Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Reviewed on March 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

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

Illustration of PDF document

Download Black Athena Revisited Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2018

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- European speakers in the fourth or third millennium b.c.e.

In the “Revised Ancient Model” of Black Athena, Bernal emphasizes an Egyptian and Phoenician presence in Greece and argues that a significant portion of the ancient Greek language is Semitic or Egyptian in origin and that the sources for most of Greek culture can be traced to the Egyptians and Phoenicians. As suggested by both the title of Black Athena, as well as its subtitleThe Afroasiatic Roots of Greek Civilization, Bernal’s view of Greek culture is essentially an externalist one which weighs contributions from the Near East and Egypt more heavily than those of the Indo-Europeans. Much of the archaeological and documentary evidence for this “Revised Ancient Model” appears in the second volume of Black Athena, where Bernal cites irrigation works around Lake Kopais in Boeotia and a pyramid-like hill in Thebes as proof of an Egyptian presence in Greece in the third millennium b.c.e. A third volume on linguistic evidence and an unspecified fourth volume are promised by the author.

Bernal’s quest for external sources for Greek civilization is not entirely new. Scholars have long acknowledged foreign, especially orientalizing, influences on Greek culture, and recent archaeological and historical work has provided increasing confirmation that Greek civilization developed in the midst of dynamic trade and cultural exchange in the eastern Mediterranean. Such widely accepted scholarly explanations often differ from Bernal’s only in emphasis. Where Bernal tends to see invasions and colonizations, other scholars acknowledge no more than trading contacts, but the interaction of various Mediterranean cultures, including Greek, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, and Egyptian, has rarely been doubted. For scholars of the ancient world, the question has not been so much whether Greek civilization was influenced from the outside, but how these influences took place and from what part(s) of the Mediterranean. Were they based upon conquest, as Bernal suggests, or were they part of extended and broad cultural exchange? Did this influence go only in one direction or did the Greeks leave their marks on other early cultures?

If Bernal had only dealt with these historical questions, the reaction to his work would have been much more muted. However, in the first volume of Black Athena, aptly subtitled The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, Bernal broadens the debate to include historiography. He wounds the pride and questions the professionalism of scholars of the ancient Mediterranean by tying his “Revised Ancient Model” to suggestions that the historical methodology of modern European scholarship, especially its objective and scientific analysis of the ancient evidence, has been flawed for centuries by racial bigotry and anti-Semitic assumptions. Bernal argues that the original “Ancient Model,” unchallenged by Europeans until the eighteenth century, was displaced in the nineteenth century by an “Aryan” one centered on the Indo-Europeans in order to avoid sharing any of the glory that was Greece and the splendor of Western civilization with a “black” Egypt or a Semitic Near East.

Scholarly and public reaction to Black Athena has been swift and loud. In 1989 Bernal defended his thesis at a colloquium sponsored by the American Philological Association. Some of the papers read at this colloquium were published in the same year as The Challenge of “Black Athena,” edited by M. M. Levine and J. Peradotto. Lefkowitz, the coeditor of Black Athena Revisited, has been especially prominent in this debate. She introduces this volume with “Ancient History, Modern Myths,” an essay which originally appeared as “Not Out of Africa” in The New Republic in 1992. In 1996 she published Not Out of Africa, which grew out of the earlier article and which raises a number of objections to Bernal’s diffusionist view of the ancient Mediterranean.

Black Athena Revisited, which Lefkowitz edits together with a colleague in the Department of Classics at Wellesley College, brings together responses to the Black Athena controversy by professors of Egyptology, archaeology, Classics, linguistics, German, Near Eastern Studies, the history of science, and history. All of the fields represented by these scholars have been affected in some way by Bernal’s thesis. While some of the contributors are somewhat sympathetic toward Bernal’s general premise and purpose, nearly all question the validity of his methodology and his interpretation of the literary, archaeological, and linguistic evidence. The twenty contributions are organized thematically under the headings Egypt, race, the Near East, linguistics, science, Greece, and historiography. Readers new to the Black Athena controversy will appreciate the presence in Black Athena Revisited of several chronological charts, maps, and site photographs.

The contributors to Black Athena Revisited challenge Bernal on a number of fronts. His disregard of the influence of Mesopotamia on the Mediterranean is especially highlighted. Mesopotamian science, mathematics, astronomy, and even governmental structures were so important in the ancient Mediterranean that Bernal’s African or Levantine model could easily have been a Mesopotamian one instead. Such widespread cultural exchange actually argues for a Mediterranean model.

Bernal’s Egyptian etymologies for Greek words are also questioned in Black Athena Revisited. Although Bernal can read hieroglyphics, his attempt to derive the name of the mythic Cretan king Minos from the Egyptian god Min or the goddess Athena from Egyptian Hwt-Nt (House of Neith) is doubted convincingly by Egyptologists.

