|With Black Athena into the Third
Wim van Binsbergen
|homepage||order Black Athena Ten Years After now|
|view an article on Crete's oldest script, also from Black Athena Ten Years After|
|view an article on diffusionism with special regard to geomancy and mankala board-games, adapted after Black Athena Ten Years After|
|view an article: 'Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment' -- the original leading article from TALANTA XXVIII-XXIX (1996-1997)|
[ a much shorter version of the paper below is in press in: Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, R. Docter et al., eds., Amsterdam 1999; an earlier version was presented at the congress]
[ Notes are marked by plain numbers in the text and are collected in a separate page: Notes ]
Despite unmistakable hopes to the contrary on the part of the editors (Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers) of the 1996 collection of critical essays Black Athena revisited,2 the Black Athena debate is still alive and kicking. With understandable delay, more volumes of Black Athena have been projected by Martin Bernal, as well as a defiant answer3 to Black Athena revisited, under the title Black Athena writes back.4 The collection I edited in 1997, Black Athena Ten Years After, reopened the debate again after Black Athena Revisited. 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 - from his obvious errors and one-sidedness which the mass of critical writing on this issue since 1987 has brought to light. In what ways, on what grounds, and under which stringent methodological and epistemological conditions, does Martin Bernal's crusade deserve to have a lasting impact on our perception of the ancient eastern Mediterranean? I reserve for a forthcoming book (Global Bee Flight: Sub-saharan Africa, ancient Egypt, and the world: Beyond the Black Athena thesis) an investigation of what the impact could be of the Black Athena thesis on our perception of Africa.
2. MARTIN BERNAL'S BLACK ATHENA
British-born Martin Bernal (1937- ) is a Cambridge (U.K.)-trained Sinologist. His specialisation on the intellectual history of Chinese/ Western exchanges around 1900 C.E.,5 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 turned6 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 C.E., 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, Eurocentric 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 C.E.), 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. Foreboding the later dependence of medieval European civilisation on Arab and Hebrew sources, Bernal claims a vital 'Afroasiatic' (or rather, African and Asian; Afroasiatic is only one of the language families likely to be involved) contribution to the very origins of the Greek, subsequently European, now North Atlantic, and increasingly global, civilisation.
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 deliberately unsubstantiated and scarcely referenced preview 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 C.E. The second line of argument, of which volume two has been the first instalment, presents the converging historical, archaeological, linguistic and mythological evidence for this indebtedness. This historical dependence is then symbolised by Bernal's re-reading (after Herodotos)7 of Athena, apparently the most ostentatiously Hellenic of ancient Greek deities, as a peripheral Greek emulation of the goddess Neith [ Nt ] 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 very discipline by an author who continues to insist on his outsidership, have often been viciously dismissive; 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 and puzzled by his aloofness from current debates not initiated by himself. And all complain of his lack of methodological, theoretical, and epistemological sophistication.
Where Bernal's central thesis was picked up most enthusiastically, 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 apparently only one step to the vision that Africa, the South, Black people, have civilised Europe, the North, White people. So far, this ideological triumph has been left without serious, methodologically acceptable, empirical substantiation, either from Bernal or the Afrocentrists. As I shall argue in Global Bee Flight it is far from obvious that ancient Egypt can be equated, by pars pro toto, with Africa, let alone sub-Saharan Africa; yet the Afrocentrist position should be vindicated despite its present methodological shortcomings: there have been very extensive interactions back and forth between Egypt and the rest of Africa, and these interactions has been crucial for global cultural history.
Coming from a White upper-class academician like Bernal, who is socially and somatically an outsider to Black issues, Black Athena's impact has been considerable. The book 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 much of the aggression levelled against Bernal is based on alarm over the politicising and erosion of scholarship in the face of militant Afrocentrism.
Given the phenomenal expansion of Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptological studies in the course of the twentieth century, we should not have needed Bernal, in the first place, to broadcast the insight of multicentred cultural development in the ancient eastern Mediterranean, and as a consequence the fact of classical Greek civilisation's indebtedness to West Asia and to northeastern Africa including Egypt. Ex oriente lux has been the slogan of an increasing number of students of the Ancient Near East since the beginning of the twentieth century.8 Also, Ex Oriente Lux has been, for decades, the name of the Dutch society for the study of the Ancient Near East, and of its journal.9 Mario Liverani10 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'.
