Category Archives: Reading Freud & Jung

Essays on, and analysis of, two of the most original thinkers in the fields of psychology and psycho-analysis

Freud and Jung and their attitude to myth and religion

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) are undoubtedly regarded as founding giants in the development of the theory and practice of psycho-analysis. A complex and dynamic association with mythology and religion underlies the extraordinary and ground-breaking work of both men. Their attitude to these systems, and the reciprocal attitude of religious institutions to their work, may well be viewed as a fascinating synopsis of the competing differences in their individual natures. Complex and intriguing, contrasting the linguistic with the visual and the empirical with the abstract, and undergoing constant reassessment throughout their fascinating lives, their fluid, and often contrary, interpretations and applications of these systems are inextricably bound to the shifting attitude to, and apprehension of, each for the other.

As the founding father of psycho-analysis at a time when science had relatively recently come to be regarded with a certain sense of reverence, Freud was a purist in his belief in, and adherence to, scientific principles. He was strongly opposed to anything that, in his perception, might detract from the integrity of man’s pursuit of truth[1], the ultimate goal of which was a profound knowledge of himself. His declared opposition to the idea of religions based in ‘faith’, rather than fact, and on humanity’s unconscious desires, rather than empirical and objective observations, was, perhaps, at the root of his reputation as a noted atheist. Jung, however, took a different view. Initially a follower of Freud, he took a divergent trajectory when he went on to develop his own theories based on the premise of humanity’s fundamental connection through a universal mythos, a concept that he called the collective unconscious. Carl Gustave was strongly inclined toward the spiritual and ethereal expression of religion and religious mythology.

Many of Freud’s underlying ideas draw on classical Greek mythology. In 1899, he introduced the concept of the Oedipus complex in his major work, Die Traumdeutung (Freud, The interpretation of dreams 1976). In the Oedipus complex, Freud posits the idea of the child’s repressed desire for the parent of the opposite sex, with a corresponding sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex. The name is derived from the Theban hero, Oedipus, of the ancient race of Cadmus. In the tradition represented by Sophocles, Oedipus unwittingly slays his father and marries his mother (Grimal 1991). Although traditionally a male phenomenon, Freud extends the concept to encompass the female variation. The latter variation is sometimes described as the Electra complex. In Freud’s theory, the Oedipal Phase is the third of the three early phases of sexual development, following the oral and the anal.

For Freud, the story of Oedipus encapsulates the most basic law of Western civilised society – that of the taboo of incest. He deals with the significance and evolution of this taboo in his seminal text,  Totem and Taboo, the preliminary chapter of which is entitled ‘The Horror of Incest’ (Freud 2001). Although deeply flawed by his anachronistic and often ill-informed reading of the culture of the Australian Aborigines[2], the aspects, in this chapter, relevant to his basic thesis were sound – the Aboriginal ‘totem’ clans did indeed exercise a strict control over persons of the same totem having sexual relations with one another, responding to transgressions with the most severe of punishments. Corresponding expressions of such laws are ubiquitous in the teachings of world religions.

Freud makes further use of Greek mythological allusion in the expansion of his Oedipus complex when considering the aspect which he refers to as the castration complex. In describing male children’s fear of being devoured by, and “fear of being robbed of their sexual organ by their father” (Freud, The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis 2005, p. 31) he recalls the image of the Titan god, Kronos, who had swallowed his children, emasculated his father, Uranus, and was, in his turn, emasculated by his son, the Olympian god, Zeus. In association with the castration complex, Freud attributes to girls a feeling of inferiority due to their deeply felt lack of the male organ, which he refers to as ‘envy for the penis’ (Freud 2005, p. 32). Perhaps we can also view castration, in this context, as metaphoric for the deprivation of the child’s exclusive relationship with the mother, the loss of the symbiotic relationship between mother and child; a relationship also found as fundamental to the tradition of Christian religions.

Considering these aspects of the early sexuality of children, Freud approaches an interesting point of accord with Jung’s later development of the principle of the collective unconscious when he proposes the view that the same archaic factors generally dominant in the primaeval days of human civilisation might be detected in the mental life of modern day children. “In his mental development the child would be repeating the history of his race in abbreviated form” (Freud 2005, p. 31)

Freud also devoted considerable time in directly addressing that which he saw as problematic in religion. R. Z. Friedman[3] describes Freud’s last book on the subject, Moses and Monotheism, as also being his most controversial. Friedman sees it as a critique of traditional Judaism, a defence of modern humanistic Judaism, and “a bitter critique of Christianity”. Friedman thought that the book also revealed “a dogmatic Freud defending a critique of religion that is intellectually flawed and politically misdirected  (Friedman 1998, p. 135)”.

