Date: 21 Jan 1995 10:15:05 U
From: "Peter Piccione" <>

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.


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

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

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,

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

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 naive 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!

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, 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

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

Peter A. Piccione 1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637