The Ancient World As Seen By Afrocentrists
At some schools and universities in the USA today students are learning a version
of ancient history that is strikingly different from what is being taught to
their counterparts in Europe. This new narrative cannot be reconciled with
the traditional account, which is still being taught in the vast majority of
schools and universities. Advocates of the revisionist version ("the Afrocentric
narrative") claim that because of their inherent prejudice against Africans
and peoples of African descent, the traditionalists have ignored a significant
body of evidence. Advocates of the traditional version of ancient history insist
that their version ("the Eurocentric narrative") offers the best available
account of the known facts. Thus in the debate between the two groups there
is more is at stake than historical accuracy. There is a question of ethics
as well: the traditionalists deserve to be discredited if they have misrepresented
history, particularly if they have done so out of racist motives. But it also
follows that the revisionists should be prepared to moderate their claims if
they have misrepresented history or misunderstood the motives of the traditionalists.
In this article I shall offer a summary of the revisionist "Afrocentric"
narrative, along with the traditional "Eurocentric" narrative that
it is designed to replace. I shall then describe the evidence used to support
each account, and attempt to explain where the advocates of each narrative have
misunderstood the other, or have failed to pay sufficient attention to other
possible interpretations. In the end, I shall argue that the Eurocentric Narrative
offers the best representation of the known facts now available to us, and that
the Afrocentric Narrative is based largely on an unscientific and now rightly
discarded understanding of the nature of Egyptian civilization. But I wish to
make it clear at the outset that I have not chosen the Eurocentric narrative
out of a reluctance to imagine anything new, or out of a desire to misrepresent
the achievements or capacities of African peoples. Such motivations
are both abhorrent to me, as they should be to all of us. Rather, I will insist
that the Afrocentric narrative needs to be taken seriously by everyone who is
interested in the ancient world. Despite its historical inaccuracies, the Afrocentric
narrative reminds us of facts that have not been sufficiently emphasized in
the study of ancient history: that the ancient Egyptians came originally from
Africa and that their cultural and intellectual achievements in the second millennium
Here then are summaries of the two narratives:
The Afrocentric Narrative
1. Prehistory: All civilization derives from Africa, and in particular
from the African civilization of Ancient Egypt. It was from ancient Egypt that
language and culture spread to the rest of Africa. The Egyptians invented science,
medicine and philosophy, and they taught it to other peoples.
2. Second millennium B.C: It is also from ancient Egypt that language
and culture came to ancient Greece. The Egyptians under the Hyksos pharaohs
invaded the Near East, and then came to Greece. A memory of this invasion is
preserved in the story of Danaus and his fifty daughters, who came from Egypt
to Argos. While in Greece, the Egyptians exerted influence on Greek art, architecture,
science, and language. They built step-pyramids in Thebes and Argos. They founded
the Eleusinian mysteries. Egyptian motifs appear in Minoan and Mycenaean art,
and Egyptian objects are found in Greek sites. Half of the vocabulary of ancient
Greek derives from ancient Egyptian. Some Greeks, such as Socrates, had African
3. First millennium B.C: Famous Greeks came to Egypt to study at the
universities in the Egyptian Mystery System (EMS): Homer learned about religion
and Pythagoras about life and death and mathematics, Solon studied law, Thales
science; Socrates and Plato philosophy; Oenopides, Democritus, and Eudoxus astronomy.
In 332 B.C., when the Greeks invaded Egypt under Alexander the Great, Aristotle
raided the library of Alexandria. Later he pretended to be the author of the
Egyptian books he had stolen. Ancient Greek philosophy is in reality stolen
Egyptian philosophy. The Greeks did not have the capacity to write philosophy,
because they were a contentious people. Cleopatra VII’s paternal grandmother
was an African.
The Eurocentric Narrative
1. Prehistory: All human life appears to have originated in Africa,
but in the course of thousands of years people migrated to other parts of the
world. We know from recorded history that in the third millennium B.C. the ancient
Egyptians had attained a high level of civilization. They had a system of writing,
built impressive architectural structures, and were adept at certain types of
mathematical calculation. They had theories about the operation of the human
body, and recorded their methods for the use of other practitioners.
2. Second millennium: Invaders from the East began to settle in Asia
Minor, the Aegean islands, and mainland Greece. The Egyptians were in contact
with peoples in these areas and other early civilizations through trade. During
the hegemony of the Semitic "Hyksos" pharaohs, (ca. 1650-1550) Egyptians
in Lower Egypt traded with Cyprus and Crete, and brought Minoan artists to Avaris,
but here is no archaeological or linguistic evidence that Egyptians invaded
mainland Greece or the islands.
