Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume I
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Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume I

The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985

Martin Bernal

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Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume I

The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985

Martin Bernal

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About This Book

What is classical about Classical civilization? In one of the most audacious works of scholarship ever written, Martin Bernal challenges the foundation of our thinking about this question. Classical civilization, he argues, has deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures. But these Afroasiatic influences have been systematically ignored, denied or suppressed since the eighteenth century—chiefly for racist reasons.The popular view is that Greek civilization was the result of the conquest of a sophisticated but weak native population by vigorous Indo-European speakers—Aryans—from the North. But the Classical Greeks, Bernal argues, knew nothing of this "Aryan model." They did not see their institutions as original, but as derived from the East and from Egypt in particular.In an unprecedented tour de force, Bernal links a wide range of areas and disciplines—drama, poetry, myth, theological controversy, esoteric religion, philosophy, biography, language, historical narrative, and the emergence of "modern scholarship."

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The Ancient Model in Antiquity
How it happened that Egyptians came to the Peloponnese, and what they did to make themselves kings in that part of Greece, has been chronicled by other writers; I will add nothing therefore, but proceed to mention some points which no one else has yet touched upon.
(Herodotos, Histories, VI. 55)1
The majority of us have been taught to regard Herodotos as the ‘father of history’, but even those who follow Plutarch and regard him as the ‘father of lies’ can hardly maintain that Herodotos was lying about the existence of such chronicles. His was not an unverifiable statement about some remote peoples, but one which readers could easily check, if they did not know about it already. Setting aside for a while the problem of what actually happened over a millennium before Herodotos wrote his Histories, his statement strongly suggests that in the 5th century BC it was generally believed that Greece had been colonized from Egypt at the beginning of the Heroic Age. In this chapter I hope to demonstrate that Herodotos’ views on the Egyptian and Phoenician settlements, though treated with condescension and scorn by most modern Classicists and ancient historians, were conventional not only in his own times but also throughout Archaic, Classical and later Antiquity.


