Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.19

Lefkowitz on Bernal on Lefkowitz

Perhaps it would be helpful to BMCR readers if I summarized what my book, Not Out of Africa [NOA] was actually about, since Martin Bernal [hereafter, B.] in his review (BMCR 96.04.05) did not do so.

What I try to explain in NOA is why some popular modern mythologies of the ancient world appear to have been created, and why they are mythologies rather than history. Also I (i) discuss the evidence used to support modern claims that certain famous ancient persons (e.g., Hannibal, Socrates, and Cleopatra) had African ancestors; (ii) attempt to show why it was that ancient writers like Herodotus and Diodorus claimed that some aspects of Greek culture derived from Egypt, whereas such evidence as we have suggests that the customs they regard as Egyptian in origin were either indigenous, or derived from other sources; (iii) describe how the belief arose that in the second millennium B.C.E. or even earlier there was in Egypt an elaborate Egyptian Mystery System, with universities and initiation ritual which inspired Greek initiation rituals and also served as the ultimate source of the systems of thought now known as Greek philosophy.

I show how the belief in an "Egyptian Mystery System" has its origins in a now forgotten, but once widely influential work of fiction, Séthos, a Bildungsroman by the Abbé Jean Terrasson, first published in 1731. The "Egyptian" rituals described in the novel were based (as they then had to be) exclusively on Greco-Roman sources, which Father Terrasson incorporated into his ideas for reforming French education. These anachronistic and fundamentally Eurocentric beliefs were adopted by the Freemasons and incorporated into their rituals. Then modern writers appear to have accepted them as a fundamentally true and original account of the origins of Greek civilization. I discuss various elaborations of the Mystery system myth adopted by "Afrocentrist" modern writers, such as G.G.M. James in Stolen Legacy, and show why most of their more influential allegations have no foundation in fact, and can be maintained only by suppression or falsification of significant evidence. My conclusion is that there is no evidence that the Greeks "stole" their philosophy from Egypt. I also think that there is little evidence to support the notion (to use B.'s own words) that Greek philosophy "borrowed massively from Egypt" (Black Athena [BA] I 38). Of course there was some Egyptian influence on Greek thought (medicine, science, mathematics), but ancient Near Eastern sources (see below) must also be considered.

I also suggest in NOA why I think the teaching of fictions as truths is ultimately harmful, even when the fictions deal with a remote past with which none of us has any direct connection. At the same time I argue that the way to confront such teaching is by discussion of the evidence, and not by censorship, repression, or any other violation of academic freedom. In fact, I argue that the remanding of the Jeffries decision may have dire consequences for all academics, since it implies that any employee can be disciplined for actions that a university administration might deem to be disruptive.

Since the question of Egyptian origins is a topic in which considerable emotional capital has been invested, attempts simply to discuss the issues can easily be misunderstood as a form of hostility, so that even what was intended as praise is interpreted as blame. For example, B. imagines that I have taken "swipes" at Douglass, Blyden, and Du Bois, writers whose work in fact I quote with respect. B. also seeks to discover political motives in what was intended as a light-hearted dedication; the beverage consumed in the drinking parties to which it alludes was in fact tea. Similarly, B. asserts that the essays edited by my colleague Guy Rogers and myself, Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996) [BAR] were "selected for hostility" to B.'s BA. In fact, we deliberately sought to include a representative sample of responses that concentrated on factual information and historical issues. We also categorically refused to include ad hominem attacks in BAR. We believe (though apparently B. does not agree with us) that writers should be judged on the quality of their arguments, not on the basis of their presumed or even their stated motives. We have no quarrel with the notion of lessening European "cultural arrogance." But we believe that scholars come closer to the truth when they are not writing to serve a particular political agenda.