3. First millennium: Trade continued with other Mediterranean countries,
but in the mid-seventh century the pharaoh Psamtek I ("Psammetichus")
used Greek mercenaries, and a base for Greek traders was established in the
Nile Delta at Naucratis. In 570 B.C. the pharaoh Ahmose II ("Amasis")
used Greek mercenaries, and in 548 B.C. financed the rebuilding of the temple
of Apollo at Delphi. After the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 it was difficult
for Greeks to travel there, but we know that in the fifth century the Greek
historians Hecataeus and Herodotus went there; others Greeks, like Solon and
Thales, may have visited there as well. Greeks lived in Egypt after Alexander’s
conquest, but stayed primarily in Alexandria and kept themselves separate from
the native population. From 332 to 31 B.C., when Cleopatra VII was defeated
by the Romans, all the pharaohs were Macedonian Greeks. Greeks founded the library
at Alexandria in about 297 B.C. What we now know as Greek philosophy derived
from the work of Greek thinkers in Asia Minor, and was developed in Athens by
Socrates, his pupil Plato, and Plato’s pupil Aristotle.
I shall now explain what evidence is used to support the different narratives
for each of the three periods outlined above. I have suggested in endnotes where
fuller discussions of particular issues may be found.
Both the traditional and revisionist accounts agree that all civilization comes
from Africa, and that the Egyptians originally were an African people. Where
the accounts differ is in emphasis: the Afrocentric account stresses the connection
of the Egyptians to the rest of Africa; the Eurocentrics concentrate on the
connections of Egypt to the Eastern Mediterranean, a part of the world that
is more important for the development of European history. The Afrocentrists
also pay particular attention to the racial characteristics of the ancient
Egyptians. According to them, the Egyptians are indistinguishable from other
Africans. But the traditionalists point out that the Egyptians distinguished
themselves from the Nubians and other African and Mediterranean peoples in appearance
and dress. Both the traditionalists and revisionists express a high regard for
Egyptian accomplishments in science, medicine, and architecture, fields that
are highly valued in European culture, though the revisionist account makes
claims for Egyptian science that cannot be substantiated by the documentary
or archaeological evidence. For example, there is no evidence that Egyptians
invented gliders, and flew around in them. They did not understand the relation
of the brain to the nervous system . Nor did they have a real grasp of the function
of the circulatory system: they thought that the network of vessels that emanated
from the heart terminated in the anus (Harris 1971, 125; Palter 1996, 256).
It is important to note that neither account pays much attention to the subject
area which the ancient Egyptians thought themselves most important: the preparation
of the individual for death and the afterlife. In this respect the focus of
the Afrocentric narrative is as Eurocentric as the traditionalist narrative
(Walker 2001, 128-129).
2. Second millennium
The revisionists argue that there was massive influence on Greece from Egypt
in this period, brought as the result of an invasion of Greece by the Hyksos
pharaohs. They believe that there is evidence of the invasion in the presence
of many Egyptian word roots in Greek, and that the idea of an invasion is suggested
by the story of Danaus and his fifty daughters, who came from Egypt to Greece
and settled in Argos, and that the foundations of step-pyramids can be seen
in Argos and in Thebes (Bernal 1991, 320-408, followed by Poe 1997, 323-26).
The traditionalists have not been convinced by any of these arguments. They
insist that Egyptian etymologies cannot be found for most Greek words, unless
all known rules of vocabulary acquisition are disregarded (Jasanoff and Nussbaum
1996, 179-84). They say that the myth of Danaus proves nothing about
an invasion, because it is a myth, not history, and merely suggests what archaeological
evidence confirms, that there was contact between Egypt and Greece during this
period (Vermeule 1996, 276-77; Coleman 1996, 281-84; Tritle 1996, 319-20). If
the myth could be accepted as a historical account, it would also suggest that
Greece invaded Egypt, since Danaus’ ancestor Io came from Argos to Egypt and
settled there (Lefkowitz 1996, 18-19). They point out that the remains of buildings
identified by the revisionists as Egyptian have no distinctively Egyptian characteristics,
and thus are almost certainly indigenous (Tritle 1996, 321-3). In particular,
the structures known as "pyramids" in the neighborhood of Argos are
located at some distance from each other; a careful study showed that they are
in fact guard houses, dating at the earliest to the fifth century B.C. (Lord
1938, 481-527). The "pyramid" at Thebes is only a hill (Tritle 1996,
Instead of the notion of invasion, the traditionalists believe that during
this period there is evidence of increasing trade, and with it extensive cultural
exchange among the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. At this time also successive
waves of peoples gradually filtered into the area who spoke an Indo-European
language that later became the prototype of Greek. These people absorbed into
their language some of the vocabulary of the native populations of the area,
but the identity and origin of these earlier peoples is now unknown. Some more
specific items of vocabulary were added to Greek through trade with the Phoenicians
(Burkert 1992, 34-40; West 1997, 12-14). Archaeological evidence shows that
the inhabitants of the Greek mainland traded with Egypt, and were inspired by
Egyptian decorative art; but the Hyksos pharaohs admired the indigenous art
of Crete and brought Cretan artisans to Egypt to create wall paintings for buildings
at Avaris in the Nile delta (Bietak 1996, 81). Since virtually no
Egyptian words appear to have been absorbed into Greek at this period, it seems
likely that there were no major exchanges of population, wars, or invasions
between Greek and Egyptian peoples (Jasanoff 1997, 63-66).
