Why Oedipus did not have an Oedipus complex, by Siegfried Zepf

Oedipus and the Oedipus Complex: A Revision


During his work on the concept of the Oedipus complex in 1910 Freud took recourse to a literary highlight of early European culture, Sophocles’ drama “Oedipus Tyrannus”. In so doing he unfolded a perspective unfamiliar to contemporary science of the day, and which to the present day remains disturbing in nature whilst at the same time allowing greater access and lucidity to the concept. Despite the fact that the classical conception of the Oedipus complex has undergone modifications it still influences present day psychoanalytic understanding and clinical work.

Oedipus is, after Narcissus, the second figure in Greek mythology whose attributes have become basic to psychoanalytic thinking. Freud characterized the Oedipus complex as a “shibboleth” of the psychoanalytic community whose usage determined who belonged to the community and who did not. Freud considered the Oedipus complex to be a phylogenetic, universal heritage of mankind.

He was convinced that “the Greek legend siezes upon a compulsion which everybody recognizes because he senses its existence within himself. Everyone in the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy”. Thus Rank offered a first literary-scientific paper on the incest motif from a psychoanalytic perspective. Freud praised Rank’s work which constitutes the prototype of an attempt to elucidate the latent contents of the Oedipus myths on the basis of that conception of the Oedipus complex which was valid at that time.

151323_hopdreajfsox8o5dcwp5lau9y-2However, given the “imaginative creations of groups and peoples” that have latent content stemming from the “unconscious complexes of early childhood” (Freud), it is all the more astonishing that Freud’s pupils themselves were more interested in utilising the myth to validate psychoanalytic theory than in investigating and interpreting the myth itself thoroughly, an undertaking which might have shed a different light on the central clinical assumptions drawn from the Oedipus complex. Our book Oedipus and the Oedipus Complexa Revision (Karnac, 2016) helps to close this gap in the development of psychoanalytic concepts.

Whereas psychoanalytic research and theory formation tend to use myths to confirm clinical approaches, the authors here suggest using them as an inspiration for approaching clinical investigations by investigating the unconscious content of the Oedipus myth and focussing on any conclusions that can then be taken. The typical approaches which refer to the Oedipus complex concentrate on partial aspects of the myth, foremost those that play a role in Sophocles’ drama.

However, a comprehensive investigation should include other versions of the mythological material, particularly the original versions and not just the artistically designed work of a playwright who naturally pursues dramaturgical goals and does not ultimately intend to be completely precise when handling the mythological contents. For these reasons the authors focus mainly on those aspects that Sophocles neglected and Freud overlooked in Sophocles’ drama.

The book, divided into 12 chapters, poses two questions: firstly, why did Freud, given his understanding of myths as collective mystified presentations of latent content, never question Sophocles’ drama and the Oedipus myths (of which he was familiar) about their latent contents? Secondly, what is the outcome when the Oedipus complex is re-illuminated in the light of the myths? The authors here take Freud’s abandonment of the “seduction theory” as their starting point—the assumption that every neurosis is based on a sexual seduction—thus favouring the Oedipus complex as the aetiological origin of neuroses. They contradict Freud’s conception which largely neglects the parental unconscious and argue convincingly that there are good reasons for assuming that parental seductions remain unconscious, in that the children’s Oedipal complex is staged by their parents’ unconscious oedipal strivings and processed by way of projective identification.

The authors point out Freud’s conspicuous omissions when interpreting Sophocles’ drama—for example Laius’ cruelty in abandoning his son and seeking to ensure his death by having his ankles pierced—and refer to other myths in which cruel fathers play major roles. They call attention to the fact that mothers, for example Gaia and Rhea and their sons Cronus and Zeus, support their sons to conquer their father. The myths also show that the mothers seduce their sons and, for example, they mention Jocasta’s passion for Oedipus but neither in Sophocles’ drama nor in the myths is there any indication whatsoever that Oedipus is sexually attracted to Jocasta. Other myths reveal that it is not the son who desires his mother but the mother who desires her son with incestuous intent.

If we consult the myths we find that the rivalry between father and son stems from the mother’s preference for her son and the psychodynamics of his early development. From this point of view, the son’s yearning for his mother is a reaction to her seductive approach and his hatred for his father is his reaction to his father’s violence.

(L to R) Romi Dias, Joshua Torrez

“it is not the son who desires his mother but the mother who desires her son with incestuous intent”

Likewise, as regards the father-daughter-incest, the myths divulge that in the relationship between mother and daughter a similar hostility occurs. In these myths we find many instances pointing to the father as the initial seducer of the daughter. In Freudian theory, phallic monism is the godfather of the castration complex–penis envy–hypothesis which assumes that the oedipal desires of the penis-less daughter cause her to turn to her father, thus triggering the rivalry with her mother for the love of the father. Although Freud hints that the daughter’s sexual attraction for the father is associated with the envy of her mother, he does not follow this up by discussing the parental activities in the Oedipal drama. This is what the authors do when they focus on the father’s oedipal problems influencing his relationship to his daughter and go on further to discuss the hetero- or homosexual outcome.

