Black Athena Revisited Summary
by Mary R. Lefkowitz

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Black Athena Revisited Summary

Black Athena Revisited was published in 1996. It consists of a collection of essays edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers.

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The work is a response to the popular but wildly inaccurate Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1987, 1991, 2006), a work by Martin Bernal, a British scholar specializing in Chinese history. The main thesis of Bernal's book was that Greek civilization was rooted in Egyptian, Phoenician, and African influences rather than Indo-European ones. Bernal argues that such influences were underestimated due to racism and religious prejudice, especially among nineteenth-century Europeans.

There are three major problems with Bernal's work that are laid out in Black Athena Revisited. First, Black Athena tends to use ancient sources uncritically and is replete with factual errors. Second, it often advances arguments that attack positions few scholars hold or held (for example, the overwhelming majority of classical scholars acknowledge that there were strong relationships between Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other Mediterranean cultures). Third, while responsible scholarship strives to be nuanced and to examine degrees of influence, Bernal tends to argue for extreme positions instead of making limited and specific claims for various influences; rather than writing with nuance and leaving room for the inherent ambiguities of historical discussions, he tends to advance an all-or-nothing position.

Black Athena Revisited thus consists of complied works by leading scholars from various fields that examine different areas where Bernal's work is unreliable. Mary R. Lefkowitz herself provides an overview of ancient historiography and how one must carefully examine ancient Greek texts within their historical context. She addresses the problem of the unreliability of much of the ancient biographical tradition.

John Baines, David O'Connor, and Frank J. Yurco supply extensive discussions of the relationships between Greece and Egypt. Three chapters address the issues of race and nationhood in antiquity, showing how the Greek sense of cultural identity differs from the one in which Bernal grounds his concept of Afrocentrism. Chapters on the ancient Near East, ancient science, and linguistics are followed by three on ancient Greek culture. The final and longest section consists of six chapters on historiography—or the history of the reception of classical culture—showing that, while some philologists were indeed racist, many at least acknowledged the multicultural nature of the ancient Mediterranean.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The publication of the first volume of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena  in 1987 shook the very foundations of the classical world to its historical and archaeological underpinnings. In both this book and in a second volume, published in 1991, Bernal, a professor of political science and an expert on China, uses a wide range of arguments to call into question not only generally accepted views on the origins of Greek civilization but also the very methodological assumptions of the discipline. Bernal’s position, in brief, is that ancient Greece was colonized in the second millennium b.c.e. by Egyptians and Phoenicians and that ancient Greek culture was essentially Levantine, a mixture of Egyptian and Semitic influences. In support of this thesis, Bernal cites the witness of ancient Greeks themselves, especially the fifth century historian Herodotus, as well as Greek myths in which the Egyptian Danaus and the Phoenician Cadmus settle in Greece. Bernal ties these myths of colonization with hypothetical invasions of Greece, not only by the seventeenth century b.c.e. Hyksos rulers of Egypt, but also by the earlier, twelfth dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Senwosret I (1959-1914 b.c.e.), whom Bernal identifies with the Egyptian ruler Sesostris I reported by Herodotus to have led a major expedition as far north as the Black Sea. Bernal modifies this “Ancient Model” only to acknowledge an invasion of Greece by Indo-...

(The entire section is 2,395 words.)