However, the message concerning Europe's cultural indebtedness to the Ancient Near East 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. Even if Europe's great cultural indebtedness to the Ancient Near East is no longer the secret it was a hundred years ago, given the hostile reception this insight received right up to the 1980s Bernal may be admired for popularising this crucial insight. Black Athena has done a lot to make it available to circles thirsting for it while building and rebuilding their own identity. Meanwhile Bernal himself does not claim excessive originality for his views:
'...it 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'.11
Does 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 B.C.E., stand up to the methodological and factual tests of the various disciplines concerned?
3. ANCIENT GREECE'S CULTURAL INDEBTEDNESS
The controversial nature of the Black Athena thesis, combined with the unmistakable methodological and theoretical oddities of its author, have tempted many critics to resort to caricature when summarising Bernal's position. One such a caricature is that he tries to reduce Greek culture to the flotsam of intercontinental diffusion. However, the problematic of cultural creativity in a context of diffusion is far from lost on Martin Bernal,12 whose self-identification as a 'modified diffusionist' precisely seeks to capture the difference between the obsolete model of mechanical transmission and wholesale adoption of unaltered cultural elements from distant provenance, and the far more attractive model that insists on a local, creative transformation of the diffused material once it has arrived at the destination area. Despite his occasional Egyptocentric lapses into a view of diffusion as automatic and one-way, Bernal often shows that he is aware of the tensions between diffusion and transformative localisation:13
'While I am convinced that the vast majority of Greek mythological themes came from Egypt or Phoenicia, it is equally clear that their selection and treatment was characteristically Greek, and to that extent they did reflect Greek society.'14
Admittedly, part of the production systems, the
language, the gods and shrines, the myths, the magic and
astrology, the alphabet, the mathematics, the nautical and
trading skills, of the ancient Greeks were not their own original
inventions but had clearly identifiable antecedents among their
longer established cultural neighbours. Already the truncated
previews of prospective results in Black Athena I -
previews which should never have been seriously discussed before
their full argument in the Black Athena volumes yet to
be published - created heated debate as to the possible Egyptian
antecedents of classical Greek science and philosophy. Here
Bernal finds against not only implacable foes like Robert
Palter,15 but also the Egyptological archaeologist Trigger who is
otherwise very sympathetic to the Black Athena project as a
whole.16 The evidence from the Ancient Near East, however, has
also been read to support Bernal's view, and polemics concerning
the Afroasiatic roots of Greek philosophy and science have gained
prominence in the Black Athena debate.
4. THE BLACK ATHENA DEBATE
The publication of Black Athena II in 1991 meant not only a further increase of the number of disciplines involved in the debate,17 but also a marked change of tone. As long as the Black Athena project remained (as in Black Athena I) essentially a review of the image of Egypt in European intellectual history, the project was by and large welcomed for its solid foundation in scholarship, and critical sense of Eurocentric and racialist prejudices informing previous generations of classicists now long dead. Glen Bowersock, the leading American classicist, proved far from blind to the oddities even of Volume I, yet he could declare:
'This is an astonishing work, breathtakingly bold in conception and passionately written. It is the first of three projected volumes that are designed to undermine nothing less than the whole consensus of classical scholarship, built up over two hundred years, on the origins of ancient Greek civilization. (...) Bernal shows conclusively that our present perception of the Greeks was artificially pieced together between the late eighteenth century and the present. (...) Bernal's treatment of this theme is both excellent and important.'18
However, when Volume II was published four
years later, it addressed the specifics of eastern Mediterranean
ancient history - a topic constituting the life's work of
hundreds of living researchers. And it did so in a truly alarming
fashion, less well written than Volume I, invoking yet more
contentious Egyptian etymologies for ancient Greek proper names
and lexical items (yet many of them much sounder than the /Ht Nt
one), insisting on the cultic penetration not only of the goddess
Neith but of specific other Egyptian gods to the Aegean, relying
on mythological material as if whatever kernels of historical
fact this might contain could readily be identified, claiming
physical Egyptian presence in the Aegean by reference to
irrigation works, a monumental tumulus, and traditions of a Black
pharaoh's military campaign into Southeastern Europe and adjacent
Asia, playing havoc with the established chronologies of the
Ancient Near East, attributing the Mycenaean shaft graves to
Levantine invaders identified as early Hyksos yet bringing
Egyptian culture, and reiterating a sympathy for Afrocentrist
ideas which meanwhile had become rather more vocal and
politicised in the U.S.A. It was at this stage that many scholars
parted company with Bernal and that genuine and justified
scholarly critique was combined with right-wing political
contestation against the unwelcome, anti-Eurocentric,
intercultural and intercontinental message of the Black Athena
project as a whole - a development formalised and meant to be
finalised by the publication of Black Athena revisited in 1996.
