“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).
In that period, too, the idea that Egyptian thought was the source of Greek thought, and sojourns in Egypt the main inspiration of Greek philosophers, also came into disrepute. Bernal insists that the real reason for this change was not that more was actually known about Egyptian thought as a result of the decipherment of the Egyptian language. As he puts it, “I find it more useful to see the denial of Egyptian monotheism as part of the process in which the racism and Romantic Hellenism that prevailed in Classics and ancient history as a whole took over in Egyptology.” Maspero and the others were fundamentally wrong to suppose that because they could read the texts that previous centuries could not read, “anything written about [Egypt] before Napoleon’s Expedition and Champollion’s decipherment had no relevance whatsoever.”
Three hundred years after Plato’s death, a Roman source said that he had made a journey to Egypt, at the death of Socrates, “in order to learn.” In doing so, of course, he followed in the footsteps of many earlier Greek thinkers, some of them mythical. Bernal is convinced that Plato really went there, and he accepts the view of some of Plato’s ancient critics that he had “copied Egyptian institutions” in his Republic (“the only reason for doubting that his Republic was based on Egypt is the fact that he does not say so in the text”). What was it, then, that Plato got from Egypt for his great work? “The caste system” is the only thing Bernal mentions; and that wears a very particular appearance in the pages of Plato. Those who praised the stability of Egypt emphasized that the priests devoted their entire lives to study; Plato insisted that his philosopher guardians must make the great sacrifice, “return to the cave,” and then take their turn in governing the rest of us. And apart from anything that can be brought under the heading of a caste system, the Republic contains arguments about justice, arguments about poetry, arguments about epistemology, and a view of existence after death that has as its center the doctrine of metempsychosis, rebirth of the soul in other forms, animal or human.
The “argument from silence” that such things were not in fact to be learned among Egyptian priests, even in the most unlikely event that they knew Greek or Plato knew Egyptian, is a deafening one. And the last point will make the argument even clearer. Herodotus, the most Egyptophile of all the Greek writers, tells us specifically that
the Egyptians are the inventors of the doctrine that the human soul is immortal, and that at the death of the body it passes into one animal after another; when it has been through them all, animals of land and water and air, it passes back into a human body. This circuit takes 3,000 years.
But the fact is that the doctrine is very un-Egyptian. The Egyptologist A.B. Lloyd observes: “Herodotus is certainly mistaken in attributing the Greek doctrine of palingesia [rebirth] to the Egyptians.”3 Siegfried Morenz, in his Egyptian Religion,4 emphasizes the centrality for Egypt for a belief quite incompatible with the idea of the immortal transmigrating soul:
The idea of the living corpse was basic to Egyptian thought and was tenaciously maintained. For it was precisely this which lay behind the constant awareness of death, the often costly concern for a proper burial, and the feasts in common with the dead in tombs. Of all the Mediterranean lands it is in Egypt that this idea was preserved most tenaciously and where it had the greatest consequences.
And the high-brow Egyptian alternative was the idea of “becoming Osiris,” the dead person being absorbed into the substance of the god: again, something completely different.
Herodotus, then, ascribed to the Egyptians a set of ideas familiar in Greece but radically un-Egyptian. This seems to me a test case. Greeks were happy to attribute things to the Egyptians without any kind of real warrant to do so. Bernal emphasizes that Greeks were a people, then as now, proud of their national heritage and often scornful of foreigners: he infers that such a people would not have attributed important inventions to foreigners falsely, at the cost of national pride. But he overlooks another very Greek motive: the desire to excel, to outshine and do down one’s immediate Greek rivals and predecessors. Herodotus, who gaily grants so much to the Egyptians, preferred to do that rather than give any credit to his Greek forerunner Hecataeus; in fact, in the Egyptian book of his History he gleefully tells us what a fool Hecataeus made of himself in Egypt, and how the Egyptians derided him. That is what the Greeks call phthonos, which is only feebly rendered in English as “envy.” No other Greek word or concept is of more extensive significance.
The Egyptians served as a stick with which Greeks beat other Greeks. Pythagoras an original thinker? He picked up his ideas in Egypt! So did Plato! And Homer too! Thus it is that the Egyptians came to be credited with sciences and religious views, not in accordance with their actual accomplishments, or even with their interests, but in line with Greek polemics against other Greeks. Time passed, the polemical points were blurred, and the Egyptians came to be the possessors of an abstract and generalized reputation for wisdom, about whose contents little or nothing was known. The impressive aspect of ancient Egypt, then as now, was the imposing size and antiquity of its monuments. Greeks were struck like modern tourists by the sight of them—a sense too little mentioned by Bernal. The people who had constructed such works must have had a philosophy to match, and so we find ourselves, at the end of this centuries-long tradition, with that sonorous Egyptian windbag, Sarastro in The Magic Flute. He dwells in the Temple of Wisdom, he goes through his business with a grave face, he is hailed as a sage, but he has nothing in particular to say. That kind of reputation could easily persist, but the claim that such a tradition has more value than reading actual Egyptian texts has a disconcerting resemblance to a claim that the venerable speculations of the alchemists belong in the textbooks of science, or the Unknown Southern Land on globes of the world.
