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Professor Martin Bernal's explosive book Black Athena examines the African origins of Greek civilization, and convincingly indicts 19th-century scholars for constructing a racist "cult of Greece" based upon a purely Aryan origin for Western culture.

He accuses these classicists of suppressing the numerous connections between African and Near Eastern cultures and early Greek myth and art. Martin Bernal challenges the whole basis of our thinking about this question. Classical civilization, he argues, has deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures. But these Afroasiatic influences have been systematically ignored, denied, or supressed since the eighteenth century - chiefly for racist reasons.

However, it should be said that the underlying premise of Bernal’s findings where already discovered and highlighted in 1954 by George G.M. James, a university professor in America, in his classic book Stolen Legacy. It, unfortunately, received a lot less attention, but nevertheless still remains essential reading for any serious scholarship on the African influence on Greek culture.

Nevertheless, Black Athena is not without its critics, leading classical scholars, on the other hand, contend that Bernal, like the 19th - century classicists he attacks, uses evidence selectively, uncritically and historically to support his own Afrocentric agenda. They argue that cultural diffusion alone can't account for the distinctive achievements of the Greeks during the Classical Period. However, scholars such as Professor Molefi Kete Asante contend that: “Africa's influence on ancient Greece, the oldest European civilization, was profound and significant in art, architecture, astronomy, medicine, geometry, mathematics, law, politics, and religion.” He further contends that “there has been a furious campaign to discredit African influence and to claim a miraculous
birth for Western civilization. A number of books and articles by white and some black conservatives seek to disprove the Egyptian influence on Greece.”

The popular view is that Greek civilization was the result of the conquest of a sophisticated but weak native population by vigorous Indo-European speakers - or Aryans - from the North. But the Classical Greeks, Bernal argues, knew nothing of this "Aryan model." They did not see their political institutions, science, philosophy, or religion as original, but rather as derived from the East in general, and Egypt in particular.

Black Athena is a three- volume work. Volume 1 concentrates on the crucial period between 1785 and 1850, which saw the Romantic and racist reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the consolidation of Northern expansion into other continents. Bernal makes meaningful links between a wide range of areas and disciplines - drama poetry, myth, theological controversy, esoteric religion, philosophy, biography, language, historical narrative, and the emergence of "modern scholarship." Martin Bernal was a Professor Emeritus of Government Studies at Cornell University; and he was also formerly a Fellow at King's College, Cambridge. Sadly, he passed away in 2013.


Martin Bernal challenged the very core of Western thinking when he argued that classical civilization has deep roots in African cultures. Bernal was a Professor Emeritus of Government Studies at Cornell University; and he was also formerly a Fellow at King's College, Cambridge, England before he died in 2013.


This film offers a balanced, scholarly introduction to the disputes surrounding the explosive book Black Athena.


By Walter Cohen

Walter Cohen: Black Athena is the center of a massive research project begun about fifteen years ago. Could you explain its scope and argument?

Martin Bernal: The project is on the origins of ancient Greece; it's both historiographic and historical. I set up two accounts for those origins, which I call the Ancient and the Aryan models. We've been schooled in the Aryan model, according to which Greek civilization is the product of conquest from the north by Indo-European speakers, or Aryans. This differs from the accounts by Classical Greeks, who say their ancestors lived in idyllic simplicity until people from Egypt and Phoenicians arrived, built cities, sometimes conquered the local population, and introduced civilization. Volume one is initially concerned with establishing this Ancient model, showing that most Greek descriptions of their distant past fit into this scheme, and seeing how this model fared from early Christianity through the eighteenth century.

Q. How did it fare?

A. Up to 1800 there was little questioning of the Ancient model. Egypt's reputation actually soared in the eighteenth century as the center of Freemasonry and rationalism.

Q. As evidenced by representations on dollar bills, for instance?

A. Yes. The pyramid and the eye, the layout of Washington, D.C., the Egyptian symbolism in the Washington monument-all attest to strong Egypto-Masonic influence, particularly on the founding fathers. Masonry was also very influential in the French Revolution, and I think this is one of the reasons for the violent reaction against the Egyptians after 1815. Masonry was seen as a source of revolutionary, secular, antireligious ideas, and of course it contradicted the revival of Christianity that you find in both Catholic and Protestant countries after 1815.

Q. What other forces came into play against Egypt?

A. Even earlier, in the 1780s, German academics in the new, professionalized universities began to argue that the Greeks had invented philosophy. This was a very bold move to make, particularly because of the unanimous opinion that they had learned philosophy from the Egyptians. So you get some fiddling with the meaning of "philosophy" and redefinitions of it. It was hard to make the case of Greek origin, but it was done. To sum up: the fall of the Ancient model, which dates from the 1820s and 1830s, was due to external forces- Romanticism, the revival of Christianity, and, underlying everything, a persisting racism.

