Black Athena

IssueJune 2010
Feature by Matthew Biddle

Much of our understanding of the world and its peoples is based on sometimes unconsciously- absorbed accounts of history.

When Martin Bernal first published Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization in 1987, he set out to show the impact Egyptians and other dark-skinned peoples had on Greek civilization, a history he argued had been covered up by classics scholars for largely racist reasons. Understandably, the academic community launched intense criticisms and attacks on Black Athena and its succeeding two volumes.

Dark roots

Black Athena is both historical and historiographical, analysing not just the evidence, but also accounts written by other historians. Bernal attempts to rewrite the origins of ancient Greece and show through archaeological, documentary and linguistic evidence how Egyptian and Semitic civilizations played a role in its development.

“Greece and Rome have been used as European theme parks,” Bernal said, emphasising how historical accounts of this period published prior to his book are typically Eurocentric.

According to Bernal, however, this was not always the case. Throughout Black Athena, Bernal argues that the ancient Greeks themselves acknowledged the Egyptian influence on their society. Bernal argued that this view held up until the 1820s and 1830s when outside forces like the revival of Christianity, Romanticism, and persistent racism forced the narrative to change. Around that time, the “Aryan model” currently used today was introduced.

Even Bernal’s opponents acknowledge that classicists have generally isolated discussions on ancient Greece throughout the past few centuries.

Mary Lefkowitz, a professor at Wellesley College in the United States, praised Bernal’s discussion of Greece as part of an entire Mediterranean culture, rather than putting it on a pedestal. “It’s always good to question assumptions,” she said. “It made us all rethink – it certainly made me think in new ways.”

Hidden history

Bernal, however, went a step further, claiming Greek ties with Egypt were hidden because of the racism of classical historians.

Classicists were offended by this notion, further igniting controversy over Bernal’s work.

Lefkowitz noticed that some of her students began to think they were being told lies about classical history, which she said was certainly not the case. In Black Athena Revisited, a book of critiques that she edited, she wrote: “Classicists are historians who try to look at the past critically, without prejudice of any kind, so far as humanly possible.”

Moreover, John Baines, a professor at Oxford University and contributor to Black Athena Revisited, said: “Whatever direction such [racial] arguments come from, including arguing from the perspective of the oppressed, they assume that people are the prisoners of their background and often circumvent addressing the arguments and evidence themselves.”

Lefkowitz said to suggest a conspiracy theory intended to solely focus on European influences on Greeks is to “exaggerate widely”. Moreover, according to Lefkowitz, Bernal was biased himself, choosing to focus less on Egyptian influences on Greece and more on Greeks borrowing – or rather stealing – from the Egyptians, thus shifting the focus of his narrative.

Bernal and his critics differed on the evidence he used. For instance, most classicists felt his linguistics evidence was not strong enough.

Noting that less than 40% of Greek words are known to have derived from Indo-European languages, Bernal said: “I can provide plausible, but not certain, etymologies for Greek words.”

Meanwhile, according to Lefkowitz, simply because these words are not derived from Indo-European languages does not mean they have Egyptian or Semitic origins. “He ignores all of the scientific work that’s been done,” she said, arguing these words could have developed from lost languages.


There was also controversy of Bernal’s use of myths as evidence. Lefkowitz charged that Bernal used myths incorrectly.

“Myths can tell you where things happen, but it can’t tell you what happened in those places,” she said. According to Lefkowitz, myths cannot show cultural exchange or validate archaeological evidence, both of which are necessary to prove Bernal’s thesis.

Despite criticism from academics, Bernal said he found great support from those outside that community. Untrained in the classical field, Bernal said some classicists might have felt he was poaching on their territory.

On the other hand, Lefkowitz argued Bernal received most support from non-academics because they liked the idea of his books and could not analyse or criticise his evidence.

Black Athena Revisited was released in 1996. “The people that attacked me chose the most violent and effective criticisms,” Bernal said. “With Black Athena Revisited, I had no way of getting an immediate response out.”

Bernal was finally able to adequately respond with Black Athena Writes Back in 2001.

Many other essays, articles and interviews have been printed since the first volume appeared more than 20 years ago.

Ongoing debate

Black Athena was relatively successful for an academic publication. It sold approximately 65,000 copies in the US and 5,000 in Britain, Bernal said. The book continues to impact research and academics. So far, it has been published in ten languages and is still being translated into more.

Warwick University classicist Daniel Orrells organized a conference in 2008 to reconsider Bernal’s work, and African Athena, edited by Orrells, will be published later this year.

Lefkowitz said the Black Athena debate was one of the most interesting things she’s been involved in during her academic career. “There’s nothing more valuable than discussions, but I wish the discussion could have preceded without accusations of racism and prejudice,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bernal said he found this project and his research fulfilling: “What I really enjoy is looking up two etymologies and making connections. It’s intellectually rewarding.”

Bernal is also confident his ideas will eventually become widely accepted. He said: “Even though the ideas I’m putting forward will succeed, I won’t be attached to them, I won’t get credit.”

Topics: History, Culture