For us, the important issues involve questions of evidence. We think that there is enough evidence, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, to be able to do more than propose "competitive plausibilities" about the question of the Greek cultural debt to Egypt and the Near East. So we inquire whether support can be found in any of the surviving data about Egyptian contact with Greece for B.'s notion of "massive" cultural borrowing. We believe we have shown that such data does not exist, and that the Near East, rather than Egypt, is the place where the most evidence of influence can be found. We also ask what is meant by terms like "cultural borrowing" and influence. Since the ancient world was truly multicultural, influences came from a variety of foreign and indigenous sources. We did not include in the book a response from B. because we do not regard ourselves as being in a dialogue with B. alone, but rather as participants in an ongoing debate with many other scholars who are concerned about the evidence for the interconnections among cultures in the ancient world. B. already has found ample room in which to express his views, and his views on the opinions of others, and will doubtless continue to do so.

NOA, of course, was not intended as a critique of BA, but deals with the claims of a group of writers who seek to show that the Greeks "stole" their civilization from Egypt, and that there has been a conspiracy on the part of classicists to ignore and even to cover up the extent of the true extent of those connections. NOA shows why these claims cannot be sustained, and discusses the reasons why they continue to be made. B., however, never quite gets down to saying whether he thinks this thesis can be supported by the evidence I have presented. Instead, perhaps in order to divert his readers' attention from the central issues, he concentrates on particular points of disagreement. Some of these he regards as relatively trivial. He rightly notes that Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics in the early 1820s. In my brief discussion (p.57, not as B. says, p.35) I only give the date when his Egyptian grammar began to be published (1836), as the terminus post quem there was no longer any excuse to imagine that hieroglyphics were a system of secret symbols.1 Indeed (p.13) I should not have called Pelops the founder of Argos, but of the dynasty that ruled Argos. No doubt it was misleading to say (as I do on p.77) that the theory that the inundation of the Nile is caused by melting snow "was not far from the truth;" "not so far from the truth" (as other ancient theories) would have been more precise. In any case such slips to not fall into the same category of misrepresentation, as (say) the assertion that Aristotle stole his philosophy from the Alexandrian Library, which result either from ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation.

Building on these minor quibbles as evidence of "sloppiness" and a "slapdash approach", B. proceeds to discuss other errors which he characterizes, ominously, as "less innocent." These include the question of whether or not Eudoxus went to Egypt; B. thinks he did, but he does not discuss the salient question, which is what he might have learned when he was there, and from whom, and whether such learning, whatever it was, constitutes evidence of "stealing" (much less of massive cultural dependency) rather than of a simple desire on Eudoxus' part to learn whatever he could from knowledgeable people in Egypt. B. also criticizes me for failing in one sentence to mention that this country's founding fathers preferred republicanism to democracy, but fails to note that in the very next sentence I in fact observe that much of the credit for so-called democratic traditions belongs to the Romans (NOA, p.6). The purpose of this discussion of democracy, B. asserts, was to imply that Afrocentrists are the enemies of freedom. Of course I said nothing of the kind, but no one who relied on B.'s account would ever know that.

B. appears finally to be getting down to central issues in his discussion of my treatment of Diodorus. He points out that I say no one knows what laws Solon was supposed to have borrowed from Egypt, and reminds me, correctly, that Diodorus in fact specifies two. But how accurate is the information provided by Diodorus about these two laws? At 1.77.5 we learn that Diodorus got his information about the first of these, a law about the registration of occupation, from Herodotus (2.177.2). This law was a basic feature of the Egyptian fiscal system, but there is no clear Athenian counterpart to it.2 Perhaps what Herodotus had in mind was the law on the idleness of land (argias) attributed to Solon or Peisistratus (Plu., Solon, 31.2 = Theophrastus, fr.608 Fortenbaugh = fr.99 Wimmer). But there is no reason to assume that this law was imported; Solon had read Hesiod on the idea of the necessity of toil.3 There is also the problem of chronology, which B. ignores: Herodotus says Solon visited Egypt after he enacted his legislation (1.30.1).