Q. Let's take up a couple of these points. What about Romanticism?

A. There was clearly the desire, at least in Germany, to connect intellectual activity and temperate climates. For the Romantics, the idea that cold climates promote thought is absolutely central. They built on the Classical tradition that northern or mountain peoples are more virtuous-as found in Tacitus's Germania, for instance. But Aristotle was quite clear that though such people might have been braver and perhaps more virtuous, they were less intelligent than southern peoples, whereas the Greeks were, happily, in just the right position-the middle-and therefore had the virtues of both. Now in the eighteenth century, you begin to get the idea that the farther north or up the mountain you go, the better people are-not merely in the virtues of simplicity, but also in the virtues of high and pure thought. That's something I experienced as a student. We went on walking parties in the Lake District, we went to the North and up the mountains, and we went to Switzerland. We thought that Cambridge was better than Oxford because the wind was sweeping down straight from the Pole. The idea that the cold helps the brain cells was and remains quite powerful. Thus there had to be some way to explain how the Greeks, who were now so admired, should actually have been living around the Mediterranean. So the Romantics placed their origins as far north as possible. The Greeks, or Hellenes, were formed in more demanding climates and preserved this northern essence even in comfortable Greece. This argument becomes increasingly biological, even though in the beginning it was cultural.

Header: Janiform aryballos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek, ca.520-510 B.C.E. Greek, Attic. Louvre Museum, Paris.

Top row: (1) African youth, 4th century B.C.E. Greek, Attic. (2) George GM James, author of Stolen Legacy, lecturing to students at the University  of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, ca. 1954.  (3) Young African in Hellenistic Greece. National Museum in Athens, Greece. (4) African warrior at the battle of Troy. c.a.540 B.C.E. British Museum in London.

Bottom row: (1) Janiform kantharos, 480–470 B.C.E. Greek, Attic. (2) Africans in Greek mythology. (3) Par wine jug and aryballe of Africans, Greek. (4) Terracotta mug in the form of a black African.

Q. Could you say a little bit more about the consequences of this particular brand of racism?

A. Egypt's presence on the continent of Africa was awkward for northern Europeans, who had to be systematically racist after the introduction of race-based slavery.

Q. But slavery is obviously a big business long before 1820. Its heyday is the eighteenth century, and it faces serious challenges by 1820. Could you clarify the time scheme?

A. For a long time it was possible to exempt Egypt from racist denigration. There were three options in viewing it. Either Egypt was civilized but not part of Africa (and hence was white), or Egypt was part of Africa but not civilized, or best of all, Egypt was neither black nor civilized. During the Enlightenment people essentially took the view that Egypt was civilized and white. We can see that in The Magic Flute: Egypt is the source of philosophy and civilization. But it is also strikingly white, and in fact the contrast is drawn very categorically by contrasting the high priest of Isis and Osiris with his black slave, who is seen as wicked and the child of his passions. Now it's true-and I miss this in my book-that in the original full libretto, Monostatus's behavior is specifically said to be the result of his slavery, not his color. But this is left out of the standard libretti, and the overall image is of the "lustful Moor," as opposed to the rational white master. The Romantics claimed exactly the opposite-that Egypt wasn't civilized. Winckelmann argues that one reason why Egyptian art is so bad is that the Egyptians only had ugly people to draw, and he then proceeds to give a stereo-typical, grotesque image of blacks. So you had these alternatives being practiced.

Q. So much for the decline of the Ancient model. What comes next?

A. During the late 1830s and into the 1840s the Aryan model was introduced. Though the fall of the Ancient model took place for purely externalist reasons, the rise of the Aryan one had a large internalist component: scholars recognized the existence of the Indo-European language family, of people who once spoke a proto Indo-European language, and, plausibly, of a homeland north of Greece for these people.

Q. So the Aryan model required a prior erasure of the Egyptians but not the Phoenicians?

A. By the 1880s there was an effort to remove even the Phoenicians. The paroxysm of anti-Semitism came after 1917, with the identification of the Russian Revolution with Jews. This affected the historiography of ancient Greece and led to what I call the extreme Aryan model. I have set up two subcategories- the broad Aryan model, which claims, "Egyptians, no; Phoenicians, maybe"; and the extreme Aryan model, which says, "Egyptians, no; Phoenicians, no. Just Greeks. And the northern influence on Greece." In the 1950s some secular Jewish scholars argued, "One must think in terms of common Mediterranean cultures in the second millennium B.C." I like to believe that the Holocaust shocked classicists. But I think the establishment of Israel as a bastion of the Western world and the accompanying incorporation of Jewish culture in the "Judeo-Christian" tradition had a greater effect. Furthermore, the military triumphs of Israel meant that the Greek traditions of Phoenician conquest no longer seemed absurd. Thus, I believe that we are returning to the broad Aryan model. But I advocate what I call the revised Ancient model, which is my absorption of a few elements from later scholarship, notably the Indo-European nature of the Greek language, into the Ancient model.

Q. And the subsequent volumes of Black Athena?

A. They develop the revised Ancient model. I have treated archaeology in the second volume. That leaves language for volume three and mythology for volume four.

Q. Would you summarize the revised Ancient model?

A. The revised Ancient model sees Indo-European as a subset of a larger family called Indo-Hittite, which includes all the European languages plus the Anatolian languages, of which Hittite is the best-known example. Indo-Hittite languages spread into the Aegean from Anatolia with the introduction of agriculture. Then this culture moved into the Balkans, and the language of the Balkan civilization of the late sixth-early fifth millennium was Indo-Hittite. The steppe cultures of the fourth millennium also spoke Indo-Hittite. It's in those areas that Indo-European in the narrow sense develops as the language of a culture which was both agricultural and nomadic, in the area that's now the Ukraine.

