free web hosting | website hosting | Business Web Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting
Black Athena Ten Years After I

towards a constructive re-assessment

by Wim van Binsbergen

to homepage

this paper's Contents | Part II (sections 4-6) | Part III (sections 7-8)

1. Introduction

This special issue of Talanta is based on the proceedings of the one-day conference ‘Black Athena: Africa’s contribution to global systems of knowledge’, held at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands, 28 June, 1996. That conference was conceived and initial preparations were made at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS). Late 1995 I persuaded Dr. Rijk van Dijk, the African Studies Centre conference organiser, that a Dutch conference on the debate initiated by Martin Bernal’s controversial two volumes of Black Athena would be timely considering the minimum extent to which Dutch scholarship had so far participated in the debate since its inception in the late 1980s.[2] The stakes of this debate include not only the rewriting of the history of the eastern Mediterranean in the third and second millennium BCE; and the Eurocentric denial — as from the eighteenth century CE — of intercontinental contributions to Western civilisation; but also the place of Africa in global cultural history, and today’s re-assessment of that place especially by ‘Afrocentric’[3] scholars — in majority Blacks holding appointments in the U.S.A. and in African universities.[4]

                        Operating from the national African Studies Centre, which is part of the Leiden University social science faculty, meant being aloof of the U.S.A. scene where the debate had concentrated. It also meant being separated, and by a considerable social, institutional and geographical distance, from scholars who at Leiden and elsewhere in the Netherlands pursue the disciplines which had so far dominated the Black Athena debate: classics, ancient history, archaeology, historical linguistics, Egyptology, the history of ideas and of science. From the beginning it was clear that crossing that distance would require such major efforts (also because such few Dutch responses to Black Athena as existed had been largely dismissive),[5] that the immediate result could only be eclectic and initiatory, at best.

                        If nonetheless the conference was a success and led to the present collection of papers, it was largely to the credit of others. Martin Bernal not only agreed to participate and did so with inspiring openness and charm, but also his three original contributions to the present volume[6] already lend it far greater relevance to the ongoing debate than I could have hoped for. Jan Best, the ancient historian, put his network, advice and enthusiasm at my disposal, besides contributing a stimulating paper of his own — examining Cretan seals from the early 2nd millennium BCE for signs of Egyptian influence.[7] The Egyptologist Arno Egberts’ chance attendance at the conference led to an improvised intervention (on the historical linguistics relevant to Bernal’s proposed derivation of the Greek name Athena from the Ancient Egyptian expression /Ht Nt, ‘House of the goddess Neith’ i.e. the western Delta town of Saïs); Egberts’ argument has now been worked into fully-fledged, well documented critical paper.[8] The historian (both ancient and modern) Josine Blok in her paper insisted on historiographic method and intimate knowledge of early 19th-century CE classical scholarship as devastatingly criticised by Bernal; in this way she raises crucial problems: the requirement of examining all available factual data before passing judgement (notably, a verdict of anti-Semitism and racism) on historical actors; the relative weight of external (socio-political) and internal (new data and methods) in the history of science; and finally academic and political integrity in the context of such sensitive topics as identity, ethnicity, and especially race.[9] Wim van Binsbergen, Africanist and theoretician of ethnic and intercultural relations, explored some of the implications of the Black Athena thesis both from a theoretical point of view[10] and on the basis of a historical and comparative empirical analysis of two major African formal systems.[11] The latter leads him to conclude that the Black Athena thesis strikingly illuminates Africa’s vital, initial contribution to global cultural history in Neolithic and (outside Africa) Bronze Age contexts, but fails to appreciate Africa’s cultural achievements as well as involution in the more recent millennia; this allows him to identify substantial tasks for further research and rethinking.

                        Two other contributors who helped to make the conference a success could most regrettably not be incorporated in the present collection for personal and technical reasons: the historian of ideas Robert Young, who looked at the appropriation of Egyptological material in the ‘scientific’ discourse of racism in the U.S.A. South of the mid-19th century CE; and the linguist and ancient historian Fred Woudhuizen, who in an oral presentation assessed Bernal’s Egyptocentric linguistic claims in the context of linguistic diversity and interaction in the eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium BCE.

                        Further indispensable contributions came from Rijk van Dijk who co-organised the conference with me. And from the African Studies Centre in general, which — not for the first time — trustfully endorsed my explorations beyond the standard topics of African Studies, and provided adequate financial, library and secretarial support without which the present volume would never have materialised. Fred Woudhuizen made it possible that the conference proceedings are now published as a special issue of Talanta, which is particularly fitting since this journal is a Netherlands-based international venue for ancient history and archaeology, specialising on the eastern Mediterranean. The editors of Talanta (Dr. Jan Stronk and Dr. Maarten de Weerd, with their colleagues Dr. Jan de Boer and Dr. Roald Docter, and as archaeological artist Mr Olaf E. Borgers) have ensured that this volume meets professional standards, and facilitated its production in every possible way.

                        Here they now appear in very heavily edited, revised and expanded form, augmented with new contributions not only from Arno Egberts but also from Wim van Binsbergen (triggered by Jan Best’s paper),[12] as well as two responses by Martin Bernal to the papers by Josine Blok and Arno Egberts. This collection at least marks the fact that in the Netherlands the reception of the Black Athena problematic has progressed beyond the initial stage. It constitutes an invitation to our national colleagues to contribute further critical and constructive work along these lines. If Black Athena has managed to generate comprehensive and complex, passionate inter­disciplinary international debate over the past ten years, scholarship in the Netherlands can only benefit from being drawn into that debate, even if at a late stage.

                        It is certainly not too late, for despite unmistakable hopes to the contrary on the part of the editors of the recent collection of critical essays Black Athena revisited,[13] the issue is still alive and kicking. With understandable delay, more volumes of Black Athena and a defiant answer[14] to the dismissive Black Athena revisited have been projected by Martin Bernal. What is more important is that enough material, debate and reflection has now been generated for us to try and sort out whatever lasting contribution Bernal may have made, sifting such support and acclaim as he has received (not only in the form of Afrocentrist appropriation of his work but also from some of the most distinguished scholars in the relevant fields), — from his obvious errors and one-sidedness which the mass of critical writing on this issue since 1987 has brought to light.

