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Greenacre, P. (1956). Experiences of Awe in Childhood. Psychoanal. St. Child, 11:9-30.

(1956). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 11:9-30

Experiences of Awe in Childhood

Phyllis Greenacre, M.D.


The present paper is a continuation and an expansion of a paper published in 1953. That paper was concerned chiefly with the difference between awe and envy, especially awe and envy of the phallus, and the effect of the interplay between these two emotional states on girls. This leads to further questions regarding the presence of such states in boys and their sequelae in later life. These then will be the main foci of this contribution. But I wish also to present some additional considerations regarding the experience of awe—awe which is not manifestly or consciously centered on the phallus. I must add, however, that the link back to the phallus is certainly often present.

The term awe has been used, at different times, with many different shades of meaning, accenting one or another facet in this complex state: "terror or dread"; "dread mingled with veneration, as of the Divine Being"; "solemn and reverential wonder tinged with latent fear inspired by what is sublime and majestic in nature"; "anger, fierceness and rage." There is usually an overtone of strangeness or unfamiliarity or great and overpowering size in any awe-inspiring situation.

The first experiences of awe can occur only after the child is sufficiently developed to realize himself fairly well as a separately functioning being, no longer confused between the I and the other, whether the other be animate or inanimate object. There may be a reflection of himself and his inner feelings in the outer world, or the sensing of something from the outside may stir some very specific bodily and psychic emotional response in him—but the near fusion is past. In looking over the records of my clinical work, I am impressed with the fact that experiences of awe are first reported from the age of four or five, rarely earlier—that rather crucial experiences seem to occur sometimes at six or seven and again at adolescence.

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