The evidence supports the traditional account, provided that traditional methods
are employed in analyzing the available data. But the revisionists insist that
traditional means of acquiring knowledge are all subject to question, especially
if the motives of the producers of such "knowledge" can be regarded
as one-sided or even racist in intention. Since no human being can be truly
objective, isn’t it possible that the traditional methodology has been designed
either inadvertently or deliberately to "protect" the data from alternative
explanations? Why can’t myth represent history in this case, even if it does
not in most other cases? How do we know that the same rules for adopting foreign
loan-words into Greek apply to all languages in the same way? Couldn’t the Egyptian
words have been transformed in a somewhat different way from, say, Phoenician
To some extent the revisionists’ skepticism appears justified: certainly classical
scholars have tended to concentrate more on the development of Greek culture
during this period than they have on the development of other cultures. No modern
scholar of the ancient world is opposed to the notion of a strong African influence
on Greece in principle . Rather, the problem is that there is no evidence,
either linguistic or archaeological, that supports the notion. For example,
there is no reason to assume that the Danaus myth is any more "historical"
than the Oedipus or any other myth. Scholars have known for more than a century
the rules by which Egyptian loan words are brought into Greek, and have already
catalogued such loan words as can be found (Wiedemann 1883; Jasanoff and Nussbaum
1996, 201-3). In any case, if it is true that the nature of knowledge is determined
by the intentions of the providers of knowledge, then the revisionists’ arguments
also will be undermined by their own intentions. If they are determined to claim
priority for African civilizations, as their approach to the evidence suggests,
how can they in their turn be expected to offer a fair and unbiased account
of the development of Greek civilization?
3. First millennium
The traditionalists believe that before the sixth century B.C., encounters
between Egypt and Greece were limited, though Greeks traveled there, and served
as mercenaries under Ahmose II in 570B.C. They set up a trading post at Naucratis
in the Nile Delta. Here they appear to have followed a Mesopotamian practice,
since there were trading posts along the Egyptian border (Dalley and Reyes 1998,
97). But Greek contact with Egypt was restricted after the time of the Persian
conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C. until Alexander’s invasion in 333/2. Herodotus
was able to travel in Egypt because he was a native of Halicarnassus, a city-state
that was under Persian domination. Most classical scholars who have studied
the evidence doubt that most famous Greeks went there, and suggest that even
if they did go there, they did not learn anything about religion or philosophy
(Brisson 1987, 153-68; Lefkowitz1997, 75-85). Nothing in either the
Iliad or the Odyssey suggests that Homer had any first-hand knowledge
of Egypt; he assigns to it no special characteristics that could distinguish
it from any other foreign country that he describes (Lefkowitz1997,
74-5). Although Herodotus sought to establish connections between Egyptian and
Greek religion and ritual, in reality the similarities he found were few and
superficial. He is, for example, mistaken when he claims that Pythagoras derived
his ideas about the transmigration of the soul from Egypt (Lefkowitz1997,
62-71) In fact the Egyptians did not believe that the souls of the dead transferred
themselves to new bodies, but designed their rituals and incantations to ensure
that the life of the individual continued after death.
Philosophy in particular appears to be a purely Greek invention. Although Greek
creation myths may have been remotely inspired by the Babylonian Creation Myths,
the account of origins of the universe and its components given by Plato and
Aristotle is expressed in non-theological terms and in a generalized, abstract
vocabulary that has no analogy in the Egyptian language (Burkert 1985, 303-11).
In any case, Egyptian texts corresponding to Greek philosophical texts have
not yet been discovered, nor is it very likely that they ever will be, because
the Egyptians were not interested in exploring such subjects as the nature of
the good, or of justice, or of the soul. Rather than questioning what these
were, they spent their time investigating how each individual might best conduct
him- or herself appropriately in this life so as to be able to survive successfully
The only philosophical texts produced on Egyptian soil are the so-called Hermetic
treatises, which contain dialogues in Greek between a god and a disciple. Although
they purport to have been written in Egypt at the beginning of time, the Hermetic
treatises were in reality composed during the early centuries A.D., long after
the Greek settlement was established in Alexandria, and Greek had become the
language of government, the courts, and international trade(Fowden
1984, 3-4; Copenhaver 1992), xliii-xlv). Egyptologists have now discovered an
Egyptian-language dialogue of Thoth (the Egyptian god associated with Hermes)
that also dates from this late period. But even though it appears to have the
same outward form as the Greek-language treatises, ideas are expressed and topics
discussed in an entirely different way from that of the Greek texts, which use
abstractions and deal with the kinds of issues raised in the Greek philosophy
of that era (Jasnow and Zauzich 1998, 617-18).
