"Murder of the father" is a reference to the murder of the legendary king of Thebes by Oedipus, the Greek hero in Sophocles' play Oedipus Tyrannus (King Oedipus). According to Freud, we were all, as young children, gripped by the "compulsion" embodied in the Greek legend: we were all, "once, in germ and in phantasy, just such an Oedipus" (1950a [1892-1899], p. 265). Analysts speak of "parricide" when the fantasy is acted out, when the murder of the father is no longer merely an imagined infraction of one of the two oedipal injunctions. The term refers both to a willful act of murder of the father (or, more generally, of a male progenitor) and to the murderer.
Freud introduced the hypothesis of parricide in the fourth chapter of Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a). The word "Vatermord" (murder of the father) conveys an element of intent in the crime committed by the son. In the case of a premeditated murder by the primitive horde, the homicide in question might be considered a form of assassination. According to the Freudian myth, "one day, the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde" (1912-1913a, p. 141). In a single sentence Freud thus summed up the "memorable and criminal deed" (p. 142) that served as the foundation and chief precondition of psychoanalytic thought and "the main source of the sense of guilt" (1928b , p. 183).
When Freud first used the term "Oedipus complex," he spoke of the moment when the boy "begins to desire his mother . . . and to hate his father anew as a rival who stands in the way of this wish" (1910h, p. 171). The hostile impulses that the child develops toward his father are the mental correlate of fundamental biological facts, namely the "prolonged period of [humanity's] dependence in childhood" (1940a , p. 185), which inevitably leads to a conflict-ridden relationship with the parents. In Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a), Freud noted the adventitious content of the two oedipal crimes—the two prohibitions forming the core of totemism—and the child's two primal wishes. The institution of a prohibition hid the fact that those who punished transgression harbor the same desire as the transgressor. This, for Freud, was "one of the foundations of the human penal system" (p. 72).
In 1927, in his introduction to a German book on Dostoevsky, specifically on The Brothers Karamazov, Freud observed that this novel was one of "three masterpieces of the literature of all time" to deal with the manslaughter of the father (Vatertötung). His choice of the term "Vatertötung," which implies no criminal intent on the part of the son, enabled Freud to assert that in the Greek drama, "the hero commits the deed unintentionally" (1928b , p. 188). In contrast, in the Russian novel, as in Shakespeare's Hamlet, someone else commits the murder. Two years later, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a ), Freud again insisted that it is impossible to get "away from the assumption that man's sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together" (p. 131). However, to account for the action of the death instinct, discovered in the interim, Freud now stressed the inevitability of the feeling of guilt as an "expression of the conflict due to ambivalence, of the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or death" (p. 132). It follows that whether or not the father is actually killed is of no great consequence.
In "Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work" (1916d), Freud had argued that many criminals suffer from a sense of guilt. Such guilt may predate the crime, which is in fact perpetrated as a way of seeking punishment. This claim was clinically demonstrated and developed by other authors during the last decades of the twentieth century. Referring to the important notion of guilt, Jean Laplanche defined the oedipal crime as "the first crime committed out of a feeling of guilt" (1992). Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor, who thinks that the fantasy of murder enables the child to accept the idea of death, defends the hypothesis that murder is part of a "sexual theory of childhood" (1996). Paul-Laurent Assoun has pointed out the resonance between the primal criminal act of patricide and a particular criminal metaphor of the unconscious: the work of repression, he writes, is simply an "effort to erase the traces of a primal crime" (1997). The risks stemming from the unconscious and associated with crime—notably with the murder of the father—raise the issue of the relations between law and psychoanalysis.
For Freud, myth indicates the path every child will have to travel as an individual. Certainly, the legend of Oedipus provided him with an opportunity to " 'fictionalize' a mental truth" (Assoun, 1997). The myth of the murder of the father of the horde arguably constitutes a kind of distillation of the Yahweh myth, which Freud called the "Christian myth" (1912-1913a) and Lacan called the "myth of the apple." The hypothesis that the murder of the father is criminal is in fact well suited to accounting for the primal fault (Freud incorrectly referred to it as "original sin"), which can be understood as a tragic split between humanity and God the Father resulting from the human wish to usurp God's place. The discovery of correspondences between the mental life of savages and that of the early Jews makes it possible to identify the hidden origins of the oedipal myth in the stories of Genesis. But above all, this Freudian myth serves to confirm the relevance and universal nature of the finding that Freud summed up in the axiom that where there is prohibition, there is a wish. Original guilt implicates the subject not in the primal fault but in desire itself.
- Castration complex
- Civilization and Its Discontents
- Cultural transmission
- Dostoyevsky and Parricide
- Father complex
- Hamlet and Oedipus
- Moses and Monotheism
- Myth of origins
- Oedipus complex
- Organic repression
- Primitive horde
- Totem and Taboo
- Assoun, Paul-Laurent. (1997). Psychanalyse. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Freud, Sigmund. (1910h). A special type of choice of object made by men. SE, 11: 163-175.
- ——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
- ——. (1916d). Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work. SE, 14: 309-333.
- ——. (1928b ). Dostoevsky and parricide. SE, 21: 173-196.
- ——. (1930a ). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
- ——. (1940a ). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.
- ——. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Flies papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
- Laplanche, Jean. (1992). La révolution Copernicienne inachevée. Paris: Abider.