Report on the Black Athena Debate
at the American Historical Association Meetings, Chicago, 1995

by Peter A. Piccione, Ph.D.
© 2013, 1995. All Rights Reserved

In January 1995 the World History Association sponsored a public forum for debate among scholars and specialists on Martin G. Bernal's books, Black Athena, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago that year. At that time, I reported on the contents and discussions of that session to the subscribers of the ANE-List (now defunct), sponsored by The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago. Not long after, my comments were reposted on the web site Egyptology Resources at Cambridge University (http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/er/files/athena.html). Although I may have strongly disagreed with Prof. Bernal on his reductionist, and highly sensationalized arguments and conclusions, outside of the AHA sessions, he was a warm, gregarious and gracious man with a disarming sense of humor. As a grandson of the great Egyptologist, Sir Alan H. Gardiner, he was also a direct connection back to the early days of Egyptology with some good stories to tell. Indeed, the "G." in Martin G. Bernal stood for "Gardiner". Although he was not an Egyptologist himself, I suspected he always wanted to be one. He certainly gravitated toward that discipline in his later years at Cornell. He remarked to me that it was actually his grandfather, Sir Alan, who disuaded him as a young man from that path by telling him there was no money in that career. I do not know if the story is true. It probably is, because it was Sir Alan's personal fortune that funded his career, and when he died, he left the bulk his financial legacy to British Egyptology and Egyptological institutions. In any event, he did say rather drolly that in advancing his claims regarding "African Athena" (the original title of his book until it was changed by his publisher), he saw himself much as an academic "anarchist" (his own words). He seemed rather pleased with this notion, since it fit so well with his own liberal and very left wing social and political perspectives.

Martin Bernal passed away June 9, 2013. I take the opportunity out of respect to his legacy to repost my original comments here. He succeeded where Egyptologists and Near Eastern historians had despaired since the 1930's in getting Classical scholars to accept (albeit in some part) that the Hellenic world did not exist in a cultural vacuum, and that in its development, it was influenced to a degree by earlier Western Asian and Egyptian notions, technologies and ideas (the amount admittedly debatable). True, it was Egyptologist James Henry Breasted (see below) who first succeded in identifying influences from the ancient Near East on western civil and social origins, but no one has fired up the imaginations of so many people and raised the hackles of so many smug and complacent scholars as Martin Bernal has done since Breasted's days. Of course, where Bernal had erred in his anarchism was to minimize the Western Asian contribution and over-emphasize the Egyptian, making tenuous--often ludicrous--claims to Greek-Egyptian connections and asserting Egypt as a purely black African civilization (and hence a black African connection to ancient Greece), rather than the far more interesting and complex social and ethnologically heterogenous society that Egypt actually was.

Please note that the contact information listed below for me is woefully out of date and no longer works. If any scholar or colleague wishes to contact me, they should do so through regular Egyptological channels.

Date: 21 Jan 1995 10:15:05 U
From: "Peter Piccione" <peter_piccione@memphis-orinst.uchicago.edu>

This message is the first of a two-part report on the recent session at the AHA devoted to the topic of Black Athena. Part II will follow within a day. My apologies to any author whose papers I may have misconstrued or misrepresented.

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At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association earlier this month the session was convened entitled, "Black Athena." This session, co-sponsored by the World History Assn., was well attended with standing room only that stretched out the door and into the hallway. Most of the attendees seemed to be general historians or instructors of Western Civilization and World History. There was, at least, one Africanist who made himself known. There were probably some ancient/classical historians, although they did not identify themselves, and there were good numbers of African/African-American historians. Other than myself, there were no Egyptologists, and there was only one Near Eastern historian I recognized (a Hittitologist).

The moderator of the session, David R. Smith, acknowledged that the purpose of the session was to provide insight into a topic with which more and more world historians are having to come to terms (due to pressure from students, their departments, etc.). Indeed, I noted that some attendees brought well-thumbed copies of Black Athena to the session.

The three panelists consisted of: Stanley Burstein (Hellenistic historian specializing in, among other things, Ptolemaic Egypt), Eric Cline (Aegean authority specializing in Egypt's relations with Greece in the Bronze Age), and Pamela Gordon (classicist/historian specializing in Greek literature). Martin Bernal (a Sinologist specializing in -?-) provided comment, while Carol Thomas (an ancient historian) rendered counter-comment.

