Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter E - ERIKSON, ERIK H.

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

The most prominent 20th century American psychologist of child and adolescent development, Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994), saw religion as important for supporting optimal human development. He is best known for establishing an eight-stage theory of the human life cycle and for instigating an upsurge in child and adolescent research in the latter half of that century. Part scientist and part artist, he originally trained in Freudian psychoanalytic theory but remodeled this heritage to fit his own observations. He accomplished this by incorporating a more holistic perspective that integrated both psychobiological and sociocultural factors in human development. In addition, unlike the predominantly critical approach to religion expressed by those who followed the psychoanalytic tradition, Erikson saw the positive value of religion in an individual's life. Erikson placed the concept of identity as the keystone of his model of human development, which spanned the entire life cycle. This emphasis paralleled his personal, lifelong concern with identity.


Erik was born on June 15, 1902, in Frankfurt, Germany, to Karla Abrahamsen, a Jewish native of Denmark. Erik's original last name, Salomonsen, came from his mother's first husband who had separated from her 4 years before Erik's birth. Erik's biological father was a non-Jewish Dane who had left Karla before Erik was born. Karla reared young Erik as a single parent for the first 3 years of his life. She then married Theodor Homburger, a prominent children's physician and president of the local synagogue, who adopted Erik and changed his surname to Homburger. Theodor posed as Erik's biological father, and Erik only discovered the truth as an adolescent. Further complicating his sense of identity confusion, Erik Homburger's appearance (tall, blue-eyed, and blond) was unusual within his Jewish community. As an adult, Erik moved to the United States and eventually changed his name again, this time to Erik H. Erikson, that is, Erik's son.


After graduating from the German equivalent of high school, Erikson entered a state art school in 1921. Following a few years of formal art training, he lived a bohemian lifestyle as he wandered through Europe sketching, making woodcuts, painting, and visiting museums. After half a dozen years, he returned home, confused and exhausted.

In 1927, Erikson was interviewed for a job by Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud's daughter. Erikson began to teach art to children at the Hietzing School-an institution linked with Sigmund Freud and the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. At the same time he also earned a teaching degree from the local Montessori teachertraining school. Some of Erikson's initial insights in child psychology came from these experiences as he taught children of different ages, observed their play, and began to analyze their behavior.


The experience of being psychoanalyzed by Anna Freud, coupled with the encouragement of many peers, led Erikson to decide to become a child analyst. He studied with Vienna's senior psychoanalysts, including the aging Sigmund Freud, and graduated from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933. Though Erikson's later theories were often at odds with psychoanalytic theory, he felt indebted to the field and was always respectful of Sigmund Freud.

An often overlooked ingredient in Erikson's intellectual development was his relationship with Joan M. Serson, who was teaching dance at the Hietzing School when they met and who became his wife in 1930. Joan was a trained sociologist and scholar, and her influence on Erik was significant, as she supported the development of his ideas and edited his writings. In effect, their relationship also wedded their two fields of psychology and sociology, therein giving birth to psychosocial theory. Furthermore, as a Protestant, Joan disagreed with Freud's largely negative thoughts on religion. Her support of religiosity was significant for Erik, who came to describe himself as most comfortable standing on the "shadowy borderline" between his German Jewish and Danish Protestant heritages.