Q. And that culture became Indo-European by deviating over time in its language from that of the Anatolian homeland?

A. Yes. All Indo-European languages derive from this language or cluster of dialects that disintegrated in the fourth and early third millennia. That language spread by migration in the third millennium. Probably it reached mainland Greece-not Crete-in the later third mellennium. So Greek is an Indo-European language.

Q. What of Crete?

A. By around 2000 B.C. it had a distinctive and mixed culture, but the religion had a largely Egyptian base and the language was probably Semitic. In the late eighteenth century B.C., there's an irruption in southwest Asia of the Hyksos movements, which had a Hurrian, possibly Indo-Aryan (eastern Indo- European) core, but was essentially a Semitic movement into Egypt.

Q. Does that mean Semitic in numerical majority or leadership?

A. Semitic in numerical majority and in the bulk of the leadership. The analogy that I would draw here is the invasion of the western empire in the fifth century A.D., in which Huns and Turks had some role, but the essential

component was Germanic. The Germans had always been on the Roman frontier, so the main cultural influence in France and Spain was Germanic. Similarly, I think the predominant influences entering Egypt at this time were Semitic. These barbarians then took to the sea. I believe the Hyksos, now largely Semitic in speech and Egyptian in higher culture, conquered or set up a hegemony over Crete. This extraordinary, eclectic material culture was pushed onto mainland Greece, where a cosmopolitan, stratified society arose. The predominant cultural flow was clearly from the southeast, from developed and sophisticated civilizations. But what hit Greece was very heavily Cretanized.

Q. The Hyksos culture when it reached Greece is what we call Mycenaean culture?

A. That's right. I think it survived in Greece for five hundred years because there was no indigenous high culture to reassert itself.

Q. Is the main borrowing of Egyptian and Semitic words into Greek from this period, or is that just the beginning?

A. The main period is the seventeenth century. Egyptian was then the "Latin" of the eastern Mediterranean, and therefore sophisticated terms tended to be Egyptian. The majority of place names, of divine names are Egyptian rather than Semitic. I don't want to push this too far, but to draw an analogy with the Norman Conquest, Egyptian is Latin and Semitic is Norman French.

Q. And Greek is English?

A. Exactly. But it is also evident from the phonetic changes that took place in the various languages that there were repeated introductions of the same word-a pattern seen very clearly in Japanese, where Chinese loans made at different stages sound very different. But in the Japanese case you just get a series of different pronunciations of the same character.

Q. Here you're describing material from volume three of Black Athena, which is in the works?

A. It's in the works, with some time off. I'm trying to write a popular version, a straightforward textbook, with little historiography, one that is accessible to freshmen and sophomores. It will span the origins of Egypt to Alexander the Great and will be based partly on articles I've written on the origins of the polis and notions of freedom. I place the Greek idea of freedom in its Near Eastern context and, developing the conventional belief that freedom as an important value is introduced with "slave society," I argue that "slave society," and the notion of freedom both originate in Phoenicia rather than Greece.

 African people have a visable presence in Greek mythology. Photo courtesy of Runoko Rashidi.

Q. You've now published three books on the subject Cadmean Letters and two volumes of Black Athena as well as various articles. In the preface to volume two of Black Athena, you speak of "devoting the second half of my life to this project." Is that how long you expect it to take?

A. I think volumes three and four will take eight to ten years. Then I'm not sure. Perhaps learn astronomy in order to explore the influence of Egyptian and Mesopotamian science on Greek culture-although the Mesopotamian case has already been made. On the other hand, there's a temptation to "march on Rome," to look at some Semitic influences on the formation of the city. Many key place names-like Rome itself and Tiber-have plausible Semitic origins and very implausible Indo-European ones. The Phoenicians were trading down the west coast of Italy in the seventh century and almost certainly in the eighth.

Q. It does put a slightly different twist on things to imagine the battle for control of the Mediterranean in the third and second centuries B.C. as a struggle between two Phoenician colonies?

A. Well, the natives gained slightly more control in Rome than in Carthage. But if one looks at the constitution of Rome, it's closer to the constitution of Carthage, as described by Aristotle, than it is to that of any other Italian city or any Greek city. So there is something to that.

Q. Your mention of Rome, regardless of its ancestry, raises questions about the centrality of Greece for Western civilization. Certainly, that is the way Western civilization has been taught. But there isn't anything historically inevitable about that, is there? Greek civilization was venerated and admired by Western European intellectuals in the Middle Ages, but they didn't know much about it?

A. And on the whole, they felt that Greece was inferior to Rome.

Q. The shift begins in the late fifteenth century, but it's a pretty gradual one. It isn't until the eighteenth century - the period you're primarily concerned with - that Greece triumphs?

A. That's right, but there's no doubt that there are substantial Greek components in Roman civilization. Through Rome, Greece reached western Europe; and it reached eastern Europe directly through the Byzantine church. So Greek culture has a pivotal role in the development of European culture as a whole.

Q. All I meant was not that Greece was unimportant for European civilization, but that the particular status accorded to it ...?

A. ... is exceptionally high.

Q. And that status does not much depend on Greece having been a conduit of earlier civilizations or having passed through other cultures that modified it?

A. I think that's absolutely right: Greece is not unmodified Egyptian culture, nor is Rome unmodified Greek culture. There are interesting modifications going on all along the way. But I'm not sure what the ideological significance would be. I think it would be a broad and antiracist message.

