Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Culdee, the Copts, and the Celtic Church.

Ireland, by virtue of its geography and seclusion in the northwest of Europe, was never invaded by Caesar’s all-powerful legions during the conquests of the British Isles.  Indeed, this seclusion, long after the Romans had left the British Isles meant that it equally was left alone during the subsequent Saxon invasions .  The island of Hibernia is first mentioned in the writings of Claudius Ptolemy, a mathematician and astronomer, writing in the second century A.D.   This “independence” allowed the Irish to form their own ideas, and to allow the formation of a nation without overt interference and influence from the might of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent strand of Christianity, Roman Christianity, to spread throughout Western Europe.  A form of Christianity is reported to have been in the British isles according to the writings of the Early Church father, Tertullian, stating that it had even reached beyond the boundaries of the then Roman Empire, presumably into Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  It has long been suggested as part of Grail lore that Joseph of Arimathea made his way to Britain with the Grail. 

Owing to the fact that it was isolated from the rest of Europe, Ireland, and parts of Scotland meant that there was not a direct influence of the (enforced) traditions and doctrines spreading from Rome, but equally those lands were open to other ideas, and interpretations.  The influence of the East seems to have held a more profound influence on the Celtic Church.  The island status of Ireland allowed it to have extensive commercial connections with mainland Britain, but also further afield, with Gaul, with Spain and Egypt, and possibly further still.  Egypt’s major trading port was Alexandria, and the trading between the two nations seems to resulted in creating a significant influence and impact upon the Celtic Church.  This port was a vast hub and centre of culture, ideas, probably on a par with Byzantium in the east.  Philosophy and ideas were prevalent there, both Christian and pagan, ranging from the Egyptian mystery schools, to those of early Christians and Gnostics alike.  Also other influences were prevelant too from further afield, from Syria, and from the Holy Land.  Also, the trading route from Egypt to Ireland would have meant passing by Galicia, where the heresy of Priscillian, his ideas and the texts upon which he based his doctrine, might well still have been accessible, even if previously it had been denounced as heretical.   

Egypt has long presented itself as being a wealth of source material on the Early Church, not least owing to the staggering corpus of surviving information that where has been found, and thanks to the temperature of the desert sands preserved there over the centuries.  Alexandria was esteemed as a centre of great learning and philosophy, with its famed libraries, as well as originally displaying a marked religious tolerance towards Christians, Jews and pagans alike.  Syria too was of importance, inasmuch as it has been thought that various Gnostic texts may well have been originally composed there.  The Syriac Church also shared a belief with some of the other early churches that Jesus had a twin brother; Judas Thomas Didymos.  Both the Egyptian and Syriac schools, and ultimately the Celtic Church, adhered to traditions seemingly  more Judaic and Platonist nature and origin.

The influence of Asia Minor and of Egypt came to Ireland through Gaul, as well as through the trading routes by sea.  The Irish tribal and clan system seems to have found an affinity with the monasticism of Egypt.  A marked similarity between the monastic tradition in Egypt and in Ireland was that the “monastery” consisted of a number of dwellings, mainly huts, which both clerical and lay monks lived. The lay monks did not live an ascetic lifestyle, many of whom were married and had families.  The outlook was similar in that the monks from both Egypt and in Ireland were more like missionaries, rather than priests.

