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Black Athena

Published on 19th November 2017

Evaluate the evidence surrounding the Black Athena debate.

The debate surrounding the Black Athena is a complex, multi-layered argument that developed from theorists across history, philosophy and social rights movements who have evaluated the evidence first put forward by Martin Bernal in his book: Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785- 1985, 1987. However, whilst Bernal expected some backlash nothing prepared him for the level of critique and debate that grew from his ideas. As I will argue in this essay, Bernal’s idea wasn’t necessarily a new one yet, whilst he argued that Ancient Greece influence stemmed from  Ancient Egypt, his mythology was weak.[1] Bernal argues that the reason why this credit wasn’t given was due to the racism of European countries and the diseases of ‘Egyptomania’, ‘barbarophilia’ and interpretation Graeca.[2] Bernal believed that these concepts deluded many, that the Egyptians and Phoenicians had in fact influenced Greece and thus its origins belong in these areas, rather than one of Indo- European base. Throughout this essay I will evaluate the debate that has now entered into its 30th year, drawing on key theorists that have examined the larger debate and its context within society. Bernal’s argument has been the key starting point, but the response from the Classicist, Mary R. Lefkowitz, has turned his argument into a debate with many other scholars weighing in on both sides.

The key concept in Bernal’s theory lies within his models of Ancient Greece, in which he claims the Ancient Model of Greek History was disrupted by racism and thus, the proposed “Aryan Model” emerged.[3] Bernal argues that before the Aryan Model was taught and accepted by scholars, the Greeks of classical and Hellenistic periods believed their religion came from Egypt.[4] Bernal argues that the reason this concept was dismissed came from the ideological forces of racism that ignored a Greek background of Africa.[5] Bernal believed that around 1500BC the Egyptian and Phoenicians had civilized the native inhabitants and thus, the main influence of this came from Africa rather than northern Indo-Europeans.[6] Bernal goes on to explain that by looking through linguistics Ancient Greek can be seen “as an admixture of Ancient Egyptian and West Semitic, both of which belong to the Afroasiatic language family.”[7] This very brief explanation highlights elements that started the massive debate that many Classicists had problems with. However, we also began to see why the debate generated so much attention as Bernal underestimates the fascination with Egypt. He ignored the extent in which the first model had encountered a brief revival in the beginnings of the twentieth century as a result of Sir Arthur Evans' discovery of the Minoan civilization on Crete with its close ties to Egypt.[8] Through this there are valid interpretation of the origins of Greek culture and the popularity of Egypt after the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1820s by Jean Francois Champollion, when the foundations of modern Egyptology were laid. Bernal’s limitations are constantly contested as he doesn’t look at the Greek influence on Egyptian thought, particularly in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The latter possibility is especially significant because alleged Hermetic influence on Platonic philosophy played an important role in the argument of Black Athena.[9]

Bernal admits and even claims his advantage over the situation by confessing to being new to the context. He argues that as a theorist of Chinese linguists it allows him to look at the picture with a wider eye, without being burdened by the knowledge of the Classics. Whilst arguably it does allow for Bernal to engage with the daunting theoretical and methodological issues that Lefkowitz isn’t able to, Jacques Berlinerblau points out that the first time anyone heard of the Ancient Model, it was in Black Athena.[10] Thus, it is necessary for excessive evaluation of his content. However, Berlinerblau comments, even though Lefkowitz is quick to debate, she isn’t able to and he “implores her and other to “handle this issue with greater precision and less sensationalism.”[11] We see that Lefkowitz repeatedly condemns Bernal for being weak with his mythology, yet, consistently does the same. This is clearest in the two theorist’s arguments where they reference the Ancient Greek Herodotus’ accounts of King Sesostris expansion into Asia and Europe. Bernal is very critical of modern Classicist writers, yet will take ancient writers words of truth, ignoring the context of the time they may have been written in.[12] The analytical text that both Bernal and Lefkowitz use to argue their point is laden with personal accounts, which relied much on an interpretation of his sources, phrases like “it seems to me;” “having thought;” “in my opinion.”[13] There is limited explanatory power as Bernal’s own interpretation of the ‘Revised Ancient Model’ comes down to three constructed events: “Herodotus' theory of the Egyptian origins of Greek religion, stories connecting several Greek heroes with Egypt and the Near East, and claims that various Greek artists and intellectuals studied in Egypt.”[14]

