Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Volume II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence, by Martin Bernal (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991). xxxiii + 736 pp. $60.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.Not since the Old Testament has a book about the second millenium B.C.E. generated as much controversy as Black Athena. The second volume of this projected four-volume work arouses equal degrees of awe and skepticism.
In Black Athena, Martin Bernal attempts to derive Greek civilization and language from Egypt and the Semitic Near East. Volume 1 (1987) argues that Western scholarship, operating under an "Aryan (i.e. Indo-European) Model," has excluded such contributions. Attributing this to racist impulses, Bernal countered (in kind) that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. His work thus complements the wider phenomenon of Afrocentrism.
More know the book's title than its arguments. Black Athena, volume 2 is extremely heavy going and problematic. Informative and generally reasonable in tone, its scope and ambition put the work of most scholars to shame. Even hoary antiquarians will learn things, and other dedicated readers will be led into the fascinating alleyways of Aegean (and Chinese) prehistory. Everyone, however, should read this work with extreme caution.
So radical is Bernal's ambition that much in the book eludes proof. Etymology--the heart of his case--is a notoriously slippery area. Bernal proposes many Egyptian or Semitic roots for Greek words, including such central concepts as psyche (soul) and hybris (pride). He gives some striking examples. Some interesting and some obscure aspects of Greek names and myths are illuminated. However, the fits, as he honestly admits, are usually loose ones, based on a grab-bag of roots that look or sound alike. Compelling as all this potentially is, there is just too much piling on of weak cases and no real method.
Much of the archaeology is, likewise, awesomely bold but hard to swallow. Bernal wishes to weave a complex web of populations and cultural borrowings in the Aegean Bronze Age. Such questions have long been the stuff of archaeology; the "Pax Aegyptiaca" is no new idea. But Bernal rightly resurrects many examples that have been minimized or overlooked from a Hellenocentric perspective. This is important. How many universities even offer courses on the ancient Near East and Egypt? How often do we hear Egyptian art unfairly disparaged by comparison with Greek? However, Bernal's blunt reconstructions go much further than warranted. In fact he rejects a model of multiculturalism in favor of a scenario of widespread Egyptian colonization and domination. For example, reshuffling myth-history, he alleges Egyptian settlement of Bronze Age Crete and Greece c. 1730 B.C.E.
Bernal's method is a misplaced materialism. He traces Chinese political theory (the ruler's "Mandate from Heaven") to a Greek volcanic cataclysm: "China today still bears the marks of the Thera eruption" (now dated c. 1628 B.C.E.). (Moses's parting of the seas and Plato's myth of Atlantis he indirectly connects with the same event.) Did atmospheric disturbances from Krakatoa's eruption really "have an impact on the development of Impressionism"? If you like such causal fancies, you will love the dense historical drama/espionage of Black Athena.
Aside from numerous questions of detail, two major problems flaw the core of the author's desire to erect a new paradigm. How far does he explain Greek culture, and does he do justice to the interaction of different cultures and to the cause of multiculturalism itself?
Frustrated with a sacred-cow Classicism, Bernal (the grandson of the Egyptologist A. Gardiner), only attacks Classical Greece at some remove: he combs the Aegean Bronze Age, c. 3000 to 1150 B.C.E., in order to derive Greek culture (a vast animal in time, space, and thought) from Near Eastern ones of that time. But from c. 1150 to 750 B.C.E. Greece experienced a Dark Age. Deriving the succeeding Greek city-state culture from the earlier Mycenaean palace civilization (whatever its origins) is problematic. Bernal's solution involves idiosyncratic redatings, e.g. placing the introduction of the Greek alphabet (unattested before 775 B.C.E. or later) between 1800 and 1400 B.C.E. and the poet Hesiod in the tenth century. These heavy-handed moves neither sufficiently bridge the divide of the Dark Age, nor answer the many difficult and subtle questions about the development of Greek civilization both from within and without.
There is a more serious, general objection. Suppose (as the author doesn't) that everything in the book were true: Egyptian settlement of Greece, Greek borrowings of language and ideas (e.g. Plato's) from Egypt. What would this explain? How far, for example, do we get in understanding Virgil by citing all of that great poet's borrowings from Homer? Wouldn't anything Plato wrote, short of taking dictation from Egyptian priests, bear his own stamp (and what about Socrates, who hardly left Athens)? In short, even if all of Bronze Age Greece were settled by Egyptians, we would still, immediately, have to say that the Egyptians in Greece were different from the Egyptians in Egypt. Glossing over deep questions of cultural change and identity, appropriating pieces here and there for one's own chosen peoples, is dangerous both politically and intellectually.
Bernal reminds us, and takes pride in demonstrating, that scholarship and politics (or ideology) can never be separated. His gadfly intent, "to lessen European cultural arrogance" and "to make conventionality have its cost," is most admirable (if itself somewhat conventional). But his own appeal to be faithful to the ancient traditions is rather disingenuous, since his "Revised Ancient Model" selects, rejects, and interprets from varied sources just as any historian must do.
Exposing others' preconceptions gives a false sense of security, when one remains blind to one's own. A theme of volume 1 was that we invent our ancestors (there, the ancient Greeks). Bernal answers by redefining the ancestors. Thus, like many revolutionaries, he does not condemn the system (namely the appropriation of the past for political purposes), but attempts to make it his own. Are black paradigmatic ancestors better (on principle) than European ones? Does a pharaoh in a black power pose really help the cause of Afro-American humanism (see Free Inquiry, Spring 1990) by replacing one elitism with another?
In my opinion, this trend does no service even to the intended cause. Deriving one culture from another (whether Europe from Greece or, in turn, Greece from Egypt) is not multiculturalism, but uniculturalism. (A strict Afrocentrism only takes Eurocentrism one step back, by maintaining, even requiring, a glorified view of the Greeks.) True multiculturalism recognizes the merits (and faults) of all peoples and cultures, and judges civilizations by other than their highest monuments. Wouldn't the Egyptian treatment of minorities be of concern to an Afrocentric perspective? Shouldn't the message be, you don't need the greatest or most powerful conquering ancestors to be worthy of human respect (today or in history)? Shouldn't a "politically correct" stance take some interest in the political and social systems of Egypt and Greece? We might ask, "How did the pharaohs treat their subjects?" or "Did Plato have totalitarian tendencies?"
Black Athena deserves respect for its broad ambition and inclusiveness. Terribly important in its aims, it remains highly problematic in methods and results, opening up new vistas rather than settling them. All should, while criticizing, widen their interests and sympathies. In a country that professes to live by ancient texts it knows shockingly little of, it is good to see the past taken seriously. But readers should approach this book in the same spirit of scholarly uncertainty in which, at its best, it is written.