The other law Diodorus supposes (dokei) to have been borrowed by Solon was the seisachtheia (1.79.4), which is roughly analogous to the debt legislation of Bocchoris (Bakenrenef, 727-15 B.C.E.). Here, as in my previous example, the connection appears to be based solely on the kind of speculation that Diodorus and his informants were eager to make. The vague similarities between the two sets of laws can hardly be used as evidence for massive cultural borrowing; at most (and even this is doubtful) they would represent a specific instance of adaptation. B. fails to point out that in any case, none of these nuances of interpretation has much bearing on my argument, which is that the Greeks, especially in the Hellenistic period, were eager to associate themselves with the ancient civilization of Egypt in any way they could. How much they actually knew about it is another matter.

Although B. is often contemptuous of the opinions of classical scholars, he criticizes me for defying the "conventional wisdom" of "all" earlier scholars in translating gegonotes to anekathen ap' Aigyptou (Hdt. 2.43.2) as "descended on both sides from Aegyptus" (rather than "from Egypt"). But in fact that is how Karl Hude understood it in the Oxford Classical Text.4 The point is that with ginesthai Herodotus usually employs ek to designate place, and apo to designate persons (for a close parallel, see 6.35.1 ta men anekathen ap' Aiakou te kai Aigines gegonos.5

B. also complains of my scepticism about his etymologies. He points out that he did not claim that the Greek words hikesios/hiketides were etymologically related to Hyksos, but rather that they were a very ancient "pun." No doubt I was confused by his assertion in BA I 97 "Hikesios strikingly resembles the Egyptian Hk3 h3st, which in the third century was rendered into Greek as Hyksos." B. complains that I do not offer any arguments to show why his etymology of Athena from Ht Neit is unpersuasive. I did not believe I needed to, since I cite two full discussions of the problem in my notes (NOA, p.181 n.22). Perhaps it is true that I do not (as B. states) "know much about linguistics and [have] virtually no understanding of language contact." But is B. a competent judge of such linguistic skills? Trained linguists regard his etymologies as unsystematic and credulous.6 His suggestion that Democritus' atoma could possibly (or plausibly?) refer to the Egyptian god Atum might serve as an illustration of his approach.

A central feature of my argument (noted above) is that the "Egyptian Mystery System" from which the Greeks were supposed to have derived their philosophy and scientific learning is in fact based on an eighteenth-century European fiction. B. tries to discredit my discussion first by an argumentum ex silentio: much of our information about mysteries is lost because they "are by their nature mysterious." Actually, of course, the term mysterion means "initiation." Since initiation rituals are found all over the world, general similarities between them cannot be used to prove any direct connection. B. admits that it is only a "competitive plausibility" that Greek initiation rites may have been influenced in some way (he does not say precisely how or when) by texts describing the ritual journeys of dead souls in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead." Even if on exceptional occasions these rites were enacted by living persons, the process described bears virtually no resemblance to what we know about the rituals at Eleusis.7 B. argues that the scarabs and a symbol of Isis found in a ninth or eighth century tomb in Eleusis suggest that there was an established connection between Isis and Demeter; but all the presence of such objects indicates is that the occupant of the tomb (or his/her relatives) might have visited Egypt or traded with Egyptians.8 The initiation ritual described by Apuleius in the Golden Ass of course combines elements of Egyptian funerary religion with Greco-Roman ritual, but that is only to be expected in a period when we know that Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were in close contact.9

B. also seeks to undermine my account of the origin of the myth of the "Egyptian Mystery System," by claiming that it is not implausible to imagine that the "Egyptian Mystery System" had an educational component. The question, he suggests, "depends on definition;" in other words, B. prefers to define philosophy as wisdom literature. B. observes that the Egyptian priests were very learned in a wide range of topics (see also NOA, pp. 98- 101), but he sidesteps the question of whether this closely recondite mystical or practical learning is the equivalent of a university curriculum or a system of philosophy such as that described by Plato or Aristotle. Even though it might be called "philosophy" in the popular sense of the word, Egyptian knowledge texts were closely restricted.10 Thus B. cannot provide any evidence to support his assertion that the modern myth of "Egyptian Colleges" does not derive primarily from European fictions. B. himself has shown how unlikely it is that writers like G.G.M. James, who were denied access to major research libraries, would have been able to take full advantage of the ancient and modern scholarly source materials about the papyri produced and used by the Egyptian priests and scribes.