One thing which Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, the editors of Black Athena revisited, have certainly managed to bring about, is a state of alarm and embarrassment among all scholars and lay people seriously interested in pursuing the perspectives which Martin Bernal has sought to open in the Black Athena volumes. The problem is a very real one in the context of my own current work, precisely because it is essentially sympathetic to Bernal's. How could one honestly and publicly continue to derive inspiration from an author whose work has been characterised in the following terms by a well-informed critic like Robert Palter:
'...those today who are seriously concerned with formulating a radical political critique of contemporary scholarship (...) might wish to think twice before associating themselves with the methods and claims of Bernal's work; (...) for his lapses in the most rudimentary requirements of sound historical study - traditional, critical, any kind of historical study - should make one wary of his grandiose historiographical pronouncements. (...) In the absence of adequate controls on evidence and argument, the view of history presented in Black Athena is continually on the verge of collapsing into sheer ideology.'19
Sarah Morris praises the critical self-reflection Black Athena has brought about among classicists, but finds this too dearly paid for in terms of unwarranted politicising of the scholarship of the Ancient Near East:
'On the other hand, it has bolstered, in ways not anticipated by the author, an Afrocentrist agenda which returns many debates to ground zero and demolishes decades of scrupulous research by excellent scholars such as Frank Snowden. An ugly cauldron of racism, recrimination, and verbal abuse has boiled up in different departments and disciplines; it has become impossible for professional Egyptologists to address the truth without abuse, and Bernal's arguments have only contributed to an avalanche of radical propaganda without basis in fact'.20
Below we shall refer to Mary Lefkowitz's, even
more fundamental, criticism to the effect that despite Bernal's
good intentions he is guilty of providing apparently serious,
scholarly fuel to what otherwise might have remained the
Afrocentrist straw fire.21
Yet all this cannot be the entire story. How else to account, for instance, for the praise which the prominent Egyptologist and archaeologist B.G. Trigger piles on Black Athena? He sees Martin Bernal's project certainly not as a mere exercise in consciousness-raising meant for Blacks in search of identity,22 but as a serious contribution to the history of archaeology - one of his own specialisms23 - and as a stimulating pointer at the possibilities of innovation in that discipline, which he considers to be bogged down by processual scientism.24 Yet even Trigger stresses Bernal's methodological inadequacies, rejects his contentious chronology particularly with regard to the Hyksos, and criticises the way in which he tends to take ancient myth as a statement of fact. Given the large numbers of both Egyptian and Greek myths, Trigger argues, it is easy for any scholar to take his pick and claim historical connections between selections from both sets - again the point of methodology, but we have already seen that with a better methodology Bernal's intuitions as far as myth analysis is concerned may yet be salvaged. Moreover, as an Egyptologist Trigger remains healthily unconvinced by Bernal's argument in favour of the possibility of extensive Asian and European campaigns by Senwosret I or III in the early second millennium B.C.E.
