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When Freud Visited the Acropolis

view of the acropolis of Athens from below
Athens acropolis. Credit: Philopappos / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Freud Museum in London opened its exhibition, Tracing Freud on the Acropolis, on July 26th. The exhibition is entirely dedicated to Freud’s Acropolis.

Sigmund Freud’s only experience at the Acropolis seems to have been an intense one. He was an older man in 1904 and was accompanied by his younger brother, Alexander. As was fashionable for high society of the time, Athens was an obligatory stop in the Grand Tour, and this was no exception for the Viennese brothers. However, they had their travel plans to Corfu disrupted, and they stopped in Athens a while longer than planned. 

In his letters, Freud mentions that the first feeling was one of deja-vu. Indeed, the founder of psychoanalysis had seen a replica at the Volksgarten in Vienna, where an exact copy had been commissioned by Napoleon. He wrote to his wife that it “surpasses everything that we’ve ever seen and that one can imagine” and that the view from the citadel was “herrlich” (“splendid”).

That was not all. On the Acropolis, Freud experienced something like a “disturbance of memory” (Erinnerungsstörung). It was something he would later identify and analyze. He  spent a long time contemplating this experience and wrote about it years later in a letter to Romain Rolland, a French author and Freud’s friend. “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis” is now considered a seminal work. He considered self-analysis to be just as important, and later expanded on this term, analyzing what he considered to be the structure of derealization.

portrait of SIgmund Freud in black and white
Sigmund Freud. Credit: Psychology Pictures / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“By the evidence of my senses, I am now standing on the Acropolis, only I don’t believe it”

Greek history and mythology had deeply inspired the Viennese psychologist since childhood, as is evident in his psychoanalytic work. He was puzzled about the detachment he experienced there and considered it to be a defense mechanism. The question, however, is from what. Was derealization a defense from dreams coming true?

The answer he came to was, strangely enough, oedipal. He wrote:

To this general motive [i.e. of guilt, that the son should surpass the father] is added the particular factor that in the theme itself of Athens and the Acropolis there is contained an indication of the sons’ superiority [Uberlegenheit]. Our father had been a businessman [Kaufmann], he possessed no Gymnasium education, Athens could not mean much to him. What disturbed us in our enjoyment of the trip to Athens was therefore a feeling of [filial] piety. 

It was not only a collision of emotions that came over the visitor, but much more than that. Freud must have felt transformed by the primeval symbolism of the Acropolis in extreme contrast with the author’s German identity, his classical education, and modernism. The trope of the destroyed temple in Judaism must have indeed struck some emotional chord in the author of the letters.

If Freud had been a Romantic artist rather than a modern-day poet, he might have seen it in a very similar way to Stendhal upon his visit to Italy, where he experienced similar feelings and attributed this uniquely to the beauty he was experiencing. This would later be termed Stendhal’s syndrome.

The problem of extreme beauty and harmony causing at least some distress in humans might or might not be anything new. Some have talked about this while others have only described extreme peace and happiness.

The only certainty is beauty helps humans conceive of their finiteness in the face of such ancient wonders. Protecting monuments for future generations so that they too may wonder at the depths of human experience is an essential duty of humanity. 


The exhibition itself is being held at the Freud Museum at 20 Maresfield Gardens. The museum was once the house in which the Freud family found refuge in North London after fleeing from their home in Vienna to escape the Nazis in 1938.

A collection of postcards, letters, and documents, encompassing a diverse array of images, as well as the various objects and sculptures personally amassed by Freud, comprise the exhibition.

The collection has been curated by Marina Maniadaki who is originally from Athens. The exhibition has received the support of the Acropolis Museum, the Hellenic Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, and the Institute for Digital Archaeology.

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