When the young Freud visited the Louvre for the first time, he felt he had walked into a dream. He could not get enough of the "Assyrian kings, tall as trees, holding lions like puppies" and their tremendous winged guardians. He was captivated by the Egyptian rooms. Here, among the ancient statues, he discovered a passion that became one of his ruling drives for the rest of his life. He longed to possess these mysterious and potent images. While no apartment within his means could ever hold a lamassu or a full-size Sekhmet, there were smaller versions available, of the kind the ancients kept as talismans, life-protectors, and vehicles for daily communion with powers of the invisible world made visible through the makers' arts.
Freud became a dedicated collector of antiquities, haunting the shop of Robert Lustig, the foremost dealer in Vienna, using every holiday or conference abroad to ransack other stores. This was the great age of the tomb robbers, and Freud had no qualms about purchasing what had been taken out of Egypt or Greece or Etruscan lands by questionable means. Tutankhamon's tomb was opened in 1925, and Freud was able to buy a piece from that. In his seventies, he declared that if he only had enough money, he would like take on the complete excavation of a new archaeological site. He considered himself an archaeologist of the mind, but he would have liked to be an archaeologist of the earth as well,
The rooms reserved for his consulting and study in the apartment at Berggasse 19 where he lived with Martha and their many children for decades struck visitors as a museum, indeed an over-stuffed museum. On her first visit in 1933, the feminist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was stunned by the immense number of items, above all statuettes. Freud had a battalion of gods and goddesses arrayed on his desk. As he talked, he would handle them and sometimes choose one to hand to a patient. He passed H.D. a statue she did not immediately understand. Its general shape made her think of a lotus, with the stamen rising within the petals. It was an ivory carving of Vishnu standing below the five cobra heads of a serpent, a piece commissioned by the Psychoanalytic Society of India to honor Freud - and the only Hindu statue in his collection.
His favorite, among all his treasures, was a little bronze statue of Athena. "She is perfect," he told H.D., "but she is missing the spear." No doubt he saw a sexual metaphor, in the context of his theories. But Athena was more to him than that. All his "old and grubby gods" - as he once called them - were more than anything explained in his theories. There, on his desk, was a head of Osiris. It had been severed from the body of a bronze statue and was missing the jeweled eyes as well as the high crown. Nonetheless, Freud explained to visitors, this was his "Answerer", the one who answered his deepest questions. Here, was Isis, rather formally posed as she suckled her child, a queenly and hieratic mother. Here were falconed-headed gods like the ones that Freud saw in a childhood dream that stayed with him, carrying his mother to the gates of the Netherworld. Here was the Chinese figure of a scholar before an exquisitely carved jade screen, an alter ego from a culture that Freud understood incompletely.
I had heard about Freud's art collection, but nothing I had read prepared me for the amazing sight of his army of gods and sacred beings on display in his last home at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead when I visited in 2011. Whatever you think you know about Freud, prepare to be taken in deeper and unexpected directions. I felt an eager desire to understand the relations of the great psychoanalyst - who gleefully called himself a "godless Jew" - to all these idols and magical artifacts. Nothing in his collection (except the fakes that escaped detection by his keen eye and those of his friends at the Kulturhistorisches Museum in Vienna) was made simply for the sake of art and ornament. These statues were regarded as "breathing images" (as the Greeks put it); some part of the deity or daimon represented was believed to have taken up residence.
Freud's greatest compulsion, second only to the addiction to chain-smoking cigars that killed him, was his collection. Later in life, he insisted on having the entire collection carefully boxed and sent by train to join him and his family on their long summer vacations. He would bring favorite statues, and new acquisitions, to the dinner table. He was forever talking to his little gods, stroking them, handling them. He knew that they were alive, though this sentiment did not fit very readily into his secular humanism. He denied or ignored the one God, but he lived among many gods. In his feelings, he was quite at home in the pagan world. After visiting the overgrown site of the Forum in Rome for the first time, he wrote that he was perfectly prepared to worship at the ruined temple of Minerva.
When H.D. called on him in London, in the year before his death, she was amazed that he still had most of his gods, over 2,000. How did he manage to keep them out of the clutches of the Nazis who now ruled in Vienna? “I did not bring them," he told her. "The Princess had them waiting for me in Paris, so that I should feel at home there.” The Princess was Marie Bonaparte, his patient and patron. With the help of a friend at the museum, who gave an appraisal of Freud's collection that grossly undervalued its worth, she had helped to pull the strings that got the Reich bureaucracy to let Freud leave with his gods as well as his family. H.D. found gardenias, Freud's favorite flowers, and had them delivered with a card that read, “To greet the return of the Gods.”
Freud's collection included many objects from Egyptian tombs, not only statues of gods but shabti representing bound spirits expected to work for the dead, mummy cases and painted mummy bandages. He surrounded himself with evidence of cultural beliefs in the soul's survival of death, while strongly suggesting that he did not personally believe in an afterlife. I suspect that he knew better in his dreams, especially when the "breathing images" came alive, as the ancients expected and prayed for them to do.
Freud's ashes were placed in a superb red-figured Greek urn from the 4th century b.c.e., one of many gifts from the Princess. His wife Martha's ashes joined him there after her death. On the vase is the image of Dionysus, a god who dies and comes back, with a maenad, one of his ecstatic female worshippers. An interesting choice of a resting place. On New Year's day,2011, robbers tried to steal the vase from Golders Green Crematorium, where it was on public display. They did not succeed, but caused major damage to the urn. It is not clear what exactly happened to Freud's ashes.
There is an excellent book on Freud and his collection by Australian art historian Janine Burke. The first (Australian) edition is titled The Gods of Freud (Sydney: Knopf, 2006). It was republished in the U.S. as The Sphinx on the Table. It amounts to a top-notch biography of Freud seen through the art that spoke to him. The most vivid account of his relations with his "old and grubby gods" is H.D.'s Tribute to Freud, essentially a narrative of and reflection on her five-times-a-week sessions with Freud in Vienna in 1933-4. H.D.'s classical education and knowledge of the myths and the sites made her a fascinating conversation partner for Freud, the collector. For other intriguing and lesser-known aspects of Freud's life please see my book The Secret History of Dreaming.
At top: Sigmund Freud at his desk. 1914 etching by Max Pollack.
Below: RM at Freud's last home in Hampstead