The factual, chronological and methodological chords struck by Trigger as a thoroughly sympathetic reviewer reverberate, with dissonants and fortissimi, throughout Black Athena revisited and the other venues of the Black Athena debate. Many complain of the defects and even of the absence of methodology in Bernal's writings. Yet such criticism often turns out to be difficult to substantiate, as is clear from the utterly unconvincing two methodological case studies which Palter includes in his well-taken overall critical argument.25 Meanwhile Edith Hall26 convincingly shows the methodological naïvety of Bernal's handling of mythical material. Yet Bernal prides himself precisely on the explicitly theoretical nature of his approach and his attention for factors relating to the sociology of knowledge, which, he argues27 constitutes the main difference between his work and, for instance, S. Morenz's Die Begegnung Europas mit Ägypten.28
Many critics have been appalled by what they consider to be Bernal's confusion of culture, ethnicity and race.29 They suspect him of a nineteenth-century, lapidary belief in physical displacements of people through migration and conquest as prime explanatory factors in cultural change. They also blame him for an unsystematic and linguistically incompetent handling of etymologies.
Many do not so much find fault with his specific points but simply - and clearly for reasons internal to their scientific discipline, rather than for political and ideological reasons - refuse to recognise his approach as legitimate, up-to-date ancient history.30 Thus also the prominent ancient historian Muhly,31 who summarises his methodological objections in Bernal's own words:
'it is difficult for the scholar without a discipline ''going it alone'', to know where to stop'.32
According to Baines, and in response to Bernal's claim of having effecting as much as a paradigm shift in the field of ancient history, the notion of paradigms may be scarcely applicable in the field of ancient history:
'Despite the extended applications of Kuhn's term that have appeared since the publication of his book [Kuhn's, i.e. The structure of scientific revolutions, o.c.], ancient Near Eastern studies are not a 'science' or a discipline in the Kuhnian sense. Rather, they are the sum of a range of methods and approaches applied to a great variety of materials from a particular geographical region and period; even definitions of the area and period are open to revision. So far as the ancient Near East relates to 'paradigms', these are, for example, theories of social complexity and change, or in other cases theories of literary form and discourse. This point is where Bernal's aims depart farthest from those of many specialists in ancient Near Eastern studies.'33
Many critics question whether Bernal's stated
intention of trying to understand Greek civilisation is sincere:
all they can see is an obsession with provenance, with
intercontinental cultural displacement, and with late 20th
century C.E. identity politics, but certainly no coherent and
empathic appreciation of the inner structure, the moral and
aesthetic orientations, religious experience and life world of
the ancient Egyptians, Levantines and Greeks.34 This is a valid
point, to which we shall come back below.
Despite the extensive, lightly referenced preview of expected findings of the subsequent volumes (a preview which attracted much more critical debate than it should have, considering its avowedly provisional nature) Black Athena I was primarily an exercise in the European history of ideas. Several critics find Bernal's treatment of what he alleges to be the undercurrent of Egyptian knowledge in European esoteric culture since Late Antiquity incompetent. It is difficult to say whether their dismissive response amounts to more than merely scholars' abhorrence at seeing 'pseudo-sciences' like astrology, geomancy, and alchemy, and invented traditions like freemasonry, raised to the respectable status of a vehicle for the secret transmission of ancient Egyptian knowledge.35 Of course, the latter characterisation sums up how many esoterists themselves have looked at the matter, across the centuries. From Late Antiquity to the Enlightenment, Europe's intellectual production was massively (not to say predominantly) in the esoteric field, leaving behind an enormous literature that very few scholars competently oversee; if Bernal is not one of these scholars his explorations are at least courageous and inspiring.
With the eighteenth and nineteenth century C.E. intellectual history we are on far more familiar grounds; here the specialists had little difficulty showing that some of Bernal's allegedly racist villains (Kant, Goethe, Lessing, Herder) were in fact the heroes of intercultural learning and tolerance modern intellectuals the world over have taken them to be.36 Josine Blok has offered a penetrating discussion of this dimension of Bernal's work.37 Bernal's limited command of German - which is already manifest from the appalling number of printing errors in the German entries of his bibliographies - may be partly responsible for his shortcomings on this point. Just like Egyptology does not transmit genetically but has to be mastered through hard study even if one is (like Martin Bernal) the grandson of one of Britain most prominent Egyptologists, for proper command of German it is not enough to have a German, half-Jewish, maternal grandmother.
5. CRITICAL THEMES
We may appreciate, at this point, a number of critical themes which apply to the Black Athena debate as a whole.