The earliest churches in Ireland were constructed of mud and wood, much like the dwellings in which the indigenous Irish lived.  The pre-Christian Irish communities had built no temples to their creeds, and as the island had not been subsumed into the Roman Empire, no temples had been built by the Romans to be appropriated and converted into Christian churches.  References are found in The Book of Armagh, a biography of St. Patrick, refers to churches having been made of earth. By the seventh-eighth century, the churches, called duirtreach meaning ‘oak house’ were being constructed out of wood. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People states that on Lindisfarne a church was built in the Irish manner, of hewn oak and covered in reeds.  The earliest monasteries consisted of a compound of beehive shaped huts (called claghauns) which were gathered around their leader or teacher, the enclosed being surrounded by a circular wall, called a cashel.  In addition to the dwellings, there were a number of crosses, a church and possibly an oratory. 
The Kilmardine Cross, and its Wheel Cross, a Coptic motif.
The monks from these numerous Irish schools and monasteries travelled across the seas to the mainland and founded further monasteries.  This exodus of monks was to encourage learning in a world which was mostly being overrun by barbaric hoards, displaying little interest in preserving learning, philosophy, or of history.  Hence the term, the Dark Ages, was born to describe these times.  These missionary monks travelled far and wide, establishing monasteries as far afield as Switzerland, and northern and southern Italy.  Learning and teaching seem to have taken priority over and above the need to convert.  This dogma appears to have been to encourage all manner of ideology and theology.  Unlike the Roman Church, which had proscribed various books, a bar on writings and exclusion of apocryphal texts deemed heretical, the Celtic Church seems to have embraced these ideas, and allowed various aspects thereof to become integral to their teaching.  

Scholars have suggested that in fact the Egyptian monastic tradition did not form in and around Alexandria, but around the Delta of the Nile, and amongst the Coptic Christians.  This form of Coptic-Egyptian monasticism formed by the emergence of “wise men” such as St. Anthony, St. Basil, and others; these men attracted disciples forming monastic communities called coenobia.  Egypt and its holy men were to attract visitors from all around the Christian world, indeed it attained a status as a centre for Christian worship that was greater than that of the Holy Land, for the high regard and vast number of inspired teachers in these coenobia.  Amongst the visitors to these communities included St. Jerome, who wrote an account in one of his Epistles telling of such a visit he made.

The Egyptian monasteries tended to be found in isolated, remote locations, and were built in the desert for its seclusion.  Another reason for the selection of Ireland must have been its isolation, being effectively separated from the rest of the Roman Empire.  However, in Ireland, as in the rest of Western Europe, no deserts are to be found.  It appears that, prior to monastic settlements being established in Ireland that the Egyptian church, a different entity from the Roman church, set up and built centres of learning in parts of mainland Europe; these included a centre at Lérins in Gaul, where St. Patrick is supposed to have been educated and would have doubtless learnt the tenets and doctrine of the Egyptian Church.  The monastery at Lérins appears to have been based upon an Egyptian model and ideology, and which might explain how some of the motifs, ideas and approach to Christianity that was prevalent in the Celtic church for many years, if not centuries.  However, owing to the absence of physical deserts in the British Isles, it became fashionable to name the locations in which the monasteries were established with being in a “desert.” Therefore, the term “Desert”, “Disert”, and “dysert” can be found in a significant number of the place names where these ecclesiastical settlements were built; names such as Disertmartin, Dysert O’Dea, and  Killadysert.  This influence equally seems to have spread into Scotland, again with similar sounding place names.  Certainly most of these monasteries seemed to have a “disert” in close proximity.  An eighth century Irish litany exists, the Litany of Pilgrim Saints, includes an invocation to the ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Diseart Uiliag’. 

Connections have been suggested as to a link between the Culdee and the Irish monks.  The Culdee or Céle Dé are believed to have worked alongside the monasteries, tending to the poor and the sick, therefore were part of the first hospitals in Ireland.  It seems that the Culdee were not required to take monastic vows despite their close affiliations to the monasteries.  Their origins, doctrines, theology, even the etymology of their name is subject to much speculation amongst scholars.  It has been suggested by some that their name comes from the Gaelic Céile Dé [meaning “companion of God”]; others have suggested that the term comes from a term used when when refering to St. John, the beloved disciple, who is reported to have visited Ireland.  It was once believe that by scholars that the Culdee were in fact the Christian successors to the pagan druid.  This hypothesis however is considered by current scholars to be outdated and incorrect.   The settlements of the Culdee, such as on those on Iona, were built over previous druidic settlements. Third century sources suggest that some of the early Christians, in order to escape persecution, fled into deserts for safety, wherein they found sanctuary.   The Culdee certainly appear to have surfaced in Britain in the early centuries A.D. and their roots may well be in a merging of pagan ideas and the evolving Celtic Church. 

