Sigmund Freud And An Alternative Motives For Traditions And Rituals

As frequent as the terms “myth” and “ritual” are used, they are often misinterpreted, and consequently, misused in the overall arching theme of “religion”. With so many disputable definitions, a concept as broad as rituals may present many contradicting features. And yet amongst all these conflicting features, they all share the same long-term story; how the world was created and how it will inevitably cease. Author Catherine Bell in “Ritual:Perspectives and Dimensions” explores the contemporary theories behind certain rituals, such as the ones within Enuma Elish, and considers the work of representative theorists like Eliade and Gaster, facilitating approaches to the topic in an academic, and/or scholarly, accession.

Needless to say that the festivities held in modern society aren’t exactly carbon copies of those that existed within the Babylonian Era, i.e Rosh Hashana of the Judaism culture versus The Akitu Ritual of the Babylonians, but still followed a set of basic principles allowing it to be considered a ‘holiday’.

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Holiday, or holidays, is a term society has institutionalized as a ‘special’ day of gratitude for said reason, which also occurs on an annual calendar. Under psychoanalytic perspectives, using Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and The Id, he proposes an alternative motive for the existence of such traditions and rituals, one that has been concealed, but exposes mankind’s selfishness.

Since the beginning, societies fabricated myths and legends in attempt to unravel the mysteries of the world, both inorganic and organic. Mircea Eliade, a renown spokesperson for the phenomenological study of religion, upholds the idea that myths are simply “narrations of sacred history, constructed to tell us the deeds of Supernatural Beings and how they essentially constructed reality, the Cosmos, human conduct, and essentially all accounts of creation” (Bell, 10).

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This notion of “creation” is evidently the backbone to all faith reliant rituals and/or religions, such as the one present within Enuma Elish. Within ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonian culture consisted of an annual Spring festival known as the Akitu ceremony, which was celebrated by the entire city; all social classes participated. Worshipping the victory of Marduk, the god of storm, over Tiamat; the primordial goddess of the sea, the first few days of the Akitu ceremony consisted of recited prayers, however not prayers of joy.

The prayers in the first three days was more or less a cacophony of mournful pleas, rather than the expected praisings for a god. In many branches of Christianity, a common theme is ‘praying for a new tomorrow’, for death can arrive at any moment. Likeso, the Babylonians prayed under such emotional distraught out of genuine fear of the unknown, and by the extension, went to temples and asked Marduk for protection, forgiveness, favoritism, etc. Similar to all other forms of religious holidays, Rosh Hashanah follows an identical ritual scheme to that of the Akitu ceremony. Although the festivities only consist of ten days, opposed to twelve days in Babylonian traditions, the Jewish ritual centers around the renewal of the seasons. Holidays hold significance because of their annual repetition as a ‘form of culture’. Theorist Theodore Gaster, of the 1900’s, took the “concept of death and rebirth of a god motif [and embraced] it into a thesis of “seasonal pattern” in all ritual by which it regularly renwes and revitalizes the total world order” (Bell, 7). In other words, rituals weren’t only moments of celebrations and ‘performing deeds’, but they were representations of shifts and changes happening in the world based on an annual cycle.

Bell’s evaluation on Eliade led to the argument that “performing such deeds time and time again as a ‘ritual’ allows participants to identify with the historical. [Furthermore], by ritual enactment of [said] primordial events, human beings come to consider themselves truly human, sanctify[ing] the world, and rendering the activities of their lives meaningful” (Bell, 11). This connects to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the human psyche and how the predominant make ups of our ego, superego, and the id, influence us even under religious incentives. Freud describes the id as the innate impulses of the human mind, making the part of us that “behaves as though it were unconscious” (Freud, 17). In another piece of literature, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud goes to reiterate the power of the id, and how it essentially “expresses the true purpose of the individual organism’s life, searching for the satisfaction of its innate needs. No such purpose of keeping itself alive or of protecting itself from dangers by [whatever methods necessary] to obtain satisfaction [of] the external world [is taken] into account” (Freud, 19). The overall argument is whether or not the Babylonians, the Jewish, or any practice of religion is solely for a divine being. Freud explains that the id is driven by a ‘tendency’, or habits that come together to compose human ethics, such as the ‘pleasure principle’.

To avoid being in a state of tension and anxiety, it said to believe that we instinctively strive for something to instantly gratify us under our own subjective ‘pleasure principle’. Of course needless to say that our ego, “our sense of reason and common sense”, limits our true animalistic desires, because then we’d all be stealing and committing crimes (Freud’s The Ego and The Id, 19). Upon this interpretation, it’s also safe to assume Freud is claiming all of humanity to be under some form of tension and anxiety. For a religious individual to relieve tension is to know he has successfully followed the doctrine of his/her’s faith. As one of the aforementioned rituals, the first days of the Akitu ceremony consisted of fearful prayers.

As a result, following the Babylonian culture might’ve been a method to please one’s initial fear of dying, believing their prayers will be heard, allowing for a safe future ahead of their life. Simply following the rules can also be an assimilation of the id and the superego, the part of the human psyche influenced through morals created by societal rules and values. You follow the rules as a child to avoid punishment, and that simple algorithm remains with you until you leave society or die. Therefore under a Freudian analysis, individuals could’ve been so fixated on these rituals because not only was it the norm for their people, but it would fulfill their desire in avoiding punishment.

With the perspectives of Gaster and Eliade, even under the interpretations of Catherine Bell, the concept of rituals (specifically that of Enuma Elish) can uphold many definitions. As a result, there also leaves many room for misinterpretations and distorted ideologies of said rituals. Upon an initial glance, the majority would assume that rituals, especially those of Rosh Hashanah and the Akitu ceremony, are predominantly religion focused. In other words, annual ceremonies are held in respect to a supreme deity that lives within their line of faith. However, when deconstructed and looked under a more psychoanalytical approach, theorists like Sigmund Freud presents potential alternative motives as to why so many people followed similar traditions for so many years.

Evidently, humans continue these rituals out of tradition and their own selfish desires to fulfill their own pleasure principles, rather than for the concept of their culture. Of course this may not be credible to be applied to all of humanity as Sigmund Freud argues, as they are truly those who believe in their line of faith undisturbed (as in not influenced by society or family/friends). However when taken into account our actions call for an instant gratification, it does seem logical that we wouldn’t have noticed, considering our innate impulses, or the ego, kept it concealed. 

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Sigmund Freud And An Alternative Motives For Traditions And Rituals. (2022, Jun 05). Retrieved from

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