In the first place, the search for origins (which are often imperceptible anyway) belongs to the realm of parochial, ethnocentric identity construction more than to the realm of detached scholarship. Bernal argues - grosso modo convincingly despite too many errors in detail - how one particular view of ancient Greek history has served Eurocentric interests, but of course, his alternative inevitably serves other ideological interests, as demonstrated by his rapprochement to the Afrocentrist movement among Black intellectuals. Ironically, the very title and slogan Black Athena reveal that Bernal employs the language of race in order to drive home his anti-racist, anti-Eurocentric message; clearly there is some more liberation to be done here.
Secondly, identification of provenance does not
preclude the crucial importance of transformative localisation
after the borrowed cultural product has reached - as a process of
diffusion - its destination area. There is plenty of evidence
that Greek lexical items, the proper names of Gods, the myths in
which they feature, and elements of philosophy and science - as
well as many tangible traces of these cultural domains such as
enter the field of classical archaeology - do derive from Ancient
Near Eastern (including Egyptian) prototypes, but that does not
preclude at all that these cultural achievements, once arrived in
the Aegean, have gone through a complex and unpredictable local
history which truly made them into eminently Greek achievements.
This brings us to Bernal's central show-piece, the Greek goddess Athena herself. To the many etymologies of her name which scholarship has produced over the centuries38 Bernal has added a new one deriving from the ancient Egyptian //Ht Nt, 'temple of Neith'. Libyan Neith - who will feature prominently in the present book's argument - was a major Egyptian goddess in the Archaic period of ancient Egyptian history (3100-2700 B.C.E.) and went through a revival under the seventh century B.C.E. Twenty-sixth Dynasty from Saïs, when Greek mercenaries were prominent. Even though the specific //Ht Nt etymology for Athena must be considered effectively refuted on grounds of historical linguistics,39 the wealth of iconographic and semantic detail which Bernal adduces makes is quite conceivable that the link between the Greek goddess Athena, patron goddess of the major city of Greek civilisation in its heyday, and her Egyptian counterpart Neith, did go rather further than a mere superficial likeness cast in terms of the interpretatio graeca. Was the goddess Athena the product of the adoption, into some northern Mediterranean backwater, of splendid and time-honoured Egyptian cultural models - as a result of colonisation and military campaigns, of Hyksos penetration, of trade? Can such adoption serve as an emblem for far more massive Egyptian civilising action in the Aegean during the Bronze Age? Then why do we find so little of this in the archaeological record from the Bronze Age Aegean,40 the evidence for Egyptian influence on Minoan Crete and in Mycenean Greece being limited and indirect?41
Of course, part of Black Athena II42 is devoted to an argument to the effect that this paucity of archeaological vestiges is a myopic illusion, and an exhortation to read the available evidence with different eyes. But few specialists have been convinced.
What theory do we need in order to accommodate both the lexical and mythological continuities between ancient Egypt and the Aegean, and the lack of archaeological traces of such continuity? With what concrete ethnographic situation, with what specific social mechanism, does such a strangely selective process of cultural transmission correspond? Perhaps that of involuntary, temporary labour migrants from Crete to Middle and New Kingdom Egypt: indentured artisans (perhaps such as created the recently discovered Minoan frescoes at the Delta town of Avaris)43 staying long enough to have a fair amount of cultic (including mythological) and linguistic exposure, but at the same time too poor, too closely supervised, or too much under the spell of their own ethnic chauvinism, or of hitherto unnoticed religious prescriptions in Minoan Crete against foreign imports, to take any Egyptian artifacts back home.
The important point meanwhile is both to acknowledge the Egyptian, or in general Ancient Near Eastern, essential contributions to Greek classical civilisation (the argument of diffusion), and to recognise at the same time that Athena outgrew her presumable Egyptian origin, increasingly severing such Egyptian ties as she may once have had, integrating in the emergent local culture, and transforming in the process (the argument of subsequent localisation). She ended up as an important cultic focus and identity symbol of local cultural achievements which were, in the end, distinctively Greek.