Thus even if the Greek philosophers had gone to Egypt to study with Egyptian
priests, as later writers suggested that they did, they would not have learned
about philosophy. Even though it is theoretically possible that Plato may have
visited Egypt, there is no indication in his surviving works that he knows anything
about Egypt that he could not have learned from Herodotus. Plato tells us that
Socrates never left Greece, and no ancient source says that Aristotle ever went
there. In any case, he could not have sacked the library at Alexandria, because
it was not built until about 297 B.C. and Aristotle died in 322 (Lefkowitz1997, 137, 145)
As for other sciences, the Greeks probably acquired some practical medical
knowledge from the Egyptians over the course of time through their contact in
trade, but they probably learned about mathematics and astronomy from the Near
Eastern peoples with whom they came into frequent contact rather than from the
Egyptians (Dalley and Reyes 1998, 104). Egyptian mathematics appears to have
had very little direct influence on the work of other ancient Mediterranean
peoples (Toomer 1971, 44-45; Palter 1996, 216, 255-56). The Greek
method of mathematical calculation was different from that used in Egypt, and
can be distinguished from that of earlier cultures because of its use of abstract
terms. Where the Egyptian scribe would present a series of related specific
calculations (showing that in principle they knew that they presented a related
problem), the Greeks developed the use of theorems to express in abstract terms
the principle behind the calculations (Gillings 1972, 233-4).
By contrast, the revisionists claim that virtually everything that the traditionalists
believe to have been invented or developed by the Greeks should in reality be
attributed to the Egyptians. First of all, they argue, the Egyptians were a
great civilization long before the ancestors of the Greeks emigrated to the
Eastern Mediterranean. Since the Greeks clearly found Egyptian art inspiring,
and copied it in their sculptures and architecture, they could have done so
with scientific and philosophical ideas as well. They point out that Herodotus
and other Greek writers believed that the names of the gods and certain Greek
religious customs came to Greece from Egypt. They make much of the claims
by some ancient writers (although in every case writing some centuries after
the fact) that famous Greeks studied with Egyptian priests.The
revisionists believe that Greeks came to Egypt to study at the universities
that were incorporated into the Egyptian Mystery System, and that some of them
were even initiated there in Lodges into the Egyptian priesthood.
The revisionists argue that the traditionalists have ignored what Greek writers
have said, or have tended to regard their testimony as basically fictional,
because of a characteristic Eurocentric unwillingness to give credit to an African
civilization for the development of Western thought. To some extent, this criticism
is justified. Some European scholars believed that the Egyptians must have been
Europeans, or in any case of a different racial stock from other Africans, because
they believed that ancient Egyptian civilization was clearly superior to (and
therefore different from) other African civilizations of the time. Certainly
some scholars of the ancient world have been racist and anti-Semitic. It is
also true that Europeans have sought to connect themselves to the ancient Greeks,
rather than to the ancient Egyptians, in their architecture, art, science and
But if today virtually all scholars of the ancient world no longer believe
that the influence of Egypt on Greece was as great as Herodotus or later Greek
writers supposed that it was, it is not because they are unwilling to give credit
the Egyptians for these same achievements. It is now widely recognized that
the European scholars who thought the Egyptians were Europeans were certainly
wrong, and their work has been discredited. Most anthropologists and Egyptologists
subscribe to that view that the ancient Egyptians originated from Africa. Scholars
of the ancient world have ceased to take Herodotus and his successors au
pied de la lettre about the debt of Greece to Egypt once they began to be
able to read what the ancient Egyptians themselves had to say about their own
religion, life, and connections with the rest of the ancient world. They could
not have done so before the mid-nineteenth century, because it was only some
time after the hieroglyphics had been deciphered (1822) and a grammar and dictionary
of the Egyptian language could be published (1836), that Egyptian inscriptions
and papyri could be read and analyzed. The revisionists’ notion of Egyptian
culture clearly derives from earlier notions of Egypt, based primarily on Greek
and Roman sources, which have been shown to offer a fragmentary and often misleading
account of Egyptian civilization.
One reason why many people, both black and white, still believe that Egypt
is the prototype of Greek civilization is that the idea of Egyptian origins
has been preserved in Masonic ritual and mythology, and also in many books about
pyramids and their mysteries that derive from these beliefs. The notion that
there was an Egyptian mystery system derives from the Masonic initiation ritual.
This ritual, although thought to be Egyptian in origin, in reality dates only
from historical fiction composed in the eighteenth century. Its source is a
description of Egyptian priestly training in Séthos, a novel published
in 1731 by a French priest, the Abbé Jean Terrasson, who was a professor
of Greek at the Sorbonne (Terrasson 1732). The novel, although now completely
forgotten, was widely read in France, and almost immediately translated into
English and German.
