Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
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The Blackening of Egypt and the Formation of the Classics

Martin Bernal (New York)


The focus of my project with the general title Black Athena is on the origin of Ancient Greek civilization. First, it is heuristically useful to see Ancient Egypt as an African civilization; second that one should to accept the view of Ancient Greeks that Egypt and Phoenicia played central roles in the formation of their higher culture; and third that European and North American scholars' denial of the first two points, since the early 19th century is better explained in ideological than in strictly academic terms.

Two Historical Models for the Foundation of Ancient Greece

The structure of Black Athena is based on a distinction between two versions of the early history of Greece, which I have called the Ancient and the Aryan Models. According to the Aryan Model, which is still generally taught, Classical Greek civilization was the result of a conquest of Greece from the north by the "Hellenes." These were Indo-European speakers or "Aryans." The indigenous population of the Aegean, whom they conquered are simply labelled by modern scholars as "Pre-Hellenes."

All that proponents of the Aryan Model "know" about the "Pre-Hellenes" is that they were Caucasian - definitely not Semitic speakers or Egyptians - and they did not speak an Indo-European language. The Aryan Model was only developed in the 1830s and 40s, what I have called the "Ancient Model" held that the ancestors of the Greeks had lived in idyllic simplicity until the arrival of Egyptian and Phoenician leaders. These acquired cities and introduced the arts of civilization; specifically irrigation, various types of weapons, and the alphabet.

I have investigated how the Ancient Model was transmitted from Classical times until 1800. The chief focus here is on the Egyptian origin of Greek religion. Herodotus maintained that Egyptians had taught the Greeks the names of nearly all the gods as well as many of the religious practices. In the same spirit, the ancient Greeks had a complete set of equations between Greek and Egyptian divinities. Thus, for instance, they saw their Zeus as the Egyptian Ammon, their Athena as the Egyptian Neit. By Hellenistic and Roman times it is clear that Greeks saw the Egyptian forms as older and superior to their own. This explains why Greeks and Romans of these periods so often replaced their cults by Egyptian ones.

The situation changed with the triumph of Christianity. Under the new dispensation, many Egypto-Hellenic-Roman deities were incorporated into the new religion as saints. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and his Greek counterpart Hermes, however, remained outside the religious orbit. Hermes with the title Trismegistos. He was associated with a number of mystical, philosophical and magical texts, which were circulating in Egypt from the second to the sixth centuries CE, though some of them may well be many centuries older.

The Hermetic texts with their stress on human potential played an important role in the rise of Renaissance humanism. They also formed the center of a deep respect for Egypt. Interest in the Hermetic Texts diminished towards the end of the 17th century. This, did not, however, have an adverse effect on the reputation of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, admiration for it reached new heights in the 18th century, which saw the rise of Freemasonry at the center of the Enlightenment. The Freemasons viewed themselves as the idealized Egyptian priests of the modern age.

Germans and Greeks

With the beginnings of the Reformation in Germany, however, positive interest in Greece increased as Martin Luther and his supporters saw going back to the Greek New Testament as a way of undercutting the Latin Vulgate Bible and the claims to antiquity of the Roman papacy. With the secularization of the 18th century, German intellectuals began to identify themselves with Ancient Greeks for another reason. Seeing no hope of Germany's ever becoming a politically united and militarily powerful "New Rome," they believed that their own nation made up of quarrelsome independent states, but with a high degree of culture could be the new Greece or "New Hellas."

The attachment between Germany and Ancient Greece became still closer after the French Revolution. German upper class intellectuals initially sympathetic to the Revolution turned against it after the Terror and the realization that Germany too could be directly affected. In this atmosphere in 1793, Wilhelm von Humboldt drew his sketch of a new educational system for Germany. At its center, was the study "of antiquity in general and Greece in particular." By studying what he saw as the most perfectly harmonious people in history Humboldt maintained that Germany could avoid the extremes of revolution and reaction.

Four Factors Behind the Fall of the Ancient Model

The precipitating force behind the academic shift was the Greek War of Independence from the Turkish Empire which began in 1821. It was seen as a struggle between Christianity and Islam. The Philhellenic movement of the 1820s with its heroes, the dead white poets Byron and Shelley, provoked a massive outpouring of sympathy for Greece in Western Europe and North America. In this charged atmosphere it became increasingly intolerable to "progressive" Europeans that Greece, the pure white emblem of Europe could have derived its civilization from "dark" continents.

There were also deeper reasons for the abandonment of the Ancient Model. There was a great Christian revival throughout Europe and North America after the defeats of the French Revolution and Napoleon in 1815. Many in the newly Christian upper classes hated Ancient Egypt, which they saw as central to Free Masonry, which in turn was seen not merely as having been the conspiracy within the Enlightenment but behind the Revolution itself.

The Ancient Egyptians as Blacks and as the Founders of Western Civilization

At the end of the 18th century, a third vision began to be advocated. According to this the Ancient Egyptians were both African and the founders of Western Civilization. The probable beginning of this intellectual trend came from the works of the intrepid Scottish traveller James Bruce. In the 1760s and 1770s Bruce went through Egypt and spent several years in Ethiopia. He saw connections between the civilizations of Ethiopia and Egypt, and believed that the Ethiopian form was the older. For Bruce, the source of the (Blue) Nile was the source of civilization.