                        Such a task cannot be fully accomplished within the 200-odd pages of the present collection. Yet its title Black Athena: Ten Years After has a significance beyond the flavour of atavistic chivalry, continuous skirmishes and ambushes, and the hopes of ultimate glory, as in A. Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, with Martin Bernal cast in the obvious role of d’Artagnan. It brings out that ours is not merely another instalment to the debate.

                        There is of course that element too, vide the exhaustive and, in my opinion, definitive critical essays by Blok and Egberts on two central issues of the Black Athena argument which hitherto have met with relatively little specialist treatment: Greek-Egyptian etymologies, and the methods and politics of Bernal’s historiography of nineteenth-century classical studies.[15] Martin Bernal’s response to Josine Blok is courteous and receptive. His admittance of having grossly misinterpreted, in Black Athena I, the limited material he had read on the pioneer classicist K.O. Müller is scholarly and sincere. Yet one can hardly believe that he (cf. p. 22X below) ‘had’ truly Blok’s kind of devastating criticism ‘in mind’ when, at the end of Black Athena I, he expressed the hope that the book would ‘open up new areas of research by women and men with far better qualifications than myself’; much as one regrets that he does not address what are clearly Blok’s main points, on integrity, identity, race, and the role of internal and external factors in the history of science. If Martin Bernal’s response to Egberts’ paper is short, dismissive, and (in its long digression on Soviet linguistics, and his promise to write his memoirs at the age of 80 as his only concession) rather flippant, it is partly because in his own original paper for this collection,[16] he has covered much of the same etymological ground in considerable detail — notwithstanding his highly significant claim (to which I return below) that in the case of proper names and between languages from different families, the established sound laws of historical linguistics do not work anyway. In the same paper, he looks back at the Black Athena discussion over the past ten years, denounces Black Athena revisited in strong terms, engages in an enlightening discussion of some common misrepresentations of his work and views, and for the first time explicitly seeks to situate Africa linguistically and phenotypically (but hardly culturally) within the Black Athena context. Also for the first time he presents a more systematic treatment of the historical and interactive linguistics on which his views on the ‘Afroasiatic[17] roots of classical civilization’ are based. Jan Best argues for an Egyptianising reading of the Cretan seals, thus offering a specific example of how the Black Athena thesis could be fruitfully deployed in specific research contexts; meanwhile he calls attention to Syrio-Palestinian and Anatolian, in addition to Egyptian influences.[18] Wim van Binsbergen,[19] in a contribution specifically written in response to Best’s analysis, argues the complexities of the intercontinental cultural interaction which produced the earliest Cretan script; he stresses the argument of transformative localisation as a necessary complement of the argument of diffusion. His claim is that after two successive transformative localisations at focal points along the Levantine coast (Byblos and northern Syria) any original Egyptian contribution would have been greatly eroded and conventionalised before it ever contributed to Cretan hieroglyphic. Like so many other participants in the Black Athena debate,[20] both contributing authors concur with Martin Bernal’s stress on intercontinental exchanges in the eastern Mediterranean in the second and third millennium BCE, but they express concern about the — by and large probably unintended — suggestion of unidirectional Egyptocentrism in some of his work.

                        However, the present collection is also an attempt to go beyond a mere listing of pros and cons. It seeks to help define in what ways, on what grounds, and under which stringent methodological and epistemological conditions, Martin Bernal’s crusade deserves to have a lasting impact on our perception of the ancient eastern Mediterranean; on our perception of the intercontinental antecedents of the European civilisation which is one of the principal contributors to the global cultural domain whose emergence we are witnessing today; and on our perception of Africa.

                        Apart from the African dimension, which is new to the debate, this is as in previous special issues of scholarly journals devoted to the Black Athena debate,[21] yet reveals almost the opposite aim from Black Athena revisited. I am very pleased that, contrary to that much more voluminous, comprehensive and prestigious book from which Martin Bernal was deliberately excluded and which was intended to render all further discussion of Black Athena a waste of time, he is the principal contributor to the present collection. In a way which does credit to that remarkable scholar, it will be clear to the careful reader that this state of affairs has enhanced, not diminished, the volume’s potential for criticism — but of a constructive kind.

                        So far I have taken a basic knowledge of the Black Athena debate for granted, but for many readers some further introduction may be needed.


2. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena project

British-born Martin Bernal (1937- ) is a Cambridge (U.K.)-trained Sinologist. His specialisation on the intellectual history of Chinese/ Western exchanges around 1900 CE,[22] in combination with his — at the time — rather more topical articles on Vietnam in the New York Review of Books, earned him, in 1972, a professorship in the Department of Government at Cornell University, Ithaca (N.Y., U.S.A.). There he was soon to widen the geographical and historical scope of his research, as indicated by the fact that already in 1984 he was to combine this appointment with one as adjunct professor of Near Eastern Studies at the same university. Clearly, in mid-career he had turned[23] to a set of questions which were rather remote from his original academic field. At the same time they are crucial to the North Atlantic intellectual tradition since the eighteenth century CE, and to the way in which this tradition has hegemonically claimed for itself a place as the allegedly unique centre, the original historical source, of the increasingly global production of knowledge in the world today. Is — as in the dominant Eurocentric view — modern global civilisation the product of an intellectual adventure that started, as from scratch, with the ancient Greeks — the unique result of the latter’s unprecedented and history-less achievements? Or is the view of the Greek (read European) genius as the sole and oldest source of civilisation, merely a racialist myth. If the latter, its double aim has been to underpin delusions of European cultural superiority in the Age of European Expansion (especially the nineteenth century CE), and to free the history of European civilisation from any indebtedness to the (undoubtedly much older) civilisations of the region of Old World agricultural revolution, extending from the once fertile Sahara and from Ethiopia, through Egypt, Palestine and Phoenicia, to Syria, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran — thus encompassing the narrower Fertile Crescent — and the Indus Valley. Here Minoan, subsequently Mycenaean Crete occupies a pivotal position as either ‘the first European civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean’; or as an ‘Afroasiatic’-speaking island outpost of more ancient West Asian and Egyptian cultures; or as both at the same time. The most likely view would stress — foreboding the equally dissimulated dependence of medieval European civilisation on Arab and Hebrew sources — a vital ‘Afroasiatic’ contribution to the very origins of a civilisation (sc. the Greek, subsequently European, now North Atlantic one) which has bred the most vicious anti-Semitism, both anti-Jew and anti-Arab/ Islam, in the course of the twentieth century.

