Thursday, 23 April 2015

Language and Abstraction in Egypt and Greece

[This document is a brief summary and analysis of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena Vol 3 (2006) from August 2013. This was prepared for an interested third party. Slightly edited.]

Bernal had to choose an approach for this study of the linguistic evidence for the contact between cultures around the Mediterranean – either proceed from the certain to the less certain, and move toward the speculative, or use a chronological approach. He chose the chronological approach, which means he is using the family tree analogy quite a lot (though with some subtlety), and there are several diagrams showing hypothetical relationships and patterns of influence, not all of them reflecting his views. Both Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European relationship trees appear in different versions.

Bernal is conscious that he is equating chronology and causation – he says: “I chose a chronological scheme for two reasons: the aesthetic appeal of the narrative through time and the close link between causality and time” – p10. He admits a defect of this approach on p11 and says that “here we face … the general contradiction between accuracy and coherence” in the use of the easy to understand tree model.

This book has a much bigger overall focus than the two previous volumes, and the first five chapters are actually about Afroasiatic and IndoEuropean and their diffusion (there is a section in Ch. 2 referencing Gordon Childe and Colin Renfrew). Chapter 5 is on Greek phonology, and looks at whether or not Greek is the result of a linguistic shift or of linguistic contact. Ch. 6 looks at morphological and syntactical developments. Chapter 7 looks at the vocabulary and the incidence of lexical borrowings, and the Greeks own attitude to this. Chapter 8 looks at phonetic development in Egyptian, West Semitic and Greek over 3 millennia BCE, as reflected in lexical borrowings. Ch. 9 looks at Greek borrowings from Egyptian prefixes, including the definite articles. The detail here is enormous, and will take a long time to work through. 

The book is now something like what I was expecting. Ch. 10 & 11 look at major Egyptian terms found in Greek – muthos, moira, etc., and Ch.12 looks at 16 minor roots. Ch. 13 is about Semitic sibilants, and borrowings of these from the Caananites. Ch. 14 looks at more Semitic loans in Greek. Ch. 15 is about some Egyptian and Semitic semantic clusters in Greek, focussing on words related to nature and agriculture, cooking and medicine.

From Ch. 15 onwards Bernal’s treatment is to cover both Semitic and Egyptian words in a systematic way, looking at semantic clusters. Ch.16 covers weapons, warfare and hunting, shipping. Ch. 17 covers Society, Politics, Law, and interestingly ‘abstraction’. Particularly since the next chapter is about religion. The section on abstraction begins with an extraordinary sentence, which expresses the exasperation created by the modern refusal to recognise the role of abstraction in cultures before Greece. He says:

“Abstraction is the inner sanctum of the Greek vocabulary. The continued use of these terms in ‘western’ philosophy have given these words, and ancient Greek culture as [a] whole, an important impetus to elevation to the superhuman, universal and eternal”.

He argues that the presence of so many words of Egyptian origin in this semantic area of the Greek vocabulary “indicates not conquest but the high status of Egyptian during the New Kingdom in the second half of the Second Millennium and again in the late seventh and sixth centuries BCE.” He then passes on to an analysis of Egyptian abstract concepts including the concept of completion, the limit (telos, also looked at in Ch. 10), the idea of boundary, and Sophia (from sb3, also discussed in Ch. 10), and the etymology for eskatos, meaning edge, end, and extreme, once applied in spatial terms, but later applied to time and morality. Which is very familiar territory, since it was the noticing of the technical use of the concept of completion in one of the hymns of Akhenaten that first started me on the pursuit of abstract technical concepts in cultures which preceded Greece. The fact that these concepts are all mentioned on the same page (422), even if their detailed discussion is elsewhere in the book, indicates that he has a clear grip on the fact that our way of understanding our intellectual history is upside down: abstractions are early, not late developments.

