Art and Black Athena

Art and the Black Athena Project

On this webpage we'll explore how artistic influences may be viewed and discussed in Martin Bernal's Black Athena.  However, rather than be overly concerned with the proof or disproof of specific points in Black Athena, let's examine visual sources in art and architecture to look at how the wider Mediterranean was a forum and milieu for artistic production.  The examples below demonstrate broad patterns of exchange and styles of representation between Greece and Egypt.

Herodotus' interest in Egypt as a source of influence on Greek culture can be appreciated by considering these images.  Fig. 1 shows a sculpture of the 4th Dynasty Old Kingdom Pharaoh King Menkaure and his wife, Queen Kha-merer-nebty II.  It dates from around 2540 BCE and is nearly 2,000 years older than the sculpture shown in Fig. 2 from Attica in Greece, dated around 600 BCE.

Video Introduction:  Art and Cultural Transmission between Egypt and Greece

Figure 1.  King Menkaure
& Queen Kha-merer-nebty II.

c. 2548 BCE-2530 BCE
Graywacke, Carved
Egyptian Old Kingdom
Boston. Museum of Fine Arts.
©Kathleen Cohen
Image from WorldImages Kiosk
Fig. 2
 Kouros from Anavysos.

c. 530 BC
marble & pigment
Greek Archaic
Anavysos. Greece
©Marilyn Fogel

Figure 3 Peplos Kore
Painted Sculpture c. 530-525 BCE
Found in Athens, 
Acropolis, west of the Erechtheum
Athens: The New Museum of the Acropolis
Fig 4.
Egyptian princess Amenirdis I,
statue in 8th century BC
(Kushite Princess and
Chief Priestess or Queen of Amun)
 25th Dynasty, Egypt, ca. 714-700 BCE.

There is controversy about this Peplos Kore as to whether she is the goddess Athena or one of a number of processional figures inscribed in or around the Acropolis in Athens.  Her left arm is damaged and cut off, but she was likely bearing a processional gift. She wears a heavy woolen garment known as a peplos, hence the name of the sculpture.  Many observers note the wide facial features that resemble the sculpture of the Egyptian princess Amenirdis I (see Fig. 4 on the right, above). 

Athena and Neit:  Iconography of the goddess in Greece and in Egypt.
Fig.5 Neit (Neith) sculpture found on the  island of Samos
25th Dynasty, Kushite Period, circa 719-656 BCE
Source:  Deutsches Archaeological Institute

Source:  Carol Benson, “A Greek Statuette in Egyptian Dress,” The Journal of the Walters Art Museum, Vol. 59, Focus on the Collections (2001), pp.7-16.

Figure 6  The Egyptian goddess Neit
Source:  Cartwright (1929)

That the Greek goddess Athena had multiple devotional functions, the goddess of war, the goddess of wisdom and goddess of weaving has some Egyptian parallel. Neit is also associated with water as a primeval source of origination and divination. (See "Gods and Goddesses in Ancient Egyptian Belief," Digital Egypt for Universities)  Harry Cartwright noted the multiple functions of the Egyptian goddess Neit of the Old Kingdom Delta region of Lower Egypt.
Neit is thought by some writers to have been a goddess of hunting or warfare. Whatever may have been her original character and functions, she came to be associated with the art of weaving (Cartwright 1927, 187)
In Old Kingdom Ancient Egypt, women were prominently assigned to positions of authority, including as Overseer of the Weavers' House. (Lesko, 1991, 5 and Fischer 1976, 70-71). An especially insightful depiction of weaving houses in Ancient Egypt is found at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

A useful study of the transmission of Near Eastern and Mediterranean literary and artistic forms to Greek culture is Sarah P. Morris' Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton, 1991).  Numerous merchants, artisans and artists arrived as  immigrants to Greece and were prominent in the Archaic period.  The legend of the famous sculptor Daidolos (Daedelus), whose scupltures were seen and described by Pausanius in the 2nd century CE, derives from the presence of foreign artisans working in Greece over a number of centuries that span back to the age of Homer. (See Ernst Homer-Wedeking, The Art of Archaic Greece (1968)
Of the works of Daedalus there are these two in Boeotia, a Heracles in Thebes and the Trophonius at Lebadeia. There are also two wooden images in Crete, a Britomartis at Olus and an Athena at Cnossus, at which latter place is also Ariadne's Dance, mentioned by Homer in the Iliad,1 carved in relief on white marble. At Delos, too, there is a small wooden image of Aphrodite, its right hand defaced by time, and with a square base instead of feet. 
1 See Hom. Il. 18.590 foll.
Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918. (From Perseus Project)

In the late Archaic period, we find remarkable examples of artistic rendering in a fully Egyptian style.  Consider this metope or sculptural fragment of what may be the head of Athena found at the Temple of Athena in Mycenaea, and dating to the 6th century, a period of the so-called Orientalizing of Greek culture.

Fig.8 Metope from Temple of Athena,
Mycenaea, 6th c. BCE
National Archaeological Museum
Athens, Greece
Source:  F. Tronchin
Fig. 9  
Lady of Auxerre (Daedalic Style)
Archaic Greek Art (7th-6th centuries BC)

Louvre Museum, Paris

Select Bibliography from the Louvre on Figure 9

  1. M. Hamiaux, Les Sculptures grecques, I, 2e édition, Paris, 2001, n 38, p. 43-45
  2. J.-L. Martinez, La Dame d'Auxerre, collection Solo (16), Paris, 2000
  3. Cl. Rolley, La Sculpture grecque, I. Des origines au milieu du Ve siècle, 1994, p. 137-138, fig. 116-117
  4. Mer Egée. Greece des îles, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1979, p. 133-135, n 71
  5. M. Collignon, "La statuette d'Auxerre (Musée du Louvre)", Monuments et Mémoires. Fondation Piot XX, 1913, p. 5-38, pl. 1-2
  6. M. Collignon, " Statuette féminine de style grec archaïque (Musée d'Auxerre)", Revue Archéologique, 11, 1908, p. 153-170

Barbara S. Lesko, "Women's Monumental Mark on Ancient Egypt," The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 4-15.

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.

There are numerous other archaeological and inscribed references to Neit.  For a Roman period sculpture that combines references to Athena and Neith, see the entry in the periodic bibliographies from the Griffith Institute at Oxford University.

Other Resources:  Browse through the Boston Museum of Fine Art's collection of Egyptian sculpture.
  1. The Giza Archive is an electronic e-museum from the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
  2. The Perseus Project Art and Artifact Browser is an excellent archive of art images from Ancient Greece and the Ancient World.
  3. Art History Resources is another good resource for art images from all periods of art history is 
  4. World Images from San Jose State University  (Search for Menkaure, the Egyptian pharoah referred to by Herodotus in the Greek as Mykerinos)
  5. The Metropolitan Museum's Timeline of Art History is also helpful.
  6. Links to art history images
  7. See the website of images of Senusret (Herodotus spells it as Sesostris I) is at
  8. Griffith Institute, Oxford University
  9. Digital Egypt for Universities