B. concludes his long review by criticizing me for making an "emotional" appeal to George Orwell's description of how Winston Smith rewrites history in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is not G.G.M. James who rewrote history, he suggests, but scholars like myself, who adhere to the "Aryan Model," and who "make a categorical break with all the previous history of the formation of ancient Greece." Here B. appears to be projecting onto me the insistent animus of his own writing. Certainly he seeks to arouse the emotions of his readers by his use of the term "Aryan," which is now popularly associated with Nazi ideology.11 What more "useful" way could he have found to describe scholars with whose work he seeks to discredit? And why else does he continue to assert that it was because of a racist and anti-Semitic ideology that Classicists discarded the "Ancient Model" that he is eager to resurrect? Anyone who is prepared to look at the history of nineteenth-century scholarship with an open mind can see that there is a much more central reason why nineteenth-century scholars changed their minds about the extent of Egyptian influence on Greece. The change was brought about by the knowledge of a real (as opposed to a Hellenocentric view) of Egypt, which was made possible by the decipherment of hieroglyphics, and the discovery that Greek was an Indo-European language. In fact, it is not "Aryan" and anti-Semitic (!) scholarship that has influenced my thinking about the cultural debt of Greece to Egypt. Nor is it any conviction on my part that I possess "an absolute general truth" that allows me (or anyone else) "to be cavalier about specifics." It is rather the absence of any evidence that shows that Greek philosophy was stolen or borrowed or fundamentally dependent on Egyptian sources.


  • [1] See E. Iversen, The Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition [1961] (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), p. 146. Hegel, for example, during the 1820s was unable to learn enough about Champollion's work to alter his views about the "Western identity" of Egypt; see S. Harten, Egypt and the Fabrication of European Identity (Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, 1995), pp. 3-4.
  • [2] A.B. Lloyd, Herodotus Book II (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975-88), I pp. 55-56, III pp. 220-1.
  • [3] Ibid., I p. 56.
  • [4] See his index s.v. Aigyptos heros.
  • [5] Other examples: ek, of place, 1.146.1, 1. 173.1, 2.91.5, 2.154.2, 5.57.1, 7.92 (an exception, 4.95.3); apo, of person, 1.147.1, 3.55.2, 3.83.2, 3.84.1, 4.6.1, 4.10.3, 4.149.2, 5.7, 5.22.1, 6.35.1, 6.51, 6.52.8, 7.150.2, 8.22.2, 8.46.3, 8.139 (an exception, 7.93). See also R. Kühner-B. Gerth, Ausführliche Grammatik der Griechischen Sprache [1898] (Hannover, Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1983), p.457.
  • [6] See the detailed discussion by J.H. Jasanoff and A. Nussbaum, "Word Games," in BAR, pp.177-205), who conclude that Egyptian borrowings are comparatively few in number and late in date; most have already been identified. A convenient list (not cited in the bibliographies of BA I and II) has been available for more than a century: A. Wiedemann, Sammlung altägyptischer Wörter welche von klassischen Autoren umschrieben oder übersetzt worden sind (Leipzig: Verlag J.A. Barth 1883).
  • [7] E. Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), pp. 69-78: "Egyptian ceremony focused on the intact survival of both body and mind ... Greek hopes are more concentrated on intelligence and fame than on nourishment for flesh which they knew was not immortal" (p.72).
  • [8] G. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), p.61.
  • [9] Cf. J. Assman, "Death and Initiation in the Funerary Religion of Ancient Egypt," Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt (Yale Egyptological Studies 3; New Haven; 1989), p. 154; K. Clinton, Myth and Cult: the Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries (Stockholm, Swedish Institute in Athens, 1992), p.131, "Isis Mysteries were formed in the Hellenistic period after Greek Models."
  • [10] J. Baines, "Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy, and Decorum: Modern Perceptions and Ancient Institutions," Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27 (1990) 22-23.
  • [11] Cf. also J. Coleman, in BAR, p. 290.