                        Bernal’s monumental Black Athena, projected as a tetralogy of which so far the first two volumes have been published, addresses these issues along two main lines of argument. The first volume, besides presenting an extremely ambitious but provisional and deliberately unsubstantiated outline of the promised findings of the project as a whole, is mainly a fascinating exercise in the history and sociology of European academic knowledge. It traces the historical awareness, among European cultural producers, of ancient Europe’s intellectual indebtedness to Africa and Asia, as well as the subsequent repression of such awareness with the invention of the ancient Greek miracle since the 18th century CE. The second line of argument presents the converging historical, archaeological, linguistic and mythological evidence for this indebtedness, which is then symbolised by Bernal’s re-reading (taking Herodotus seriously)[24] of Athena, apparently the most ostentatiously Hellenic of ancient Greek deities, as a peripheral Greek emulation of the goddess Neith of Saïs — as Black Athena.

                        Reception of the two volumes of Black Athena so far has been chequered. Classicists, who read the work not so much as a painstaking critique of North Atlantic Eurocentric intellectual culture as a whole but as a denunciation of their discipline by an unqualified outsider, have often been viciously dismissive; far less so — especially before the publication of Volume II — specialists in archaeology, the cultures and languages of the Ancient Near East, and comparative religion. Virtually every critic has been impressed with the extent and depth of Bernal’s scholarship — he shows himself a dilettante in the best possible tradition of the homo universalis. At the same time, much of his argument is based on the allegedly substantial[25] traces of lexical and syntactic material from Afroasiatic (including Ancient Egyptian, and West-Semitic) languages in classical Greek; while there is no doubt that he has the required command of the main languages in this connexion (Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek), the question here is whether his insight in theoretical, historical and comparative linguistics  is adequate.

                        Meanwhile in the Netherlands the echoes of the ongoing Black Athena debate has been, as said above, scarcely audible.[26]

                        Where Bernal’s central thesis was picked up most enthusiastically, immediately to be turned into an article of faith, was in the circles of African American intellectuals. Here the great present-day significance of Black Athena was rightly recognised: not so much as a purely academic correction of remote, ancient history, but as a revolutionary contribution to the global politics of knowledge in our own age and time. The liberating potential of Bernal’s thesis has been that it has accorded intellectuals from outside the politically and materially dominant North Atlantic, White tradition an independent, even senior, historical birth-right to full admission and participation under the global intellectual sun. Egypt is claimed to have civilised Greece, and from there it is only one step to the vision that Africa, the South, Black people, have civilised Europe, the North, White people; the ultimate answer to the imperialist (including cultural-imperialist) claims of the ‘white man’s burden’. Such a view clearly ties in with a host of current Afrocentrist publications making similar claims or with the Egyptocentric idioms among present-day African intellectuals in, e.g., Nigeria, Senegal and Zaire. But coming from a White upper-class academician who is socially and somatically an outsider to Black issues, the impact is truly enormous. Here Black Athena is built into the ongoing construction of a militant Black identity, offering as an option — not contemptuous rejection, nor parallel self-glorification as in the context of Senghor’s and Césaire’s négritude, in the face of the dominant, White, North Atlantic model, but — the explosion of that model. And this leads on to its replacement by a model of intercontinental intellectual indebtedness, in which Europe is affirmed to have been, until as recently as the first millennium BCE, a receptive periphery of the civilisations of the region of Old World agricultural revolution; classical Greek civilisation, whatever its achievements, no longer can be taken to have been original and autonomous, but was building on this intercultural indebtedness.

                        Given the phenomenal expansion of Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptological studies in the course of the twentieth century, we should not have needed Bernal to broadcast this insight in the first place. Ex oriente lux, ‘light comes from the east’, not only sums up the daily subjective experience of sunrise anywhere on earth, but has also been the slogan of an increasing number of students of the Ancient Near East since the beginning of the twentieth century.[27] The message however was scarcely welcome when it was first formulated, and imaginative Semitist scholars like Gordon and Astour found themselves under siege when they published their significant contributions in the 1960s. Black Athena has done a lot to drive this insight home and to popularise it, making it available to circles thirsting for it while building and rebuilding their own identity. Meanwhile Bernal himself does not claim excessive originality:

‘ should be clear to any reader that my books are based on modern scholarship. The ideas and information I use, do not always come from the champions of conventional wisdom, but very few of the historical hypotheses put forward in Black Athena are original. The series’ originality comes from bringing together and making central, information that has previously been scattered and peripheral’.[28]


3. Into Africa?

‘Der Kulturmorphologie wird also vor der Frage gestellt, ob die Räume jenseits der ägyptisch-babylonischen Kultur völkerkundliches Material zu bieten vermögen, das zum Verständnis der Entfaltung der ägyptischen und babylonischen Kultur raum-, zeit- und sinngemäß Entscheidenes beitragen kann.’ (Leo Frobenius, 1931)[29]