Q. Let's consider this matter of your message, then. You've talked about the racism of the Aryan model. What's at stake in the argument-considering that the second millennium B.C. is a specialized area, from which almost no books are read? What contemporary positions are you arguing against? Why do you consider it important to argue against them?

A. In volume one, I didn't bring out the influence of Allan Bloom on my work. Coming into Telluride, a scholarship house at Cornell, where his influence and the whole Straussian cult of Greece were still felt strongly, made me realize the reactionary potential of the Romantic interpretation of Greece.

Above images: (1) Kemetic King Nymare Amenemet III or Memnon. Memnon was the stupendous African general and warrior-king who displayed courage and prowess at the Greek siege of Troy. One of the most widely circulated and celebrated epics in the annals of Greek and Roman mythology.(2) Kemetic King Kepre Kare Senwosret I, 12th Dynasty (or the legendary Kekrops or Sesostris according to the Greeks). In Black Athena Martin Bernal credits this African with the founding of the Greek city state Athens. (3) African in Hellenistic Turkey. (4) Kemetic High Priest Imhotep (referred to as Asclepius, the god of medicine, by the Greeks.) He is described as "the world's first multigenius." Imhotep, by all accounts, was a brilliant architect but his architectural prowess was superseded by his brilliance as an astronomer, philosopher, poet and physician. He was recorded in history as the world's first physician, a title that was later bestowed upon a Greek named Hippocrates who was born some 2,200 years later.

I had been brought up in Cambridge, where the classicists were stuffy liberals, but not harmful in any sense. But here, though this was the mid-seventies, I suddenly saw a potential for the extreme right-wing intellectual  movement that didn't actually take power until the 1980s. One of the first students I met when I set foot in the house was Francis Fukuyama, who has more recently made his reputation with his essay (and now, book) celebrating American democracy as the true realization of the Hegelian ideal of the end of history. I asked him about Japan, and he didn't want to know. The European provincialism in Telluride was a provocation that set me going. This was because I had looked forward to finding in America an openness to East Asia-which was my area-that I didn't see in  England.

Q. But will it matter much if you win the argument - given our system's ability to neutralize heterodox ideas? After all, you' re primarily concerned with events that occurred between three thousand and four thousand years ago, and you' re living in a society with a rather modest concern with history. Though you spend considerable time delineating the racist treatment of those events in scholarship of the last two centuries, why couldn't a nonracist treatment be comfortably assimilated without major consequence?

A. Five years ago you said to me, "You put in these non-European elements, but you still have a certain European something' that synthesizes things." All I could answer then, and all I can answer now, is that it's a step forward. But I think it is an important one for blacks, who have been told, "There are no-and never have been any-black civilizations." The implication is that there never can be: "You blacks are inherently uncivilized, and if you want any civilization you must become like us whites." I think recognition of Egypt as an African civilization with a central role in the formation of Greece-the critical culture in the making of European civilization-changes black self-perception. To put it another way, I hope to oppose this view to negritude-Leopold Senghor's notion that black Africa is feeling and Greece is intellect.

Q. Has your sense of the project changed over the past fifteen years. Since you've just mentioned "black perception," how do you see your work in relation to contemporary African-American thought?

A. Well, Afrocentrists have appropriated the name Black Athena. In some ways I'm very pleased to provide ammunition for them.

Q. You seem to be distancing yourself here from Afrocentrism, and you've opposed negritude. Would you say a little more about your positions on these matters?

A. I am not an Afrocentrist because I do not believe that all good things come from any one continent. However, I have a number of points of agreement with Afrocentrists. I believe that humans in Africa have been very culturally productive and that African cultures have had a major impact on those of other continents. I also agree with them that there has been a systematic playing down of these contributions. On a political level, I believe that the dangers of Eurocentrism are far greater and more urgent than those of Afrocentrism.

Q. Do you see any political consequences for African-Americans?

A. Many blacks gain psychological satisfaction from Egypt now. In a way this is a retreat from political action. I see this as part of a larger social phenomenon. The mood described as "political correctness" is antidefamation writ large. It's sensitivity to deprived groups. I find it entirely admirable, but that this should be the key issue shows how little is going on in radical politics.

Q. Can this kind of satisfaction be expanded beyond the African-American community?

A. Yes. Liberal America may come to look at Greece as a parallel to a diverse America. Greece's culture was nearly as diverse as modern America's. Although this view can probably be turned into some melting-pot image, at least it will be a melting pot with many more flavors in it. And my reference to "political correctness" indicates yet another way in which my sense of the project has changed in response to new conditions. I'm delighted that volume one has been a thorn in the flesh of the crusade against "political correctness." It has been the more damaging volume of the two because it shows the heavily politicized and specifically racist character of conventional wisdom, of Classics.

Q. But if there were no volume two with a detailed alternative model, you'd leave the way open for that typically American response: "We used to have it wrong; now we've got it right. Those people were racists, we're not."?

A. The fact that Classics was conceived in racism and anti-Semitism doesn't falsify the Aryan model. But right-wing crusaders against "political correctness" assert there was once objective scholarship, which radicals have polluted by adding politics to it. It's an absurd claim, but it's getting wide coverage. Volume one demonstrates and they're not really denying this-the overwhelming influence of unsavory, specifically racist politics on the formation of the modern discipline of Classics. That's the main damage to the crusade.