While Burstein and Cline both acknowledged that Bernal's conclusions were based upon a mammoth stack of details and arguments, many of which were outrightly wrong, they did not actually present a litany of these details and errors (which probably was for the best, given the nature of the forum and the backgrounds of the panelists and attendees). Indeed, everyone was quite conscious to stay away from attacking details and, instead, concerned themselves with Bernal's general approach and overall interpretations. It was all friendly and collegial. Bernal himself was charming, witty, and very polished with his audience. I noted that some attendees were already sympathetic or supportive of his notions.

I thought the papers of Burstein and Cline very cogent and well done. Burstein, speaking on "Egypt's Place in Greece," noted that in discussing Greco-Egyptian cultural relations, Bernal often ignored Greece's influence on later Egyptian intellectual thought; that the transmission of cultural influences was not in one direction only. He also argued that in devising his historiographical models (i.e., the Ancient Model, the Aryan Model, and the Modified Ancient Model), Bernal, himself, was underestimating and ignoring the extent to which the Ancient Model was still being debated into the twentieth century. I.e., Bernal's nineteenth-century cutoff date of the Ancient Model--due to the nationalistic/racist sentiments prevalent then-- was not as absolute as Bernal contends. Burstein also noted that Bernal failed to consider the "whitening" of ancient Egypt by nineteenth century American anthropologists in his Aryan Model. In his commentary, Bernal did concede these two points to Burstein.

Burstein and Cline agreed in that there were cultural and economic contacts between Egypt and Greece in the second millennium B.C. Burstein even described Egyptian elements appearing in Greek literature and thought; however, he contended, Bernal was making too much of these and misinterpreting them. Citing Bernal's misinterpretation of the Aegean name-list of King Amenhotep III, both Burstein and Cline faulted Bernal for positing that the level of Egyptian influence on Greece could ONLY have occurred with political and military dominance (viz., Bernal's notions that Egypt actually conquered and colonized Greece in the 12th Dynasty, followed later by the Hyksos, whom he contends were Indo-aryans). Here Burstein is absolutely correct; the notion that the Hyksos could be transmitters of Egyptian culture is utterly fatuous! (BTW, Bietak's archaeology at Tell ed-Daba shows that the Hyksos were northern Syrians, not Indo-aryans). Burstein concluded with two important remarks. He stated that while Bernal contends that the cultural relationship of Greece to Egypt was analogous to that of Vietnam and Korea to China, the notion of Egyptian-Greek cultural diffusion must also take into account the pre-existing value systems of the Greeks in accepting these influences and improving on them. Also, any exercise in identifying Egyptian elements in early Greek civilization still, when all is said and done, does not say much about the origins of Greek civilization.

Eric Cline's paper, "Bernal, Egyptians, and the Late Bronze Age Aegean," was a recapitulation of the cultural and economic contacts among Aegeans, Cretans, and Egyptians in the second millennium from a purely archaeological perspective. He concluded that these indicated a commercial/trading relationship, not one of politico-military hegemony. Among other things, he reiterated his argument that the Aegean name-list of Amenhotep III (from the latter's mortuary temple) suggests a formal Egyptian embassy sent by AIII to treat with a succession of Aegean states for commercial and political relations, not military conquest, which is Bernal's interpretation. He faulted Bernal for using the term "hegemony" in defining Egypt's relationship with the Aegean in the second millennium, instead of understanding this as a period marked by extensive trade and the exchange of ideas.

Pamela Gordon's paper, "An Ancient Model of Autochthonous Origin," argued for what she termed an "Alternate Ancient Model." Her paper tried to show that Bernal's Ancient Model was not as absolute among the Greeks as he contends. She described the process of how Greek notions of their own origins fluctuated from an early belief that they originated in Egypt and the Levant to a later more ethnocentric tradition of autochthony, i.e., the notion that the Greek-speaking people actually grew out of the native soil of Greece, which gave them a cultural identity separate from and superior to the East. She traced this change, as many hellenists do, to the Persian Wars when the Greek states were endangered by the very cultures they esteemed as their wise progenitors.