Although Egypt is a part of North East Africa, Black Athena displays a double blind spot where Africa is concerned. An obvious implication of Bernal’s thesis would be to explore the roots of Egyptian civilisation in its turn. Towards ancient Egyptian origins, people from elsewhere on the African continent, e.g. the Upper Nile valley and the once fertile central Sahara, made the principal contributions. What did the interior of Africa thus contribute to Egypt, and via Egypt, to classical Greek, European, North Atlantic, global, civilisation? Bernal has remained largely silent on this point. Also one might expect the argument on Afroasiatic languages to be traced further inland into the African continent. These steps Bernal obviously could not yet take.[30] He can hardly be blamed for this, not only in view of the enormity of this additional task and of the scope of his actual accomplishments, but also because Africanists have so far, with few exceptions,[31] ignored him. They have refrained from exploring the implications of Bernal’s view for the historical, political and intellectual images of Africa which Africanists professionally produce today, and which — perhaps more important — circulate incessantly in the hands of non-Africanists, in the media, public debate, and identity construction by both Whites and Blacks in the context of both local and global issues. The reasons for the Africanists’ non-response are manifold and largely respectable:

     African pre-colonial history, a rapidly growing field in the 1960s and early 1970s, has gone out of fashion as an academic topic, and so have, more in general, — at least, until the recent emergence of the globalisation perspective — grand schemes claiming extensive interactions and continuities across vast expanses of time and space.

     Linguistic skill among Africanists has dwindled to the extent that they are prepared, perhaps even eager, to accept without further proof some linguists’ dismissive verdict on Black Athena’s linguistics.

      Egyptocentric claims were conspicuous in African Studies in the first half of the twentieth century.[32] Besides these ‘Egyptianising’ scholarly studies by established Africanist anthropologists and archaeologists, present-day Africanists are particularly concerned not to revive the cruder forms of Egyptocentric diffusionism as in the works by Elliot Smith and Perry (the first Manchester School in anthropology, before Max Gluckman founded his), who saw Egypt as the only global civilising force, whose seafarers presumably carried their sun cult through­out the Old World and beyond.[33] Another spectre to be left locked up in the cupboard is that of the civilising Egyptians (or Phoenicians, for that matter), invoked as the originators of any lasting physical sign of civilisation in sub-Saharan Africa, especially the Great Zimbabwe complex in the country of that name.[34] More recently, Egyptocentrism has been so vocally reiterated in Cheikh Anta Diop’s work and his Afrocentric followers in Africa and the U.S.A.,[35] that excessive care is taken among many Africanists today not to become entangled in that sort of issue.

     Quick to recognise the ideological element in the Africas as propounded by others, Africanists — most of which are North Atlantic Whites — are, with notable exceptions,[36] rather less accustomed to consider, self-consciously, the political and identity implications of the images of Africa they themselves produce.

                        To put it mildly, one cannot rule out the possibility that, as a fruit of a similar inspiration to which Bernal attributes the emergence of the myth of the Greek genius, African Studies too[37] have a built-in Eurocentrism that prevents it from seriously considering such a totally reversed view of intellectual world history as Bernal is offering. Here lies a tremendous critical task for African and African American scholars today. In an earlier generation we have seen how African scholars like Okot p’Bitek and Archie Mafeje have sought to explode the Eurocentric implications of the then current work in the anthropology of African religion and ethnicity.[38] In the study of Asian societies and history, the critical reflection on the models imposed by North Atlantic scholarship has developed into a major industry, ever since the publication of Said’s Orientalism.[39] But where are the Black scholars to do the same for Africa? The names of Appiah, Mbembe, Mudimbe, could be cited here;[40] but their most obvious intellectual peers, the exponents of ‘African philosophy’ today, seem more concerned with re-dreaming rural Africa along dated anthropological lines, than waking up to the realities of cultural imperialism and repressive tolerance in intercontinental academia. It is here that the anti-Eurocentrism of the Black Athena project could play a most valuable role (especially Volume I; Bernal’s study on the Phoenician and Egyptian contributions to Greek notions of democracy and law;[41] and his responses on the history of science and on Afrocentrism, now to be collected in Black Athena writes back; while his splendid contribution to the early history of the alphabet[42] provides an inspiring model for the complex, multicentred inter­continental interactions at work in and around the eastern Mediterranean in the formative millennia of classical Greek civilisation.

                        Will Bernal’s thesis on the European history of ideas concerning Egypt, and his stress on the role of Egypt in the context of actual cultural exchanges in the eastern Mediterranean in the third and second millennium BCE, stand up to the methodological and factual tests of the various disciplines concerned? Before turning to the Black Athena debate I propose to deal, in the following two sections, with two issues which help to bring that debate in proper perspective: the ideological component in cultural history; and Martin Bernal’s position vis-?vis the sociology of knowledge.

to homepage

this paper's Contents | Part II (sections 4-6) | Part III (sections 7-8)

?/span> 1997 W.M.J. van Binsbergen

[2]Bernal, M., 1987, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, Vol. I, The fabrication of Ancient Greece 1787-1987, London: Free Association Books/ New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; Bernal, M., 1991, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, II. The archaeological and documentary evidence, New Brunswick (N.J.): Rutgers University Press; also cf. Bernal, M., 1990, Cadmean letters: The transmission of the alphabet to the Aegean and further west before 1400 B.C., Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. The main collection of critical studies of Black Athena is: Lefkowitz, M.R., & MacLean Rogers, G., eds., 1996, Black Athena revisited, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press.

[3]The term Afrocentrism was coined by M.K. Asante, cf. 1990, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and knowledge, Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press (on Bernal, see pp. 100-104 of that work). For clarity’s sake we must distinguish between two essential variants of Afrocentrism: one which cherishes images of an original (or prospective) African home as a source of inspiration, identity and self-esteem; and the other variety, which claims that Africa possesses these qualities for the specific reason that all civilisation originates there. I personally identify with the former variant; it is the latter one I object to, for reasons of both historical evidence and rejection of all subordinative claims in the field of culture. Given the ambiguity of the term Afrocentrism it is understandable that Bernal’s position in this respect has caused some confusion. Despite his great sympathy for the movement he has repeatedly distanced himself from its exclusivist, even racialist variants (e.g. Black Athena II, p. xxii). In his review of Lefkowitz, M., 1996, Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history, New York, Basic Books, Bernal states (Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 1996, Internet journal, p. 3):

‘the label ‘Afrocentrist’ has been attached to a number of intellectual positions ranging from (...) ‘‘Africa creates, Europe imitates’’ to those, among whom I see myself, who merely maintain that Africans or peoples of African descent have made many significant contributions to world progress and that for the past two centuries, these have been systematically played down by European and North American historians’.

