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Black Athena

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Black Athena

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization
Author Martin Bernal
Country United States
Language English
Subject Ancient Greece
Genre History
Publication date
Media type Print

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, its three volumes first published in 1987, 1991, and 2006 respectively, is a scholarly work by Martin Bernal. He discusses ancient Greece in a new light. Bernal's controversial thesis discusses the perception of ancient Greece in relation to Greece's African and Asiatic neighbors, especially the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians who, he believes, colonized ancient Greece.

Bernal proposes that a change in the Western perception of Greece took place from the 18th century onward and that this change fostered a subsequent denial by Western academia of any significant African and Phoenician influence on ancient Greek civilization.


  • The thesis 1
    • The origins of Ancient Greek civilization 1.1
    • The ideologies of classical scholarship 1.2
  • Reception 2
  • Editions of Black Athena 3
    • Volume 1 3.1
    • Volume 2 3.2
    • Volume 3 3.3
  • 4 Books and articles about Black Athena
    • Selected publications 4.1
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7

The thesis

The origins of Ancient Greek civilization

An archaic Greek Kouros from Thebes in the so-called Orientalizing style.

Bernal rejects the theory that Greek civilization was founded by Indo-European settlers from Central Europe; that theory (which Bernal calls the Aryan model) became generally accepted during the 19th century. Bernal defends instead what he calls the Ancient model; the name refers to the fact that both Egyptian and Phoenician influences on the Greek world were widely accepted in Antiquity.

Bernal discusses Aeschylus's play The Suppliants, which describes the arrival in Argos from Egypt of the Danaids, daughters of Danaus. Cadmus was believed to have introduced the Phoenician alphabet to Greece. Herodotus also mentions Eastern influences.[1] Thucydides did not, which Bernal explains with his nationalistic wish to set up a sharp distinction between Greeks and barbarians. Plutarch attacked Herodotus' view that the Greeks had learned from barbarians. Yet Alexander the Great was very interested in Egypt; Plutarch himself wrote a work On Isis and Osiris, part of the Moralia, which is a major source on Egypt. Admiration for Egypt was widespread in the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations, especially in the Neoplatonic school. Hermeticism was based on writings attributed to Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus, the so-called Hermetica or Hermetic corpus. These pro-Egyptian currents influenced Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as Renaissance figures such as Copernicus, Ficino and Giordano Bruno. Demonstrated in 1614 that the Hermetic corpus was not very ancient at all and originated in late antiquity, though more recent scholarship has established that parts of it do probably have a Pharaonic origin. Casaubon's textual analysis partly discredited the Hermetic corpus, but Bernal maintained that respect for Ancient Egypt survived and contributed to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. The Freemasons are particularly relevant.

Bernal traces thus the influence from the Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians to the Ancient Greeks, and a tradition of acknowledgement of those links from Antiquity to the Enlightenment.

Bernal uses linguistic evidence to support his claim of a link between Ancient Greece and earlier Egyptians and Phoenicians civilizations. It is widely accepted that the Classical Greek language arose from the Proto-Greek language with influences from the Anatolian languages that were spoken nearby, and the culture is assumed to have developed from a comparable amalgamation of elements.

However, Bernal emphasizes African elements in Ancient Near Eastern culture and denounces the alleged Eurocentrism of 19th and 20th century research, including the very slogan "Ex Oriente Lux" of Orientalists which, according to Bernal, betrays "the Western appropriation of ancient Near Eastern culture for the sake of its own development" (p. 423).

Bernal proposes instead that Greek evolved from the contact between an Indo-European language and culturally influential Egyptian and Semitic languages. He cites many examples of Egyptian or Semitic roots for Greek words, including some words with currently accepted Indo-European etymologies. Bernal places the introduction of the Greek alphabet (unattested before 750 BC) between 1800 and 1400 BC, and the poet Hesiod in the tenth century.

The ideologies of classical scholarship

The first volume of Black Athena describes in detail Bernal's views on how the Ancient model acknowledging Egyptian and Phoenician influences on Greece came under attack during the 18th and 19th centuries. Bernal concentrates on four interrelated forces: the Christian reaction, the idea of progress, racism and Romantic Hellenism.[2]

The Christian reaction. Already Martin Luther had fought the Church of Rome with the Greek Testament. Greek was seen as a sacred Christian tongue which Protestants could plausibly claim was more Christian than Latin. Many French students of Ancient Greece in the 17th century were brought up as Huguenots.[3] The study of Ancient Greece especially in Protestant countries created an alliance between Greece and Protestant Christianity which tended to exclude other influences.