She described the myth of Checrops, the first king of Athens, who was born from a snake slithering under the earth, and who emerged from the ground after his birth. She noted that the early kings and deities in Greece were often physically assimilated to snakes in art and literature, a notion deriving from the autochthonous tradition. However, what Dr. Gordon did not say, and indeed what she may not know, is that the notion of the birth of the king or deity from the body of a snake under ground actually has well documented antecedents in Egyptian religious beliefs (q.v. P. Piccione, JARCE 27 [1990]: 43-52.). This theme occurs in the Book of Amduat and the Book of Gates, where the gods Horus, Sokar, Khepri, and Atum are born from the back of a serpent; Ra travels through a serpent's body and exits via the mouth as Khepri. Likewise, earlier in the Pyramid Texts, the deceased king is reborn into the afterlife after passing through a giant serpent's body and coming forth from its mouth. However, at this time, I am not asserting that the Athenians actually derived the method of their autochthonic generation from the Egyptians. That would require studying and comparing this theme in both cultures, as well as throughout the Near East. However, if they were influenced by Egyptian cosmology in their notion of self-generation, well that would be another example of borrowing from the Egyptians. END OF PART I

I. BERNAL'S COMMENTS. Bernal's own commentary on the panel dealt with the main points of each of the preceding papers, which I described in Part I. He reiterated his notion that in the second millennium B.C. all of the cultural influences in Greece were flowing from Egypt. He barely acknowledged Walter Burkert's work by noting merely that Burkert had indicated that some influences were also coming from western Asia. This was the one and only time, I recall, that The Orientalizing Revolution was mentioned--even indirectly--at the session! Bernal conceded that he had, indeed, neglected to consider nineteenth century American anthropologists who argued for the "whiteness" of the Egyptians. He stated very strongly that he "stands by his notion that the Egyptians were seen as 'white'" (in the nineteenth century and later). His argumentation here was a bit murky to me, but he excoriated those who argue the Egyptians were not black, claiming that modern blacks are enraged at the fact that while some anthropologists would apply the traditional criterion for miscegenation among African-Americans (i.e., one drop of negroid blood makes a person black), these same would also argue that the ancient Egyptians still were not black. This appeal to racism produced a very visceral reaction among certain of the audience. However, for me, Bernal's argument appeared to be a smoke-screen, since such nineteenth century racist notions actually have no relevance for the findings of modern biological anthropology, something Bernal did not deal with, despite that Carol Thomas referred to the important study on this issue by C. Brace, et al. (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 36 (1993): 1-31). He did, however, make a specious comment to the effect that certainly, "the ancient Egyptians were much darker than modern Egyptians" (which is, of course, insupportable).

Bernal contended that Burstein and Cline were incorrect in asserting that he relied upon the Aegean name-list of Amenhotep III to prove Egyptian hegemony over the Greek and Aegean world. Rather, he looked to Egyptian tomb reliefs depicting Mycenaeans and Cretans bearing tribute to the Egyptian king, in return for which they receive the "breath of life." This theme, he said, then meant that they were actually the subjects or under the suzerainty of the Egyptian king. (Did I groan when I heard that one!). He certainly stuck to his guns on this issue and refused to give up his notions about "hegemony," despite Burstein's and Cline's strong arguments to the contrary. He reiterated his notion that in her origins, Greece's cultural relationship with Egypt is analogous to Japan's relationship with China.

Interestingly, though, Martin Bernal is now ameliorating some of his earlier positions and is actually moving toward the middle ground. He admitted this point himself, and said it is reflected in the recently revised edition of Black Athena, vol. 2. E.g., he would now assert that the Aryan Model could be divided into three concurrent versions, each marked by varying degrees of contact and influence from Egypt: BROAD, which recognizes that the Greeks "broadly" knew the Egyptians; MEDIUM, which recognizes that the Greeks knew the Egyptians to an extent that was only "so-so;" EXTRA, which asserts that the Greeks did not know the Egyptians and, hence, were not influenced by them in any way (which is closest to his traditional Aryan Model). The nomenclature is Bernal's.

Bernal noted that Black Athena, vol. 3, will be published shortly, in which he demonstrates the Egyptian etymology of many Greek words. He believes that these words entered Greek vocabulary via the alleged Egyptian colonization of Greece in the second millennium B.C. This lexical borrowing would then account for the many Greek words denoted as "origin uncertain" in today's Greek dictionaries. He then intimated that Egyptologists had no problems with his linguistic analyses, citing John Ray's review-article (JMA 3/1 (1990): 77-81). The audience nodded its head in naïve agreement (as I groaned to myself again).