[4]Cf. Diop, C.A., 1974, The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality? trans. M. Cook, Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill; Diop, C.A., 1987, Precolonial Black Africa: A comparative study of the political and social systems of Europe and Black Africa, from Antiquity to the formation of modern states, trans. H.J. Salemson, Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill; Diop, C.A., 1989, The cultural unity of Black Africa: The domains of patriarchy and of matriarchy in classical antiquity, London: Karnak House; James, G.G.M., 1973, Stolen legacy: The Greeks were not the authors of Greek philosophy, but the people of North Africa, commonly called the Egyptians, New York: Philosophical Library, reprinted, San Francisco: Julian Richardson Associates, first published 1954; Noguera, A., 1976, How African was Egypt: A comparative study of Egyptian and Black African cultures, New York: Vantage Press; Asante, Kemet; van Sertima, I., 1983, ed., Blacks in science: Ancient and modern, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books; van Sertima, I., 1984, Black Women in Antiquity, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books; van Sertima, I., 1985, ed., African presence in early Europe, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books (with Martin Bernal’s contribution: ‘Black Athena: The African and Levantine roots of Greece’, pp. 66-82 — so the first published product of the Black Athena project, already with that controversial title firmly in place, appeared in an Afrocentrist context!); Rashidi, R., & I. van Sertima, eds., 1985, African presence in early Asia, special issue of Journal of African Civilizations; Rashidi, R., 1992, Introduction to the study of African classical civilizations, London: Karnak House; van Sertima, I., ed., 1986, Great African thinkers, vol. I: Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick & Oxford: Transaction Books; Finch, C.S., 1990, The African background to medical science, London: Karnak House. For a sobering African critique, cf. Appiah, K.A., 1993, ‘Europe upside down: Fallacies of the new Afrocentrism’, Times Literary Supplement (London), 12 February, pp. 24-25. For a critique of Afrocentrism with special reference to Martin Bernal’s Afrocentrist sympathies in Black Athena, cf. Palter, R., 1993, ‘Black Athena, Afro-centrism, and the history of science’, History of Science, 31, no. 3: 227-87, reprinted in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 209-266 (see also Bernal’s response: Bernal, M., 1994, ‘Response to Robert Palter’, History of Science, 32, no. 4: 445-64, and Palter’s rejoinder, ibidem, pp. 464-68); Snowden, F.M., Jr, 1996, ‘Bernal’s ‘‘Blacks’’ and the Afrocentrists’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 112-127; and Lefkowitz, Not out of Africa.

[5]On the details of the Dutch reception, see extensive footnote 26 below.

[6]Martin Bernal, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’, ‘Response to Arno Egberts’, ‘Response to Josine Blok’ (all in this volume).

[7]Jan Best, ‘The ancient toponyms of Mallia: A post-Eurocentric reading of Egyptianising Bronze Age documents’ (this volume).

[8]Arno Egberts, ‘Consonants in collision: Neith and Athena reconsidered’ (this volume).

[9]Josine H. Blok, ‘Proof and persuasion in Black Athena I: The case of K.O. Müller’ (this volume).

[10]In a paper now greatly revised and expanded so as to form the present argument.

[11]Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history: Lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination’ (this volume).

[12]Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Alternative models of intercontinental interaction towards the earliest Cretan script’ (this volume).

[13]M.R. Lefkowitz & G. MacLean Rogers, eds., Black Athena revisited, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Caroline Press, 1996.

[14]Bernal, M., in preparation, Black Athena writes back, Durham: Duke University Press.

[15]Yurco, F.J., 1996, ‘Black Athena: An Egyptological review’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 62-100, p. 78, has one 11-line paragraph on the derivation of Athena from /Ht Nt. Jasanoff, J.H., & Nussbaum, A., 1996, ‘Word games: The linguistic evidence in Black Athena’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 177-205, present a dismissive assessment of the /Ht Nt-Athena etymology which however is exclusively based on established Indo-European historical linguistics and has no grounding in Egyptology; Rendsburg, G.A., 1989, ‘Black Athena: An etymological response’, in: M. Myerowitz Levine & J. Peradotto, eds., The Challenge of ‘Black Athena’, special issue, Arethusa, 22: 67-82, p. 72-73, also raises objections from a historical linguistic point; cf. Black Athena I, p. 452, n. 4 and M. Bernal, ‘Responses to critical reviews of Black Athena, volume I’, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 3, 1990, pp. 111-137. Egberts’ paper ‘Consonants in collision’ cites and builds upon that earlier work but goes beyond it and is the first full-length Egyptological treatment. As far as Blok’s article is concerned, Bernal’s 18th-century CE historiography was first questioned in two articles which, like Jasanoff & Nussbaum’s etymological attack, were especially commissioned for Black Athena revisited: Norton, R.E., 1996, ‘The tyranny of Germany over Greece? Bernal, Herder, and the German appropriation of Greece’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 403-409, and: Palter, R., 1996, ‘Eighteenth-century historiography in Black Athena’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 349-401. Blok’s paper was first presented at the Leiden 1996 conference, when a shortened version was in the press with the Journal of the History of Ideas. By mutual agreement of all parties concerned the longer version is published in this volume.

[16]M. Bernal, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’.