At the time of its publication, and for at least a century after, the account
of ancient Egyptian education and initiation in Father Terrasson’s novel was
widely believed to be authentic, and the rituals he describes were adopted by
Masons in Europe. One can get an impression from Schickaneder’s libretto to
Mozart’s The Magic Flute of the nature of the initiation ritual, as well
as a sense of why it attracted the sympathies of so many people. It is a test
of character, an educational journey, and emergence from dark and despair to
enlightenment and peace. Ignaz von Born, a member of the same Masonic lodge
as Mozart, wrote a treatise exploring the connections between these rituals
and ancient Egyptian practices, apparently without realizing that what he supposed
to be the ancient evidence also derived from Father Terrasson’s account (Hornung
1999, 121-132). Terrasson’s description was of course based primarily on ancient
Greek and Roman sources, such as Apuleius’ The Golden Ass , which were
the only descriptions of Egyptian religion and ritual available at the time
(Lefkowitz1997, 110-21). Father Terrasson in his novel describes in
exact detail the curriculum of an imaginary university system in second millennium
Egypt, complete with such completely anachronistic appurtenances as laboratories
and observatories. This educational system, he claims, became the source of
many of the ideas and rituals later thought to originate only with the ancient
Greeks. Terrasson portrays the ancient Egyptians as whites, as opposed to black,
"savage," Africans (Terrasson 1732, II 25).
Despite its fictional nature and historical anachronism, Terrasson’s novel
had a wide influence on the development of European rituals. It is the ultimate
source of the notion of an Egyptian Mystery System, with its ritual and university
components, which is preserved both in Masonic ritual and in the many initiation
ceremonies that derive from it. It survives in occult accounts of Egypt, which
retain pre-decipherment notions about the mysterious character of hieroglyphics
and the secret messages hidden in the arrangement and measurement of the pyramids.
It encourages writers to try to establish direct connections between Egyptian
ideas from the second millennium B.C. and Greek texts written many centuries
later, as if no alteration would have occurred through cultural exchange and
over the centuries (Fauvelle 1996, 157).Here, perhaps, is the origin
of the Senegalese theorist Cheikh Anta Diop’s account of how Greek initiates
into the Mysteries at Heliopolis wrote term papers on Egyptian cosmogonies and
mysteries (Diop 1991, 338).
Some influential blacks learned about the "Egyptian" initiation ceremonies
and the Mystery System from Masonry. Secret societies were important for oppressed
immigrant groups in the United States, and particularly popular among people
of African descent, many of whom had participated in such societies also in
their homelands (Herskovits 1941, 161-67; Howe 1998, 59-72). Whites in the U.S.A.
did not allow blacks to become members of their lodges, but a separate Masonry
with similar rites was founded in 1775 for black men by Prince Hall (Grimshaw
1969, 238; Williams 1980, 89; Lefkowitz1997, 129-30). Through Masonry
Egypt appears to have become not merely the source of European culture but a
kind of utopia. In 1837 the Rev. Hosea Easton observed that "the Egyptians
communicated their arts to the Greeks," whence they were disseminated to
the rest of Europe, but he remarked that they had not passed on to the Europeans
the generosity and fair-mindedness with which they had governed their neighbors
(Easton 1837, 9, 19). In 1853 Martin Delany pointed out the irony
that whites excluded black men from Masonic rites that were first established
in Egypt and Ethiopia (Delany 1853, 10-11, 13; Walker 2001, 8-9). One of the
most important figures in the Afrocentric movement, Marcus Garvey, was initiated
as a mason. So was George G.M. James, the author of the widely influential book
Stolen Legacy, of which there are perhaps 500,000 copies now in print
in the U.S.A. (Lefkowitz1997, 130, 254). In Stolen Legacy James
describes a university "Mystery System" that serves both to educate
and initiate candidates for priesthood (James 1954, 27-53). James also speaks
of the several centers of this system as Lodges. The term "lodge"
derives from Masonry and other societies that model themselves on it, such as
the Brotherhood of Elks (Lefkowitz 1997, 105). Socrates, James believes,
was initiated as a Master Mason (James1954,2, 89). James’ pupil
Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan, offers a complete account of these Masonic Mysteries
in ancient Egypt (ben-Jochannan 1991, 204-30).
Unfortunately, this Masonic notion of ancient Egyptian education is not only
anachronistic, but almost completely Eurocentric, in that it derives from Greek
and Roman sources as interpreted by a Roman Catholic priest in eighteenth-century
France. It takes virtually no account of all that scholars have been able to
learn about Egypt since the decipherment of hieroglyphics. It is silent about
the connections of Egypt to adjacent African civilizations such as Nubia, and
does not offer any sense of what distinguishes Egyptian religion and thought
from their European counterparts. Yet most ironically, radical Afrocentrists
want African-American students to learn about this basically Eurocentric Egypt,
because it makes Egypt, rather than Greece, the cradle of Western thought.
There is another reason why Afrocentrists prefer this anachronistic notion
of ancient Egypt. First, it portrays ancient Egypt as the original sourceof all other African civilizations. According to Cheikh Anta Diop, the ancient
Egyptians spread their culture and indeed their language to the rest of Africa.
His theory mirrors earlier Eurocentric theories of Egyptian origins (Fauvelle
1996, 121-69). The Australian anthropologist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith proposed
that all early civilizations in the world derived their cultures from Egypt.