Thus the child is placed into the nucleus of the conflicting interests resulting from the oedipal problems of its parents: the mother’s oedipal problems become actualized by the father’s love of their daughter and triggers the rivalry with her daughter. Similarly, the father’s rivalry with the son is actualized and triggered by the mother of their son whom she prefers on the grounds of her own oedipal problems.

The authors open up new and unexplored dimensions which go beyond the classical psychoanalytic concept of the Oedipus complex: they question the idea that children compete with father or mother for the other parent, and favour the view that it is the father and the mother who compete with the child for the love of the other parent. It is important to note that in this context the parents’ behaviour is not induced by biological programming, for which no one can be accused, but that the authors bring subjectivity back to the oedipal situation. The clinical implications are particularly important for the understanding of transference–counter-transference interaction and trans-generational heritage.


Oedipus at Colonus

In the discussion of Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus”, the authors understand Oedipus’ regaining his eyesight as a symbolic expression of his recognition of what the myths reveal. They argue that in this drama we do not see Oedipus moving away from the truth, as many psychoanalytic interpreters assert, but moving towards it.

In the light of the myths, Sophocles’ “Oedipus Tyrannus shows itself not to be a story about revealing the truth but a cover story shifting the responsibility for the Oedipus complex onto the child and thus masking its own innocence. Oedipus did not have an Oedipus complex. His misery can no longer be attributed to his fateful entanglement but to the internal conflicts of his father and his mother who set the drama in motion.

The authors give the reason why Freud omitted dealing with the share the parents have in the aetiology of neuroses. He did not want the parents to be blamed. They mention the way Freud’s experienced himself as son of his father and mother. In his self-analysis Freud sees his mother as of little importance for his development. He focuses on the oedipal situation with his father. In consequence, psychoanalytic theories neglected the formative influence of the mother which did not receive adequate attention for a long time.

The third chapter is of special significance because the myths surrounding Laius and Jocasta are discussed in such a way that they explain why Freud neglected the importance of the parental neuroses for the development of the Oedipus complex. Subsequently, the authors confront Freud’s concept with those aspects of the Oedipus myths he ignored and lay down the basis for a new understanding of the central dynamics taking place between parents and the child which make access to a number of clinical areas possible, particularly those pertaining to the understanding of female development.

swansea26670-png-this-2It is precisely this new concept of the oedipal situation which not only enriches psychoanalytic theory but can also be implemented clinically in a fruitful way. The essential point is that before the Oedipal conflict can be resolved the unconscious elements in the father and mother must be found, a process which demands psychoanalysis as the means of choice.

The importance of the oedipal issue in our clinical work cannot be overestimated. It affects basic psychological dimensions such as the regulation of affects —particularly anger, hatred, envy and grudges — the development of gender identity, the ability to deal adequately with authority, the ability to develop autonomy and self-responsibility. The authors also insist on retaining the psychosexual dimension of the Oedipus complex which was lost in the Neo-Kleinian triangulation concept in particular. The psychological aspects of the Oedipus complex emerging from this perspective are directly related to urgent problems of our time. In Europe every fifth child experiences sexual violence (mostly in the context of the family) or extreme violence in its social development. Against this backdrop the book opens up wide horizons for treatment-related consequences. Non-psychoanalytic colleagues are also likely to benefit from its reading because the fundamental dimensions of mental development, the subject of all psychotherapeutic procedures, are discussed.

Siegfried Zepf, MD, is a Training analyst (DPG, DGPT) and the former director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine, University of Saarland (Germany). He is the author of numerous publications on epistemological, psychosomatic, socio-psychological, and psychoanalytical topics.

        His latest book, Oedipus and the Oedipus Complex: A Revision, co-authored with Florian Daniel Zepf, Burkhard Ullrich, and Dietmar Seel, is published this week by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

38169‘This is a thoroughly researched work that beautifully weaves together numerous psychoanalytic contributions on Freud’s Oedipus complex in relation to differing versions of the Oedipus myth in Greek mythology as well as incestuous myths from other cultures. The authors’ line of argument provides the reader with both a nuanced appreciation of this cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory, and an enlightening emendation.’
—Alan Barnett, PhD, past Editor, The Psychoanalytic Review

‘This book proposes a thoroughly documented discussion of the main mythological, historical and clinical aspects of the Oedipus complex, its role in Freud’s thought, its argumentative, theoretical and practical consistency and its use in today’s psychoanalysis. The discussion ushers in a thought-provoking change of perspective that opens up a new interpretation of the Complex’s repressed underpinnings. A must-read for any future research on the Oedipus topic in psychoanalysis.’
— Thierry Simonelli, PhD, former President of the Société Psychanalytique du Luxembourg, and author of Lacan. La théorie. Essai de critique intérieure



One thought on “Why Oedipus did not have an Oedipus complex, by Siegfried Zepf

  1. Pingback: Critical Flicker Fusion: Psychoanalysis at the Movies, by William Fried |

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