Ultimately the Culdee were to lose their distinctive identity when the Celtic Church became subsumed by the Roman Church in 1111 at the synod of Ráth Breasail, and the transition from a monastic based church to that of parishes.  In the Icelandic work, the Landnámabók, states that the priests of Ireland were found "with bells and crosiers."  Bells did not play a significant part of the Roman service until the tenth-eleventh century. By association, their presence suggests a possible Eastern influence upon the Celtic Church.
The early church at St. John's Point, surrounded by early pagan burials.
Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, is credited with bringing Christianity to, and the driving out of snakes from, Ireland.  As stated previously, Patrick's education at Lérins would certainly have meant being  trained in the ways of Egyptian school of Christianity.  Patrick seemed to have raised the concerns of his ecclesiastical superiors in his teachings, and his suitability as a priest.  Perhaps, Patrick might well have been tainted by a prevalent school of thought at the time, that of Arianism, inasmuch that all his teachings that have survived and carried down to us, curiously there is no mention made of the Virgin birth.  He also appears to have believed that it was the Scriptures that stated the law, and that divine mediation by angels, men of God, and the saints do not seem to have influenced his theology.  Patrick seems to have reinforced the importance of Mosaic Law, as dictated by the Old Testament, in how his congregations were to live their lives; not just in adherence to instruction from the New Testament. 

There seems to have been a direct exchange between Egypt and Ireland, with mention of monks from Egypt being in Ireland and vice versa.  A guidebook written for Irish monks travelling to Egypt, detailing the Pyramids, and for visiting the desert fathers, was written, and a copy survives to this day, located in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris.  Egypt became a centre for pilgrimage by the Irish monks, with one of the latest records we have of such a "pilgrimage" having been made in the thirteenth century.  Numerous examples of early Egyptian Christian/Coptic art, symbolism, and motifs would appear to have found their way into that of the Celtic Church.  Illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne gospels, the books of Kells and of Deer, all have design work of a distinctly Eastern influence and pattern, as opposed to that of a Roman design, in their ornamentation.  The same is true for a number of the stone crosses found in Ireland.  Coptic textual forms are to be found in the book of Dimma.

The early Irish crosses in their earliest form bear inscriptions of “wheel crosses” showing striking similarities to the Coptic inscription bearing a similar design. The Irish crosses have been found alongside the symbols of the Alpha and the Omega .  Other crosses bearing a similarity to the ankh, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph and sign for life have been found in Ross-shire and in Ardboe.  The later crosses have intricate design work that mirror designs found in illuminated Egyptian Christian Gospels.   Egyptian glass fragments dating to the third century A.D. have also been found in Cornwall, where there is no discernable connection with them having been imported by the Romans.  Glass chalices have been located in County Waterford are identical to ones used in the Coptic church.  St. Antony, an Egyptian saint and one of the desert fathers, features prominently on crosses found in Ireland, at Kells and Monasterboice, as well as the Isle of Man.  Various Eastern symbols such as serpents, crescents, elephants have been found on engravings; the precise meaning being unknown, and clearly derived from an Eastern culture, not that of Ireland.  In an eleventh century biography of St. David, it states that “he imitated the monks of Egypt, and lived a life like theirs.”  
One of the "carpets" from the illuminated Book of Durrow;
the ornate artwork has a distinctly Egyptian look.
The architecture of these churches further demonstrates that the Irish Christians were not influenced by Roman Christianity.  Not a single church or ruins thereof has been found in Ireland that dating from before the eleventh century that could be suggested to be like a basilica; a Roman concept.  No churches are circular in shape, nor do they appear to have possessed apses nor aisles, like their Roman counterparts. Their size is also noteworthy, for their diminutive size, as they appear to have been built to house a small congregation of followers, unlike the large sprawling Roman basilicas.  Small groups of churches were congregated together, an idea more prevalent in the east of Europe, such as in Greece and Asia Minor.  The masses themselves have elements borrowed from the Coptic mass, the priest facing East towards the altar, with bells playing an important role in the service, and a full emersion of babies during baptism are to name but a few. Bishops wore crowns rather than mitres, and their crooks not those of a traditional crosier but of a tau shape.