Burstein adds to the debate important elements that Bernal should have included in his side of the debate and that Leftkowitz should have acknowledged, such as examples of borrowings from Egypt which I feel prove that Ancient Greece, did in fact, have its beginnings in Ancient Egypt.[15] These include the method of weighing the souls of the death; the geography of the underworld; archaic Greek sculptural canon of proportions in the Hippocratic cranial surgery; Greek philosophy and that of Thales ideas of cosmology and his theory of the earth floating on a great sea.[16] Within this list also comes evidence that ships trading as Egyptian artefacts did reach Mycenaean Greece as faience plaques with cartouches of Amenhotep 3 have been found at Mycenae which may have even been made in Greece by resident Egyptian craftsmen.[17] By Bernal not including these points it highlights his amateurism; for Lefkowitz’ case it could potentially highlights something more serious, such as under-lying racism, however, fundamentally it proves her inadequacy to evaluate the debate. 

Nothing proves this more than this contradictory quote from Lefkowitz: “there is no archaeological or linguistic indication that the Egyptians invaded Greece... or were established in Greece.”[18] Lefkowitz seems to believe there is no evidence of significant Egyptian contributions to Greek thought or language. Yet, Lefkowitz argues that Bernal’s argument would have been strengthen if he had included illustrations of the frescoes depicting bull-leaping from the palaces at Knossos and Thera; or the archaic Greek statues that replicate the stance of Egyptian figures, or compound animals on sixth-century Greek vases that seem to be inspired by Near Eastern archetypes.[19] She clearly has evidence that disproves her statement. So why doesn’t she look for more evidence to strengthen a global investigation into the Black Athena debate?

Lefkowitz goes on to use Herodotus accounts within her examples against Bernal. So, whilst she claims Bernal is weak in his mythology she employs the same techniques. She argues that whilst Herodotus may have recorded the names of the Egyptian kings; described the pyramids; and remarked on the Ancient Greek God’s names similarities from Egypt, Herodotus didn’t say anything about the Egyptian features in archaic Greek or language.[20] She observes that he wanted his audience to respect the “barbarians” and their customs, and not to regard them as culturally and morally inferior, yet, they had many contrasting habits.[21] Lefkowitz believes this was because Egypt was a strange and foreign culture reinforcing that the Greek and Egyptian were different cultures and did not have the same origins.[22] Lefkowitz contests that Bernal can falsely rely on mythology and etymology, whilst at the same time doing the same. Lefkowitz reveals that in some elements she agrees with Bernal, but doesn’t see Egyptians as African but rather their roots in the Semitic countries.[23] Interestingly, Walter Burket’s theory fits in here, after looking at all influences around Greece he believes there are many examples of cross-cultural diversification.[24] He believes this is due to the Persian wars where there was a change in cultural barriers as the Persians stopped right at the Greek world, thus, creating the frontier between Asia, Africa, and Europe.[25] So, whist Lefkowitz’ own accounts on Socrates being truly an Athenian to be accepted by an Athenian culture may be true; there is little proof to secure the colour of his skin.

