Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 17851985
“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 good many scholars and writers on the questions of race, racial integrity, racial characteristics, and the acceptability or unacceptability of ascribing a role in the formation of Greece to Cretans, Egyptians, Phoenicians. The Phoenicians are a good example. The Greeks themselves tell us that they got their alphabet from Phoenicia, and the names of their letters—alpha, beta, gamma—meaningless in Greek but meaningful in Semitic, confirm the statement. But in nineteenth-century France the Phoenicians suffered retrospectively from the anti-Semitism of the age. Ernest Renan, the leading French publicist in the field of Semitic languages, declared that “the Semitic race is to be recognized almost entirely by negative characteristics. It has neither mythology, nor epic, nor science, nor philosophy,” and so on; and the nature of the Semitic languages itself made a Semitic Aristotle an impossibility. Their contribution to Greece was consequently infinitesimal.
But not only were the Phoenicians associated with the Jews; they also, as a trading and seafaring people, had a horrid resemblance to the English. Michelet, the nationalist historian, described the Phoenicians as “a people who were hard and sad, sensual and greedy, and adventurous without heroism.” After that masterly summary of the bad qualities the French attributed to the English, it is no surprise that the modern “kings of the sea” are put by Michelet in the same box: “How many Tyres and Carthages would one have to pile up to reach the insolence of titanic England?” On the other side of the Channel, not surprisingly, the matter was seen rather differently. Mr. Gladstone was keen on Phoenicians (though Sir Arthur Evans quoted him as saying, at the end of his life, “I have always believed that the Phoenicians were at bottom a non-Semitic stock”) and the historian Sir George Rawlinson commented with approval that they were “the people who of all Antiquity had the most in common with England and the English.” So in England they were allowed more share in early Greek history than in France or Germany, at least until the rising tide of Indo-European feeling, in the twentieth century, tended to sweep them away in England, too.
It is a spectacle both comical and depressing to see the unself-conscious way in which historians, both inside and outside universities, reflect the prejudices of their times in their subject matter. Bernal has some excellent discussions here, for instance on the historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr and on Matthew Arnold. About Arnold he writes:
Where Dr. [Thomas] Arnold’s love of Greece meshed with his Protestantism, Teutonism and anti-Semitism, his son’s Hellenism was explicitly linked to the vision of the Indo-European or Aryan race in a perpetual struggle with the Semitic one, or to the conflict between “cultivated” and bourgeois values. And in this, of course, he was following a well-beaten path. In theory—like Michelet, Renan and others—he accepted, as Bunsen put it, that “If the Hebrew Semites are the priests of humanity, the Helleno-Roman Aryans are, and ever will be, its heroes.” All, however, clearly felt that in granting the Semites religion they were granting them too much.
Many things that were said by historians, as by other people, from 1820 onward, presuppose ideas about race that cannot now be taken seriously. They were not, of course, said only by anti-Semites, and Bernal himself quotes (but without criticism) the judgment placed by Disraeli in the mouth of his Jewish sage Sidonia in Tancred: “All is race, there is no other truth.” That was meant to sound impressive, not idiotic. But even now these matters continue to cause embarrassment. To take a very recent example: at the death of Fritz Schachermeyer, an erudite ancient historian, some of whose books embody attitudes now discountenanced, an Austrian learned journal wrote in his obituary:
As during the ascendancy of National Socialism he had not closed his mind to its body of thought (sich deren Gedankengut nicht verschlossen hatte), which is not surprising in the light of the mental background of his development, he found himself without a job from 1945 to 1952.1
Such delicacy of language!
It is clear that some scholars were determined that the origins of Greece should not include any more Levantine taint than they absolutely had to. What, though, of more modern times? Since 1945 there has been a strong movement in the direction of accepting Eastern influence on the Greeks from about 1200 BC onward. The much respected German scholar Walter Burkert, in an impressive recent work,2 makes the case for the influence of Mesopotamia and Phoenicia on many aspects of Greek culture, between 1200 and 600 BC, with some crisp discussion of the motives of certain scholars for disregarding it. But Burkert still ignores the traditions that in antiquity regarded Egypt as the main source, and his purview begins centuries later than what Bernal regards as the crucial period, c. 2100–1800 BC.
It is true that an impressive number of texts can be cited from classical literature, some referring to settlement from Egypt in the mythical period, others alleging that Greece derived from Egypt her gods and her philosophy. The first group of texts refers mostly to the figure of Danaus, brother of Aegyptus and father of fifty daughters. When Aegyptus’ fifty sons wanted to marry their cousins, and attempted to do so by force, Danaus set sail for Argos, where he became king. The daughters had to marry the sons, but on the wedding night all save one murdered their bridegrooms. And so on, in a myth of a universal kind related to anxieties and rules about marriage. It was after Danaus that the Greeks came to be called “Danaans,” a title known to Homer. The historian Herodotus also mentions a story that the kings of Sparta traced their descent to Egyptian ancestors. All this, for Bernal, is a memory of Egyptian invasions and colonization fifteen hundred years earlier.
Herodotus shows himself very keen about Egypt and on finding Egyptian origins for Greek culture. The names of the gods, he assures us, come from Egypt, as do many Greek beliefs and cult practices. In the following centuries it was more and more frequently said that Greek thinkers had spent a period in Egypt, from mythical persons like Orpheus the singer and Daedalus the artisan to historical persons like Plato. The Egyptians came to be thought of as a people of philosophers; or, more strictly, as a people with a priesthood of philosophers, the source of every kind of esoteric wisdom. Foreigners could sit at their feet and carry away recondite doctrines.
Bernal insists on the historical value of this tradition, but for 150 years it has been universally disbelieved by scholars. The mythical accounts of Egyptian colonists in Greece are hard to confirm or to date. Bernal insists that these colonies must have been earlier than the Mycenaean culture and have been at its root; otherwise the influence of Egypt on Greece will not be fundamental enough. But mythical events, without other evidence, are hard to put in one century rather than another, and the tale of Danaus contains obviously fantastic elements (the fifty daughters seem to be central to it) that are not historical at all. There is an absence of archaeological evidence to support the theory, and that weighs heavily with scholars. Bernal has an answer, which is that
20th-century prehistory has been bedevilled by a particular form of this search for truth, which I shall call “archaeological positivism.”… The favorite tool of the archaeological positivists is the “argument from silence”: the belief that if something has not been found, it cannot have existed in significant quantities…. In nearly all archaeology—as in the natural sciences—it is virtually impossible to prove absence.
So the absence of archaeological evidence does not count against the theory. This type of argument is central to the book; a related one is used to defend the second half of Bernal’s “ancient model.” He observes that there was a long tradition crediting Egypt with the invention of Greek religious and philosophical ideas. Indeed, the same assertions, in much the same words, were handed on across the generations, from antiquity to Giordano Bruno in the Renaissance, and on to the Freemasons who, in Bernal’s view, “dominated intellectual life in the eighteenth century.” It was widely supposed that Egyptian thought had been highly sophisticated from an early period, with a monotheistic system underlying the picturesque cults of cats, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses. But in the nineteenth century this ceased to be so, and professors of Egyptology made such statements as “I had to admit [when I came to read the Egyptian texts] that they did not show any of the profound wisdom that others had seen in them” (Gaston Maspero), and “Despite the reputation for philosophical wisdom attributed to the Egyptians by the Greeks, no people has ever shown itself more averse from speculations” (Alan Gardiner).
Anzeiger für Altertumswissenschaft, Volume 41 (1988), p. 125.↩
Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Literatur und Religion (Heidelberg Academy, 1984).↩