• Email
  • Print

Black Athena’

In response to:

Who Are These Coming to the Sacrifice? from the June 15, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I know very well from my own experience, how difficult it is to compress complex arguments into reviews, even ones as capacious as those of The New York Review. Nevertheless, I should like to point out two compressions in Jasper Griffin’s review of my Black Athena [NYR, June 15] which I believe are very misleading. Before discussing these, however, I want to correct a slip or typo in the review, which is of some significance. I am not—as he states—merely concerned with the period c.2100–1800 BC but with the much longer one of the 2nd millennium as a whole or to be precise from 2100–1100 BC.

In the first misleading compression Dr. Griffin argues that my acceptance of the Greek traditions of colonisation from Egypt, is based simply on a distrust of “the argument from silence” and that there is no archaeological evidence to support these traditions. This is not the case and he overestimates my originality here, as a significant minority of scholars including Spyridon Marinatos, the doyen of Greek archaeology for many years, and Dr. Frank Stubbings who wrote the standard article on the subject in the Cambridge Ancient History also accept the essential truth of the reports of the colonisations on the basis of their interpretations of the archaeological evidence.

Dr. Griffith also implies that I have swallowed Herodotos whole. I do not think that anything should be taken as Gospel, least of all Herodotos. What I argue for is a more impartial skepticism including one towards 19th and early 20th century Classicists, Egyptologists and ancient historians, who as Dr. Griffin concedes, were riddled with racism and anti-Semitism. Such views would seem very likely to have had a direct bearing on their denial or minimization of Near Eastern influences on the formation of Ancient Greece. My general principle, when applied to Herodotos, is to check what he says against other forms of evidence—where they exist—and to disbelieve him, where these convincingly contradict him. However, as the trend over the past 50 years has been towards confirming his credibility, I have found it helpful to take as working hypotheses those of Herodotos’ statements that were unchallenged in antiquity.

Dr. Griffin writes at some length on the question of Herodotos’ claim that the Greeks gained their notion of reincarnation from the Egyptians, leaving the strong implication that I accept this uncritically. As this issue is one concerning the 1st millennium BC, not the 2nd, I do not consider it in detail in my book. I do, however, touch on it in the introduction, when dealing with what I see to be the origin of the name Orpheus from the Egyptian å?Irp t or Orpais, and I declare my agnosticism on the antiquity of these beliefs in Egypt.

Martin Bernal
Cambridge, England

Jasper Griffin replies:

Any reviewer of Professor Bernal’s book must be uneasily aware, as I was, that he is in the presence of an author who is likely to respond promptly to criticism. In answer to his points: I did not state that he is “merely concerned with the period c.2100–1800 BC.” What I said was that “Bernal regards as the crucial period c.2100–1800 BC.” That seems to me not unfair, as his assertion that Egyptians colonized Greece at a very early period, and introduced important elements of their language and religion, is both very different (as he emphasizes) from standard modern accounts and also basic to his interpretation of the next thousand years. The archaeological evidence is, as he says, not nonexistent, but it is very scanty, and most archaeologists explain the presence at Greek sites of scarabs and the like as traces of import from Egypt rather than settlement by Egyptians.

As for Herodotus: the “Father of History” is a complex and slippery writer as well as a fascinating one. His value as a source for his own time and for the recent past is in any case quite different, I think, from his reliability on events more than one thousand years earlier. The specific point about reincarnation is that Herodotus asserts with great emphasis that the Greeks got the doctrine from Egypt, the Egyptians being the first to invent it; yet in fact it was certainly not an Egyptian doctrine at all, but on the contrary incompatible with central features of Egyptian religion both in the early period and in Herodotus’ own time. If he could make such an assertion on a matter which was, at least where his own period was concerned, so easy to check, that shows how very cautious we must be in accepting, as Bernal does, his general assertions about the thought and philosophy of Egypt.

  • Email
  • Print