The Finding of Moses, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema  (Public Domain Image)
The Myth of the Birth of the Hero
by Otto Rank
Otto Rank, (b. 1884, d. 1939), was a brilliant Austrian psychologist who was part of Sigmund Freud's inner circle. This early monograph by Rank is a groundbreaking application of the psychoanalytic method to comparative mythology. At the turn of the 20th century psychologists were beginning to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the human psyche, particularly through the medium of classical mythology. This would later lead to the insights of Jung, Joseph Campbell and others. But one of the first scholars who explored this convergence was Otto Rank.
One of the most vexing questions of comparative mythology, which will be more than obvious to even casual readers of this site, are the cross-cultural similarities in myths, folklore and legends. For instance, the flood myth, the heroic quest, and particularly birth-tales of the hero, appear around the world, from Africa to South America. When this was written the study of mythology was emerging from a period where attempts to explain this by diffusion or astronomical phenomena had been exhausted. Rank instead attempted to explain these common motifs in terms of what he believed to be psychological universals.
In this study Rank looks at a a wide variety of Eurasian hero birth narratives, including Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, Indian, and Germanic legendary figures. He uses the methodology and vocabulary of classic Freudian psychoanalysis to do so. The middle part of this book, where Rank enumerates some of these tales, will be the most useful for modern readers, as he draws on a wide range of sources, some of them fairly obscure. In the last part he puts these myths 'on the couch' as it were, and ties up his thesis very coherently.
In later years, Rank broke with Freud, who had been somewhat of a father figure to him, ironically fulfilling half of the Oedipus complex about which they parted ways. He moved to Paris in 1926 where he took clients such as Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, who mentions Rank often in her memoirs.
Production notes. This was extracted from the 1959 Vintage reprint of this text in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and other Writings. Page numbers are from that edition. Editorial footnotes and the additional writings from the 1959 edition were omitted. The rest of the (original) footnotes were renumbered on a page-by-page basis.
--J.B. Hare, October 16th, 2006
III. The Interpretation of the Myths