Black Athena Revisited

by Mary R. Lefkowitz

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Mary Lefkowitz’s Black Athena Revisited, published in 1996, represents a collaborative examination of classicist Martin Bernal’s conjecture that white European historians have ignored (even suppressed) the African ethnicity of Greek gods. In response to Bernal’s radical reinterpretation of classical history and material culture, Lefkowitz and her Wellesley College colleague Guy Rogers solicited the efforts of some of the most preeminent classicists of their generation to refute Bernal’s claims, which they label amateurish. The book includes discussions of Greek linguistics, Egyptian migration to Greece, and even racism in historical scholarship. The volume adduces historical evidence as well as archaeological evidence from Crete and other Aegean sites.

In this volume several of us will show why Bernal’s etymology of Athens is highly uncertain and improbable, intrinsically no more persuasive than Hopkins’s attempt to derive Aphrodite from Nefertiti. Rather, as we shall see, none of Bernal’s other etymologies can offer a real challenge to what linguists have long since documented and maintained: that Greek is basically an Indo-European language, incorporating some loan words from its neighbors, primarily in the Near East.

This quote is from Lefkowitz’s opening chapter, which is titled “Ancient History, Modern Myth.” In it is evidenced the caustic and ad hominem nature of this book’s contents. The so-called “Black Athena” debate raged like few others in the history of classical scholarship. It spawned a sort of cultural shift to criticism and suspicion of the classics as a broader discipline. The debate took its name from Martin Bernal’s original book. Lefkowitz herself published Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History just one year after Black Athena Revisited. Elsewhere in the volume, Lefkowitz, herself a traditionally trained classicist, cites linguistic evidence to say that Classical Greek was derived from the Mycenaean Linear B and is neither cognate with nor derived from the Egyptian language.

For both the Middle and the New Kingdoms, the archaeological evidence, supported by texts from the New Kingdom, cannot easily be reconciled with the idea of an Egyptian colonial empire in the Syria-Palestine, as against cultural dominance in the Middle Kingdom, followed by political hegemony in a context of local political and cultural autonomy in the New Kingdom.

Lefkowitz cites archaeological evidence in addition to linguistic evidence. Essentially, Lefkowitz states that Mesopotamia exerted a stronger influence on Greek and Aegean societies than Egypt did.

Here as in other respects, Bernal’s basic strategy, of treating Egyptian and Levantine civilizations through their influence on the Aegean and classical world, has the opposite of its intended effect. He gives Egypt stature only in relation to a later and different culture and thus succumbs to the Eurocentrism he wishes to combat. Civilizations vary in character and achievement. If a past civilization is to be comprehended and given a fit stature, as Bernal wishes, it should not be seen through the medium of a different and later past civilization.

This is perhaps Lefkowitz’s most conciliatory argument; she essentially questions why scholars like Bernal are reluctant to acknowledge Egypt and Africa’s unique cultural histories.

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