The third observation to be made concerns
methodology. We have no direct knowledge of the pattern of the
past. If our historical pronouncements are scientific, it is
because they are based on the processing of all available
evidence in the light of explicit and repeatable methods and
procedures, before the international forum of academic peers. So
much for the outsider going it alone, like Bernal; he even
constructs himself to be an outsider to an extent impossible for
someone who, ever since 1984, has been a professor of Near
Eastern Studies at Cornell. His pride in reviving scholarly views
of the early twentieth century, his doggedly sticking to the /Ht
Nt-Athena etymology even while admitting that it can only be
sustained by a recourse to contingency, not systematic linguistic
law, in general his responsive overkill vis-à-vis his critics,
and the ready accusation (by reference to what Bernal monopolises
as 'the sociology of knowledge') of ulterior, Eurocentric or
racialist ideological motives as ultimate argument against his
many opponents - all this shows a strange mixture of empiricist
realism and political idealism, a shocking lack of method and
epistemology, and a reprehensible denial of the social,
collective component as a necessary for scholarship.
Yet method is not everything in scholarship, and often the most valuable insights derive, beyond pedestrian and routinised methods, from an intuition which after all, as Spinoza argued, is the highest form of knowledge. Bernal has an uncanny talent for sound intuitions which he subsequently backs up by sloppy methods. This is not as it should be, but it is eminently pardonable considering the alternative: grist-for-the-mill methodologically impeccable scholarship without real intellectual advancement. After several years of intensive participation in the Black Athena debate, in the course of which I have familiarised myself somewhat with Egyptian mythology and with the ancient Egyptian language, it is Bernal's claims in the mythological and etymological domain which, to my mind, stand out most convincingly.
'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!'44
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 1997 article 'Responses to Black
Athena'45 may convince the reader that, at least at the
qualitative level, the claim is not without grounds. But here
again it is the utter absence of an explicit and approved method
- ignorance even, apparently, of such methods are have been
developed in these fields - which produces unsystematic and
initially unconvincing results. Bernal's proposed etymologies
have to be browsed together from all over his published work in
the Black Athena line,46 and they usually remain at the level of
isolated lexical atoms, - for his greatest handicap after all is
(as I shall argue below) his lack of sociological and cultural
imagination which allows him to conjure up a coherent image of a
living culture, rather than a loose bundle of provenances that
have virtually died in transit.
By the same token, Bernal handles myth as if its historical contents is self-evident and non-problematic, and he seems to be entirely unaware of the great advances in the science of myth analysis since the nineteenth century. Again one would be inclined to be devastatingly dismissive on methodological and theoretical grounds. Yet I now find that I have to come back upon my earlier scepticism vis-à-vis Egyptian provenance, as expressed the final, excessively long footnote on the Erichthonios myth in my 1997 article on 'Alternative models of intercontinental interaction towards the earliest Cretan script'.47 Global Bee Flight's argument extends into detailed and theoretically informed analyses of the transformations of Egyptian (and Libyan) myths on their way into the Aegean and into Africa. I am now as convinced of the soundness of Bernal's general intuition on these points, as of the methodological defects of his specific analysis.48
The fourth observation to be made, finally,
concerns the mechanical juxtaposition of the Indo-European and
the Afroasiatic language families as if this would sum up all
there is to be said about cultural interactions in the ancient
eastern Mediterranean. The juxtaposition springs from Bernal's
obsession with language as a key to cultural history, which is
also responsible for the misnomer 'Afroasiatic roots of classical
Greek civilization'. The juxtaposition creates a sense of
'either/ or' which eminently befits the political rhetoric
underlying the Black Athena debate (Black versus White; radical
and liberation-orientated versus ethnocentric; the rest of the
world versus Europe) but which obscures such continuity as may
underlie the actual cultural and linguistic dynamics in this
region. More importantly, the cultural and linguistic landscape
of the ancient Near East turns out to include what so far, in the
Black Athena argument, has remained an uninvited guest: an
ancient Mediterranean linguistic and cultural substratum, wedging
in between Indo-European and Afroasiatic. Time and again
specialists have invoked this Mediterranean substratum for
etymological and religious reconstructions of the ancient
Mediterranean. It provides a far more convincing model of
cultural exchanges - within a region already displaying
fundamental continuities and similarities from Neolithic times -
than (as Bernal wants to have it) a simple diffusion, as late as
the Bronze Age, from one privileged source notably ancient Egypt.