But Elliot Smith did not believe that this remarkable people could have originated
in Africa; he wrote that "the smallest infusion of Negro blood immediately
manifests itself in a dulling of initiative and the ‘drag’ on the further development
of the arts of civilization"(Howe1998, 115) His colleague at the
University of London, W. J. Perry, called these non-African Egyptians the "children
of the sun." The term was later (and more appropriately) applied by Afrocentric
writers to Africans (Howe1998,57 n.17). The theory of Egyptian
origin in turn supports theories of African diffusion into Europe. Were the
original settlers of the Eastern Mediterranean Egyptians? Could ancient African
blood-lines have survived after Indo-European peoples moved into the Greek peninsula?
Against this background, it seems less implausible to suppose that important
Greek figures might have had African ancestors, although no ancient sources
mention them. Socrates has been made a candidate for African ancestry because
Plato describes him as having a snub nose and thick lips; but these features
are not exclusive to Africans. There is no evidence that his family were not
Athenians; if they had been, the Athenian comic poets would have been sure to
point it out. Other famous persons have been selected because they lived in
North Africa, such as Hannibal (who as an aristocratic Carthaginian was almost
certainly of Semitic origin, as the reference to the god Ba’al in his name suggests),
or Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra’s ancestors were all Macedonian Greeks, with one
exception: no one knows the identity of her paternal grandmother. She could
have been African, or indeed Jewish, but it is far more likely that she was
a Macedonian Greek, since if she had been a foreigner some ancient writer would
surely have called attention to it (Lefkowitz 1997, 26-43, Walker 2001, 54-56).
If virtually all scholars of the ancient world, whether of Egypt, Greece, or
the Near East, regard the Masonic notion of Egypt as unhistorical, and are skeptical
about Diop’s notion of African diffusionism, the revisionists see these reservations
not as an expression of serious academic concern, but as a confirmation of the
Eurocentric unwillingness to question received ideas, and, of course, as evidence
of Eurocentric racism (Moses 1998, 8). Because any attempt to debate or discuss
the historicity of the Afrocentric narrative can be understood as evidence of
a conspiracy against Afrocentrism and peoples of African descent, it is unrealistic
to assume that arguments based on evidence will be effective against it, at
least among those who most desperately want to believe in it, and who derive
affirmation and comfort, and even financial support from its continued existence
(Pipes 1997, 162).
The basic structure of the Afrocentric narrative derives from a description
of ancient Egyptian culture that is anachronistic and (ironically) Eurocentric
in nature.As a result, many of the theories this narrative has
inspired can be shown to be unhistorical and even fanciful, such as the notion
that Greek philosophy was stolen from Egypt. Another problem is its preoccupation
with questions of racial (as opposed to cultural) identity. Instead of concentrating
on the many ways in which Mediterranean civilizations influenced each other
over a long period of time, it gives priority to the achievements of one particular
ancient civilization, mainly because it is African, to the virtual exclusion
of other early civilizations, such as those of the ancient Near East.
Nonetheless, because Afrocentrism is being taught in schools and universities
and is taken seriously by many people, it presents a challenge that requires
an informed response. It is a challenge first of all to the academic integrity
of every student of the Eastern Mediterranean, which requires us first to answer
charges that we have deliberately misled our students and the general public
about the extent of Egyptian influence on Western thought. The challenge is
particularly daunting because attempts to discuss and debate the issues are
usually met with further accusations and acrimony. It is tempting to try not
to be involved in the contest, or somehow to remain above it, even to the extent
of suggesting that belief in the Afrocentric narrative might be particularly
constructive for young students, and enable them to regard Africa, ancient and
modern, in a more positive light. I would argue that this temptation ought to
be resisted, however much we may wish to bring about improvements in the lives
of many people of African descent. Americans have already had many opportunities
to see that teaching history based on illusion can cause lasting damage, particularly
if that illusion encourages belief in the evil nature or inferiority of others.
Many older history books taught that the European invasion of this continent
was an unqualified good for all involved. Afrocentrism merely inverts such Eurocentric
racism. But counter-racism is still a form of racism, and as such, must be actively
Because of the nature of the Afrocentric challenge, and the importance of the
historical issues involved, much of the discussion of the Afrocentric narrative
has taken the form of a spirited defense of the traditional narrative and the
use of warranted evidence. But now that the historical questions have been answered,
at least to the satisfaction of those who still believe in the use of evidence,
it is important to acknowledge that the Afrocentric challenge, like all challenges,
has a positive side as well. It encourages us to review what we know, and to
ask some very interesting questions about assumptions that many of us have not
troubled to question. It has reminded us that ancient Egypt was an African as
well as a Mediterranean civilization, and that most people of European descent
have been interested primarily in those aspects of its culture that Europeans
have regarded as important in their own cultures: medicine, science, architecture,
It is clearly time to investigate the African side of Egypt as well, and not
to be surprised to find that this side has something to teach us. Classicists
in particular have tended to compare Egyptian religious thought unfavorably
with Hebrew or Greek theology, in part because Egyptian theology is more complex,
and notions of metamorphosis more sophisticated than their Greek counterparts.
Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, scholars have been puzzled or even repelled
by the way in which the Egyptians worshiped animals, and sacrificed many of
them in respect of their divinity (Smelik and Hemelrijk 1984, 1858-64). We must
try to understand this complex system of belief with greater sympathy, and to
ask whether or not the Egyptians have something to teach us, both about respect
for non-human life, and a positive attitude towards death.
