Saturday, May 24, 2008


So, today a treat I'd ordered for myself arrived in the mail, the third and final volume of Martin Bernal's BLACK ATHENA. The first volume of this was one of the books I inherited from Taum back in 1991; I think he'd been attracted by the linguistic element in Bernal's argument, though I don't think he wound up reading more than the first thirty pages or so. I, on the other hand, was more interested in the historical argument and the promise -- made in the lengthy (fifty-page) synopsis of the whole appearing in the Introduction to that first installment -- that the third volume would focus on links between Classical and Egyptian mythology.

Having read Bernal's book, I not only found his thesis thought-provoking but became interested in the controversy that came to surround it. In the years that followed, I read not only the second volume of Bernal's book when it eventually came out but also Mary Lefkowitz's snarky rebuttal NOT OUT OF AFRICA as well as the collection of anti-Bernal essays she co-editing w. Guy McLean Rogers (BLACK ATHENA REVISITED), Bernal's massively detailed point-by-point reply (BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK), and even Bernal's CADMEAN LETTERS, a sort of short simple preamble to his main argument published years before (and an excellent example in miniature of Bernal's method).

While having no interest whatsoever in Afrocentrism -- which I find a rather dubious doctrine -- I do enjoy reading iconoclastic books which attempt to re-examine the assumptions underlying a field or which challenge 'conventional wisdom' on a particular topic, especially when they're of historical bent. Such books can be as interesting when they fail as when they succeed; in either case, they force you to re-think the preconceptions. Bernal's main argument is simple: that Greek civilization was massively influenced by the two ancient civilizations that dominated the eastern Mediterranean before Hellenic culture rose to power. He convincingly demonstrates that this was the opinion of the Greeks themselves. Where the controversy comes in is in Bernal's argument that our modern (18th/19th/20th century) idealization of the Greeks as the starting point of Western Civilizaton owes more to racist Aryan doctrine (which rejected the idea of Indo-Europeans borrowing from Africans or Semitic peoples) than actual evidence.

Whether the reader accepts or rejects Bernal's main argument, his books are well worth reading for all the interesting little asides he touches on in passing -- for example, a suggestion that the 'Philistines' of the Old Testament were probably the Greeks, or his demonstration that the 'Canaanites', 'Hebrews' and 'Phoenicians' were simply three branches of the same people (the farmers, herders, and sea-goers, respectively), speaking dialects of the same language. We'll see whether he can deliver in this final volume of a massively ambitious project.

--John R.

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