Chapter 18 onwards is the most important part of the book. Ch. 18 explores the terminology around structures, personnel, cult objects, rituals, sacrifices (this discussion is on the money), incense, flowers, scents, aura, and mysteries. Ch. 19 is focussed on Divine names in relation to gods, mythical creatures, and heroes. All of this is interesting and useful, but though he uses his sources critically, he hasn’t got a grip on ancient theology any more sound than they have (his background is in sociology). He also discusses mainly names which have problematic etymologies, rather than the ones which are reasonably probable. The discussion of the relationship between Zeus-Ammon and Amon-Re is interesting, but not well informed with an understanding of detail outside purely etymological speculation. He notes that both Zeus and Ammon were associated with rams, but is in no position to take that observation any further. He does suggest however that the name Zeus may be a public name for a god whose identity is otherwise hidden (we’ve seen that arrangement before!), which might explain the association between Zeus and Amon. He doesn’t explicitly draw the rather obvious conclusion that the visible and the invisible have been joined in these yokings.

Bernal is good on Atum and Apophis (more clear evidence that the Egyptians were thinking in terms of abstract ideas about the creation of the world -p468), and less good on Ra/Re, who is hardly discussed. The discussion of the origin of the Greek Puthos, an epithet of Apollo and a name associated with Delphi, covers a number of possibilities more or less inconclusively.

Geographical features and place names are covered next (Ch20). The focus is on natural features, and city names. Ch 21 is all about Sparta. He talked about this in vol 1, but didn’t spend thirty-odd pages on the subject the first time around. He looks at an Egyptian etymology for the name Sparta, as he did before. The discussion here is extremely interesting – he looks at the possible connections between Sp3t and the capital of Lydia, which was called Sardis by the Greeks. The Persian name was Sparda or Saparta, and the Aramaic was Sprd. All of the discussion here is in terms of linguistic changes, but underneath the discussion seems to be the possibility that the Spartans came from somewhere else. Bernal speculates on the possible relationship connections between Anubis (‘Lord of sp3’, etc) and Sparta, and explores some Egyptian religious punning around sp3. He also covers some largely sterile discussion by other scholars of the origins of the names ‘Lakedaimon’ and ’Lakonia’.

Bernal quotes Plutarch, and reinforces the half-articulated theme of the joining of the visible and invisible worlds –
when Nephthys gave birth to Anubis, Isis treated the child as if it were her own; for Nephthys is that which is beneath the earth and invisible, Isis that which is above the earth and visible; and the circle which touches these, called the horizon, being common to both has received the name Anubis, and is represented in form like a dog; for a dog can see with his eyes both by night and by day alike.
The relationship between the Spartans and the Jews is discussed, on the basis of the well known references in Maccabees and in Josephus. The references suggest that the Spartans and the Jews are kinsmen. The supposed date of this claim is around 300 BCE. Two succeeding letters suggest that the Jews are ‘brothers’ of the Spartans. Bernal points to a discussion of the subject by Eduard Meyer, and his belief that the writings these items were drawn from were by Hekataios of Abdera. Hekataios said, on the subject of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, that:
The natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners their troubles would never be resolved. At once therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, and the most outstanding and active among them banded together and, as some say, were cast ashore in Greece and certain other regions. Their teachers were notable men, among them being Danaus and Cadmus. But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judea which is not far from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited. The colony was headed by a man called Moses.
Lots of contentious stuff to discuss here! But Bernal argues that “from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period one finds substantial indications of Egyptian and West Semitic civilization in Sparta, one aspect of which is linguistic. This is altogether what one should expect of the southernmost state on the Greek mainland.”

Chapter 22 is about Athena and Athens, which Bernal has discussed before, but not at such length (pages 540-582).

The Conclusion begins with a quote by the historian J.M.Roberts (New History of the World, 2002, p86) –
The spectacular heritage of Egypt’s monuments and history counted not in centuries but in millennia stagger the critical sense and stifle criticism. Yet the creative quality of Egyptian civilization seems, in the end to miscarry… it is difficult not to sense an ultimate sterility, a nothingness, at the heart of this glittering tour de force…. Egypt’s military and economic power in the end made little permanent difference to the world. Her civilization was never successfully spread abroad…
Bernal’s response is that “The purpose of these volumes is to refute this widespread conventional view repeated by Roberts. I hope to have demonstrated that neither ancient Egypt nor the pagan Levant were dead ends. Both of them, through Greece and Rome and the civilizations of the monotheistic religions, have been central and crucial to western history. “