Q. Attackers of "political correctness" have defended the Great Books against the new barbarians who supposedly don't teach them. You cut across that debate, providing a different angle on Great Books. How would you position yourself, or at least your work, here?

A. "Great Books" is such a loaded term. What I object to is the reverence with which they're approached. One should look skeptically and creatively at them. It's strange that I should start using capitalist metaphors, but I see study of the humanities as a marketplace of ideas, rather than as a shrine, which is what the New Right wants it to become.

Q. You've talked about the motivation and the impact of Black Athena. More generally, who were or are your intended audiences? Do they differ from book to book?

A. Volume one was written for the cultivated lay public.

Q. To an American ear that sounds like a British category?

A. Well, then, for an American ear: it was written for New York Times readers. Since I thought I couldn't persuade

the relevant academics, my strategy was to outflank them by reaching a group that could influence them. My unspoken assumption was that most of the readership would be white. So there were two surprises. One was the way blacks took it up; the other was that academics were more open to the book than I'd anticipated.

Q. One of the issues your comment raises is the role of the mass media. The New York Times did not review volume one of Black Athena and all but ignored it. It published a prompt, if cool, review of volume two, and soon followed that notice with highly favorable responses to your work in a front-page news article on multicultural education. Newsweek made Afrocentrism its cover story for 23 September 1991. The last of its sequence of articles on the subject was a basically sympathetic summary of your research, together with some respectful criticisms of

it, a large color photograph of you, and - what one would have thought almost impossible - an exaggerated account of your linguistic competence. How do you assess this recent tendency, if it is that? And do you feel you have reached that cultivated lay audience?

A. Not until recently. But last year there were a number of articles in the popular press and reviews of volume two, including the one in the New York Times that you mentioned and another in the Washington Post. Somehow a breakthrough has occurred. I think that it results from Afrocentrism rather than Black Athena. As I've said, I'm not an Afrocentrist, and I have difficulties over this, but in another way it's been a stroke of luck. For instance, Leonard Jeffries, a professor at CUNY who has become the symbol of radical Afrocentrism and "Black Racism," put a copy of Black Athena on New York Mayor David Dinkins's desk. It's getting sensational, in a way. And also, volume two gives a solidity to volume one.

Q. From what I've seen, the situation is getting increasingly complex. You're now cited in the New York Times as a respectable, serious, and, above all, white scholar whose work lends credibility to some Afrocentrist claims. But in virtually the same (printed) breath, your distance from Afrocentrism is emphasized, so that, at least for the moment, your work becomes a moderate norm against which radical and self-interested deviation may be measured?

A. I should not exaggerate the extent of my respectability, either in the disciplines concerned or in the media. I am seen as a moderate Afrocentrist. Hence liberals put me on the side of the angels. Conversely, political and academic conservatives-these categories do not always overlap-see me along with other Afrocentrists as diabolical.

Q. What about the more narrowly academic response in general (not just conservatives), beginning with classicists?

A. I misjudged the field of Classics, seeing it as a hostile monolith. I hadn't noticed its internal tensions or dissident constituencies. One is a group I'd never considered - Latinists, who feel that Hellenists have been lording it over them for eighty years. Some Latinists have helped me enormously. Second, women in Classics are exploited, and they have a great deal of resentment. The key panel on Black Athena at the American Philological Association was organized by a woman, and three of the four panelists were women. There's also the "tyranny of philology." Literary critics, art historians, and archaeologists are terrified of the philologists, who have a core position in the discipline. Therefore, that I should shake philological foundations gives other classicists a certain Schadenfreude. So all sorts of schisms made the field far from unified in its hostility toward me. And this complex response from within Classics again shows the crudity of my sociology of knowledge.

Q. The sociology of knowledge is a topic about which you have had a lot to say. You've cheerfully acknowledged that you have had to revise your views. But when you speak of the crudity of your sociology of knowledge, does that crudity occur at the methodological level, or did you just get the facts wrong?

A. I think I got the facts wrong. Black Athena is a broad project, I just couldn't give enough attention to each aspect of it, and I didn't do enough analysis in this particular area.

Q. Volume one puts your opponents on the defensive- not just because it's a learned and well-executed book, but because of the danger of someone repeating the racist behavior of the past. Reception is fundamentally what it is about. Your readers and reviewers have surely been conscious of the analogies between their own responses-to the origins of Classical civilization, to your view of those origins-and the prior 2,500 years of interpretation of the subject that you analyze. Is the relationship between contemporary and previous reception one of parallelism, influence, or something else? That is, most of the classicists who were skeptical of your work before it was in print are people who don't know Afroasiatic languages and thus are in no position to pronounce on this issue. Now I wonder: is it your sense that this has been a factor in the response or not? What do you think of this phenomenon?

A. There are two levels to this response. One is the scholarly feeling: "He's probably wrong, but we can't show it, because we aren't in control of the data." Another is that people who are liberals in their political beliefs, but traditionalists within Classics, don't want to be seen as conservative or racist. I was very strongly advised by friends-true friends, in this case-to do the historiographical volume first, rather than the language or the archaeology volume, in order to shake the authority that I was challenging. Then I was in a stronger position to relativize the authority of Classics.

Q. In the years before the first volume of Black Athena appeared, your ideas and preliminary presentations elicited considerable skepticism and even hostility from specialists. Has that changed? Where is the field right now?

