Fabricating the Past

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Ellen Poteet

The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1775-1875
Volume 1 of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization
By Martin Bernal
Rutgers University Press, 1987 (575 PP.), $15 paper.

ALMOST ANY SURVEY of Western literature, art, polities or ideas—from almost any place on the political spectrum—will inevitably begin with ancient Greece. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena is no exception. But its claim that ancient Greece was influenced by and the successor to Egyptian and Semitic civilization and that, consequently, Western Europe has its roots south and east of the Mediterranean as well as in an idealized Aegean, marks a major break with standard models of ancient Greek history.

Blank Athena has attracted the attention of both classicists and non-classicists because of its broader attempt to demonstrate the racism inherent in European historical perceptions. The task Bernal sets for himself is nothing less than a review of both the ancient evidence concerning Greek origins and the manner in which that evidence has been interpreted by writers on the Greek world from the period of late antiquity down through the twentieth century.

Bernal uncovers a pattern of scholarship, starting in the late eighteenth century and embedded in the political aspirations of nineteenth-century imperialism that isolated ancient Greece from “unwanted” influences. By bringing the story of Greek civilization into the spheres of African and Asian history, Blanc Athena challenges ideas of a Greco-European native genius as well as frequently unquestioned divisions between East and West, non-European and European.

In this country in particular, where the Anglo-American myth lives an uneasy existence alongside a reality of many cultures in communication and tension with one another, the social and political significance of Black Athena is clear: invented tradition too often supports belief in a Western monolithic culture.

In order to clarify the imprint left by nineteenth-and twentieth-century classic is on images of ancient Greece, Bernal identifies three “models” for the origins of Greek cultures: the Ancient, the Aryan and the Broad Aryan. The Ancient Model is Bernal’s reconstruction of how the Greeks perceived their own early history.

The Greeks’ Own View

According to Bernal, the indigenous Greek population was assimilated into the culture of Egyptian and Phoenician invaders in the second millennium B.C. Bernal cites the linguistic evidence of ancient Egyptian etymologies for certain Greek words, as well as textual references in such authors as Herodotus, Aeschylus and Plato, to reconstruct early contacts between Greek, Egyptian and Semitic peoples.

This Ancient Model remained viable for some twenty-three centuries, during which both Greeks and then other Europeans acknowledged their debts to Egypt without self-consciousness.

But for the last two centuries, claims Bernal, classical scholarship has substituted a Westernized Aryan model in its place. The Aryan model arose out of the French Revolution and conservative backlashes to it Both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution upheld the rights of man, but man defined within the historical parameters of Western ideas about progress and rationalism.

In this context, Egypt’s distant past became less relevant while Greece’s reputation rose rapidly. Young German romantics, protective of their culture in the face of the energy released by France, sought out a distinctively German Volksgeist. Greece lay ready at hand to justify the search Friedrich Schlegel, building upon linguistic theories about the family of Indo-European languages, linked Greece with Germany, confidently asserting a bond of language, race and culture between the two.

With this convenient symbiosis of language and race in place, the Greco-Roman formulation could be manipulated to suit social definitions of race and racial purity. In an age of imperialist conquest over Africa and the East, divorcing Greece—and hence Europe—from Egyptian civilization made arguments for the white man’s burden simpler. Furthermore, as nineteenth-century Europe’s political climate turned increasingly against Jews, scholarship minimized contacts, through the Phoenicians, between Greek and Semitic cultures.

Recovering the Past

The Aryan model completely separated Greece from Africa and Asia Over the past forty years, Bernal notes, a Broad Aryan Model has undone some of this damage through its greater tolerance for studying ancient Greek and Judaic societies together. But studying the impact of Egypt and Africa upon Hellenism remains a more delicate matter.

Bernal’s first volume of research, then, makes clear how malleable Greece was—and is—to the political and cultural agendas of a particular period. The ambiguity of the textual record explains how later interpretations of the Greek world became as skewed as they did.

Ancient Greeks, in their desire to distinguish themselves from both non-Greeks and each other, had few qualms about fitting their interpretations of other cultures to their own needs and questions of the moment concerning their self-identity.

Herodotus, for example, could both criticize other Greek writers for their failure to sufficiently appreciate Egyptian culture— thereby underscoring his own superiority as an historian—and, simultaneously, condescendingly report that the Egyptians did everything differently’ from other men. Many European scholars, taking advantage of this ambivalence, wound up ignoring what this tension toward the “barbarians’ meant in Greek society.

But Bernal himself, for all his proof of the Greeks’ sense of their links with Egyptian and Phoenician societies, does not himself entirely escape the terms whereby nineteenth century classicists and ideologues used Greece as a rallying point for the European identity. His attention to the elusive question of origins—which societies came ‘first,” who had the most influence on whom, etc.—marginalize fundamental questions about the interaction between these different societies.