II. MY REACTIONS. In the discussion following the presentations, the comments were generally supportive and appreciative of Bernal's work and the notion of Egyptian influences in the development of Greek civilization. Thus, my comments--directed to the chair--came as a surprise to most. I noted that I had problems with the organization of the panel, since while they were all discussing the transmission of Egyptian "influences" in the second millennium, there was no one on the panel who could deal with these and understand them from the Egyptian perspective. I strongly faulted the session for not having a bona fide, mainstream Egyptologist on the panel who knew how to treat and interpret the Egyptological material. As an example, I remarked to Bernal that his reliance on tomb paintings that depict the presentation of "tribute" is inappropriate for positing an historical ruler-subject relationship. All first year Egyptology students, I explained, learn in their first art class that, in general, Egyptian art does NOT depict true historical reality, but is meant to convey notions about the ideal order of the universe and Egypt's central position there. Similarly, Egyptian battle reliefs--by themselves--would never be conclusive proof that a particular pharaoh fought and defeated the enemy depicted. Therefore, these "tribute" scenes, when coupled with notions regarding inw ("produce, tribute"--which is the word used to define the goods being offered), actually depict products of trade and commerce--consistent with Eric Cline's arguments for such in this time period. So, I reasoned, the panel would have benefitted by including an Egyptologist who was familiar with the subtleties of the Egyptian evidence. The chairman of the session replied that in organizing the panel, they did not know any Egyptologists to contact! [PAP: In retrospect this seemed an odd admission, since only seven miles to the south was one of the world's foremost Egyptological institutions, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago!]

Bernal replied to my remarks about Egyptian art by stating that he was well aware of the issues I raised, and if I had read his book, I'd have known that; he didn't want to deal with such details in this forum (I've actually read his book several times). Clearly, Bernal wants his cake and eat it, too. He wants to spread his interpretations through such fora that are composed of generalists and non-academics, yet where the organization of such does not permit the attacking and correction of his multitudinous Egyptological details. Surely, he did mention the forum held on this subject previously by the ARCE [American Research Center in Egypt], where Egyptologists were able to present their views. Still, I feel my objection remained valid; there were no Egyptologists at this session, where this particular audience of generalists was being informed. Later, one of the ancient historians on the panel expressed to me very little sympathy for my objection, noting that "everyone wants their discipline to be at the center," and that Egyptologists had their chance to respond to Bernal at the ARCE meeting!! Clearly, certain classicists and classical historians feel that this is an issue between them and Bernal only, and Near Eastern historians have only little to say or contribute.

I think some attendees at the session interpreted my comments as an attack on Bernal's position, which they weren't. As an Egyptologist and Near Eastern historian, I am quite sympathetic to arguments asserting that the Greek cities did not exist in a cultural vacuum, and that in their development they were influenced, to some extent, by Near Eastern notions and ideas (didn't James H. Breasted espouse this thesis as early as 1916 in Ancient Times, and thereafter in 1933 in the Dawn of Conscience?); however, I am persuaded by Burkert that the brunt of this influence comes from western Asia, and less so from Egypt.

Still, it is true that Egyptologists and Near Eastern historians have been knocking their heads against the wall for the last 78 years trying to get classical historians and academe, in general, to recognize Greece's debt to the Near East. Martin Bernal has finally caught their attention (true, because his work fuels the narcissism of Afro-centrism with all the highly charged emotions and political correctness which that entails). However, it's up to us, as Near Eastern specialists, to curb his excesses; to correct his overzealous interpretations, and push his work into proper perspective. Burkert's The Orientalizing Revolution is a good example of how to approach this subject. It is ironic, though, that the original German edition of the latter (1984) predates Black Athena (1987), and as reasonable and as erudite as it is, it has not caused any of the stir of Black Athena. Sadly, one wonders if the English translation of Burkert's study would even have been published, were it not for the stirrings of Black Athena.

Peter A. Piccione 1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637
e-mail: peter_piccione@memphis-orinst.uchicago.edu