthonous genius of the place, thus meeting the Oedipus myth from a different angle.


Our inclusion of Greek folk songs points to another, deeper father-son conflict. When the modern Greek state was established in the early 19th century, its ideological raison d’être was a supposedly umbilical connection to ancient Greece. This was classical reception on a national level. Against cries of illegitimacy, epitomised by Jakob Fallmerayer, folk songs were called upon as the crucial link between ancient father and modern son. Continuation was noted particularly in rituals of lament, such as the one with which the issue finishes. 

The Freudian struggle between ancient and modern remains unresolved in modern Greece, as set out masterfully by Yannis Doukas in three poems, translated here for the first time. ‘Migraines’ and ‘Playmobil’ exemplify the surreal, even kitsch nature of what could be termed the “museum culture” or “archive fever” of modern Athens, while ‘The Catalogue of Ships’ recreates a myth of bloodshed and trauma in Greece from the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis to atrocities of WWII in Oedipus’ own back yard.

Greece is the great obverse to Egypt, twinned across the Mediterranean. A new translation of Kafka’s short story Poseidon (by the poet James Ackhurst)— Poseidon lording over the Mediterranean, an expanse of in-between—displays a rare moment of outright classical reception in Kafka’s oeuvre (another can be read here in a recent issue of the New Yorker). Kafkas name as the writer of nightmares is a dark and permeable link to Freud. Indeed, Kafka read his Freud, and is in many ways the biographer of Freud’s theories, while Freud brings Kafka’s nightmares into pellucid clarity, like so many rising fish in a sea of ink. Kafkas Poseidon in the original German can be read here

Our thanks goes out to Professor Miriam Leonard and the Freud Museum London for their help in making this issue possible, and the Freud Museum London for the use of photos from the exhibition and of Freuds antiquities to illustrate the issue.  

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Oedipus and the Sphinx,



Francis Bacon,

Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres,


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A still from the exhibition focused on an image of the pharaoh Akhenaten worshipping the sun

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A still focused on an inlay of Akhenaten in profile

Gallery text at exhibition at the Freud Museum London

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Gallery text at the Freud Museum London

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Falcon-headed figure, and copy of Freud’s essay Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood

A still focused on a figure of the goddess Isis