Aryan Warlords in their Chariots

Edmund Leach

  • Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation. by Martin Bernal
    Free Association, 575 pp, £30.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 946960 55 0

I attended English boarding-schools from 1919 to 1928, aged eight to 18. I there learned that, despite the slaughterhouse of the 1914-1918 War, European civilisation was without any question the greatest that had ever existed. It derived from the Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome, but it was not to be thought of as, in any significant sense, a Mediterranean civilisation: it had been the creation of fair-skinned Europeans who spoke a variety of Indo-European languages akin to Persian and Sanskrit. It was recognised that there had been earlier ‘archaic’ civilisations based in Egypt and the Levant and Mesopotamia, but that was something quite other. A sort of Mason-Dixon line was believed to run from Tunis (Carthage) in the west to Rhodes in the east, skirting round to the south of Crete. Everything to the north was European and White; everything to the south was Black or Semitic. Since the first millennium BC everything that had ever come out of Egypt or Palestine or Arabia was utterly contemptible. That was what we learned on weekdays: on Sundays Palestine became the Holy Land and St Paul’s misadventures in Asia Minor and Italy were given great prominence. But the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew or that St Augustine might well have looked like Colonel Gaddafi was carefully concealed.

The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985 is planned to be the first volume of a trilogy, but the contents of the two later volumes are summarised at pp. 38-73 of the present work. A more manageable summary of most of the arguments has recently appeared in an article in Comparative Criticism, Volume VIII. The title in that case is ‘Black Athena Denied: The Tyranny of Germany over Greece and the Rejection of the Afro-Asiatic Roots of Europe: 1780-1980’. There are 52 pages of printed text and 274 learned footnotes which take up 15 pages. Bernal could well have stopped there, but he is an obsessional. The volume under review has 1315 footnotes. The scholarship is formidable but one-sided. The Indo-Europeanists from Max Muller to Georges Dumézil and their current crop of enthusiastic disciples are almost completely ignored.

According to Bernal, the ‘Aryan Model’ of the origins of true civilisation which I learned at school has dominated European scholarship for the last hundred and fifty years. It ‘holds that Greece was originally inhabited by a non-Indo-European-speaking but “racially Caucasian” (i.e. white) population. Some time in the third or second millennium BC these people were conquered by Indo-European-speaking invaders from the north. Greek culture is viewed as the result of this fusion, some elements being Indo-European and the rest derived from the conquered aborigines.’

Throughout the Christian era, until the beginning of the 19th century, the majority of European scholars, in so far as they had any coherent view of their own history, believed in what Bernal calls the ‘Ancient Model’. It was supposed that the original inhabitants of Greece had been tribal people often referred to as Pelasgians. At various times during the second millennium BC Egyptians and Phoenicians had established colonies in Greece and introduced such symptoms of civilisations as irrigation, an alphabet, complex religious forms and new types of weapon. The Greeks had continued to make cultural borrowings from Egypt and Phoenicia for the next fifteen hundred years. Greek civilisation during the Classical period was a result of this fusion of autochthonous and south-eastern elements.

According to Bernal (and I agree with him), the Aryan model only became dominant over the Ancient model because it fitted so tidily with the racist beliefs of European imperialism. And today, despite the military defeat of Nazi Germany, many of the associated beliefs concerning the innate superiority of Indo-European-speaking peoples linger on. The Aryan warlords in their chariots may be out of fashion, but the latest dogma, which Bernal calls the ‘Model of Autochthonous Origin’, is a modified Aryan model. It postulates that the inhabitants of Greece have been speaking Indo-European languages ever since the beginning of the Neolithic. They invented Greek civilisation without assistance from elsewhere. This is an exaggeration, but Bernal does not discuss its merits or weaknesses or the accuracy of his summary. Instead, he now advances what he calls the ‘Revised Ancient Model’. In this schema, as in the original Ancient model, the main formative influence on the development of Greek civilisation was colonisation from the south-east from around 2000 BC onwards, but at certain periods, around the end of the second millennium and even later, there was a marked cultural flow in the opposite direction.

Since there is no consensus about what constitutes the hallmark of Greek civilisation every one of these arguments can be supported or refuted if the protagonist of a particular theory is allowed to choose his own ground. Bernal’s own position is extremely ‘diffusionist’. Every cultural isolate has to come from somewhere else. His special enthusiasms mostly relate to supposed philological equivalences between the names of Greek deities and the names of their Semitic and Egyptian counterparts which he maintains do not have Indo-European equivalents. Some of his examples seem convincing, but in general I am not persuaded that philology really supports any of the embattled scholars. Bernal himself draws our attention to Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend’s extraordinary book Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time as the source of some of his philological equivalences, but the authors of this work are completely unrestrained. By such techniques one might ‘prove’ that Greek civilisation was derived from Egypt or from India or from Central America. Bernal’s fantasies are not on this scale, but he is unwise to cite such a source as if it were serious history.

Why should Bernal be so worried about origins? As the archaeological evidence accumulates, it becomes more and more difficult to argue that there were ever any hard-edged cultural frontiers, even in remote antiquity. The belief, apparently held by most contemporary specialists in Indo-European languages, that the boundaries of language group, cultural group and ‘race’ are ‘normally’ coincident is quite indefensible. There has never been a period within recorded history when this was the case and there is absolutely no reason at all to suppose that things were any different in ‘prehistoric’ times. So, in my view, the value of Bernal’s magnum opus does not depend upon whether his own reconstruction of the history of the eastern Mediterranean is more or less accurate than any rival theory. The value of the book lies in his massive and meticulous demonstration of how scholarly views of the past are moulded (and repeatedly modified) by the changing political environment in which the scholars pass their lives.

This is not a new idea: it was recognised and elaborately developed by Vico. But the concept of Zeitgeist was independently invented by Meiners, the late 18th-century German historian and anthropologist who was later honoured by the Nazis as the founder of racial theory. My worry is that while Bernal makes a convincing case for his thesis that it was the romanticism of the dominant German Classical scholars of the early 19th century which led to the Aryan model replacing the Ancient model, a counter-attacking late 20th-century Indo-Europeanist would have little difficulty in showing that Bernal’s own ‘Revised Ancient Model’ is a product of his very unusual personal Zeitgeist. Black Athena is certainly a stimulus to thought, but the end-result is a deconstruction rather than a reconstruction of Mediterranean prehistory.