Another criticism of Bernal which contributors raise in Black Athena Revisited is his acceptance of Greek myths at face value. Bernal uses the story of Danaus, who migrated from Egypt to Greece, as evidence of Egyptian colonization of Greece, yet, as a descendant of the Greek woman Io who goes to live in Egypt, Danaus can also been seen as the descendant of a Greek colonist to Egypt.

Contributors to Black Athena Revisited also draw attention to two recent archaeological discoveries which cast into doubt Bernal’s model of Egyptian colonization of Greece and which, in fact, may suggest just the opposite. At an Austrian excavation of the ancient site of Avaris (Tell el-Dab’a), once the Hyksos capital of Egypt in the Nile Delta, a 1991 discovery of fragments of Minoan painted frescoes strongly suggests a Minoan presence in Egypt, and even some cultural influence, at the very period when Bernal hypothesizes an Egyptian colonization of Greece. This pattern is reenforced by the discovery, also in 1991, of a painted Minoan floor with flowers from the sixteenth century b.c.e. at Tell Kabri in Israel.

Even Bernal’s impression that white racism and anti- Semitism were dominant among European historians from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries is called into question in Black Athena Revisited. Several contributors prove Bernal to have quoted historians of the period out of context and to have overlooked other prominent scholars, such as Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who had strongly antiracist views. The picture is thus much more complicated and ambiguous than Bernal suggests.

Such is the case, especially, in regard to the racial and ethnic questions implied by the title Black Athena. Bernal himself admitted at the American Philosophical Association colloquium in 1989 that his publisher changed the book’s original title, African Athena, for marketing reasons. Bernal himself apparently accepts the equation of the terms “Egyptian,” “African,” and “Black” which this title suggests. Contributors to Black Athena Revisited, however, cite ample evidence that the population of ancient Egypt was stable from Neolithic times, with little evidence for significant ties with the peoples of sub- Saharan Africa. Furthermore, the racial and ethnic self-identity of the ancient Egyptians does not support a “black” Athena hypothesis. The people of ancient Egypt tended to distinguish themselves from the darker-skinned peoples to the south and the lighter-skinned peoples to the north and to consider themselves “Egyptian” rather than “African” or “Black.”

Indeed, the very identification of “Africa” and “Black” in the context of ancient Egypt unfortunately ties Bernal’s challenge with modern ideological issues of race which blur the historical reality and perspectives of anyone attempting to deal objectively with these issues. Bernal’s condemnation of racism and anti-Semitism, especially among some nineteenth and twentieth century historians is certainly legitimate, but his revisionist history of the origin of Greek and Western culture has imposed a false sense of legitimacy upon a school of pseudohistorians, especially in the United States and Africa, who have blindly claimed that all cultural, technological, and scientific accomplishments of the West have been stolen from a black Egypt. The subtitle of G. G. M. James’s Stolen Legacy (1954), The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians, illustrates this claim, for which the essays in Black Athena Revisited offer no support.

Bernal’s challenge is not directed to scholars alone. In volume 1 of Black Athena, he admits that he hopes his work will diminish the cultural arrogance of Europeans (and Americans). Yet, contributors to Black Athena Revisited argue that, in trying to identify an African (Egyptian and Phoenician) source for European civilization, Bernal has unwittingly reenforced the very Eurocentrism he has struggled to undermine. An unspoken premise of his book is that African civilization can only celebrate its greatness to the extent that it is the source of Western civilization. That is, only Europe matters in the end. Bernal’s African model is, in itself, based on racist assumptions.

As a modified diffusionist, Bernal rejects the possibility of evolutionary autonomy in the Mediterranean. Like many nineteenth century comparative mythologists who searched for an Ur-myth, a single source myth for all later myths, Bernal assumes the existence an Ur-Kultur, an original culture which was a common parent of at least the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks. It is also possible that the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean worked out their accomplishments independently.

The contributors to Black Athena Revisited offer a balanced response to Bernal’s work. While questioning some of his conclusions and his methodology, they welcome his fresh interpretations of the evidence as an opportunity to reconsider long-standing assumptions about the ancient world and the origins of Western civilization. Bernal’s revisionist history offers an Afrocentric alternative to a traditional, Eurocentric view of history. The contributors to Black Athena Revisitedtake Bernal’s work one step further. By emphasizing the multicultural nature of the ancient Mediterranean world they argue for a more wide-ranging view of human history. The roots of Western civilization are not merely Greco-Roman. They are also Egyptian, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Mesopotamian. Black Athena Revisited is not the end of this debate, only one of many noteworthy mileposts on a long, multicultural quest.

Sources for Further Study

American Journal of Archaeology. C, October, 1996, p. 781.

Library Journal. CXXI, May 1, 1996, p. 108.

The Nation. CCLXIII, October 28, 1996, p. 42.

New Scientist. CL, June 22, 1996, p. 45.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, June 20, 1996, p. 67.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 25, 1996, p. 6.

The Wilson Quarterly. XX, Spring, 1996, p. 79.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Next

Themes