The idea of progress. The antiquity of Egypt and Mesopotamia had previously made those civilizations particularly worthy of respect and admiration, but the emergence of the idea of progress portrayed later civilizations as more advanced and therefore better. Earlier cultures came to be seen as based on superstition and dogmatism.

Racism. The Atlantic slave trade and later European colonialism required the intellectual justification of racism. It became paramount to divorce Africans and Africa from high civilisation, and Egypt from Africa itself. Ancient Greeks would be divorced from Ancient Egypt through the concept of the Greek Miracle, and would be reclaimed as whites and Europeans.

Romanticism. Romantics saw humans as essentially divided in national or ethnic groups. The German philosopher Herder encouraged Germans to be proud of their origins, their language and their national characteristics or national genius. Romantics longed for small, virtuous and "pure" communities in remote and cold places: Switzerland, North Germany and Scotland. When considering the past, their natural choice was Greece. The Philhellenic movement led to new archaeological discoveries as well contributing to the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman empire. Most Philhellenes were Romantics and Protestants.


The book also ignited a debate in the academic community. While some reviewers contend that studies of the origin of Greek civilization were tainted by a foundation of 19th century racism, many have criticized Bernal for what they perceive to be the speculative nature of his hypothesis, unsystematic and linguistically incompetent handling of etymologies and a naive handling of ancient myth and historiography. The claims made in Black Athena were heavily questioned inter alia in Black Athena Revisited (1996), a collection of essays edited by Mary Lefkowitz and her colleague Guy MacLean Rogers.[4]

Critics voice their strongest doubts over Bernal's approach to language and word derivations (etymologies). Cambridge Egyptologist John D. Ray has accused Bernal's work of having a confirmation bias.[5] Edith Hall compares Bernal's thesis to the myth of the Olympian gods overwhelming the Titans and Giants, which was once thought of as a historical recollection of Homo sapiens taking over from Neanderthal man. She asserts that this historical approach to myth firmly belongs in the nineteenth century.[6]

Others have challenged the lack of archaeological evidence for Bernal's thesis. Egyptologist James Weinstein points out that there is very little evidence that the ancient Egyptians were a colonizing people in the third millennium and second millennium BC.[7] Furthermore, there is no evidence for Egyptian colonies of any sort in the Aegean world. Weinstein accuses Bernal of relying primarily on his interpretations of Greek myths as well as distorted interpretations of the archaeological and historical data.[7]

In 2001 Bernal published Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to Critics as a response to criticism of his earlier works.

Thomas McEvilley concluded in 2002 that while Bernal's "analysis of earlier periods of anti-Semitic attitude in regard to ancient Near Eastern culture may remain valuable, his derive Greek philosophy from Africa seems so glaringly unsupported by evidence that it is likely to pass without leaving a trace."[8]

Editions of Black Athena

Volume 1

  • Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Rutgers University Press (1987) ISBN 0-8135-1277-8)
  • Black Athena: Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 Vol. 1 (Paperback) Vintage; New Ed edition (21 Nov 1991) ISBN 0-09-988780-0 ISBN 978-0099887805
  • Black Athena: Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 Vol. 1 (Paperback) Free Association Books (29 Nov 2004) ISBN 0-946960-56-9 ISBN 978-0946960569

Volume 2

  • Black Athena: Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence Vol. 2 (Paperback) Publisher: Free Association Books (1 Jan 1991) ISBN 1-85343-054-4 ISBN 978-1853430541
  • Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Vol. 2 (Hardcover) Rutgers University Press (Jul 1991) ISBN 0-8135-1584-X ISBN 978-0813515847

Volume 3

  • Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence Vol. 3 (Hardcover) Rutgers University Press (25 Nov 2006) ISBN 0-8135-3655-3 ISBN 978-0813536552
  • Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence Free Association Books (1 Feb 2006) ISBN 1-85343-799-9 ISBN 978-1853437991