Curiously, Seward Hiltner[4] takes an entirely different approach to that of Friedman. He questions the popular image of Freud as atheist by expounding on what he described as important coordinate points between religion and Freud’s philosophy. He considers that any philosophy or theology of relevance to man’s insight of himself and his universe should incorporate Freud’s basic beliefs  (Hiltner 1956, p. 9). Although conceding their many differences, Hiltner sees both religion and psycho-analysis as therapeutic processes, intended to help or to heal. He counters Freud’s criticism of religion as an institution founded on ‘an illusion of pseudo-knowledge’, for its belief that it possessed a ‘cosmic insurance policy’, and for its guidance on human behaviour based on authoritarian ethics rather than empirical observation, by emphasizing the amount of attention which he had paid to it (Hiltner 1956, p. 12). The implication is that such extensive consideration was indicative of Freud’s appreciation of its power and its efficacy in striving for similar goals to his own.

In agreement with Hiltner, we find Paul C. Vitz[5], who introduces his book on Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious by describing it as an “essay on Sigmund Freud’s little known, life-long, deep involvement with religion, primarily Christianity and in particular Roman Catholicism”. Like Hiltner, Vitz acknowledges the conflict between psychology and religion, and Freud’s image as an enemy of religion: “Freud is commonly viewed as a secularized Jew who accepted his Jewish ethnic identity but rejected all things religious, including and especially Christianity; he is seen as a pessimistic free-thinker, an unrepentant atheist, a scientist-humanist, a sceptical realist” (Vitz 1988, p. 1). However, in this biography, Vitz undertakes his own analysis of Freud in an attempt show how his anti-religious beliefs should be considered in light of his own unconscious needs and traumatic childhood experiences. Vitz considers Freud’s thesis “that the psychological needs served by religious beliefs make such beliefs no longer believable” to be a double-edged sword that cuts more deeply into the roots of atheism than those of religion (Vitz 1988, p. 221). He points out that at no time did Freud use psycho-analysis to prove that anyone’s belief in God was a consequence of neurotic childhood experience. On the other hand, Vitz presents detailed clinical evidence to show that rejection of God can be a consequence of unconscious neurotic needs. By using standard Freudian concepts, he interprets Freud’s atheism as “involving derealisation, repression, projection, and fixation”, and concludes that “the interpretation of atheism as unconscious Oedipal wish-fulfilment is one that comes from the very centre of Freudian theory” (Vitz 1988, p. 221)

While Freud draws from the Oedipus myth in Interpretation of Dreams, Robert A. Segal[6] tells us that the task of pioneering the psychoanalytic interpretation of myth was left largely in the hands of followers such as Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, and Géza Róheim. Carl Jung, however, embarked on his own pioneering journey in which his work abounds with the invocations of global mythology (Walker 1995, Editor’s foreword). He saw myth functioning as a means of bringing to consciousness previously withheld aspects of societal and individual personality, thereby promoting balance or wholeness.

The concept of image is fundamental to the Jungian approach to mythology. Where Freudian, Lacanian, and other psychologies emphasise the interpretation of the language of the unconscious, Jungian psychology differentiates itself by emphasising the image over the word. Urtümliches Bild (“primordial image”) was the term initially used by Jung in describing what he eventually called an archetype of the collective unconscious (Walker 1995, p. 3). The archetypal motifs, or elements, of mythology are taken from this vast library of archetypal images. When these motifs are linked in a sequence, whether it be visual, dramatic, musical, or verbal, they combine to form a myth.

According to Steven Walker[7], “C. G. Jung was never more insightful and intriguing and at the same time more baffling and outrageous than when he discussed mythology” (Walker 1995, introduction). Jung, however, lacked the polemicist’s touch of Freud, so that the casual reader might find much of his writing more difficult to grasp. Even so, Walker reminds us of Jung’s poetic nature, his disdain for ‘rational scientific language’, and his preference for a dramatic, mythological approach. Jung, he says, operates as a mythological thinker, demonstrating not only empathy with an archaic, mythological world view, but also an ability to operate within it, adopting it as his own. Walker attributes this empathy in part to a fatalistic streak in Jung’s character. Having experienced two world wars, the Holocaust, and the advent of nuclear weapons, an understandably pessimistic Jung saw modern man as “being operated and manoeuvred by archetypal forces instead of his ‘free will’ … He should learn,” wrote Jung, “that he is not master in his own house and that he should carefully study the other side of his psychic world which seems to be the true ruler of his fate.” (Walker 1995, p. 17)