[17]Black Athena’s subtitle. The term ‘Afroasiatic’ designates a language group which includes Semitic — e.g. Phoenician, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, as well as the South Arabian and Ethiopic languages — besides non-Semitic branches such as ancient Egyptian, Chadic, Beja, Berber, and three branches of Cushitic. Bernal uses the term (and its counterparts: the designations of other such language families including Indo-European) both in a narrowly linguistic sense and in order to denote the specific cultures of speakers of these languages, and occasionally to denote the large demographic clusters constituting the gene pool of people speaking such languages and having such cultures. Cf. Martin Bernal, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’, this volume, for illustrations of this usage. Such usage may not be totally unjustified considering the Whorf thesis which however is controversial; cf. Whorf, B. L., 1956, Language, Thought, and Reality, New York/ London: M.I.T. Press; Black, M., 1959, ‘Linguistic relativity: the views of Benjamin Lee Whorf', Philosophical Review, LXVIII: 228-38. Also, culture including language is among other things a form of communication and distinction serving, in practice if not in the actors’ conscious intention, to demarcate the gene pool of the local reproducing community. Even so the correspondences and correlations between language, culture and phenotype are merely statistical, very often spurious, and they never rise to the point of one to one relationships. Therefore Bernal’s use of Afroasiatic and of other such terms introduces a lack of precision which has been one of the factors producing the emotional and occasionally vicious overtones of the Black Athena debate. It means an invitation to be appropriated by primordialist identity discourses from left and right, White and Black. See my discussion in section 4.3 below.

[18]J. Best, ‘The ancient toponyms of Mallia’.

[19]Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Alternative models of intercontinental interaction’.

[20]Cf. Bowersock, G.W., 1989, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 19: 490-91; Konstan, D., 1988, Research in African Literatures, 4 (Winter): 551-554; Myerowitz Levine, M., 1990, ‘Classical scholarship: Anti-Black anti-Semitic?’ Bible Review, 6 (6/1990): 32-36 and 40-41; Malamud, M.A., 1989, Criticism, 1: 317-22; Rendsburg, G.A., 1989, ‘Black Athena: An etymological response’; Trigger, B., 1992. ‘‘Brown Athena: Postprocessual goddess?, Current Anthropology, 2/92: 121-123; Vickers, M., 1987, Antiquity, 61 (Nov.): 480-81; Whittaker, C.R., 1988, ‘Dark ages of Greece’, British Medical Journal, 296 (23/4): 1172-1173.

[21]Cf. Meyerowitz Levine & Peradotto, in: Arethusa, 22 (Fall), 1987; Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 3, 1 (1990); Isis, 83, 4 (1992); Journal of Women’s History, 4, 3 (1993); History of Science, 32, 4 (1994); VEST Tidskrift for Vetanskapsstudier, 8, 4 (1995).

[22]Bernal, M., ‘Chinese socialism before 1913’, Ph.D., Cambridge University.

[23]Cf. Black Athena I, p. xiiff.

[24]On Egyptian Athena: Hist. II 28, 59, 83 etc., and in general on the Greeks’ religious indebtedness to Egypt: Hist. II 50ff. The identification of Neith with Athena was not limited to Herodotus but was a generally held view in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.

[25]Cf. Black Athena I, 484 n. 141:

‘Naturally, I maintain that the reason it is so remarkably easy to find correspondences between Egyptian and Greek words is that between 20 and 25 percent of the Greek vocabulary does in fact derive from Egyptian!’

This precise statistical statement is often repeated in Bernal’s work, Yet the numerical procedures underpinning it have so far not been made explicit by him. Meanwhile the sample of proposed Egyptian etymologies of Greek words as included in his ‘Responses to Black Athena’ (this volume) may convince the reader that, at least at the qualitative level, the claim is not without grounds.

[26]This is best substantiated by the modest length and the often obscure venues of publication, of whatever Dutch literature existed on Black Athena up to the date of our 1996 conference: Best, J., 1992-93 (actually published 1994), ‘Racism in classical archaeology’, in: Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, 24-25: 7-10; Sancisi-Weerdenburg, H., 1995, ‘Was Athene zwart?’, Amsterdamse Boekengids Interdisciplinair, p. 10-15; Derks, H., 1995, De koe van Troje: De mythe van de Griekse oudheid, Hilversum: Verloren, p. 87, n.; Leezenberg, M., 1992, ‘Waren de Grieken negers? Black Athena en het Afrocentrisme’, Cimedart, Feb/ Mar. Outside academia, in the context of drama production, and remarkably Afrocentrist: Ockhuyzen, R., 1991, ‘Het verzinsel van de Griekse beschaving’, in: Aischylos, De smekelingen, [Suppliants] trans. G. Komrij, Amsterdam: International Theatre & Film Books / Theater van het Oosten, pp. 11-13. I was unable to trace an article on Black Athena reputed to be published in the Dutch conservative weekly Elsevier, Spring 1996.

Of three subsequent Dutch contributions, two were directly related to our 1996 conference and appear in altered form in the present volume: Blok, J.H., 1996, ‘Proof and persuasion in Black Athena: The case of K.O. Müller’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 57: 705-724; and: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Black Athena and Africa’s contribution to global cultural history’, Quest — Philosophical Discussions: An International African Journal of Philosophy, 1996, 9, 2 / 10, 1: 100-137. The third contribution, smugly insisting on the primal originality of Anaximander as the first scientific astronomer while ignoring any pre-existing astronomy in the Ancient Near East, is: Couprie, D.L., 1996, ‘The concept of space and the ‘‘Out of Africa’’ discussion’, paper read at The SSIPS [Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science] / SAGP [Society of Ancient Greek Philosophy] 1996, 15th Annual Conference: ‘Global and Multicultural Dimensions of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Social Thought: Africana, Christian, Greek, Islamic, Jewish, Indigenous and Asian Traditions,’ Binghamton University, Department of Philosophy/ Center for Medieval and Renaissance studies (CEMERS), Binghamton (N.Y.), U.S.A.

