Myths, legends, fairy tales, and other stories passed down through the generations are at the root of our storytelling tradition. They are the earliest stories in our literature and some of the first stories we learn as children. It is no wonder that we keep going back to mythology looking for deeper meanings. The drive to find hidden meaning in myth leads to some misguided interpretations. Two common mistakes are Freudian theory and the “forgotten history” theory.
Freudian theory holds that myths are expressions of universal human drives which we have suppressed in the name of civilization. As the things that we cannot talk about openly come out in our stories, we can hold up mythology as a mirror to our own subconscious in order to see our hidden impulses better. Sigmund Freud’s attempts to explain the human psyche by reference to dreams, myths, and other supposed insights into the unconscious are at the root of this approach, but there are other classic exemplars, such as Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which applies the theory to the Grimms’ fairy tales. (Note that I am speaking of Freudian theory as a way of interpreting myth; I am not in any position to judge Freudianism as a psychological theory.)
To take an example, one famous piece of Freudian theory is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus. In the myth, Oedipus, born to the king and queen of Thebes, is abandoned to die in the wilderness as a baby because of a prophecy that he will kill his father and bed his mother. Oedipus is rescued and grows up in Corinth, then as an adult unknowingly kills his own father on the road. After solving the riddle of the sphinx that was plaguing Thebes, Oedipus becomes king of Thebes and marries his mother, Jocaste. When the truth comes out, Oedipus blinds himself in despair.
According to the Freudian interpretation, this myth reflects a stage of psychological development in which children desire to replace one parent and sexually possess the other. (Freud himself believed that the experience was common to both boys and girls, although some other psychologists restricted the “Oedipus complex” to boys and imagined a separate “Electra complex” for girls.) This desire is held to be universal regardless of culture or personal experience.
The problem with the Freudian approach to myth is that it disregards cultural context. It treats myths as if they are unmediated glimpses into the subconscious without considering why people in a particular time, place, and culture would tell a particular story. It imagines, in essence, that stories exist independently of storytellers.
Traditional Freudianism also suffers from a Hellenocentric fixation. The Freudian approach to myth was based originally on Greek mythology without regard to how contemporary culture differed from ancient Greek culture. More recent work in the Freudian field has taken on non-Greek mythic traditions, but still within a framework whose terms were set by reference to Greece.
Those who forget history
While Freudian theory sees myth as a direct line to the imagination, the “forgotten history” approach to myth holds, in effect, that people have no imagination at all. The forgotten history theory holds that myths are the tattered shreds of historical memories corrupted by the passage of time, like a game of telephone. There is believed to be a “truth behind the myth” which can be reconstructed as historical fact. This approach to myth is a staple of popular histories, especially those with dubious subjects like Atlantis or the Holy Grail, but there are also classic contributions to the genre like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, based primarily on Greek myth with some excursions into the Celtic world.
“Forgotten history” has an entirely different take on the Oedipus myth. According to this approach, the myth of Oedipus records an early matriarchal theocratic stage of European civilization in which the ruling priestess chose a new male consort every year who was required to ritually kill his predecessor and then sleep with the priestess, only to be killed and replaced in his turn the next year.
The problem with the forgotten history approach to myth is that it ignores the fact that people like telling stories, whether there’s any truth to them or not, and sometimes people just make things up. The events of a story may have no basis in historical fact. Insisting on looking for a history behind every myth takes individual initiative and imagination away from the people who told and retold stories and just makes them into dodgy tape recorders.
Freudian theory and “forgotten history” theory are mistakes, though like many mistakes they are not outright wrong but rather the result of taking a good idea and laying it on too thick. Myths, we must remember, are stories and people in the past told stories for all the same reasons that we do today: to work out personal issues and to remember the past, but also to entertain, to send a message, or to impose sense on a chaotic world. Leaning too heavily on any one of these reasons to the exclusion of others gives us a distorted perception of what myths are about. If we want to interpret a myth we should start by asking not what it means to us but what it meant to the people who created it and passed it down.
So, what did the story of Oedipus mean in ancient Greece? To my mind, there is an obvious place to start in answering that question, and that is with the thing that doesn’t belong: the sphinx. Neither the Freudian nor the forgotten history models account for it, but seen in a historical context it tells us so much.
Without the sphinx and her riddle, the story of Oedipus becomes a combination of two conventional patterns: an abandoned child story and a family chaos story.
There are many stories about abandoned children who survive, grow up, and return to destroy those who tried to kill them. The same essential tale is told of Paris, Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and Remus, Hansel and Gretel, among others. This story probably reflects the anxieties of cultures with high infant mortality rates, such as Ancient Greece and Rome. Such stories served the same purpose for them that the urban legend about the old lady trying to dry off her poodle in the microwave does for us. We feel anxious about the pace of technological change, but we can at least reassure ourselves that we’re not as bad as that. People who felt anxious about the death of newborn infants could reassure themselves that at least it could be worse.
Stories of families falling apart are also very common in Greek mythology: Oedipus and his family, Zeus versus Chronos, Heracles murdering his wife and children, and so on. This also reflects historical experience. The creation of democratic institutions in the Greek city-states meant breaking up the power of old aristocratic families, which happened in many different cities with mixed success and often violent results. The idea of a violent conflict that involved breaking apart a powerful family was not just a legendary tale to the people of ancient Greece but a lived experience. The myths give that experience a heightened expression, much as the modern zombie trend speaks to the malaise of the contemporary economy.
So, where does the sphinx fit into this? It pins down the Oedipus story to a particular historical moment in the larger cultural experience of ancient Greece. The sphinx is not native to Greek mythology. It comes from Egypt and the near east. The eastern Mediterranean in general, and Egypt in particular, were vital trading partners for the Greeks. After a long period of relative isolation, Greeks began seriously engaging with Mediterranean trade networks in the mid-eighth century BCE. Long-distance trade was a difficult and risky venture, but those who survived it could come back to Greece rich.
This meant conflict at home, though, as the newly rich merchant class confronted the entrenched aristocracy whose power was based on land-ownership and military might. Numerous Greek myths reflect this conflict, like stories that trace the founding of Greek cities to Phoenician and Egyptian immigrants, likely told by merchants who had made their fortune trading in Phoenicia and Egypt to counter the old aristocracy’s legends about descent from heroic ancestors like Menelaus and Ajax.
By making Oedipus’ rule of Thebes dependent not on having killed the previous king but on his mastery over the sphinx, the myth fits into this tradition. It takes a familiar “family falling apart” story and adds the connection with foreign lands. The story of Oedipus is about the moment in Greek history when the wealth brought in from overseas trade threatened to upset the existing social order.
In a sense, the Freudian and “forgotten history” interpretations are both partly right. The legend of Oedipus does have a historical event behind it and it does reflect the unspoken anxieties of an age. What is missing from each is a sense of historical context.
Thoughts for writers
As storytellers, we should appreciate how complex the motivations behind storytelling can be. Sometimes we mean our stories to amuse, enlighten, shock, or provoke. Sometimes our stories have a deep personal meaning to us; other times they tell of experiences everyone can relate to. Often they say something about us and the age we live in, whether we mean them to or not. When we think about myth, we owe it to the people who first told those stories to recognize the same complexity in them.
Image: Sphinx, detail of photgraph by Joanbanjo via Wikimedia (Lanuvium; mid 2nd c. CE; marble)
Edited for clarity
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.