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An Exchange on ‘Black Athena’

In response to:

The World Turned Upside Down from the March 26, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Vermeule is quite right to describe my Black Athena II as a “whirling confusion” [NYR, March 26]. One reason for this is that I spent rather less time and effort on it than she—and other reviewers—suppose. The other reason is that for much of the Bronze Age, the Aegean was a “whirling confusion.” The difficulties involved in any historical reconstruction are made still greater by the patchiness and incongruity of the evidence. There is no doubt then, that Black Athena II is in many ways jumbled and difficult to find one’s way around. Having said this, however, I am disappointed that Professor Vermeule should have made so many mistakes in her reading of it.

While her review contains too many of these for me to cite them all, I should like to point out a few of her errors. She claims, for instance, that I believe that there was an Egyptian conquest of Boeotia during the Old Kingdom. This is indeed the view of the archaeologist T. Spyropoulos. However, while I do see evidence of Egyptian contact with Boeotia at this time I argue that “the chances that it took the form of a direct colonization are very low” (p. 152). She claims that I view the Cretan palaces as solely Egyptian, whereas in fact, I refer consistently (pp. 158–162) to influences from the whole of the Middle East. Professor Vermeule also maintains that I do not consider the Egyptian sense of geographical polarity of north and south, but I do, see pp. 251–253.

More significantly, she states that I have “an endearing faith in the absolute historical value of Greek myths.” This is not so. Throughout my writings I have made it quite plain that I believe that the essential function of myth is to explain and justify the present. However, I also maintain that as myths and legends do sometimes contain valid historical information they should not be disregarded. That is why I wrote in the introduction to Volume II that “I believe that where ancient sources converge and are not controverted in Antiquity, one should take their schemes as working hypotheses” (p. 25). Naturally, before accepting such working hypotheses they should be checked against other sources, contemporary documents, archaeology, linguistics etc. and this is what I have attempted to do. I am not the first person to do this; it has been the method of many distinguished archaeologists of the 20th century.

This leads on to a more substantial objection to Professor Vermeule’s review, her claim that I see “the entire profession of Bronze Age Aegean and Classical archaeologists…as ignorant, prejudiced, and racist.” It is true that I am entirely opposed to the extreme isolationist views of Colin Renfrew and his supporters who deny that the Aegean received any substantial outside influences after the beginning of the Neolithic. However, while these ideas have been very influential during the past 25 years, they do not represent the more balanced views of what I believe to be the mainstream of East Mediterranean archaeology of which Professor Vermeule is a distinguished representative.

Black Athena II is dedicated to the early 20th century archaeologist Gordon Childe and, with the single exception of my hypothesis about Senwosre/Sesostris’ conquests in Anatolia and the Caucasus, all my specific claims have been based on suggestions made by professional archaeologists or ancient historians.

Professor Vermeule herself has indicated that Egyptian officials were present in the Aegean during the Old Kingdom. Other scholars have suggested the Near Eastern colonization at the foundation of the Cretan Palaces—I do not go so far. However, I do follow the encyclopedic and insightful ancient historian, Eduard Meyer, whom Professor Vermeule and I both admire, when he maintained that the Hyksos had occupied Crete.

Professor Vermeule is shocked by my suggestion that the warriors buried in the Shaft Graves may have been Hyksos princes. This is in fact a respectable minority position set out in the relevant article of the canonical Cambridge Ancient History. She is sceptical about my dating the great Thera eruption to 1628 rather than 1500 but this is now the majority opinion among the relevant experts. One of the reasons why the redating is significant is because frescoes buried by the island’s eruption now have to be seen as coming from the time of the Egyptian 2nd Intermediate Period rather than from that of the New Kingdom, when substantial contacts between the Aegean and the rest of the East Mediterranean are generally admitted. Most of the scholars who have published work on them agree that the Theran frescoes portray a highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan society reflecting Minoan, Egyptian and Levantine influences, and we now know that they were painted at a time when the Hyksos were the dominant power in the latter two regions.

