Freud made the assumption that the ancients were not repressed and this view is widespread today. This paper subjects this idea to critical scrutiny beginning with a consideration of what is understood by the term “repression” itself. Dreams are privileged as a means of flushing out repression. Rather than trying to interpret particular dream motifs as evidence of repression, I study ancient psychological ideas of how desires could be controlled. Erotic dreams posed problems of self-control and responsibility. The ancient Greeks viewed erotic dreams as problematic on medical grounds only if they occurred excessively whereas the early Christians sought to eliminate them entirely. Although these two different historical societies worried about the control of desire in different ways, and to varying degrees, I contend that repression could potentially arise in either case. An ethnographic example from the Brazilian Mehinaku illustrates this contention. Much of this study is technically concerned with suppression since people were proceeding consciously, but over time suppressive strategies become unconscious and qualify as full-blown repression. It could be said that repression is quintessentially a historical product.
Modern psychology is based on a conception of the human psyche as a faculty in its own right. Among its qualities is the psyche’s natural propensity to operate semi-autonomously, acting according to rules of its own. Such a view of the human psyche as an active mechanism, however, did not exist for the greater part of the Greco-Roman world. The psyche (not to be identified with the soul) was perceived as a passive, receptive element, either materialistic (part of the body) or as an emptiness within the body to be filled by elements from outside. Given the radically distinct idea of the psyche in antiquity, one should ask whether, and if so how, the conceptual apparatus of modern psychology might be used fruitfully when dealing with ancient mental phenomena. And conversely, one may ask where the qualities and capacities, which modern psychology ascribes to the psyche, were located according to ancient views, and how they were supposed to operate. What was the ancient equivalent of psychology? For the majority of ancient Greeks and Romans, divine intervention was assumed to be responsible for what are now called psychological phenomena. In this context, the divine was not always considered sublime: the designs of the gods on man’s interior were often troublesome – even fatal.