This debate of the colour of the Egyptians and thus, the Greeks has generated much of the discussion and Bernal’s argument of racism became one of the key elements that made this debate so intense. His reflection is a complex way to look at our history and our own fascination with constructs such as ‘Egytomania’ that reflect back on to our colonialist history and the fascination with the ‘other’. The excuse to glorify the ‘other’ and reduce ancient cultures into primitivism allowed for slavery to exist and Western domination. The theorist Stanley M. Burstein in his article “The Debate over Black Athena” examines Bernal’s theories and reflects on the constructs of 'oriental' and 'African' influences on ancient Greece. Burstein contends with the omission of history behind this was because “scholars imbued with the romantic, nationalist and racist attitudes of twentieth century European culture.”[26] Dan Flory conducted his own line of historiography in this field and finds philosophy was not exempt from racist precedents.[27] Thus, the Afrocentric ideology came to impact the Black Athena debate. Part of this stems from the name of Bernal’s books itself, by naming Athena as black, rather than African as was first posed, the argument becomes about culture rather the race. By leaving Athena’s origins in Africa the argument can be contested to a colonised construct, of lines on maps becoming something that came with colonisation. Sally Riad and Deborah Jones argue that “the blanket term Africa homogenizes, even masks, the extensive and intense pluralism in its constitution;” thereby, “when you consider blackness in Africa it’s vastly different from its forms in America or the diverse Caribbean.”[28]

Molefi Kete Asante, a key Afrocentric theorist to the debate, critiques the scholars who fail to examine the evidence of racism in the Classicist field. In response to Lefkowitz’ Black Athena Revisited, 1996, Asante argues that she fails to look beyond her field for evidence of Egyptian influence on the Greeks. He argues that Kathryn Bard treads most heavily into this arena by misunderstanding the meaning of Kmt. She argues that the word does not mean "Land of the Blacks" in a society sense, rather it refers to the dirt.[29] She ignores the debate that has now been going on for nearly one hundred years by European Egyptologists. Asante argues that Kmt is usually spelled with a “determinative that means society, nation, town, place.”[30] Therefore, could be translated into writings as "Black Nation" or "Black society," or literally "our society." In Bard's essay, we also find a discussion of the painting where by different nations bring tribute to Thutmoses III from Rekmire's tomb. Asante uses this example to remind us that whilst the Nubians and Egytians were from different societies the evidence of the same complexion depicted in the painting, along with the same clothes, the societies may have been more comparable to France and Germany.[31]

Bernal has opened the field for a serious look into not just Ancient Greek historiography but the historiographies of all the histories and philosophies this dense field has impacted. Fagan reinstates the enormity of the challenges provided “prime demonstration to students in information literacy classes of the importance and complexities of authorial bias, epistemology, and critical thinking.”[32] Bernal’s ability to bring the historiographical argument out of scholar community is a great example of the usefulness of the debate and Lefkowitz response illustrates the explosive nature of the contexts in the 1990s. This has allowed the debate to be opened up to anyone, which whilst has brought its own limitations, but fundamentally has allowed for a discussion of diversity in universities.[33] To conclude on my evaluation of the debate of Black Athena, the argument has attended far beyond these two theorists, the Black Athena debate is now one of social impact and justice rather than simply a Classicist debate. Just as Bernal wanted to, the debate surrounding the racism in the historiography of Ancient Greek has been opened and other theorists can now offer new evidence that suggests many links between Ancient Greece and Africa. However, much more evidence is needed to finish the debate so until then it can be used as a reflection on the historical momentum of the Classics.

Bibliography

Asante, Molefi Kete. “Black Athena Revisted: A Review Essay. Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers.” Research in African Literatures, Indiana University Press. Vol. 29 (1) Spring, 1998, pp. 206-210

Berlinerblau, Jacques. Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ and London.1999, pp.1- 13, 23- 38.

Berlinerblau, Jacques. “Black Athena.” The Times Literary Supplement. March 9, 2001. pp. 17.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785- 1985. Rutgers University Press. 1987. pp. 1- 38

Bernal, Martin. “Very Brief Outline of the Black Athena Project.” Black Athena Websitehttp://www.blackathena.com/outline.php

Bowersock, Glen. “Rescuing the Greeks.” The New York Times Book Review. February 25, 1996. pp. 6-7.

Burkert, Walter. Babylon Memphis Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass and London, UK. 2004 .pp. 1- 15

Burstein, Stanley M. “The Debate over 'Black Athena'” Scholia: Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 5. 1996. pp. 3-16.