This picture of considerable cultural contact around the East Mediterranean in the 17th century BC has been confirmed by the frescoes of a Cretan type, referred to by Professor Vermeule, that have recently been found at the Hyksos capital of Avaris and Tel Kabri in the Galilee. As I mention on p. 437, there is no doubt that during much of the 2nd millennium BC, Cretan art was admired throughout the Middle East. However, we know that the chief language in use among the Hyksos was West Semitic and it is quite likely that a Semitic dialect was spoken in Minoan Crete. We also know that the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt took on many aspects of Egyptian culture. Hence, it is not wildly speculative to suggest that Semitic and Egyptian vocabulary and religion could have been introduced to the Aegean during this period.

To repeat, my work is not a rejection of the “entire profession.” I am merely following early 20th century scholars like Sir Arthur Evans, Eduard Meyer and Gordon Childe who worked on the very reasonable principle of “modified diffusionism.” Where I differ from them is in the belief that influences from the Near East continued long after the Aegean was inhabited by Indo-European speaking “Hellenes” and therefore had a major impact on later Greek civilization.

There are three major reasons for this difference and why I believe that we should update the work of these great scholars; firstly, there is the need to discount the racism and anti-Semitism to which they were inevitably exposed by their intellectual environments. I am convinced that while they were open to the idea of early Near Eastern influences on the Aegean, these made them disinclined to see Semitic and Egyptian influence on Hellenes. Secondly, there is the knowledge, made certain by the decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s, that the language, proper names and religion of the Late Bronze Age Aegean were Greek. Thus, there is every reason to suppose that Near Eastern influences on the Aegean during the Mycenaen period would have affected the later civilization of Archaic and Classical Greece. Thirdly, there are the striking archaeological discoveries of the past quarter century, notably the Gelydonia and Kas shipwrecks and the Theran and other frescoes. These indicate that during many centuries of the Bronze Age, the cultures of the East Mediterranean need to be seen as parts of of an interlocking economic and political system in which it was easy for substantial cultural exchange to take place. Furthermore, given the greater age, wealth and political power of Egypt and the Levant, the predominant flow was likely to have been from the South East to the Aegean.

Martin Bernal
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Emily Vermeule replies:

Professor Bernal’s letter: “She claims, for instance, that I believe that there was an Egyptian conquest of Boeotia during the Old Kingdom.”

Alarmed at my own carelessness, and thinking he had said something of the sort, and had also claimed Hyksos rule in Greece in the second millennium BC I checked again.

Professor Bernal’s book: “the 18th century BC, when I believe there to have been Near Eastern settlements in Greece” (p.4); “The sophistication of these [Boeotian third millennium] dikes and tunnels was at a level only achieved in the Mediterranean basin at that time in Egypt”; “the cult of Athena on the southern shore of [Lake] Kopais…can be traced to the cult of Athena’s Egyptian counterpart Neit as an organizer of water” (p. 15); “there was at least Egyptian influence if not Egyptian presence” (p. 17); “Egypt was the most likely source of the expertise necessary” (p. 18); “The [river] name Pheneos or Pæneios…which occurs throughout Greece…would seem most likely to come from the Egyptian P3 Nw(y) (the flood)” (p. 19); “significant Egyptian, and to a lesser extent Levantine, influence on Mainland Greece as well as the Aegean in the 3rd millennium BC” (p. 20); “an Egyptian settlement in Attica would certainly fit the general pattern of the Sesostris’s campaigns” (p. 32); “the fundamental Egyptian and Semitic influences on Greek culture…. Some of these can be dated to the 3rd millennium or still earlier” (p. 57); “This Egypto-Phoenician ancestry was also the reason why later Spartan kings believed themselves to be akin to the Jews” (p. 60).

