Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Celtic & Anglian - Historical

 

ORTHODOX CELTIC MONKS, THE FIRST IN AMERICA?

By Fr. Alexey Young

Source:  Orthodox Life, No. 1, 2001, p. 33-36.

 

 

For centuries it was firmly believed and taught that North America was discovered by Christopher Columbus. More recently, there has been general agreement that Norsemen or Vikings were probably on this continent around 1000 A.D. "But," as the editors of National Geographic magazine point out, "perhaps it was a group of shadowy, yet very real, Irish seafaring monks who predated even the Vikings by more than four centuries." [1] Indeed, there is evidence that this may be true.

 

In the twentieth century a number of scholars began to suspect that the early medieval saga known as the "Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot" (Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis) was not a "pious fable" at all, but the narration of an actual journey - a voyage by St. Brendan and a number of monks from Ireland to the east coast of North America, complete with accounts of what we can now identify as volcanic eruptions in Iceland, an encounter with a whale, and icebergs.

 

      Stamp, depicting St. Brendan discovering the Faroes and Iceland
 

 

Initially, this interpretation was dismissed because experts doubted that anyone could have crossed the Atlantic with the kind of primitive boat or leather-hulled "curragh" known to have been used by early Irish or Celtic sailors. They doubted, that is, until, in the 1970s, the British explorer, Timothy Severin, successfully crossed the ocean in a leather boat (a duplicate of St. Brendan's craft), proving "beyond doubt that the Irish monks could have sailed their leather boats to the New World before the Norsemen, and long before Columbus ...". Equally important, this showed that St. Brendan's voyage "was no mere splendid medieval fantasy, but a highly plausible tale ... founded upon real events and real people."[2]

 

Still, there was no actual evidence to show that any Europeans had been in North America as early as the sixth century, when Brendan's "Voyage" was said to have occurred.

 

And then, in 1982, a petroglyph - an inscription cut in the face of a cliff or rock - in Wyoming County, West Virginia, was recorded and identified. This site had been discovered in 1964, but it was not until 1970 that an archaeologist from the West Virginia Economic and Geological Survey studied it and concluded that this petroglyph (rock-carving) was at least five to seven hundred years old, if not older, and was in marked contrast to other known petroglyphs in the area. Twelve years later a prominent archaeologist with twenty-seven years of field experience, Robert L. Pyle, took a serious interest in the petroglyph. Dr. Pyle, who has a GS-9 rating as an archaeologist from the federal government and is authorized to do archaeological work on federal projects, had no particular agenda in mind - unlike Timothy Severin, who set out to prove that a primitive Celtic craft could make a trans-Atlantic voyage; Dr. Pyle simply wanted to scientifically and objectively determine, if possible, what this particular petroglyph was all about.

 

Chalked Wyoming County Petroglyph.
Credit: Gerald Ratliff

 

A prominent authority on ancient languages and an emeritus professor at Harvard, Dr. Barry Fell, was brought into the investigation. He concluded that these petroglyphs "appear to date from the 6th-8th centuries A.D., and they are written in Old Irish language, employing an alphabet called Ogam, found also on ancient rock-cut inscriptions in Ireland ... [and in] a Dublin manuscript, known as the 'Ogam Tract,' composed by an unidentified monk in the fourteenth century." [3] The first surprise came when the message was deciphered:

 

"At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, a Feast-day of the Church, the first seven of the [Christian] year, the season of the blessed advent of the Savior, Lord Christ. Behold, He is born of Mary, a woman." [4]

 

 

Three Celtic Chi Rho's (the Greek letters - "X" and "R" - for Christ) also appear on this petroglyph (far right).

 

       

 

The second surprise came when the investigators decided to test the inscription by calculating the Julian Calendar date for when the Feast of the Nativity would have fallen between 500 and 800 A.D. Thus, on December 22 (new style), 1982, they went to the site before dawn and watched and waited. Suddenly, as the sun came over a ridge, "a glimmer of pale sunlight struck the sun symbol on the left side of the petroglyph, and the rising sun soon bathed the entire panel in warm sunlight ... funneling through a three-sided notch formed by the rock overhang." [5]

 

Another inscription, called the Horse Creek Petroglyph (in Boone County, West Virginia), also yielded a Christian translation and the use of the Chi Rho.

 

Fig. N  Horse Creek Petroglyph

Photograph of Horse Creek Petroglyph.
Credit: Arnout Hyde, Jr.

 

 

 

Of course, further investigation and study of this fascinating subject is warranted, and important tests are pending on some artifacts found at these sites. But for now, we can say that a case is slowly but surely building for the existence of Celts - most likely monks - on this continent long before any others came from the West.

 

This is of particular interest because Celtic Christians were also Orthodox Christians - belonging to the one, true, and universal Church of Christ before the West fell away from the Orthodox Church in the tenth century. Their spirituality, far from being the fashionable "New Age spirituality" that many of today's writers anachronistically project back on to the ancient Celts, was thoroughly Orthodox in teaching as well as monastic and ascetic in practice.

 

Indeed, Fr. Gregory Telepneff, in his fascinating and scholarly study, The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs, concludes that Celtic Christianity actually reveals "significant Coptic* [i.e. Egyptian] influence of a specifically monastic kind." [6]

 

*  OODE NOTE: "Copt"  is an Anglicization of the Arabic qubt. Copts are the direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians. The Coptic (antichalcedonian) Church is the portion of the Church of Alexandria which broke away from the other Orthodox churches in the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451. Sharing a common heritage previously with the Orthodox (Chalcedonian) Church of Alexandria, it traces its origins to the Apostle Mark. The word "Coptic" was originally used to refer to (native) Egyptians in general , as is used in the text above, but it has undergone a semantic shift over the centuries to mean more specifically "Egyptian Christian". “ Following standard scholarly convention, Fr. Gregory Telepneff uses the word “Coptic” throughout his study as synonymous with “Egyptian,” i.e., as a general term indicating the ethnic descendants of ancient (pre-Christian) Egyptians and their distinct Afro-Asiatic tongue (now dead, save for liturgical usage). As such, the use of “Coptic” should not be confused with its more common popular meaning as a specific term designating Egyptian Antichalcedonians,  viz., members of the so-called Coptic Church.

These archaeological "finds" in West Virginia and elsewhere, which seem to point to a Celtic and monastic presence on this continent more than one thousand years ago, provide an imperative for Christians (whether Orthodox or not) to examine the Orthodox West (particularly in the lives of the saints) as it was before the Great Schism. Because that authentic and rich flowering of Orthodoxy, especially in Celtic Orthodox Christianity, is characterized by both asceticism and holiness, it can be as nurturing to the soul as it was to believers a millennium and more ago.

 

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  Footnotes:

 

1. "Who Discovered America? A New Look at an Old Question," National Geographic, December 1977.
2. "The Voyage of Brendan," by Timothy Severin, ibid.
3. "Christian Messages in Old Irish Script Deciphered from Rock Carvings in W. Va.," by Dr. Barry Fell, Wonderful West Virginia, March 1983
4. Ibid.
5. "Light Dawns on West Virginia History," by Ida Jane Gallagher, Wonderful West Virginia, ibid.
6. Telepneff, Fr. Gregory, The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs: The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism, 1998

 

Article published in English on: 17-12-2010.

Last update: 17-12-2010.

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