Black Athena

Thus Herodotus [in deriving aspects of Greek culture from Egypt] would seem to have been using reason rather than a blind faith in tradition, and the method of competitive plausibility which would seem appropriate for such a subject. We are not concerned here with the rightness or wrongness of his conclusions, however, but merely with the facts that he himself believed in them and that he was being relatively conventional in doing so. (Black Athena I 100)

Major Primary Sources for the Black Athena Dispute

Herodotus 2. 43 (the descent of Heracles); 2. 49 (on the cults of Dionysus and Osiris); 2. 104 (on Egyptians as dark-skinned people); 2. 171 ("mysteries" of Osiris which were in fact public).

Apollodorus 3.14.1-8 (the Greek view: autochthony of Cecrops and Erechtheus).

Xenophon, Symposium 5.6 (Socrates on his own appearance).

Diodorus 1.55 (a first century BC Egyptian account of how Egypt supposedly conquered most of the world around 1500 years earlier); 1. 96-98 (on the Greek debt to Egypt); 3.11.1-3 (on sources for Egyptian history)

Fragments of Minoan fresco from Avaris in Egypt, Hyksos period, 1674-1566 BC (evidence of Greek settlement in Egypt, not Egyptian invasion of Greece).

Some Etymological Equations

Egyptian ... Greek

BA (soul) ... BIA (force)

HYkSOS (a semitic people) ... HIKETES (suppliants)

HT NT (house of the goddess Neit) ... Athena (etymology unknown)

Central Points of Contention

(1) Did Egyptians Invade Greece in the 16th Century BC? Such a conclusion has been made on the assumption that Greek myth preserved a folk memory of the Egyptian identity of certain mythical founding figures, such as Cecrops and Cadmus, Erechtheus and Danaus. But the archaeological evidence does not support it; if anything, it suggests that Minoan (or Bronze Age Cretan) Greeks settled in Egypt during the 18th dynasty.

(2) The myth of Danaus is known from Aeschylus' play Suppliants and other sources. Aeschylus' version emphasizes that Danaus (who winds up king of Argos) is really a Greek by descent from Io; but other versions make it fairly clear that he is thought of as a an Egyptian. Certainly he has grown up in Egypt and his brother is Aegyptus, which in Greek is both his name and the name of the country.

(3) Did the Greeks believe that Heracles was of Egyptian origins? Herodotus says (2.43) he is "from Egypt" but some scholars think Herodotus meant "descended from Aegyptus".

(4) Was Socrates black?

(5) Was Cleopatra black? The answer is almost surely that she was not. All of her ancestors were Macedonian Greeks with the possible exception of her paternal grandmother, who is unknown.

(6) What are the errors in Herodotus' account of the Egyptian origins of Greek religion? His etymologies are all false. His method is governed by the principle of post hoc ergo propter hoc (the later is always the result of the earlier). He claims (2. 123) that the Egyptians believed in the transmigration of souls, when we know that they did not exactly; Herodotus was confused by the Egyptian idea about how one can live on after death in an immaterial state.

The Online Debate Between Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz

Sample of Bernal's Argument

A more substantial and significant error is her statement on (p. 6): "Since the founding of this country, (the USA) ancient Greece has been intimately connected with the ideals of democracy." In fact, the very source she cites, states something very different:

... in 1787 and 1788 the Anti-federalists did not have a classical leg to stand on. There was no tradition of representative democracy to which they could appeal, and direct democracies like Athens, bore the stigma of instability, violence, corruption and injustice ... (such) that even many friends of democracy in America avoided using the word. Like the advocates of mixed government, they used the word "republic ..."


Mary Lefkowitz's sloppiness here might seem inconsequential, but in fact, it serves a very important purpose in her general argument. It is the implication that one cannot have freedom or democracy without a respectful awareness of ancient Greece, and that there has been a continuous flame of such reverence that can only be doused at our peril. Therefore--she implies--the Afrocentrists are enemies of freedom.

Bernal's Review of Lefkowitz.

Lefkowitz's Response to Bernal

John Lenz's Review of Black Athena vol. II

References to the Chief Works of Modern Writers at Issue

M. Bernal, Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization vols I & II (Rutgers University Press, 1987).

For a brief presentation by Bernal of the main points of his thesis, see "The Image of Ancient Greece as a Tool for Colonialism and European Hegemony", pages 119-128 in Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power, ed. G. C. Bond & A. Gilliam (Routledge, 1994).

M. R. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (BasicBooks, 1996).

Egyptian Sculpture to Compare with Greek

The Greek debt to Egyptian models is widely acknowledged in at least one specific area: sculpture. The Greek kouroi have an Egyptian heritage. For more on this subject, please see Minott Kerr's kouroi page.

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