Thursday, March 29, 2012

Who was Black Athena?

"The tale that the dove was black signifies that the woman was Egyptian"
 (Herodotus Book 2.57)
Why did Martin Bernal name his three volume study, Black Athena?  Who is Athena and why is she black or was she black?  Black Athena refers to the Egyptian and African origins of the Greek goddess Athena.  It does not infer that Greeks were black or African themselves.

Bernal in the titling of his book purposely chose a title that raised a metaphor of the Greek goddess Athena to reflect the broader subject of his major study:  The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.  That subtitle is really the key thesis or theme of the book series, which has now extended to three volumes.  

Who was Athena and why is she relevant to tracing the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization?  In the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, two major cults of shrines and temples appeared throughout the Eastern Mediterranean by the 2nd millenium BCE that were dedicated to Poseidon and Athena.  Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, was associated with Seth, the Egyptian god of the sea or wilderness.  Other peoples observed closely related cults dedicated to gods of the sea, including the Hyksos, the Semitic Yam (or sea) and Yahwe (Bernal 1987, p. 21).  

The Greek goddess Athena was similarly associated with the Egyptian goddess Nēit and the the Semitic god 'Anat, who were worshipped by the Hyksos peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia (Bernal 1987, 21).  Bernal states that the very name of the city of Athens in Greece and its Greek form, Athēne or Athena, originates from Egyptian.  The goddess Athena, to whom Athens was named, was identified with the Egyptian goddess Nēit.  Athena and Nēit were virgin divinities of war, weaving and wisdom.  That's a lot to handle for any goddess!  Multitasking you might say.  

Bernal informs us of the origins of the Nēit cult in the Western Delta of Lower Egypt, an area near the Mediterranean that had substantial contact with Greeks and other seafaring peoples.  The Neit cult was centered at the city of Sais in the Western Delta.  Sais was also known by the religious name of its temple, Ht Nt, which means the Temple or House of Nēit.  In Egyptian most vowels are not written, so that is why we have the form, Ht Nt.  Interestingly, the toponomic designation of t is transcribed as At- or Ath-, so we get various vocalizations and transcribed spellings in the evolving languages and alphabets of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the West Semitic goddess, ‘Anat.  In the Doric dialect of the Greeks it shows as Athªna, and A-ta-na in Linear B in Crete.  In the early Greek of Homer’s time we find several derivations of spellings including Athēnaia and by the classical age it is simplified to Athēnē.  So let's look at that:

Egyptian > Semitic > Crete        > Greek
HT NT     = 'ANAT =   A-TA-NA  = ATHENA

That’s the phonetics of the transmission of the name of the Greek goddess Athena from the Egyptian Neit.  But Bernal goes further.  He notes that the Ancients collectively saw Nēit and Athena as two names for the same goddess
Intriguingly, Bernal cites to a statement of Charax of Pergamon, who in the 2nd century AD visited Sais and noted that the residents there, known as Saitians, called their city Athēnai.  (Bernal 1987, 52 citing to C. Müller, Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum (1841-1871), V III, 639).

From this example, we derive the title of the book, Black Athena:  The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.  Now the adjective Black was a most provocative titling and it lent itself to a great deal of criticism and attention.  It also inspired a great deal of interest in Africana studies that in some cases exceeded the actual project of Bernal, who never intended to suggest that Athens or the Greeks were Black or perhaps Africans from the sub-Sahara.  (See Bernal’s own reflection in his website).  

For more on the iconography of the Egyptian goddess Neit, see Harry W. Cartwright, "The Iconography of Certain Egyptian Divinities as Illustrated by the Collections in Haskell Oriental Museum,"  The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Apr., 1929), pp. 179-196.