Repression in Antiquity?
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.