The disregard of what people saw, and the insistence on very early datings, produce the paradox that Bernal barely mentions the field where Egypt clearly did have a powerful impact on Greece: the visual arts. Archaic Greek statues have an obvious dependence on Egyptian models, and Egyptian buildings influenced the conception of the Greek temple. But that influence made itself felt after 800 BC, far too late for Bernal’s thesis, and it required no knowledge of abstruse doctrines.
Bernal makes many other provocative claims. He is convinced that the Greeks acquired their alphabet far earlier than modern scholars believe, about 1500 BC, while most scholars now date the alphabet to the eighth century BC. Bernal’s argument fits with his view that at that early date there were Semitic colonies in Greece; the standard view is that the Greeks picked up the alphabet centuries later, in the East. The argument is a technical one, concerned with letter forms. There are difficulties in the standard view, but Bernal’s alternative involves accepting that the Linear B script, totally different in principle—syllabic, not alphabetic—and very unsuited to the Greek language, was introduced and used while the older and better script was already present. The dreaded argument from silence returns, too, in an acute form. After 750 BC the Greek alphabet suddenly spreads and develops with great rapidity and in a short time is adopted and adapted by the Etruscans. Yet for nearly one thousand years we should have no evidence of its existence. And the poetry of Homer becomes baffling: if recent work on Homer has proved anything, it is that the Iliad and Odyssey are essentially oral in style and emerge from an oral culture. Yet for Bernal the idea of an illiterate Homer is just a Romantic illusion, and he implies that the poems were composed in a society which had had the alphabet for centuries.
A number of etymologies are offered of Greek words and place-names that are said to derive from Egyptian and Semitic roots: Mycenae comes from Mahanayim, “Two Camps”; Lacedaemon (Sparta) is etymologized in Greek as “The Howling/Gnawing Spirit,” that is, the Egyptian jackal-god Anubis. Athens and the goddess Athena derive from the Egyptian goddess Nt or Neit, in the form Ht Nt, “Temple of Neit.” A second volume is to contain many more derivations. These suggestions are hard to judge at this stage. The form of argument used in support of them, as Bernal acknowledges, is not the one that is usual in the discussion of Greek.
During the last two hundred years it has been laboriously established in Indo-European philology that etymologies are not simply a matter of finding a resemblance between one word and another. Regular patterns, “laws,” govern the changes of vowels and consonants. Bernal exploits resemblances that seem, so far at least, not to be a matter of laws but ad hoc in each case. Bernal observes that “Hellenists are too refined for such work.” As he disarmingly puts it, his examples will be “appallingly crude to Hellenists.” I think acceptance of Bernal’s argument for his etymologies will depend on his producing some intelligible rules for their formation.
Athena, then, is to be taken as originally Egyptian, according to Bernal; but is she also black? Bernal is anxious that his Egyptians shall be, as far as possible, not just in Africa but actually black Africans. As he says, a number of black Americans have for some years regarded Egypt as a cultural ancestor, a great culture whose people were black. Bernal mentions with warm approval some books in this black American tradition, produced outside the university establishment, and he shares their goal of establishing that Egypt was both a seminal civilization and black. But he is aware of two difficulties. First, these black writers show, as he says, “a general hostility to Semitic culture” and to claims that it was influential. Bernal is aware that in the case of early Greece such claims of Semitic influence now find much easier acceptance among professional scholars than claims for such influences from Egypt would, and he is anxious to rebut anti-Semitic, as well as anti-black, prejudice. “One aspect of my work,” he writes, “is an attempt to reconcile these two hostile approaches.” The reader hears an echo of modern politics.
Secondly, there is the question whether the ancient Egyptians really were black. Bernal is aware that most writers, from antiquity to the present, have not thought so; and he is too sophisticated to be entirely at ease with a racial categorization. Yet it seems emotionally important that the answer to the question should be yes. He finds a formulation that in a remarkable way both questions the thesis that the Egyptians were black and reaf-firms it:
To what “race,” then, did the Ancient Egyptians belong? I am very dubious of the utility of the concept “race” in general…. I am even more skeptical about the possibility of finding an answer in this particular case. Research on the question usually reveals far more about the predisposition of the researcher than about the question itself. Nevertheless…I believe that Egyptian civilization was fundamentally African…. Furthermore, I am convinced that many of the most powerful Egyptian dynasties…were made up of pharaohs whom one can usefully call black.
That reads strangely. “Race” is not a useful concept, especially in this case, yet the civilization was “fundamentally African” (puzzling phrase), and to call many pharaohs black is “useful”—just as it is “useful” to see the denial by the historians of Egyptian monotheism as caused by racism. The choice of adjective seems to emphasize that these are, in large measure, value judgments rather than statements of fact. I am reminded of William Blake, who believed that the “stolen sublime” of Homer and Virgil derived from the Old Testament; that, too, was a matter of conviction. The negative parts of Bernal’s book show how often scholars have confused facts and value judgments; the positive part exemplifies the same relation in a different way. With so much at stake, in self-definition and racial pride, it is likely that the struggle over the identities and the relations among Greeks, Egyptians, Semites, and black Africans will be a long one.
June 15, 1989
Anzeiger für Altertumswissenschaft, Volume 41 (1988), p. 125. ↩
Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Literatur und Religion (Heidelberg Academy, 1984). ↩
Commentary on Herodotus’ History, Book 2: Volume 3, (London: E.J. Brill, 1988), p. 59. ↩
English translation by A.E. Keep (Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 198. ↩