Charles François Dupuis was an erudite scholar of antiquity and a brilliant scientific inventer. He was also a supporter of the Revolution and an organizer of the anti-Christian "Religion of Reason" promoted by Jacobin leaders of the Revolution, which incidentally used many Egyptian symbols. Dupuis argued that Egyptian astronomy, which he believed to be the fundamental science, came to Egypt from the south. His friend Constantine Chasseboeuf de Volney made the link between "Negroes" and the origin of Western civilization explicit. His work provided a powerful weapon for Abolitionists. In France the great abolitionist the Abbé Grégoire, in his book An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties , and Literature of Negroes, devoted the first chapter to Volney's arguments emphasising that the Ancient Egyptians were "negroes" and concludes:

"Without ascribing to Egypt the greatest degree of human knowledge, all antiquity decides in favour of those who consider it as a celebrated school, from which proceeded many of the venerable and learned men of Greece."

Grégoire's work was translated in to English in Brooklyn in 1810 and, it was soon giving more confidence to educated African Americans. The theme that Black Egyptians had founded civilization was taken up in two powerful pamphlets published in 1829, The Ethiopian Manifesto, Issued in Defense of the Black Man's Rights in the Scale of Universal Freedom was by R. A. Young, and David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World which was much more influential.

There is no reason to suppose that the European scholars who created the new field of Altertumswissenschaft /Classics knew of such writings. They were acutely aware, however, of Bruce, Dupuis, Volney and Grégoire.

The idea that the Egyptians were Black and therefore that Blacks had been the originators of Western Civilizationwas not only distressing but for "progressive" European intellectuals it was unscientific. In the 19th century, racial "science" made it clear not merely that "Whites" were now better than "Blacks" but, according to the idea of permanent racial essences, they had always been so. Thus the Greek historians must have been mistaken and suffering from the mysterious diseases of "barbarophilia" or "Egyptomania" when they stated that "Semitic" Phoenicians and African Egyptians had civilized Greece.

The first attack on the Ancient Model was made in 1820 by Karl Otfried Müller, one of the first products of Humboldt's new educational system. Müller argued that the legends upon which the model was based were inconsistent and that there was no proof that any Egyptian or Phoenician colonisations had taken place.

It is sometimes argued that the great 19th century advances in knowledge of ancient languages and archaeology led to the change. However, the Egyptian half of the Ancient Model was destroyed before the languages of Mesopotamia, written in Cuneiform were understood and well before Heinrich Schliemann had discovered Mycenaean material culture. While it is true that Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics in the 1820s, his results were not accepted by German classicists for another 30 years.

By contrast, there was one important "internalist" cause behind the establishment of the Aryan Model. This was the working out of the Indo-European language family and the establishment of Greek as a member of it. If, as seems reasonable, one supposes that the Proto-Indo-European speaking people lived somewhere to the north and east of the Balkans, one must postulate that the Aegean basin received some substantial influence from the north. This could have taken a number of different forms, but given the ethnic predispositions of the mid 19th century, it was immediately seen as a conquest by a "master race" of Hellenes, whose vigour had been steeled by ethnic formation in the cold of Central Asia or the Steppe.

For several decades, the new image of Greek origins co-existed uneasily with the traditional belief that Phoenicians - though not the Egyptians - had played a significant role. This view was attacked in the 1890s but survived until the 1920s. I associate this historiographic down-playing of the Phoenicians - "the Jews of Antiquity" - with the rise of racial as opposed to religious anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century. I also link the revival of interest in the Phoenicians after 1950 to increasing Jewish self confidence after the foundation of Israel. The restoration of the Egyptian facet of the Ancient Model has been slower. The leading champions of the Ancient Egyptians have been Black Americans, who have been much further from the academic establishment than the Jewish professionals.

To return to the impact of Dupuis, Volney and Grégoire, both Black and White Abolitionists continued to use their arguments after academics were abandoning the Ancient Model. For instance, the famous philosopher and logician John Stuart Mill wrote in 1849:

"It is curious withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom."

Such views faded among Euro-Americans after the abolition of slavery in 1865. They continued however, among African Americans. Intellectuals such as Frederick Douglas and scholars like W.E.B. Dubois and St. Clair Drake, were uncertain about the "Blackness" or "negro physiognomy" of the Ancient Egyptians but they had no doubts about the "Africanity" of Ancient Egypt or the size of the Egyptian contribution to Greek civilization.

Among the group now known as "Afrocentrists" there is little or no doubt about Black African origins of European civilization. In this respect, it is the academic establishment and European champions of the Aryan Model, not the Afrocentrists, who have made a fundamental break with tradition. Until recently, the ideas of the Black Scholars have been unknown to non-Blacks. Even today, their views tend to be seen as "special pleading" or "therapy rather than history". It is not helpful to view Afrocentric writers on these topics merely in terms of socio-pathology. The Aryan Model itself serves a similar therapeutic function for European racists.

Even though describing the Aryan Model as "conceived in sin or even error." I do not believe that this in itself invalidates it as a useful historical tool. I propose a "Revised Ancient Model" maintaining that Greece has received repeated outside influences both from the East Mediterranean and from the Balkans and that it is this extravagant mixture that has produced this attractive and fruitful culture and the glory that is Greece.

© Martin Bernal (New York)

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For quotation purposes:
Martin Bernal (New York): The Blackening of Egypt and the Formation of the Classics. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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