The “other side” was informed by that which Jung had described as the collective unconscious. In the study of its archetypes, he found mythology invaluable, referring to it as “the textbook of archetypes”. He thought of mythology as representing the unconscious psyche in pictures, as a storybook rather than a rationally elucidated explanation. He considered this the more faithful representation of the “living processes of the psyche” (Walker 1995, p. 17). Jung wrote that:

Myth is the primordial language natural to these psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythological imagery. Such processes are concerned with the primordial images [Urbilder = archetypes], and these are best and most succinctly reproduced by figurative language. (C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy 1968)

The corollary of Jung’s partiality for visual imagery is his fascination with symbols. This fascination is evident throughout the corpus of his work. In his article on Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy (C. G. Jung 1976, pp. 323-455)  he considers symbols, and particularly what he calls ‘mandala symbolism’, in the context of dream interpretation, and in the context of his understanding of alchemy. Jung was struck by the similarity of dream images described by schizophrenic patients, ancient myths, and images he had discovered in journals of mediaeval alchemists. Some of these journals were rife with mysterious drawings of mystical symbols and fantastic creatures. Jung’s affinity for these colourful creations becomes evident with an examination of his own illuminated manuscript to which he gave the title Liber Novus (New Book), and which became known, and was ultimately published, as The Red Book[8]. Jung perceived alchemy as a symbolic, spiritual exercise. For him the alchemists’ search for the means of transformation of base metals, such as lead, into the purity of gold, was a metaphor for the human struggle to transform basic existence into complete spiritual harmony, graphically represented by the symbol of the mandala. For him this symbology, although essentially religious, was not constrained to the specific Eastern religions, from where it derived, but was universal and ubiquitous.

In his book Jung on Mythology[9], Robert Segal observes that Jung, like Freud, takes dreams as the analogue to myths. Jung saw both myths and dreams as emerging from the collective unconscious and acting as a prompt for one to pay heed to it. However, he saw dreams as differing from myths in that many dreams originate in the personal unconscious, where all myths are derived from the collective unconscious. Even though their meaning may be unconscious, myths are in part consciously created, whereas dreams are unconsciously created. Despite the possible repetition of their contents, dreams are private, whereas myths are public, although personal myths may also occur (Segal, Jung on Mythology 1998, p. 101).

As an underlying premise of his thesis, Jung was particularly concerned with accounting for the similarity between myths. Segal outlines the two possible explanations: diffusion and independent invention. With diffusion, myths spread from one society to another, whereas with independent invention each society invents its own. The main argument of the ‘diffusionists’ is that the similarities are too striking for them to have originated independently. The main argument for the ‘independent inventionists’ is that they are too far flung geographically to have originated from a single source (Segal 1998, p. 13). Jung falls firmly into the latter category, believing that there is no evidence, or possibility, of contact among all societies with myths in common. He frequently cites the case of the ‘solar phallus as origin of the wind’ in support of this (C. G. Jung 1976, pp. 36-37). Interestingly, a recent article on Aboriginal rock art in an Australian newspaper provides more local and contemporary support: Journalist Greg Pemberton reports that “policeman W. A. Miles asked in an article published in 1854 “How did the natives of Australia become acquainted with the demigods and demons and with the superstition of the ancient races?””, and adds that “in 1892 Kimberley pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw said: “One might almost think oneself viewing the painted walls of an ancient Egyptian temple”” (Pemberton 2011).

Jung believed that, traditionally, myth and religion were complementary. On one hand, myth is preserved in religion (he saw Christianity as interpreting and assimilating many pre-Christian myths), on the other, religion is sustained by myth  (Segal 1998, p. 35). Rather than seeing science as directly opposed to the Bible, he considered it as providing impetus for reconsidering the way in which it should be interpreted. In his eyes, the Bible’s true meaning was not literal but psychological. He saw true inspiration for Christians in Jesus the symbol, rather than Jesus the man. Jesus was symbolic of various archetypes such as those of the god, the god/man, and the saviour (Segal 1998, p. 215).

Although Freud and Jung shared common ground in their view of the importance of the function of myth as symbolic representation, they disagreed on its origin and interpretation. Where Freud often recognised the expression of an individual’s repressed sexual wishes, usually stemming from childhood, Jung was likely to see evidence of pre-existent forms emanating from a collective psychic system which is not developed individually but is inherited[10].

Regardless of their differences, the work of both these remarkable individuals consistently drew from, and was inextricably entwined with, both myth and religion. In turn, the passage of time has shown the profound influence that each has had, not only on the theory and practise of psycho-analysis, but on modern day religious thinking.



Beardsworth, Sara. “Freud’s Oedipus and Kristeva’s Narcissus: Three Heterogeneities.” Hypatia vol. 20, no. 1 (2005): pp. 54-77.

