Who Are These Coming to the Sacrifice?

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985

by Martin Bernal
Rutgers University Press, 575 pp., $15.00 (paper)

“We are all Greeks. Our literature, our religion, our arts all have their roots in Greece.” So, and much more in the same vein, wrote Shelley in 1821. At that stage of Romanticism, the statement was barely controversial. But where did the Greeks have their roots? The question has been asked and answered, over the centuries, in different ways and with great emotion. Martin Bernal, professor of government studies at Cornell and an expert on modern China, enters the lists as a challenging amateur, with the first installment of an elaborate three-volume work which aims to show that most of what was important in Greece came from Egypt, and much of the rest from the western Semites; and that professional scholars, influenced consciously or unconsciously by racism, have denied these facts and suppressed the publications of the few individuals who presumed to argue for them. “It will be necessary not only to rethink the fundamental bases of ‘Western Civilization’ but also to recognize the penetration of racism and ‘continental chauvinism’ into all our historiography.” By “continental chauvinism” he means assigning too much importance to Europe, and too little to other places, as the sources of historical change.

Bernal hopes to emulate the achievement of some brilliant outsiders who have made advances that the professionals were too purblind to make: the retired merchant Schliemann, who had the simplicity to go to Mycenae and Troy and dig there, and the architect Ventris, who deciphered Linear B. Bernal’s book is a work of passion but also of great labor. The weapons of academia are turned against itself, with fifty-eight pages of notes and forty-two of bibliography. He states his aim unambiguously: “The political purpose of Black Athena is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.”

The book makes two central assertions. The first is that the ancient Greeks themselves said that their country had received settlers from Egypt in the distant past, and that their mathematics, philosophy, and religion were in vital measure derived from Egypt and to a lesser degree from Phoenicia. That is the “Ancient Model,” which is in fact true. The second assertion is that this model, long accepted, has in the last two centuries been denied and replaced by an “Aryan Model,” which asserts that the Greeks, an Indo-European people of invaders from the north, may or may not have learned various things from the East but learned nothing of importance from Egypt. This has happened, Bernal argues, because the racist thought of Europe and North America could not accept that the Greeks could have been conquered or instructed by Africans. Some scholars denied the Eastern influence, too, out of anti-Semitism; others found a way of accepting it which insisted that the important Easterners were not Semites. For these scholars either Sumerians or Iranians are the favored peoples, so far as influence on Greece is concerned.

The most convincing part of the book and also the most entertaining is that in which Bernal examines the views of a…

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