In assessing Egyptian accomplishments in mathematics, scholars have tended
to adopt a somewhat condescending attitude towards Egyptian methods. They have
suggested that the Egyptians were practical men, who could measure accurately,
while the Greeks developed abstract theories that made the principles behind
the calculations accessible to all. While such assertions are true, they do
not tell the whole story. It is clear that while the Egyptian scribes had not
developed a special language to describe what they were doing, they did understand
that certain types of calculation had universal application, and developed methods
and formulas, such as the ratio for determining the circumference of a circle,
which closely approximates the value of pi (Gillings 1972, 233).
Perhaps the Afrocentric challenge will succeed in encouraging scholars of the
ancient Mediterranean to look at all ancient cultures in a more sensitive and
sympathetic manner. If it accomplishes that, despite all the anger and exaggerated
claims that have been generated by the controversy, it will in the end have
had a positive educational function.
1. Revisionist Afrocentric curricula have been adopted in schools in Atlanta,
Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City,
and also at some universities, among them Temple University, Kent State, California
State at Long Beach, Cornell University, and Wellesley College. For details
and bibliography, see Lefkowitz 1997, 240-41.
2. On defensive strategies employed by Afrocentrists, see McWhorter 2000, 54-5.
In my own case, every motive has been attributed to me other than the real one,
which is respect for historical evidence: for example, refusal to question received
ideas, Poe 1997, xiv; racism, Asante 1999, 61; racism and ignorance of Greek
(!), Obenga 2001, 49-51, 117; desire to defend "the Glory that was Greece"
against "inter-continental hybridity," Bernal 2001, 10. Absurdly,
Obenga accuses me of mistranslating a word that does not occur in the passage
in which I am supposed to have mistranslated it. And I said just the opposite
of what Bernal supposes that I believe in Lefkowitz 1997a, 17.
3. See esp. Ortiz De Montellano 1991, 49 on the influential theories of Adams
1987, S 52-53, Finch 1983, 140-41, and Finch 1990, 124-25.
4. There is no linguistic evidence for Herodotus’ claims that the names of
all the gods came to Greece from Egypt; Assmann 2000, 32 suggests that the Egyptian
priests must have described their gods to him using the names of their Greek
analogues (e.g., Zeus/Ammon, Athena/Neith).
5. Obenga 2001, 117 tries to argue that Plato’s pupil Hermodorus wrote
about his trip to Egypt; but in fact Diogenes Laertius (3.6) cites Hermodorus
only as the source of a story that Plato went to Megara (near Athens) to study
with Euclid. Obenga does not point out that in the same passage Diogenes says
Plato traveled to Egypt in the company of Euripides, although Euripides had
been dead for several years at the time the journey was supposed to have taken
6. Asante 2000, 79-80 argues for the existence of an Egyptian mystery system
by relying on a tendentious mistranslation of the passage where Strabo (first
cent. B.C.) describes how the priests taught Plato and Eudoxus in the fourth
century (17.1.29), and by claiming that in order to conceal truths the priests
used "systems" that are in fact mentioned only in the Kabala and other
medieval sources (!).
7. Bernal in particular insists that all modern scholarship is in error; most
recently, in Bernal 2001a he restates Herodotus’ ideas about the Egyptian origin
of Greek religion, as if they had not repeatedly been shown by Egyptologists
to be mistaken ; see, e.g., Assmann 2000, 25-26.
8. See esp. Walker 2001, 4: "Afrocentrism is Eurocentrism in blackface."
Note: this is an updated version of an article that was published as – "Le
monde antique vu par les afrocentristes," in Afrocentrismes: L’histoire
des Africains entre Égypte et Amérique , edd. F-X. Fauvelle-Aymar,
Jean-Pierre Chrétien et Claude-Hélène Perrot (Paris: Karthala,
Adams, Hunter Havelin, III. 1987. African-American Baseline Essays, Science
. Portland, Oregon: Portland Public Schools.
Asante, Molefi Kete. 1999. The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism. Trenton,
N.J.: Africa World Press.
Asante, Molefi Kete. 2000. The Egyptian Philosophers: Ancient African Voices
from Imhotep to Akenaten. Chicago: Ancient African Images.
Assmann, Jan. 2000. Weisheit und Mysterium: Das Bild der Griechen
von Ägypten. Munich: C.H.Beck Verlag.
ben-Jochannan, Yosef A. A. 1991. The Black Man of the Nile and his Family.
Baltimore: Black Classic Press.
Bernal, Martin. 1991. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.
Vol. II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. Rutgers, N. J.:
Rutgers Univ. Press.
Bernal, Martin. 2001. Black Athena is the Ancient Model. TLS, May 11:
Bernal, Martin. 2001a. Letter to the Editor. TLS. May 25: 17.
Bietak, Manfred. 1996. Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos: Recent Excavations
at Tell el-Dab’a. London: British Museum Press.