Bernal finishes his conclusion with a well-known passage by Charles Darwin, which reveals that he never really thought he would shift the paradigm in his lifetime:
Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine…. But I look with confidence to the future – to young and rising naturalists who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.
I've picked up on a couple of subsidiary themes in the book, because I think they are more important than they may seem. Bernal's position has shifted since the first volume of Black Athena. He isn't always looking at things from the point of view of a sociologist in this book, but has a more anthropological interest in both the interaction of ancient cultural groups, and the suppression of the role of Egypt and other ancient cultures on the development of Greece. What I mean by this is that whereas sociologists are, by and large, interested in the mechanics of social organisation, and understanding these mechanics within various models, anthropologists have more interest in the detail of the mechanics, including those aspects which they regard as dependent on the local cultural context, which are (or are deemed to be) irrational, or are regarded as pathological. I think he has moved in the course of putting this book together to a position where the suppression of the evidence for cultural interchange, and the suppression of the existence of a capacity to think in complex and sophisticated abstractions in the ancient world, is not something which can be understood purely in sociological terms, but needs to be understood in terms of a framework which can deal with the irrational and the pathological in human culture.

In other words, something else is going on with the suppression of the past, which is beyond understanding as the product of racism and an orientalist view of the world. This is where he seemed to start, but the reality is more complicated, and he has shifted position along with the progress of the project. He has been writing all along about a phenomenon which involves a high degree of irrationality, and which may be best understood as pathological.

He mentions the fact that both dirt and the holy were often joined together in the ancient mind through the concept of taboo, and revulsion was often the response to both. The response to the dirty isn't problematic, but revulsion for the holy is complicated. The holy or the divine can be defined as something which is beyond human reach and understanding, and that it is therefore not acceptable or even possible for the purely human to reach or understand things which are holy. This can be true even if the whole thrust of a civilization holding this view is toward the achievement of the holy, and the understanding of what is divine. In the case of Egypt in particular there can be no doubt that the pursuit of the divine by the Egyptians is absolutely unmistakeable to us. We know plenty about some aspects of their religion and religious organization, but very little in comparison about their society and its organisation, and how the two might have fitted together.

Bernal remains a sociologist in that he hasn't made the leap to understanding the relationship of the some of the abstract terminology he discusses to the gods and understanding of the divine, which is why he collects the terms together at the close of the section looking at Society, Politics, and Law. In essence what we have done, in order to make study of the past possible, is to make its real nature, even if we have no understanding of it, taboo. We understand it in terms of models which have very little to do with available information from the past, and we shoehorn entire civilizations into interpretative frameworks which suit our purposes. And that is what we (as a culture) want. The past is better as a fiction. We are mortally afraid of the 'glittering tour de force', and the possibility that Egyptian culture enshrined something which was not wholly irrational, and was not an example of a pathology lasting for millennia. We made Greece into an acceptable antecedent culture for an ancestor, even though it is clearly in the same cultural orbit as Egypt and the Near East, and have stripped out from it (as far as possible) all those aspects of the ancient world which we find  unacceptable, strange and unfathomable. The rest we simply fail to notice.

Notes on the text are gathered together between pages 587 and 694. There is a glossary between pages 695 and 711.There is a useful list of Greek Words and Names with Proposed Afroasiatic Etymologies between pages 713 and 729. A section of letter correspondences follows between pages 731 and 739. A bibliography occupies pages 741 to 795. There is an index between pages 797 and 807.

One final point: Bernal does not refer much to interpretations found in the Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, though it is mentioned in the Bibliography. The referenced edition is the 9th, which is the one revised by H. Stuart Jones and R. McKenzie in the early years of the 20th century. He doesn’t mention at all the 8th edition, which contains speculations about Semitic etymologies (and others) for Greek words. He may have omitted reference to it since there is a fair amount of twaddle in that edition. I know of at least one other Greek lexicon, dating from around 1840 which gives good Semitic parallels, but without the etymological speculation. He hasn’t referenced that either.

Marks out of 10 for this book? 10/10 for Bernal being able to do so much useful work in this area with very little in the way of assistance from specialists. And for sticking it out to the end. It’s an awesome achievement. It’s also extremely readable, even when the going gets tough.

22 Aug 2013.


  1. Nice: "abstractions are early, not late developments."

    1. Thanks. This article is not in SHB, but the argument that abstractions are early and not a late development features heavily, particularly in connection with the properties and attributes of the Divine, which turn up in many Mesopotamian texts.

      Best, Thomas