Still, to be fair, Bernal very often hedges or undermines his own assertions; “while there may have been some form of Egyptian suzerainty over some of the Aegean states, there is no evidence to demonstrate that these influences were the result of Egyptian colonization” (p. 78). How, then, suzerainty?

To continue, “the Egyptian and West Semitic aspects of many Boiotian myths” (p. 79); “massive Egyptian-style granary… near Tiryns”; Lerna “may have been a sophisticated state heavily influenced by Egypt in the Argolid” (p. 124); “suzerainty a possibility and diplomatic relations…a virtual certainty” (p. 152); “there would seem to be a plausible case in favour of at least indirect Egypto-Levantine colonization” (I am not clear on what indirect colonization means here); “the colonizations, or the wave of Egypto-Levantine influence, took place at the beginning of the Hyksos period in the late 18th century” (p. 363); “it was less painful for patriotic Greek writers to see their country as a hospitable receiver of refugees than as a victim of conquest” (p. 364); “expeditions set out for and conquered Crete, the Cyclades and the fertile plains of Southern Greece” (p. 406); “Written evidence indicates that in every region the Hyksos ruled the native script remained in use” (p. 407); “the documentary evidence of close contact—particularly between the upper classes—if anything increases the likelihood of earlier colonization” (p. 445); “the century 1475–1375 seems to have been one of Egyptian suzerainty over the Aegean” (p. 451).

Bernal also writes: “Greek tradition raises the possibility of an Egyptian influence, if not hegemony, over Mycenae, the greatest city in Greece” (p. 475); “it is likely that Egypt exercised some kind of hegemony over the region” (p. 476); “the survival of an Egyptian cult at Eleusis” (p. 479); “This would have given Egypt an economic as well as a politico-military and cultural hold over Mycenaean Greece” (p. 487); “in this period…the amalgam of local Indo-European with Egyptian and Levantine influences that we call Greek civilization was first and lastingly formed” (p. 494); “Thebes, the seat of the last of the original Hyksos dynasties” (p. 495); “the Egyptian or Egyptianizing Amphion and Zethos in the middle of the 3rd millennium” (p. 497).

On the same page (497) Bernal refers to “migrations and conquests that actually took place” and also says “the fact that there is no archaeological sign of a settlement or conquest does not provide an insuperable objection.” He also writes of “the name Minyan—the other inhabitants of Boiotia—which is from the Egyptian mniw (herdsmen)” (p. 518) and he goes on as follows: “The flourishing society of late Mycenaean Greece appears to have arisen as the result of this Egyptian hegemony” (p. 521); “these [third millennium] works and buildings look so ‘Egyptian’ that Egyptians may well have been involved in them, either in positions of authority or as experts or both” (p. 524); “considerable areas of Greece were dominated by Semitic-and Egyptian-speaking dynasts and…these high-status cultures and languages had a critical impact upon the formation of both Greek and Greece” (p. 525).

If I have misread the tendency of these remarks, I apologize. Those who seek a reliable guide to the matters discussed by Martin Bernal should read Sarah Morris’s book Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton University Press, 1992).

To the Editors:

Emily Vermeule errs in attributing to Lucifer the lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

But all was false and hollow, though his tongue
Dropp’d manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest counsels…

These words in fact are spoken by Belial, the most beautiful of all the fallen angels and one whose speech before the counsel in Hell Milton describes as “words cloath’d in reasons garb,” a description which seems appropriate to Professor Vermeule’s criticism of the book being reviewed and its author.

Earl L. Dachslager
University of Houston
Houston, Texas

Emily Vermeule replies:

I am ashamed at having misquoted Milton, for it is certainly Belial at Paradise Lost II.112, and I thank Professor Dachslager warmly for steering me back to the true text. Perhaps it would have been more reasonable to have compared Professor Bernal to a somewhat cloudy Miltonian dawn, as at the opening of Book V: > Now morn her rosie steps in th’Eastern Clime
Advancing, sow’d the Earth with Orient Pearle

VII.126 or XII.588 offer other possibilities.

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