Cartledge, Paul. “Black Athena Defends Herself.” The Classical Review, vol. 53, no. 1, 2003, pp. 238–239.

Fagan, Jody Condit. “The Black Athena Debate: An Annotated Bibliography.” Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. Vol.23(1). August 3, 2004, pp.11-48

Flory, Dan. “Racism, Black Athena, and the Historiography of Ancient Philosophy.” Philosophical Forum 28, no. 3. 1997. pp. 183-208.

Kristeller, Paul O. “Comment on Black Athena.” Journal of the History of Ideas, University of Pennsylvania Press. Vol. 56 (1) Jan, 1995. pp. 125-127

Leach, Edmund. “Aryan Warlords in Their Chariots.” London Review of Books. April 2, 1987. pp. 11.

Lefkowitz, Mary R “Classicists and the "Black Athena" Controversy The Classical Bulletin” Periodicals Archive Online. January 1, 1999. pg. 187

Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Guy McLean Rogers, eds. BlackAthenaRevisited. University of North Carolina Press. ChapilHill and London. 1996. pp. ix- 23

Lefkowitz, Mary.Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History. New York: New Republic and Basic Books. 1996.

Lefkowitz, Mary. “Ethnocentric History from Aristobolus to Bernal.” Academic Questions 62. 1993: pp. 12-20.

Riad, Sally and Jones, Deborah. "Invoking Black Athena and its debates: Insights for organization on diversity, race and culture", Journal of Management History, Vol. 19 (3). 2013. pp. 394-415

[1] Martin Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785- 1985, Rutgers University Press, 1987.

[2] ibid pp.7

[3] ibid pp. 1-38

[4] Martin Bernal, “Very Brief Outline of the Black Athena Project,” Black Athena Website.

[5] ibid

[6] Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785- 1985, pp. 1

[7] Bernal, “Very Brief Outline of the Black Athena Project”

[8] Stanley M. Burstein, “The Debate over Black Athena” Scholia: Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 5, 1996, pp. 6

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jacques Berlinerblau, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals. Rutgers University Press, 1999 pp. 33

[11] Jacques Berlinerblau, “Black Athena.” The Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 2001. pp. 17

[12] Berlinerblau, op. cit. pp.36

[13] Burstein, op. cit pp.14

[14] ibid pp.15

[15] Burstein, op. cit pp.7-8

[16] ibid

[17] E. Cline, 'An Unpublished Amenhotep 3 Faience Plaque from Mycenae.' JAOS 110, 1990 pp. 210.

[18] Mary R Lefkowitz, “Classicists and the "Black Athena" Controversy” The Classical Bulletin; Jan 1, 1999; 75, 2; Periodicals Archive Online pp. 188

[19] ibid

[20] Mary R. Lefkowitz, and Guy McLean Rogers, eds. BlackAthenaRevisited. University of North Carolina Press. ChapilHill and London. 1996. pp.15-17

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[23] ibid pp. 20-22

[24] Walter Burkert, Babylon Memphis Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture, Harvard University Press, 2004, pp11

[25] ibid

[26] Stanley M. Burstein, op. cit pp. 3

[27] Dan Flory, “Racism, Black Athena, and the Historiography of Ancient Philosophy,” Philosophical Forum 28, (3) 1997, pp. 183-208

[28] Sally Riad and Deborah Jones, "Invoking Black Athena and its debates: Insights for organization on diversity, race and culture", Journal of Management History, Vol. 19 (3), 2013, pp. 404-5

[29] Molefi Kete Asante. “Black Athena Revisted: A Review Essay. Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers.” Research in African Literatures, Indiana University Press. Vol. 29 (1) Spring, 1998, pp. 208

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Jody Condit Fagan, “The Black Athena Debate: An Annotated Bibliography.” Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. Vol.23(1). August 3, 2004, pp.12

[33] Riad and Jones, op. cit pp.396