This was written by me last year for my African Philosophy class.
A Look at the Black Athena
Greece is considered to be the origin of western thought by many modern thinkers. It is home to several great philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle amongst others. The reason for this increase in knowledge is unknown. Martin Bernal hypothesized that people from Nothern Africa, mainly the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, also Middle-Eastern peoples like the Philestines, influenced the art, philosophy and religion of classical Greece. The ideas that caused this change were mainly from the religions and practices of these ancient cultures. Bernal covers every sphere of this influence, from Roman Government officials to the classical philosophers of Ancient Greece. He also speaks of cultures older than this and very early contact from the people separated by the Mediterranean Sea. Bernal also claims that this idea is not widely known due to a racist suppression of these ideas. Mary Lefkowitz offers a counter-argument in her book Black Athena Revisited. She covers Bernal’s entire thesis with counter-points of her own. Both of them are working with very little source material and with no definite answer to their ideas.
Even though the idea of a black Athena might seem to be a modern idea, the concept goes back to the classical Greece that it influenced. The philosopher Plato acknowledged a kinship between the Greeks, and Egyptians, saying that Athens and the Egyptian city, Sais, had a genetic relationship. Plato also praises Egyptian art and music in two of his works, Philebos and Epinomis. Along with Socrates declared the Egyptian god Thoth the inventor of “Numbers and arithmetic and geometry … and most important of all letters…” The other fathers of classical thought felt the same as Plato, that the Greeks learned most of the basics of philosophy from the Egyptians. Plato modeled his guardians on the now ancient Egyptian priests. Bowls and other ancient artifacts dated back to this era were found in certain parts of Greece, such as Maecenae and Asine as well. The areas of Boiotia and Peloponnese received a major cultural influence from the hands of the Ancient Egyptians. This idea is not just one for the thinkers though, Eudoxos, a master of math and astronomy also felt the need to study Egypt. He even went so far as to shave his head and study with the Egyptian priests for sixteen months. Aristotle shared in this love and praise for the Egyptians. He called Egypt “The cradle of mathematics.”
Several historians wrote often on the Egyptians and their culture. The Greeks and Egyptians became so entwined around 330 B.C.E. that an ancient Egyptian historian and priest, Manetho, wrote a history of 33 Egyptian] dynasties in the Greek language. This text is still considered a prime text in the study of the classical world. Diodoros, another ancient historian, felt that Egypt was the source of human life, “And since Egypt is the country where mythology places the origin of the gods, where the earliest observations of the stars are said to have been made, and where, furthermore, many noteworthy deeds of great men are recorded.” Diodoros also questioned in some of his works as to whether some early Athenian kings were Egyptians, and other arguments showing a link between Athens and Egypt. Plutarch continued this idea by attacking Herodotos. Plutarch argues that several religious rituals and gods came from the Egyptians. He points out rituals for Demeter and Dionysos himself as prime examples of lifted ideas.
With the writings of Plutarch, Diodoros and Mametho do obvious their praise and position, it seems odd that so little is realized about this. Bernal explains that racism might be one possible cause. While Bernal admits that “the Egyptians were seen as both black and white or yellow.” While not being able to fall into a category like that may not be a bad thing, it wasn’t viewed in that way towards the Egyptians. Bernal calls Locke, Hume and Franklin racist, stating that, “They openly expressed popular opinions that dark skin colour was linked to moral and mental inferiority.” Bernal follows up this loaded statement with the question of whether their philosophy is a tainted or evil philosophy because of their thoughts and actions. Yet it was those people that Bernal mentioned for their shortcomings that had the most say in this discussion in their respective time periods. This backs up his claim that the roots of classical were covered up.
Philosophy and mathematics were by no means the only subjects touched by the Egyptians. Many religious aspects were taken from them as well. One example is the use of fish as a symbol in the old and new testaments. There is no mention of fish nor of any fish imagery in the Old Testament, yet the New Testament contains many places where the image of a fish is used. This is believed to be caused by the idea of the Philestine fish god Dogan. Eventhough the Egyptian religion was declared dead at the time, many believe that it had a large influence on Greek and Roman culture. During it’s height, even the wealthy government officials believed in the Egyptian religion and were a single sub-culture of Greece and Rome.
Martin Bernal brings up several good points with his essays. He showed the ideas and inspiration behind the classical period of Greece. Some people, such as Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers, disagree. In the book Black Athena Revisited they, along with several other authors, systematically counter Bernal’s argument. Lefkowitz starts by casting away Bernal’s ideas by saying that, because of misinterpretation, whether purposeful or not, there is no way to find out the true answer to this question. She follows this argument up by saying that Socrates had to be the ethnicity of the ancient Greeks because he was an Athenian citizen, and to be an Athenian citizen, one’s parents must also be Athenian citizens, and not foreigners. Lefkowitz also mentions how finding the true origins of ancient Greece might not be possible because of “The tendency of all modern cultures to make the Greeks like themselves, or at least to give priority to the aspects of Greek culture that they admire.” She follows this statement by pointing out that every nation or racial group would love to claim the ideas in classical Greece as their own, and that it is only natural that other groups, as they gained their own sense of identity, would hop into the bidding war and stake their claim on Greek history.
The closer people get to finding an answer for the origin of ancient Greek art, religion and thought, the farther an answer seems. Whether Egyptian, Philistinian or all original, no one can say for sure. Bernal offers a hypothesis for the former, claiming that Egyptians and other foreigners influenced all aspects of Greek society, whereas Lefkowitz argues for the latter, denouncing Bernal and shooting down the argument all together because no solid evidence has been found. What we do know is that ancient philosophers and thinkers did admire the Egyptians, along with other cultures, while they staked their own claim in the world. While Bernal has a point, that racism clouded people's minds on the subject, one wants to believe that it is not so in the world today, and that some proof must be out there, buried under the sands of Egypt, or the tough Grecian soil.
Black Athena, Martin Bernal. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1987
Black Athena Revisited, Edited by Mary Lefkowitz & Guy Rogers, The University of North Carolina Press, 1996
Black Athena Volume II, Martin Bernal, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1991
Page 106, Black Athena, Martin Bernal
Page 108, Black Athena, Martin Bernal
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Page 202, Black Athena, Martin Bernal
Page 6, Black Athena Revisited, Mary Lefkowitz