A. There was an initial attempt to say, "Well, maybe the early classicists were racists and anti-Semites, but that didn't affect their scholarship." But this line couldn't be sustained. The relevant fields would now admit: "Yes, he's very likely right in volume one. We accept his historiography. We don't accept his history." But even on history, ground has been given. "Yes," specialists say, "there was substantial Near Eastern influence on Greece in the Bronze Age." So there's been a big shift since Black Athena came out. I can claim some of the credit, but by no means all. The current battle is on colonizations, and I expect one on language.

Q. Were you surprised, then, to find these concessions combined with snide incompetence in the hostile review of volume two by the distinguished Classical archaeologist Emily Vermeule (the New York Review of Books, 26 March 1992)? I'm referring, on the one hand, to her attribution to you and rejection of positions you never take, indeed specifically reject yourself, and, on the other, to her systematic failure to summarize either the arguments or the evidence you offer in support of the positions you do adopt. Do you think the obvious specialist defensiveness of her response, the urge to stand up for the profession, helps explain her remarks?

A. I did not expect such a violent response from Emily Vermeule. In her Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, she wrote about outside influences on Greek views of death during the Bronze Age: "The natural source for such influence was Egypt. . . . The mechanics of transmitting some of the Egyptian ideas and some physical forms to Greece is not at all clear yet." I provide some clarification of this problem and she is appalled. It now seems that Black Athena has posed unbearable threats both to her Classical background and to her archaeological professionalism. Her feelings about this are clearly intense. You can see that in her image of me as a seductive Lucifer, or Belial, a fallen angel puffed up with pride challenging the heavenly hosts of classicists and archaeologists. It is a wonderful picture. Such strong feelings obviously made it hard for her to read the book she was supposed to review. This can partially explain the extraordinary number of errors and misrepresentations of my work in her piece. Many of these are trivial. My grandfather wrote a grammar, not a dictionary, of Ancient Egyptian. I did not, as she maintains, claim to derive the name Hiketai ("Suppliants") from the Egyptian IJ b )st Hyksos. I merely argue that there was paranomasia between Hyksos and Hikesios, the title of Zeus the "Suppliant." The more substantial misrepresentations, which come from a desire to caricature my work to make it more vulnerable, include her claim that I have "an endearingly childlike faith in the absolute historical value of Greek myths." As I have written many times, I am convinced that the principal function of myths is to explain and justify the present, not to chronicle the past.

However, many myths do contain historical information, and therefore I believe that they should be taken into account in conjunction with other sources when one is trying to reconstruct the prehistoric past on a basis of competitive plausibility. To my mind her most outrageous misrepresentation comes when she writes that in volume two of Black Athena "the entire profession of Bronze Age Aegean and Classical archaeologists is condemned as ignorant, prejudiced, and racist." She had only to open the book to see that it was dedicated to the distinguished archaeologist Gordon Childe. With one exception, all my interpre- tations of archaeological finds are based on those of professional archaeologists and are acknowledged as such. At the opening of the book's conclusion, I write that "in this volume I have frequently found myself championing the views of scholars working at the high tide of racism, 1880-1940."

One of Vermeule's criticisms is that my work is redundant because archaeologists and ancient historians have admitted or even welcomed the idea of oriental influences throughout the twentieth century. As this point has been made by other critics, who have read the book with care, it is evident that I did not make my case on this sufficiently clear, although I do address the issue on pages 72-73. My argument is that the taboo has not been against the idea of oriental influences on the Aegean but against such influences on Greece. Scholars like Arthur Evans and Gordon Childe saw categorical breaks in Cretan and Aegean civilizations during the second millennium B.C., separating the Bronze Age from the later Hellenic cultures. Thus, they were quite happy to see substantial Egyptian and Levantine influences in the earlier period. They were also prepared to acknowledge that Hellenic civilization could have been influenced indirectly from the Orient through the filter of the Pre-Hellenes. However, scholars like Martin Nilsson, the historian of religion, and the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who-rightly, to my mind-saw cultural continuities in the Aegean going back to the third millennium, were and are much less eager to see oriental influences even at the earlier stages. The important thing for both groups is that Hellenic civilization should not have received Egyptian and Levantine influences directly or on an equal footing.

Q. It seems to me Vermeule's review is doubly unfortunate. It might well lead people who haven't read your work to dismiss it. On the other hand, it makes it hard for nonspecialist readers of your books-obviously, I include myself in this category-to avoid the conclusion that, if this is the best the specialists can do, you must be right. But that conclusion, too, doesn't necessarily follow. What do you think are the prospects for a serious intellectual debate. Have there been any substantive specialist critiques of your work?

As early as the eighth century B.C.E., Homer, in The Iliad, stated that Zeus and all of the gods of Greece travelled to Africa to "feast with Ethiop's faultless men." Four hundred years later the historian Herodotus remarked:

"Almost all of the names of the gods came into Greece from Egypt. My inquiries prove that they were all derived from a foreign source, and my opinion is that Egypt furnished the greater number. The Egyptians were the first to introduce solemn assemblies, processions, and litanies to the gods, all of which the Greeks were taught to use. It seems to me a sufficient proof of this that in Egypt these practices have been established from remote antiquity, while in Greece they are only recently known."

Herodotus also stated that the Greek oracle, or prophet, was one of two Egyptian women who were allegedly kidnapped from Thebes (Waset) by Phoenician traders. One was taken to Libya (Oracle of Ammon) and the other was taken to Dodona, in Greece. Herodotus also described the Egyptians as "blackskinned" and having "wooly hair."

