The World Turned Upside Down

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume II, The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence

by Martin Bernal
Rutgers University Press, 736 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Professor Martin Bernal’s first volume of Black Athena, published in 1987, brought him instant fame as a defender of Semitic peoples and cultures against German Aryan-propagandists and other anti-Semites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time Bernal became, as he apparently hoped, the chief intellectual antagonist of those who have over the centuries refused to acknowledge the contributions that black Africa has made to the development of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and therefore to European civilization and to the Eurocentric education of Americans. Egypt, as a geographical mediator between Africa and the Mediterranean, was said by Bernal to be both black and Semitic.

That first volume of Black Athena contained some excellent, if brief, nineteenth-century historiography, especially of anti-Semitic German and French scholarship, and sketched the intellectual climate of the several generations between about 1780 and 1940. Professor Bernal was able to select a number of striking quotations from scholars of classical antiquity which might now seem prejudiced, tasteless, laughable, or simply misinformed.

Yet even for eager readers of Black Athena I it was not always easy to understand the nature of the anti-Semitism that so angered Bernal. Friedrich August Wolf, in his Prolegomena to Homer, was charged with representing the Iliad and Odyssey as oral poetry, a “Romantic” sin in Bernal’s view. George Grote influenced the teaching of history unfairly by beginning with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC and thereby excluding the Egyptian and Phoenician contributions to Greek culture in the Bronze Age—though the Bronze Age was not known yet in 1846. Thomas and Matthew Arnold were wrong to admire the classics, and German education, and ought not to have promoted “Victorian Hellenism.” J.B. Bury was at fault when he described the Spartans as refusing to intermarry with their helots, thus keeping their blood “pure.” Carl Blegen was wrong to suggest that Greece and Asia Minor may have shared common place names like Parnassus; he should have looked first to Egypt and Phoenicia. Rhys Carpenter was wrong—and had “sinister” motives—when he suggested that the Greeks did not adopt the Phoenician alphabet before the eighth century BC.

Still, even when they were puzzled, many scholars were attracted to the apparently evenhanded and refreshing survey in Black Athena I, with its often justifiable condemnation of the narrow-minded teaching of the classics that assumed the cultural superiority of the Greeks without reference to Egypt and the East. They waited with anticipation for the second volume, which was to offer the archaeological documentation for the belief that Egypt and the Levant inspired the culture of the Greeks.

Greek culture has often been perceived as “special,” and this has caused resentment in regions of the world whose art and literature and philosophy have not been so acclaimed. Black Athena I was a thoughtful exposé of how eminent German scholars like Wilhelm von Humboldt felt that “the Greeks” were superior: “Knowledge of the Greeks is not merely pleasant, useful or necessary to us …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

An Exchange on ‘Black Athena’ May 14, 1992