Freud, Sigmund. “Obsessive Acts and Religious Practises.” In Collected Papers, II. London: Hogarth, 1924.

—. The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis. Edited by Anna Freud. Translated by James Strachey. London: Vintage Books, 2005.

—. The future of an illusion. Edited by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1962.

—. The interpretation of dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Alan Tyson and Angela Richards. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

—. Totem and Taboo. Translated by James Strachey. London: Routledge, 2001.

Friedman, R. Z. “Freud’s religion: Oedipus and Moses.” Religious Studies (Cambridge University Press) vol. 34, no. 2 (1998): pp. 135-149.

Grimal, Pierre. The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Edited by Stephen Kershaw. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Heydt, V. von der. “Jung and Religion.” Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1977: 175-183.

Hiltner, Seward. “Freud, psychoanalysis, and religion.” Journal Pastoral Psychology Vol. 7, no. 8 (1956): pp. 9-21.

Jaffe, Aniela. Was Jung a Mystic? and Other Essays. Translated by Diana Dachler and Fiona Cairns. Einseideln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag, 1989.

Jung, C. G. “Jung vis-a-vis Freud on Myth.” Chap. 1 in Jung on Mythology, edited by Robert A Segal, pp. 49-60. London: Routledge, 1998.

—. Psychology and Alchemy. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

—. The Red Book – Liber Novus. New York: The Philemon Foundation and W. W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Portable Jung. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Pemberton, Gregory. “Painting the big picture.” The Weekend Australian, 14-15 May 2011: ‘Inquirer’ p. 8.

Segal, Robert A. “Introduction.” In Jung on Mythology, by C.G. Jung, edited by Robert A Segal. London: Routledge, 1998.

Segal, Robert A. “Jung as psychologist of religion and Jung as philosopher of religion.” Journal of Analytical Psychology (Blackwell Publishing) Vol 55, no. 3 (2010): pp. 361-384.

—. Jung on Mythology. London: Routledge, 1998.

Vitz, Paul C. Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious. New York: The Guildford Press, 1988.

Walker, Steven F. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.

[1] ““Freud was always a fighter. About his own work he thought very modestly indeed. Once he wrote, ‘I am no more than a scientific investigator who by a remarkable concurrence of circumstance have succeeded in making a discovery of particular importance. My own merit in this success is limited to the unfolding of otherwise not frequently practiced characteristics, such as independent thought and love of truth…’” From the address on “Reflections on Freud’s One Hundredth Birthday” by Dr. Felix Deutch, an intimate friend of Sigmund Freud, given at the 1956 Annual Meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.” (Hiltner 1956)

[2] In describing the Australian Aborigines, Freud makes numerous observations, many of which are factually incorrect, and some of which are abhorrent in today’s more enlightened era. He portrays Aborigines as “the most backward and miserable of savages”, stating that “we should not expect that the sexual life of these poor, naked cannibals would be moral in our sense or that their sexual instincts would be subjected to any great degree of restriction”. He writes “it is highly doubtful whether any religion, in the shape of higher beings, can be attributed to them” (Freud, Totem and Taboo 2001, pp. 1-5). These patronising and offensive observations have been shown to be patently incorrect, driven as they were by the Eurocentric and colonial attitudes of the time. Today’s anthropologists and ethnologists, and most certainly today’s Aborigines, strongly reject such notions. Even a fiercely independent and free thinker, such as Freud, was capable of influence by some of the less salubrious notions prevalent in his day. This is also evident in some aspects of his writing regarding the role of women in his society.

[3] Zev Friedman is Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto. His research interests include the philosophy of religion and moral philosophy.

[4] Seward Hiltner is Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago

[5] Paul Vitz is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at New York University.

[6] Professor Robert Segal is the Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

[7] Steven F. Walker is Professor in Comparative Literature at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

[8] The manuscript for The Red Book was written in calligraphic text and illustrated by hand. Jung created it using a technique which he called active imagination. It contains mythic and dream-like imagery which Jung considered products of the collective unconscious rather than of his own experience (C. G. Jung 2009).

[9] Jung on Mythology is a rich source of both primary and secondary reference material. A comprehensive selection of key readings on mythology by Jung, it is edited and introduced by Robert Segal, Reader in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster. Segal, who has written and researched extensively on mythology, provides perspicacious thematic insights at the beginning of each chapter.

[10] Jung provides a specific and detailed example of this difference of interpretation in his account of Freud’s discussion of da Vinci’s painting, ‘St. Anne with the Virgin Mary and Christ-child (C. G. Jung 1976, pp. 62-65).

Back to essays