In his main contribution to the present volume, Martin Bernal bitterly signals a widespread conviction that the publication of Black Athena revisited has put paid to the entire debate; this effect is also noticeable in: Bommelj? B., ‘Waren de Grieken afronauten?’, NRC-Handelsblad, book review section, 2/5/1997, p. 37. Egberts in the title of his critique (this volume) puns on the title of the pseudo-scientist I. Velikovski’s Worlds in collision, London: Gollancz, 1950 ; fortunately, Egberts does not try to support his psychoanalytical suggestions as to Bernal’s motives by a reference to I. Velikovski’s Oedipus and Akhnaton: Myth and history, London: Sidgwick, 1960, which claims that even the Oedipus myth — the one achievement of classical Greek civilisation to become a household word throughout North Atlantic culture today — originated in pharaonic court intrigue. For Bernal on Velikovski, cf. Black Athena I, p. 6. With his choice of title, the science journalist Bommelj? chooses to highlight what he thinks is a parallel with another pseudo-scientist, E. von Däniken, Waren de goden astronauten?, Deventer: Ankh-Hermes, 1970, originally German, published in English as Chariots of the gods (the pun only works for the title of the Dutch edition).

[27]Scholarly studies outside the context of the Black Athena debate yet insisting on the essential continuity between the civilisations of the Ancient Near East, include e.g., Kramer, S.N., 1958, History begins at Sumer, London; Neugebauer, O., 1969, The exact sciences in Antiquity, New York: Dover, 2nd edition; first published 1957; Gordon, C., 1962, Before the Bible: The common background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, New York: Harper & Row; Gordon, C.H., 1966, Evidence for the Minoan language, Ventnor (NJ): Ventnor Publishers; Saunders, J.B. de C.M., 1963, The Transitions from ancient Egyptian to Greek medicine, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press; Astour, M.C., 1967, Hellenosemitica: An ethnic and cultural study in West Semitic impact on Mycenean Greece, 2d ed., Leiden: Brill; Fontenrose, J., 1980, Python: A study of Delphic myth and its origins, Berkeley etc.: University of California Press; paperback edition, reprint of the 1959 first edition. Ex Oriente Lux of course has also been, for decades, the name of the Dutch society for the study of the Ancient Near East, and of its journal. Also cf. Bernal’s rather telling admission of initially overlooking the significance of this rallying cry, Black Athena II, p. 66. M. Liverani (1996, ‘The bathwater and the baby’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 421-427) meanwhile calls our attention to the essential Eurocentrism implied in the slogan, which he therefore refuses to accept as a valid guideline for ancient history today:

‘The shift of cultural primacy from the Near East to Greece (the one dealt with in Bernal’s book) was interpreted in line with two slogans: Ex Oriente Lux (...) mostly used by Orientalists) and ‘The Greek miracle’ (mostly used by classicists). These slogans appeared to represent opposing ideas but in fact were one and the same notion: the Western appropriation of ancient Near Eastern culture for the sake of its own development’ (p. 423).

[28]Bernal, M., in press, ‘Review of ‘‘Word games: The linguistic evidence in Black Athena’’, Jay H. Jasanoff & Alan Nussbaum’, forthcoming in Bernal’s Black Athena writes back, o.c.

[29]Leo Frobenius, 1931, Erythräa: Länder und Zeiten des heiligen Königsmordes, Berlin/ Zürich: Atlantis-Verlag, 1931, p. 347.

[30]Cf. J. Baines, 1996, ‘On the aims and methods of Black Athena’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 27-48, p. 32. However, cf. Bernal, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’ (this volume). In fact, Bernal explored Afroasiatic and Semitic language origins in one of his first papers the Black Athena project was to yield: Bernal, M., 1980, ‘Speculations on the disintegration of Afroasiatic’, paper presented at the 8th Conference of the North American Conference of Afroasiatic Linguistics, San Francisco, April 1980, and to the 1st international Conference of Somali Studies, Mogadishu, July 1980. The paper was never published but is currently attracting revived interest.

[31]Africanist discussions of Black Athena are few and far between. Understandably in the light of the emphatically anti-colonial and anti-racialist orientation of Basil Davidson’s work in general, he immediately showed his sympathy in a long if rambling review: Davidson, B., ‘The ancient world and Africa: Whose roots?’ [Review of M. Bernal, Black Athena I] , Race and Class: A Journal for Black and Third World Liberation, 29, 2: 1-15, 1987, reprinted in: Davidson, B., 1994, The search for Africa: History, culture, politics, New York: Times Books/ London: James Currey, pp. 318-333. A sympathetic reference also in: Jewsiewicki, B., 1991, ‘Le primitivisme, le postcolonialisme, les antiquités ‘‘nègres’’ et la question nationale’, Cahiers d’etudes africaines, 31, 121/ 122: 191-213. Jonathan Friedman, a prominent writer on globalisation issues, makes a passing reference to Bernal: Friedman, J., 1992, ‘The Past in the Future: History and the Politics of Identity’, American Anthropologist, 94, 4: 837-59, p. 840. A non-Africanist contribution in an Africanist environment has been: Young, R., 1994, ‘The postcolonial construction of Africa’, paper read at the conference ‘African research futures’, University of Manchester, April 1994. Also cf. van Binsbergen in Quest, 1996, o.c. The Africanists’ aloofness and part of its background is well voiced by Preston Blier, S., 1993, ‘Truth and seeing: Magic, custom, and fetish in art history’, in: Robert H. Bates, V.Y. Mudimbe & Jean O’Barr, eds., Africa and the disciplines: The contributions of research in Africa to the social sciences and humanities, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 139-166 (the only reference to Bernal in that authoritative Africanist book), p. 161f, n. 23:

‘One can cite an issue of importance to both Africanists and Europeanists. It is already so deeply embroiled in a ‘‘hornet’s nest’’ of feelings and scholarly discord, that rational academic interchange is virtually impossible. I am speaking, of course, of Martin Bernal’s query into the philosophical links between Egypt and Europe in his controversial book Black Athena. I will not enter into the thick of the fray by discussing the relative merits or demerits of the work, but suffice it so say that I have heard amply and angrily from both sides. And even if I did have the expertise in both Egyptian and Classics to be able to give an informed opinion, my observations would be far more important at this point in time for their assumed political worth than for their scholarly merit. My past field work experience with issues of art, belief, and societal change suggests that because of the vitriolic tenor of the associated debates, Black Athena clearly must deal with a subject of vital scholarly importance...’