Books and articles about Black Athena

  • Black Athena 2: History without Rules. Robert L. Pounder The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 461–464 doi:10.2307/2165728.
  • Mary R. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, 1997, ISBN 0-465-09838-X ISBN 978-0465098385
  • Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (eds.), Black Athena Revisited, 1996., ISBN 0-8078-4555-8 ISBN 978-0807845554
  • Mary R. Lefkowitz, History Lesson, 2008, ISBN 0-300-12659-X ISBN 978-0300126594
  • John R. Lenz, "Ancient Histories and Modern Humanities", Free Inquiry 13.4 (Fall 1993), pp. 54-55 [2]
  • Martin Bernal, Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics, 2001.
  • Jacques Berlinerblau, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals, 1999, ISBN 0-8135-2588-8 ISBN 978-0813525884
  • Michael Skupin. "Anacalypsis II: A review of Black Athena Vol. I and II by Martin Bernal." Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications, Vol. 20 (1991), p. 28-29.
  • Duncan Hallas, Absent Friends, Socialist Worker Review, 100 (1987)

Selected publications

What follows is a list of relevant publications listed on the website.

  • 1976 Chinese Socialism Before 1907, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  • 1987 Black Athena The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985. London: Free Association Books. and New Brunswick: Rutgers University.
  • 1988 "The British Utilitarians, Imperialism and the Fall of the Ancient Model," Culture and History 3: 98-127.
  • 1989 "Classics in Crisis: An Outsider's View In," Classics: A Discipline and Profession in Crisis? Ed. P. Culham and L. Edmunds. University Press of America. pp. 67–76.
  • "Black Athena and the APA." in "The Challenge of Black Athena" Special issue of Arethusa. pp. 17–37.
  • 1990 "Responses to Critical Reviews of Black Athena: Volume I: in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 3/1:111- 137.
  • Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of The Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
  • 1991 Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. London, Free Association Books; New Brunswick: Rutgers University.
  • 1992 "Animadversions on the Origins of Western Science," Isis 83, 4 (December): 596-607.
  • 1993 "Response", to "Dialogue: Martin Bernal's Black Athena." Journal of Women's History 4.3, (Winter):119-135.
  • "Phoenician Politics and Egyptian Justice in Ancient Greece." in Kurt Raaflaub ed. Anfänge politischen Denkens in der Antike: nahöstliochen Kulturen und die Griechen. Schriften des Historischen Kollegs. Kolloquien 24. München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag. pp. 241–252.
  • "Reply to L. A. Trittle," Liverpool Classical Monthly 18.2: whole issue.
  • 1994 "Response to Robert Palter," History of Science 32:1-20.
  • 1995 "Race, Class and Gender in the Formation of The Aryan Model of Greek Origins." South Atlantic Quarterly. 94.4. (Fall): 987-1008.
  • "Politically Correct: Mythologies of Neo-Conservatism in the American Academy," New Political Science. 38/39:17-28.
  • 1997 "Responses to Black Athena." Black Athena: Ten Years After. Special edition of Talanta vols. 28 and 29. pp. 65–99, 165-173 and 209-219.
  • 2005 "Martin Bernal," by Kinohi Nishikawa. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature. Ed. Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr. 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 114-15.
  • Journal of Arethusa.

See also


  1. ^ Herodotus, The Histories, Book V
  2. ^ Volume 1, Chapter 4.
  3. ^ H. Lloyds-Jones. Classical Survivals: The Classics in the Modern World. London 1982, page 19. As quoted by Bernal, Black Athena, Vol. 1, Chapter 4, note 10.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Interview with John Ray, at 5:29,
  6. ^ Interview with Edith Hall, at 3:19,
  7. ^ a b Interview with James Weinstein, at 2:16,
  8. ^ Thomas McEvilley. The Shape of Ancient Thought. New York 2002, page 666

External links

  • Black Athena website
  • Bernal reviews Lefkowitz's "Not out of Africa"
  • Josine H. Blok, "Proof and Persuasion in Black Athena: The Case of K. O. Müller", in: Journal of the History of Ideas 57.4 (1996) 705-724; a critical look at Bernal's historiography.
  • Ancient Histories and Modern Humanities by John R. Lenz (Drew University)
  • With Black Athena into the third millennium CE? by Wim van Binsbergen
  • The Black Athena Debate from The World Ages Archive, a website operated by Meres J. Weche, who says "The aim of the World Ages Archive is to provide an extensive web-based reference for the study of ancient chronological revisionist, catastrophist..."
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