Source: Anthony T. Browder, Nile Valley Contributions to Civilisation: Exploding the Myths, 2001. p.138.

A. I agree with you in that I think that Vermeule's review will merely polarize the issue. Although it is very confused, it does express the feelings of those who have been deeply offended by my project because of both its relativization of their work and what they see as its linking of Classics to unsavory political beliefs. It is altogether to be expected that they should want to strike back. I have been more surprised by the openmindedness my ideas have received than by this kind of blind passion. There have been some serious critiques of my work. The journal Arethusa brought out a special issue containing the papers given at the Presidential Panel on "The Challenge of Black Athena" held at the American Philological Association annual meeting in 1989. The Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology devoted an issue to the topic in 1990, and both journals have continued to publish critiques followed by my responses in later issues. The American Research Center in Egypt is publishing a monograph with papers given by Egyptologists at a special session of their annual meeting on my work. The next issue of the Journal of Women's History (1993) will also contain a symposium on my work.

Most of these articles are critical but rationally so, and I really believe that our debates are clearing my mind and theirs. In general things seem to be going my way, and there is an increased willingness to see (a) that the relevant disciplines were affected by racism and anti-Semitism, and (b) that there were substantial oriental influences on Bronze Age Greece. The lines now being drawn to defend the conventional wisdom seem to be the following: that Classics and the other relevant disciplines were moving in this direction anyhow, that contact and influence do not constitute "roots," and that the "Hyksos" settlements in Greece remain unproven. Scholars in these disciplines still find my method of competitive plausibility very difficult to accept. The archaeologists tend to be upset that I do not work in the approved professional manner. A recent review of volume two in Antiquity summed up their problem: "Bernal has the alarming habit of being right for the wrong reasons." A couple of lucky breaks is not upsetting, but finding the "right answers" is the raison d' itre of archaeology. Therefore, my "habitual" success poses a major threat to their "reasons" or method. On the political level, the lines have been drawn much more starkly. As I've suggested, the crusaders against "political correctness" detest the books, and I am sure that they will be delighted that they can now cite what they see as the liberal New York Review of Books against my work. In fact, the New York Review's position has been very much on the side of the crusaders. See Van Woodward's laudatory review of D'Souza and, long before that, Bernard Lewis's attempt to blow Edward Said out of the water. And in the early 1970s, it stopped publishing Chomsky. Fortunately, however, there are a number of journals to the left of the New York Review, including Newsweek and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thus the blockade on the ideas I express has not been complete or effective. I can't see a general conspiracy, but I think there is passionate hostility in right- wing ideological circles.

Q. If you're right about where the line is being drawn, perhaps that is because traditionalists no longer have any countermodel to propose?

A. Despite the concessions I've mentioned, most classicists still deny that Near Eastern influences were significant in the formation of classical Greek culture. There is also considerable reluctance to give up the notion of a substantial pre-Hellenic substratum-which is needed to explain why so many aspects of Greek culture, including language and religion, deviate so far from the Indo-European norms. You can still say it's all pre-Hellenic, but now that's somehow unsatisfactory.

Q. The general rule in things like this, which I think is part of the impulse behind volumes two and three, is that when you want to trash a strong position, you don't complete the job until you come up with a stronger position. Similarly, if someone attacks you by saying, "In 60 percent of the cases I find your argument unconvincing," it produces a question, but doesn't demolish your model?

A. Actually, I have a letter from an Indo-Europeanist who makes an argument of precisely that sort about my etymologies. It's a very unsatisfactory refutation.

Q. But presumably etymologies are the area where philologists are lying in wait?

A. Yes, though I'm doing what Joseph Greenberg has done in many languages, which is mass comparison. You don't have precision in each case which I think is asking too much when dealing not with genetic changes but loans. If there is a mass of plausible etymologies for words with no etymologies at present, it will be difficult to hold the line, especially given the archaeological evidence of contact and the fact that you can show ideologically why earlier scholars did not see these etymologies. Nonetheless, you're right: linguistically there has been a complete refusal to budge from the Indo-Europeanists, many of whom are now Jewish. The key figures in the field absolutely resist any connection between the Semitic and the Indo-European either in general, as the Nostraticists (who posit a common origin for Semitic, Egyptian, and Indo-European) are now arguing, or in the particular case of Greek borrowings from Egyptian and West Semitic.

Q. Can you make sense of that? One possibility is that the Indo-Europeanists are simply right and you're wrong, but let's assume that that's not the case?

A. That's not the case. I think to explain the attitudes of the scholars, you must see them in terms of how to assimilate, how to get out, get away from being Jewish.

Q. Yet most of the Semitic scholars who are Jewish have been more receptive to the possibility of Semitic influences. This may be a chicken-and-egg question: if you're Jewish, you choose your discipline-Semitist or Indo-Europeanist- and that decision then presumably reinforces certain tendencies that were behind the initial choice?

A. Yes. But there are difficulties for religious Jews in that they don't want to harp on connections between Jews and Canaanites.

Q. Well, I'm thinking mainly of secularized Jews?

A. In a way it's a choice for the secularized. For a small number of Jewish intellectuals, it provides a third way. Being pro-Phoenician is a way of being neither religious nor Zionist.