Nor is the harvest much greater from cosmopolitan, non-Afrocentrist African philosophers. Mudimbe wrote a rather positive review: Mudimbe, V.Y. 1992, ‘African Athena?’, Transition, 58: 114-123. But although appearing five years after Black Athena I, K.A. Appiah’s influential In my father’s house: Africa in the philosophy of culture, New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1992, devotes only one line in a footnote to Bernal, merely as a source on the lack of racialism among the ancient Greeks; later, when expounding the dangers of Afrocentrism, Appiah is more elaborate, identifies Bernal as a non-Afrocentrist hero of Afrocentrists, but continues to be only mildly interested: Appiah, ‘Europe Upside Down’, o.c.

[32]Cf. Breuil, H., 1951, ‘Further details of rock-paintings and other discoveries. 1. The painted rock ‘Chez Tae’, Leribe, Basutoland, 2. A new type of rock-painting from the region of Aroab, South-West Africa, 3. Egyptian bronze found in Central Congo’, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 4: 46-50 (which establishes for a fact the occasional penetration of items of ancient Egyptian material culture far into sub-Saharan Africa; Shinnie however believes it to be a recent intrusion: Shinnie, P.L., 1971, ‘The legacy to Africa’, in J.R. Harris, ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 434-55, p. 438); Meyerowitz, E.L.R., 1960, The divine kingship in Ghana and in Ancient Egypt, London: Faber & Faber; Petrie, W.M.F., 1915, ‘Egypt in Africa’, Ancient Egypt, 1915, 3-4: 115-127, 159-170; Schmidl, M., 1928, ‘Ancient Egyptian techniques in African spirally-woven baskets’, in: Koppers, W., ed., Festschrift/ Publication d’hommage offerte au P.W. Schmidt, Vienna: Mechitaristen-Congregations-Buchdruckerei, pp. 282-302; Seligman, C.G., 1934, Egypt and Negro Africa: A study in divine kingship, London: Routledge; Seligman, C.G., 1913, ‘Some aspects of the Hamitic problem in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 43: 593-705; Wainwright, G.A., 1949, ‘Pharaonic survivals, Lake Chad to the west coast’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 35: 167 -75. Further see my ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution’ (this volume).

[33]Smith, G.E., 1929, The migrations of early culture: A study of the significance of the geographical distribution of the practice of mummification as evidence of the migration of peoples and the spread of certain customs and beliefs, 2nd ed., Manchester: Manchester University Press; first published 1915; Smith, G.E., 1933, The diffusion of culture, London; Perry, W.J., 1918, The megalithic culture of Indonesia, Manchester: Manchester University Press; Perry, W.J., 1923, The children of the sun: A study in the early history of civilization, London: Methuen; Perry, W.J., 1935, The primordial ocean, London: Methuen.

[34]Caton-Thompson, G., 1931, The Zimbabwe culture: Ruins and reactions, Oxford: Clarendon Press; facsimile reprint, 1970, New York: Negro Universities Press; MacIver, D. Randall, 1906, Mediaeval Rhodesia, London: Macmillan; Beach, D.N., 1980, The Shona and Zimbabwe, 900-1850: An outline of Shona history, Gwelo: Mambo Press; Bent, J.T., 1969, The ruined cities of Mashonaland, Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, Rhodesiana Reprint Library, volume 5, facsimile reproduction of the third edition, Longmans, Green & Co., London/ New York/ Bombay, 1896, first published 1892.

[35]Diop, The cultural unity; Diop, The African origin of civilization; Diop, Precolonial Black Africa.

[36]See next footnote.

[37]This has been an old discussion in anthropology which however has never really caught on: Cf. Asad, T., 1973, ed., Anthropology and the colonial encounter, London: Ithaca Press; Leclerc, G., 1972, Anthropologie et colonialisme, Paris: Fayard; Copans, J., 1975, ed., Anthropologie et impérialisme, Paris: Maspero; Fabian, J., 1983, Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object, New York: Columbia University Press; Asad, T., 1986, ‘The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology’, in: Clifford, J., & Marcus, G., eds., 1986, Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press — and many other contributions to that important collection; Pels, P. & O. Salemink, 1994, ‘Introduction: five theses on ethnography as colonial practice’, History and Anthropology, 8, 1-4: 1-34; Mudimbe, V.Y., 1988, The invention of Africa: Gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press/ London: Currey; Mudimbe, V.Y., 1994, The idea of Africa, Bloomington/ London: Indiana University Press/ James Currey; Appiah, In my father’s house.

[38]Mafeje, A., 1971, ‘The ideology of tribalism’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 9: 253-61; Okot p’Bitek, 1970, African religion in Western Scholarship, Kampala: East African Literature Bureau.

[39]Said, E.W., 1979, Orientalism, New York: Random House, Vintage Books; Turner, B.S., 1994, Orientalism, postmodernism and globalism, London/ New York: Routledge; C. Breckenridge & P. van der Veer, 1993, eds., Orientalism and the postcolonial predicament: Perspectives from South Asia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[40]Appiah, In my father’s house; Mudimbe, The invention of Africa; Mudimbe, The idea of Africa; Mbembe, A., 1988, Afriques indociles: Christianisme, pouvoir et Etat en sociét? postcoloniale, Paris: Karthala; Mbembe, A., 1992, ‘Provisional notes on the post-colony’, Africa, 62, 1: 3-37.

[41]Bernal, M., 1993, ‘Phoenician politics and Egyptian justice in Ancient Greece’, in: Raaflaub, K., ed., Anfänge politischen Denkens in der Antike: Die nah-östlichen Kulturen und die Griechen, Munich: Oldenbourg, pp. 241-61.

[42]Bernal, Cadmean letters; cf. my assessment of this book in ‘Alternative models’ (this volume).

to homepage

this paper's Contents | Part II (sections 4-6) | Part III (sections 7-8)


page last modified: 03-05-01 11:11:39      
Easy Submit Add Me!