As a consequence, Bernal, much like his predecessors, theorizes Greece and Egypt as separate and distinct cultures: Greece, Western, Egypt, Eastern. While he inverts the standard Western imperialist view—in his account ‘exotic’ Egypt is the superior, primary influence on ‘Western’ Greece—he does not challenge the arbitrary cultural labels assigned to either one.

If, conversely, one posits Greece itself as more rooted in the Eastern Mediterranean than the West, the many examples of Greek recognition of African and Asian cultures reveal their common historical and cultural experiences.

The studies of cultural origins and of lived cultural interaction are necessarily dependent on one another, and Bernal’s conclusions regarding the first bear closely on the second. Origins, however, do not always fully explain the complexities of societies moving toward and away from each other, often simultaneously, in a given historical period. “Men,” says the Arab proverb, “resemble their own times more than they do their father.”

A Shifting Identity

Black Athena, therefore, has perhaps even broader implications for the undermining of the Eurocentric model than its thesis admits. For Greece, looking to Egypt and eastward refused the role of a western funnel for non-Western cultures. Only later did it become possible for Europeans to count Greece among the family skeletons.

Before the fifteenth century, “classical” studies in Europe were chiefly Latin. Florence, as late as 13%, had to import a Greek scholar from Constantinople to teach Greek Joannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), Germany’s first Greek scholar, studied Greek with Hebrew rather than as half of a Greco-Roman abstraction.

The dates are significant. Since at least the seventh century AD., Constantinople’s concerns were with its Eastern neighbors. Over the succeeding centuries, Byzantium fought for its identity among Persians and Arabs. Greek civilization, then, came west through non-European hands. It was, in some respects, as ‘exotic’ as the mystical religious ideas associated with Egyptian tradition.

When Bernal moves from Greek to European intellectual history, he presents his readers with a Western society in flux—one quite willing, as it conducted its query on self-identification, to draw from “outside” to find meaning “within.” He traces Egyptian influences on Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism in late antiquity, on German Hassidism and the heretical Cathars in the Middle Ages, on Hermeticism in the Renaissance, and on eighteenth-century Freemasonry.

I leave it to scholars of these fields to judge the extent of that influence. The point is that Greece served a similar purpose for early modern Europe. It was a foreign domain—an unconventional symbolism which served as an alternative to the status quo—on which a changing present might be better understood.

Itself not Western, the transmission of Greek culture brought with it a complex of influences from African, Judaic and Islamic sources. Moreover, contact between an emerging modern Europe and the East continued during the centuries of Moslem rule in Spain.

71he most pervasive influences of Semitic and African cultures on Europe are easily forgotten in their accepted familiarity. Islamic music, for example, coming via North Africa into Spain and Europe, gave the Western orchestra many of its instruments as well as helped to create an interest in orchestral composition for its own sake.

Bernal’s attention to this constantly—often contradictory framework of communication and transmission between lived cultures, more than his attention to which of these cultures was ‘first,’ gives his thesis weight.

For as important as it is to pay homage to what he refers to as “Egyptian and Oriental wisdom,’ such an investigation risks abstracting and a historicizing Afro-Asiatic cultures unless it is supplemented with an account of the continuous interactions between those cultures and their European counterparts. Indeed this interaction—and the European ‘debt” to Africa and Asia—.extends well past what ancient Greece transmitted or what second millennium B.C. Egyptian society produced.


The issues and problems raised by Black Athena contribute to recent discussions over literary and artistic canons. The choice of any canon in which Greek works figure as fountainheads involves choosing a layer of culture caught in a web of other societies.

Recognizing this, Bernal gives an exemplary review of nineteenth-century scholarship, when the academic elitism surrounding classical studies obstructed a more pluralistic vision of culture and society as well as, more specifically, of the history of Greece and Europe.

With a white European interpretation of ancient Greece upended, the work of non-Europeans is no longer so distant from the very Greek tradition that an imperialist mentality once hoped might definitively separate one people from all others.

The tragedy of Medea acquires anew forcefulness in Toni Morrison’s Beloved where, again, a woman is driven to sacrifice her own child in a world where she is excluded and where the death of a child is a mother’s last refuge in defense of her closest possession.

The Nigerian playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka gives an eloquent rendition of Euripides’ Bacchae in his play of the same name. He also incorporates into Death of the King’s Horseman the theme of ritual and social identity which was the foundation of Greek religion in the city-state And, in Soyinka’s The Road, dance and drama are interwoven much as in Greek tragedy.

Black Athena is, then, a book to be read with care for its insights into the ‘fabrication’ of ancient Greece and for its relevance to debates, in and out of academia, over cultural identity and diversity.

It is also a frustrating work. Bernal, in covering so many fields of knowledge in relatively brief space, is himself selective in the use and presentation of evidence. But he is not claiming the final word, and one of Black Athena’s strongest assets is its ability to serve as a widely researched basis for dialogue between disciplines.

After reading Black Athena there may be classicists who want, like Greta Garbo, to be alone, but as Bernal demonstrates, the privilege of isolation is a precarious and unreal one.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *