The pre-Greek Roots of Western Culture

In intellectual history, and in etymological dictionaries, Classical Greece is usually the bedrock. The origins of Hellenic language and culture are supposed to lie in the second millenium B.C., when Indo-European-speaking invaders swept down into Greece from the North, and ultimately brought logic and democracy to the decadent Mediterranean.

In "Black Athena", Martin Bernal agrees that the Greek language came with invaders from the North. However, he argues that classical Greek culture does not spring from the arrival of these Northerners, but rather from the subsequent imposition upon them of Semitic and Egyptian culture. This is supposed to have happened in the 18th century B.C. when the Hyksos invasion of Egypt overflowed into Crete, and on through the Aegean to Greece.

He attacks Classicists of the last two centuries for their whitewashing of classical Greece, and alleges that, assuming the racial superiority of Europeans, they ignored the swarthy races of the Western Mediterranean, and looked only at vigorous Northern barbarians as originators of Greek culture.

There are many detailed arguments and observations that Bernal assembles to justify his "Revised Ancient Model" of Greek origins.

The Hyksos: Normans of the ancient Middle East

Bernal draws analogies with with the Norman invasion of England, and the Hun invasion of Europe, noting that when a mobile and aggressive group expands, it usually ends up transmitting not its own culture, but that of the more established regions it has disrupted. Thus the (originally Scandinavian) Normans brought French culture into England, not Viking culture. Similarly, the Huns pushed German culture across the borders of the Roman Empire. Bernal postulates that the Hyksos, who originated in what is now Kurdistan and expanded into the Middle East, ended up transmitting Egypto-Semitic culture to Crete and Greece.

Linguistic remnants

Language follows culture. If Classical Greece was indeed founded by invaders and traders from the Levant, you would expect to find many of their words left like fossils in the Greek lexicon, just as the Vikings and Normans moulded English. Black Athena vols 1 and 2 are seeded with fascinating and controversial claims of Egyptian and Semitic etymologies for Greek words. However some of these have been vigorously contested in "Black Athena revisited"

The Thera Eruption

A small but interesting highlight is Bernal's detailed analysis of the recent realization that the volcanic Thera erruption, thought to have destroyed the Minoan civilization of Crete in about 1500-1450 B.C., actually happened 200 years earlier, in 1628 B.C. Most texts and museums (including the Thera exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology in Athens) still publicize the wrong date. The new dating is convenient for "Black Athena", because it places the break between the Cretan "Old Palace Period" and "New Palace Period" in about 1730 B.C., which is the time of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt. Since this break is associated with an intensification of Near-Eastern/Egyptian influences on Cretan culture, Bernal identifies this as evidence of a Hyksos-led invasion, which he supposes to have continued northwards from Crete into Greece.

In case this is not radical enough, he goes on to suggest that the eruption caused world-wide climatic disruption that led to the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. This contributed to the development of the new political idea that the "mandate of heaven" by which Chinese emperors ruled was something that could be withdrawn. This led to the Confucian idea that popular rebellion was the natural remedy for unjust government, which helped to make possible the Chinese communist revolution of 1949.

The Debate

"Black Athena"'s public reception has been extraordinarily varied. Afrocentrists have enthusiastically touted it as formal vindication of their beliefs, by a scholar at an Ivy league institution. Classicists and linguists ignored it for several years, but are now mounting a counter-offensive [ "Black Athena revisited" (Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, eds), "Not out of Africa" (Mary Lefkowitz), The WorldAgesArchive Black Athena debate ].

And then there are the rest of us, who may be attracted by the radical claims of "Black Athena", but are in no position to judge them. It seems intensely plausible that the great Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations should have strongly influenced the later-emerging Greeks. However it is not clear whether what we marvel at in ancient Greek culture is due to their inheritance from the East, or their development of (against?) it. It is not even clear that this distinction can be made in any systematic way.

Part of the problem is that the "conventional" view itself is changing as the debate unfolds. It is being admitted (see Walther Burkett's "The orientalizing revolution", and Amelie Kuhrt reviewing Martin West's "The East Face of Helicon" in Times Literary Supplement, 29 May 1998) that nineteenth century classicists did develop and promulgate a purified picture of classical Greece, ignoring its less noble qualities, and its cultural debt to the high civilizations of antiquity. Perhaps classicists may end up embracing the spirit of Black Athena, no matter how many of its explicit claims they reject.

Copyright © Mark Alford (1997)


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