BLTC Press Titles

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Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment

Rudolf Steiner

The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Rudolf Steiner

Novalis Including Hymns to the Night

Novalis, George MacDonald, Thomas Carlyle

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

Leonardo da Vinci

by Sigmund Freud


We have here an infantile memory and to be sure of the strangest sort. It is strange on account of its content and account of the time of life in which it was fixed. That a person could retain a memory of the nursing period is perhaps not impossible, but it can in no way be taken as certain. But what this memory of Leonardo states, namely, that a vulture opened the child's mouth with its tail, sounds so improbable, so fabulous, that another conception which puts an end to the two difficulties with one stroke appeals much more to our judgment. The scene of the vulture is not a memory of Leonardo, but a phantasy which he formed later, and transferred into his childhood. The childhood memories of persons often have no different origin, as a matter of fact, they are not fixated from an experience like the conscious memories from the time of maturity and then repeated, but they are not produced until a later period when childhood is already past, they are then changed and disguised and put in the service of later tendencies, so that in general they cannot be strictly differentiated from phantasies. Their nature will perhaps be best understood by recalling the manner in which history writing originated among ancient nations. As long as the nation was small and weak it gave no thought to the writing of its history, it tilled the soil of its land, defended its existence against its neighbors by seeking to wrest land from them and endeavored to become rich. It was a heroic but unhistoric time. Then came another age, a period of self-realization in which one felt rich and powerful, and it was then that one experienced the need to discover whence one originated and how one developed. The history-writing which then continues to register the present events throws also its backward glance to the past, it gathers traditions and legends, it interprets what survived from olden times into customs and uses, and thus creates a history of past ages. It is quite natural that this history of the past ages is more the expressions of opinions and desires of the present than a faithful picture of the past, for many a thing escaped the people's memory, other things became distorted, some trace of the past was misunderstood and interpreted in the sense of the present; and besides one does not write history through motives of objective curiosity, but because one desires to impress his contemporaries, to stimulate and extol them, or to hold the mirror before them. The conscious memory of a person concerning the experiences of his maturity may now be fully compared to that of history writing, and his infantile memories, as far as their origin and reliability are concerned will actually correspond to the history of the primitive period of a people which was compiled later with purposive intent.

1 Cited by Scognamiglio from the Codex Atlanticus, p. 65.

Now one may think that if Leonardo's story of the vulture which visited him in his cradle is only a phantasy of later birth, it is hardly worth while giving more time to it. One could easily explain it by his openly avowed inclination to occupy himself with the problem of the flight of the bird which would lend to this phantasy an air of predetermined fate. But with this depreciation one commits as great an injustice as if one would simply ignore the material of legends, traditions, and interpretations in the primitive history of a people. Notwithstanding all distortions and misunderstandings to the contrary they still represent the reality of the past; they represent what the people formed out of the experiences of its past age under the domination of once powerful and to-day still effective,motives, and if these distortions could be unraveled through the knowledge of all effective forces, one would surely discover the historic truth under this legendary material. The same holds true for the infantile reminiscences or for the phantasies of individuals. What a person thinks he recalls from his childhood, is not of an indifferent nature. As a rule the memory remnants, which he himself does not understand, conceal invaluable evidences of the most important features of his psychic development. As the psychoanalytic technique affords us excellent means for bringing to light this concealed material, we shall venture the attempt to fill the gaps in the history of Leonardo's life through the analysis of his infantile phantasy. And if we should not attain a satisfactory degree of certainty, we will have to console ourselves with the fact that so many other investigations about this great and mysterious man have met no better fate.

When we examine Leonardo's vulture-phantasy with the eyes of a psychoanalyst then it does not seem strange very long; we recall that we have often found similar structures in' dreams, so that we may venture to translate this phantasy from its strange language into words that are universally understood. The translation then follows an erotic direction. Tail, "coda," is one of the most familiar symbols, as well as a substitutive designation of the male member which is no less true in Italian than in other languages. The situation contained in the phantasy, that a vulture opened the mouth of the child and forcefully belabored it with its tail, corresponds to the idea of fellatio, a sexual act in which the member is placed into the mouth of the other person. Strangely enough this phantasy is altogether of a passive character; it resembles certain dreams and phantasies of women and of passive homosexuals who play the feminine part in sexual relations.

Let the reader be patient for a while and not flare up with indignation and refuse to follow psychoanalysis because in its very first applications it leads to an unpardonable slander of the memory of a great and pure man. For it is quite certain that this indignation will never solve for us the meaning of Leonardo's childhood phantasy; on the other hand, Leonardo has unequivocally acknowledged this phantasy, and we shall therefore not relinquish the expectation—or if you prefer the preconception— that like every psychic production such as dreams, visions and deliria this phantasy, too, must have some meaning. Let us therefore lend our unprejudiced ears for a while to psychoanalytic work which after all has not yet uttered the last word.

The desire to take the male member into the mouth and suck it, which is considered as one of the most disgusting of sexual perversions, is nevertheless a frequent occurrence among the women of our time—and as shown in old sculptures was the same in earlier times—and in the state of being in love seems to lose entirely its disgusting character. The physician encounters phantasies based on this desire, even in women who did not come to the knowledge of the possibility of such sexual gratification by reading v. Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis or through other information. It seems that it is quite easy for the women themselves to produce such wish-phantasies.2 Investigation then teaches us that this situation, so forcibly condemned by custom, may be traced to the most harmless origin. It is nothing but the elaboration of another situation in which we all once felt comfort, namely, when we were in the suckling-age ("when I was still in the cradle") and took the nipple of our mother's or wet-nurse's breast into our mouth to suck it. The organic impression of this first pleasure in our lives surely remains indelibly impregnated; when the child later learns to know the udder of the cow, which in function is a breast-nipple, but in shape and in position on the abdomen resembles the penis, it obtains the primary basis for the later formation of that disgusting sexual phantasy.

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