Thus I find it much more attractive to view Athena and Neith as
closely related branches from a stem which, throughout the
ancient eastern Mediterranean, has produced Great Goddesses with
connotations of underworld, death, and violence - connotations
which were often (although not in Athena's case) emblematised in
bee symbolism. Global Bee Flight's argument - although
inspired by Bernal - effectively explodes the Black Athena
thesis, since it dissolves the very contradiction between
Indo-European and Afroasiatic as the source of Aegean
civilisation. It draws instead on the prehistoric interaction
between a sub-Saharan African cultural tradition with a
Mediterranean substratum which, contrary to the Afroasiatic one,
could not readily be relegated to an African provenance. It is
this interaction which produced the polity, culture and society
of ancient Egypt in the first place. Once in place, ancient
Egyptian culture in the course of three millennia exerted in its
turn (and with predictable feed-back phenomena given ancient
Egypt's cultural indebtedness to these regions) a major influence
on the eastern Mediterranean, and on northern and sub-Saharan
Africa; of these effects, Global Bee Flight will only
explore the sub-Saharan ones, especially in the fields of divine
kingship and myths.
6. TOWARDS A RE-ASSESSMENT - AND BEYOND
All this leads on to an overall constructive re-assessment of the Black Athena project.
Black Athena I was an eminently successful explosion of the Eurocentric myth of the autonomous origin of Greek civilisation - a liberating act of deconstruction of previous scholars' myths worthy of the greatest respect (and, incidentally, one in which specifically Bernal's skill as a trained historian employing an implicit but time-honoured methodology produced an argument largely49 away from myth).
Black Athena II, lacking such methodology, and venturing into a domain where the production, recirculation and reproduction of scholarly myth was only too tempting, has not yet produced the science it set out to produce. The great debate it has generated is essentially a struggle to formulate the conditions and the procedures under which Bernal's claims (or the alternative statements that can supersede them) can be allowed to be true; under which their myth content can be kept low. Even if meant to be destructive and dismissive, even the most critical reactions therefore are inherently constructive, and Bernal's later, specific responses (often more precise, clear, subtle and palatable than his original published statements), bring out once more the fact that scientific truth is the - usually ephemeral - product of a social process between peers.
What is needed is that his sheer unbearable, self-imposed burden is now shared with others, working under an epistemology more readily recognised as suitable to tell myth from truth, but within the spirit of Bernal's vision of interculturality and multicentredness as the central challenge of our age, and of his standards of interdisciplinary breadth and scholarly imagination.
If Martin Bernal produces truth inextricably mixed with myth; if his naïve epistemology is conducive to this; if he has not adopted more widely acceptable methodologies for mythical and etymological analysis; if his reconstruction of the modern history of ideas may be too schematic and partly wrong; if he shows himself more adept at the tracing of the trajectories of isolated cultural and religious items than at the understanding of the complexity of localising cultural and religious transformations; if there are a hundred other things more or less wrong with Black Athena, - then these are merely so many items for a research agenda that ought to keep as many of us as possible occupied well into the twenty-first century C.E.
In mid-life and without the required specialist academic training in classical and Ancient Near Eastern languages, archaeology, and ancient history, Martin Bernal has set himself a truly Herculean task. A fundamental dilemma has attended the Black Athena project from the beginning: its scope is far too comprehensive for one person, its political, ideological and moral implications are far too complex than that one person could possibly be trusted to thresh them all out. Whatever error has crept in is more than compensated by his scope of vision, which made him realise that, inside as well as outside scholarship, creating a viable and acceptable alternative to Eurocentrism is the most important intellectual challenge of our time.
One obvious strategy for reducing the state of alarm which Black Athena has brought about among specialists on ancient Greece and the Ancient Near East, has been to try and refute the details of its scholarship, and to subsequently, smugly, withdraw from the debate. The other way out, and one which I passionately advocate, is to continue in the spirit of Martin Bernal's project, with vastly increased personal, disciplinary, financial and temporal resources, and see where this will lead us: far beyond the Black Athena thesis, no doubt, but with new inspiring questions towards a new understanding of the ancient world, and more effectively equipped for our global future.
(c) 1999 Wim van Binsbergen
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|view an article: 'Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment' -- the original leading article from TALANTA XXVIII-XXIX (1996-1997)|
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