Before exploring the views of Greeks in the Classical period on these and other hypothetical invasions, it would be useful to consider their ideas about the earlier population of Greece. This is because it was the basis upon which they saw the Near Eastern influences as having acted. Here we encounter the thorny problem of the most widely known native population, the Pelasgoi or Pelasgians, a name used differently by different Greek authors. According to Homer, there were Pelasgians on both sides of the Trojan War. Some of Achilles’ force of Hellenes and Achaians were supposed to have inhabited ‘Pelasgian Argos’, which was clearly seen as being in Thessaly.2 Fighting for Troy, on the other hand, were the warriors of Hippothoos the Pelasgian, who came from Larisa.3 The probable derivation of the place name Laris(s)a is from the Egyptian toponym R-Đ·áž„t, ‘Entry into the Fertile Lands’, which was probably used for the Hyksos capital Avaris, in the rich soils of the Eastern Nile Delta.4 The semantic fit between Laris(s)a and R-Đ·áž„ is excellent. Further, the Homeric epithet for two different Larisai was eribƍlax (deep-soiled).5 As Strabo, the geographer of the 1st centuries BC and AD, pointed out, all the many Greek Laris(s)ai were on alluvial soil.6
If we take the Hyksos colonizations as a working hypothesis, it is striking to note that the akropolis of the Peloponnesian Argos, the city which Danaos was supposed to have founded and with which he had many cultic connections, was called Larisa.7 Furthermore Strabo maintained, in another part of his Geography, that argos in Greek meant ‘flat land’.8 This would fit nicely with the etymology of Larisa from ‘Entry into the Fertile Lands’ as the name of the Hyksos’ capital. However, argos also signified ‘speed’ and ‘dog’ or ‘wolf’, both of which were reflected in the mythology and iconography of the Peloponnesian city.9 The core meaning of the word was ‘brilliant’ or ‘silver’. This fits well with ‘Inb ងត, ‘Silver Wall’, the most frequently used name for Memphis, the capital of Lower Egypt.10 These three-way connections between Pelasgian, Larisa and Argos are reinforced by the existence of a Pelasgian Argos in the region of the two Larisai recorded in Thessaly.11
Homer referred to the great and ancient oracle of Zeus at Dodona in Epirus as ‘Pelasgian’, an epithet that was used for it by later writers.12 Pelasgians appear elsewhere on his list of Cretan peoples which also included Achaians, Etcocretans, Kydonians and Dorians.13 Hesiod—or possibly Kekrops of Miletos—stated that ‘Three Hellenic tribes settled in Crete, the Pelasgoi, Achaians and Dorians.’14 Much later Diodoros Sikeliotes claimed that Pelasgians had settled in Crete after the Eteocretans but before the Dorians.15
Even if the earlier quotation does not date back to Hesiod who, according to the Ancient Model, lived in the 10th century BC, it tallies well with the Homeric list. In the latter the Pelasgians are distinguished from the Eteo or ‘true’ Cretans, who are assumed to be non-Hellenic, possibly Anatolian- but more probably Semitic-speaking.16 Furthermore, Homer made no mention of Danaans or Argives in Crete. These facts, together with the general connotation of ‘native’ associated with the name, would make it plausible to suggest that the Pelasgians were the earliest Hellenic or Greek-speaking inhabitants of the island. Thus ‘Hesiod’s’ order would appear to be chronological: the Pelasgians having arrived on the island before the Achaian invasion of the 14th century, and that of the Dorians in the 12th. Thus they would seem on both lists to be equivalent to the Danaans.
A further indication that the Cretan Pelasgians were Hellenic comes from the link, made by several scholars, between the Pelasgians and the Philistines who settled in Palestine in the 12th century BC. According to a substantial biblical tradition, the Philistines were supposed to have come from Crete. The equation *Pelasg and *Pelast has usually been explained by postulating an original ‘Pre-Hellenic’ final stop that was heard as g by the Greeks and t by Egyptian and Semitic speakers. Apart from my suspicions about the existence of Pre-Hellenes, it is very hard to construct a consonant somewhere between g and t.
There is, however, another way by which one can associate the two. In 1951 Jean BĂ©rard reinforced the links by drawing attention to the variant Pelasgikon/Pelastikon found in the great dictionary of Hesychios of the 5th century AD and in the scholium or commentary to the Iliad, Book XVI, verse 233.17 This shows that it is possible to confuse the written forms of Γ and T. If, as I maintain elsewhere, the Greek alphabet has been in use since the 15th century BC, such an error might explain not only these textual variants but the name Pelasgoi itself. This could have come from *Pelast, the vocalization reconstructed for the Canaanite form.18 (The development of the name Hebrides from a misreading of the original Hebudes provides an analogy for this.)19 Although the nature of the Philistine language or languages is still very uncertain, the most likely candidates are West Anatolian languages like Lydian or Greek. The latter seems to me much more likely.20 Thus if there is an equation between Pelasgian and Philistine, which is possible, and if the Philistines spoke Greek, which is probable, it would increase still further the likelihood that the Cretan Pelasgians spoke a Hellenic language.
Like Homer, Hesiod seems to have seen Pelasgians in Phthia in Thessaly.21 He also saw them in Arkadia, where the eponym Pelasgos was described as autochthonous.22 Akousilaos, in the 6th or 5th century BC, referred to all Greece south of Thessaly as ‘Pelasgia’. Aischylos in the 5th enlarged it to include North Greece.23 Herodotos, meanwhile, wrote several interesting but very confusing passages about the Pelasgians. According to him, although they had lived throughout Greece, they were the ancestors only of the Ionians, not of the Dorians, who were ‘Hellenes’. He maintained that the Pelasgian language was not Greek, basing this argument on the observation that in two cities on the Hellespont which were supposed to be Pelasgian, the language was foreign. Thus peoples like the Athenians, who were supposed to have been Pelasgian before becoming Hellenes, would have had to have changed their language.24
Apart from Athens, the places Herodotos associated with the Pelasgians were Dodona, the coast of the Peloponnese and Lemnos, Samothrace and the North-Eastern Aegean as a whole.25 Herodotos’ contention would appear to be backed by the modern discovery in Lemnos of a stele in a language resembling Etruscan, and there is every reason to suppose that the cities he referred to on the Hellespont also spoke Anatolian languages.26
In general, Herodotos’ picture of the Pelasgians seems similar to that given by Thucydides a generation later. According to both, Pelasgians formed the bulk, though not the whole, of the early population of Greece and the Aegean and most of them were gradually assimilated by the Hellenes.27 Herodotos saw this transformation as having taken place after the invasion by Danaos, which he envisioned around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, and he described the Egyptian Danaids as having taught the Pelasgians—not the Hellenes—the worship of the gods. Diodoros referred to Kadmos’ having taught the Pelasgians the use of Phoenician letters.28 Furthermore, the tradition that Kekrops, the founder of Athens, was Egyptian was probably current in Herodotos’ day. Thus despite the latter’s claims that the Athenians—unlike the Argives and Thebans—were autochthonous—that is to say, aboriginal—one finds the interesting passage:
When what is now called Greece [Hellas] was occupied by the Pelasgians, the Athenians, a Pelasgian people, were called the Kranaoi. In the reign of Kekrops they acquired the name of Kekropidai. At the succession of Erechtheus they changed their name to Athenians.29
The idea that the Pelasgians were the native population, converted to become something more Greek by the invading Egyptians, occurs more clearly in the plays of Aischylos and Euripides, written around the time of Herodotos’ Histories. According to them the Pelasgians were the indigenes, encountered and somehow overcome by Danaos in the Argolid:
Danaos, the father of fifty daughters, on coming to Argos took up his abode in the city of Inachos and throughout Greece [Hellas] he laid down the law that all people hitherto named Pelasgians were to be named Danaans.30

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