Brisson, Luc. 1987. L’Égypte de Platon. Les Études Philosophiques
N.S. 2-3: 153-68.
Burkert, Walter. 1985. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Oxford:
Burkert, Walter. 1992. The Orientalizing Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press.
Coleman, John. 1996. Did Egypt Shape the Glory That Was Greece? In Black
Athena Revisited, edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, 280-302.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Copenhaver, Brian P. Hermetica. 1992. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Dalley, Stephanie, and A.T. Reyes. 1998. Mesopotamian Contact and Influence
in the Greek World (1). In The Legacy of Mesopotamia, 85-106. Oxford:
Delany, Martin R. 1853.The Origins and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry: its
Introduction into the United States and Legitimacy among Colored Men. Pittsburgh:
Diop, Cheikh Anta. Civilization or Barbarism 1991.Chicago: Lawrence
Hill Books .
Easton, Hosea. 1837 A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and
Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States. Boston:
Fauvelle, François-Xavier. 1996. L’Afrique de Cheikh Anta Diop.
Finch, Charles S. 1983. "The African Background of Medical Science. In
Blacks in Science (Ancient and Modern), edited by Ivan Van Sertima, 140-56.
New Brunswick; London: Transaction Books.
Finch, Charles S. 1983. The African Background to Medical Science: Essays
on African History, Science and Civilizations. 1990. London: Karnak House.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes. 1984. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Gillings, Richard J. 1972. Mathematics in the Time of Pharaohs. New
York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Grimshaw, William H. Official History of Freemasonry Among the Colored Peoples
of North America. 1969.New York: Greenwood Press.
Harris, J.R. 1971. Medicine. In Legacy of Egypt, edited by J.R. Harris,
112-37. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1941. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon
Howe, Stephen. 1998. Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes.
London/New York: Verso.
Hornung, Erik. 1999. Das esoterische Aegypten: Das geheime Wissen der Ägypter
und sein Einfluss auf das Abendland. Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag.
James, George G. M. Stolen Legacy. 1954. New York: Philosophical Library.
Jasanoff, Jay. 1997. Stolen Legacy? The Evidence from Language. In Were
the Achievements of Ancient Greece Borrowed from Africa? edited by Andrea
Ross and Anna Lea, 57-68. Washington, D.C.: Society for the Preservation of
the Greek Heritage.
Jasanoff, Jay, and Alan Nussbaum. 1996. ‘Word Games.’ In Black Athena Revisited,
edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, 177-205. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press.
Jasnow, Richard, and Karl-Theodor Zauzich. 1998. A Book of Thoth? In Proceedings
of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, edited by C.J. Eyre,
607-18. Lueven: Peeters.
Lefkowitz, Mary. 1996. Ancient History, Modern Myths. In Black Athena Revisited,
edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, 3-23. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press.
Lefkowitz, Mary. 1996. 1997. Not Out of Africa; How Afrocentrism Became
an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books.
Lefkowitz, Mary. 1997a. Not out of Africa, revisited, Times Literary Supplement,
June 20: 15-16.
Lord, Louis E. 1938. The ‘Pyramids’ of Argos, Hesperia 7: 481-527.
McWhorter, John H. 2000. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America.
New York: Free Press.
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. 1998. Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular
History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Obenga, Théophile. 2001. Le sens de la lutte contre l’africanisme
eurocentriste. Gif-sur-Yvette: Khepera.
Ortiz De Montellano, Bernard. 1991. Multicultural Pseudoscience (Spreading
Scientific Illiteracy Among Minorities–Part 1). Skeptical Inquirer,
Fall : 16-17, 48-50.
Palter, Robert A. 1996. Black Athena, Afrocentrism, and the History of Science.
In Black Athena Revisited, edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean
Rogers. Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press.
Pipes, Richard. 1997. Conspiracy. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Poe, Richard. 1997. Black Spark, White Fire. Rocklin, Ca.: Prima Publishing.
Smelik, K.; Hemelrijk, E. 1984. ‘Who knows not what monsters demented Egypt
Worships?’ Opinions on animal worship in Antiquity as part of the ancient conception
of Egypt, Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 17.4:1852-2000.
Toomer, G.J. 1971. Mathematics and Astronomy. In Legacy of Egypt, edited
by J.R. Harris, 27-53. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Tritle, Lawrence. 1996. Black Athena: Vision or Dream of Greek Origins? In
Black Athena Revisited, edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers,
303-30. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Vermeule, Emily. 1996. The World Turned Upside Down. In Black Athena Revisited,
edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, 269-79. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press.
Walker, Clarence E. 2001. We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism.
New York, Oxford University Press.
West, Martin L. 1997. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in
Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wiedemann, Alfred. 1883. Sammlung Altägyptisher Wörter Welche
von Klassischen Autoren Unschrieben oder Übersetzt Worden sind. Leipzig:
Johann Ambrosius Barth.
Williams, Loretta J. 1980. Black Freemasonry and Middle-Class Realities.
University of Missouri Studies 20. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press.