Q. I want to pursue this issue from a slightly different angle. One of the extra- ordinary features of your work is its coding, even allegorizing, of contemporary issues in a way that seems reminiscent of far more censored societies. In a sense, the Egyptians and Phoenicians of Black Athena stand in for African-Americans and Jewish Americans. Your project aims to restore the former groups to what you take to be their rightful, prominent place in the formation of ancient Greece and hence, to some extent, Western civilization. In the post- war period, Jewish Americans, unlike African-Americans, haven't felt or been systematically excluded from otherwise Eurocentric accounts of the march of civilization. But many liberal or radical African-Americans and Jewish Americans alike have been pained by the mutual hostility between these two groups in the last generation, following a period of self-conscious progressive alliance. Do you think Black Athena has an appeal in implicitly providing a historical or historiographical basis for the resumption of such an alliance in a shared sense of exclusion, now belatedly being corrected?

A. This leads me back to my encounter with Straussians at Telluride House and my shock at and distaste for right-wing Jews. More recently, I have been angered by their leading roles in the crusade against "political correctness." It seems very much a case of "pull up the ladder, Jack, I'm all right." Of course, as Patrick Buchanan and David Duke have underlined, Jews, including those on the right wing, are not all right. And I think you are correct to see one level of Black Athena as an appeal to right-wing Jews to return to the Jewish tradition of sympathizing with all the oppressed.

Q. What about your pedagogical purposes? Your approach makes ancient studies challenging and attractive in a different way. Do you anticipate changes in textbooks covering the period?

A. That's happening already, not a complete reworking, but there is now sensitivity to not having paid enough attention to earlier civilizations, and of having pushed Greece too much. Strangely enough, the authors of textbooks have been moving faster than classicists.

Q. I wonder if you'd be willing to hazard a summary statement about the relationship between the intellectual and the ideological/political changes you advocate and perhaps have furthered?

A. At one level, the intellectual changes I advocate are merely designed to bring classicists and ancient historians into line with scholars in other disciplines by making them self-conscious and alert to the social and political constraints on their academic fields. In particular, I want to make them aware of the centrality to Classics of the Romantic searches for authenticity and purity, and of the ideological and methodological dangers that can result from these searches. I also hope to puncture the myth of professionalism and the belief that knowledge is the monopoly of academic specialists in the relevant disciplines. The fact that I-as a specialist in China-should take on this project at all does this to some extent, but I also want to show that scholars with desperately few resources, like the black "Nile Valley" historians, can- despite all their evident shortcomings-possess useful insights missed by the professionals. Naturally, all these aims are extremely distasteful to the academic establishment, and, to be honest, I am surprised that they have tolerated me at all. This relative toleration is due partly to their fear of offending the illusion or reality of "political correctness," partly to a genuine liberalism and open-mindedness, but also partly to the fact that, whether I'm right or I'm wrong, my ideas are those of the ancient Greeks. Because of this, many classicists have, at some stage, had ideas similar to mine but were discouraged by their teachers from expressing them. Thus in some ways I am releasing their inhibitions. 

Herodotus, The Histories. ca.450 B.C.E.

“Concerning Egypt I will now speak at length, because nowhere are there so many marvelous things, nor in the whole world beside are there to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness.”

Q. You draw extensively on literary evidence both as a buttress to historical claims and as an object of ideological scrutiny. What implications does your research have for contemporary literary criticism, beyond the Great Books/ political correctness debates?

A. I use literary sources partly to demonstrate my general culture, but also because they often epitomize or encapsulate the intellectual atmosphere of a particular place and period better than any formal document or historical record. I realize that this puts the filter of the author between me and the topic, but it's precisely this filtration that provides the concentration I want.

Q. Let me ask you about ideology. You focus so much on racism-European and, more broadly, Western racism, ethnocentrism, and religious intolerance-that related issues of ideology and social hierarchy such as imperialism, class conflict, and gender relations all but disappear. The star exhibits are Sesostris of Egypt marching through Asia Minor, leaving a trail of destruction, or the Hyksos establishing colonies and setting up Mycenaean civilization. Imperialism becomes a sign of the importance of Near Eastern civilization. Similarly, there's a feeling almost of belated vindication in your recent arguments that it is the Phoenicians, rather than the Greeks, who really deserve credit for inventing the slave economy. Do you think you pay a price for your thematic concerns? Are these unintended ideological effects?

A. They are unintended. I suppose I get pleasure from Sesostris's reversal of the traditional picture of Europe as conqueror and Africa as conquered, although I try to express sympathy for the victims. On the Hyksos I become confused, because ideologically I'd prefer not to have diffusion by conquest. But history isn't always as you like it. I say what I believe to be the case.

Q. Do you feel a difficulty in having to point to the achievements of the Egyptian nation and the black African race, considering that your work is designed to discredit nationalist or racialist assumptions about Western civilization?

A. No, I do not feel any awkwardness about that. Giving credit where credit is due to Africans is writing good history and underscoring the point that all good things have not come from Europe. African achievements have been so systematically underrated that righting the balance would seem to me appropriate from both scholarly and political points of view.

Note: This is only a part of the interview, for the full version see details below.

Title: An Interview with Martin Bernal

Author(s): Walter Cohen and Martin Bernal

Source: Social Text, No. 35 (Summer, 1993)

Publisher: Duke University Press



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