Some writers have suggested that the Spanish "heretic" bishop Priscillian's teachings may well have somehow found their way to Irish shores.  Certainly the Celtic Church embraced other ideas outside of the orthodoxy enforced by Rome elsewhere in the expanding Christian, Roman church. Documents deemed "heretical" appear to have reached Ireland; in certain cases, only survive in Irish documents.  One of the early heretics, Nestorius, and his teachings, were especially popular at the time of St. Patrick.  Nestorius had been the Archbishop of Constaninople, and his doctrines suggested that Christ was not of divine birth as he felt no union between the divine and humanity could be  possible, and thereby denounced the divinity of Jesus.  Also he rejected the title afforded to the Virgin Mary at the time, that of Θεοτόκος  [Theotokos], meaning “Godbearer.”   His tutor and mentor, Theodore, was also denounced as being a heretic by the Church; however his writings only survive due to their inclusion in Irish manuscripts, whereas they were  proscribed and destroyed elsewhere in the Christian empire an would have been lost to us as with so many other "heresies" and their unorthodox doctrines.

Ultimately, much like the Culdee, the Celtic Church did not survive in its original form.  Its ideology and theology would have been considered to be markedly heretical, and considerably more so than other considerably minor and trivial digressions elsewhere, from the Roman Christian faith.  The Roman church, rather than imposing strict punishments upon those who did not agree with its ideology and doctrine as it had done for various renegade teachers, bishops and sects, appears to have decided to subsume the entire church under its aegis. Rather than persecute the heretic and destroy their books and documents, the Church rather cleverly allowed things to run their course, and where old ideas needed to be replaced, they simply implemented their own ideas and doctrine.

The Santair na Rann, an eleventh or twelfth century book, made up of over 150 tractates includes a variation of an apocryphal work called “The Book of Adam and Eve”, of which only copies have been located in Egypt. The Book of Cerne, a work dating from the eleventh century has within its texts the intriguing “Passion of Peter and Paul”; a work derived from The Acts of Peter, an apocryphal work in which certain stories were later to emerge in The Golden Legend. In 2006, a book of psalms dating from the eighth century was uncovered from a peat bog at Faddan More near Birr, County Tipperary. About fifteen percent of the psalms themselves have survived intact, having been preserved by the peat. It is not the book of psalms itself that has garnered much of the interest. The interest lies in the binding of the book which held the psalms together. The psalms have been held together in a leather book cover, Egyptian in style, with fragments of papyrus (from Egypt) being found in the binding itself. The manuscript, written in Latin, is believed to have been produced in an Irish monastery yet somehow found itself in another cover created across the seas in Egypt. Since named the Faddan More Psalter, the book has recenly been considered by Irish archaeologists to be one of the most important and relevant archaeological finds made on Irish shores in recent times.
The Faddan More Psalter, opened to reveal the illuminations therein.


  1. The name Gilday, is one of the oldest surnames in Ireland, originating in the northern parts of Ireland, and is thought to come from the word 'Culdee'. It is said they are the ancient Culdees. The name, Gilday, from Mac Guilla Dieh, has been translated by some as 'Benison', meaning 'sons of the servants of God', or 'sons of God', or 'sons of Issa' (Ben = son, Ison = Issa), or 'sons of Isis'. Egyptian royalty were referred to as 'sons of God'. In the Book of Fenagh, the four high kings of Ireland were descended from Basques who were said to have intermarried with Egyptian royalty - whether it was while still in the Basque region of northern Spain, or later in Ireland, is not certain. But most ancient Irish people do genetically trace back to the Basques. In that book, it was also noted that the Basques brought their Druides, antiquarians, etc., when migrating to Ireland some time after Noah's flood. It was also mentioned in the book, that the original Irish trace back, name-for-name to Noah himself. The Culdees practised a form of Christianity where the priests had to inherit their positions as did the the Pharaohs, and Druides. Druides come from Egypt, and their beliefs preceded Christianity. And, throughout Europe, generally the royalty almost always were descended from Egyptian royalty, as many still do today. There are historians that insist that even the Semitic Priests were of Egyptian royal descent. Hence, they were eventually called the Pharisees. Do you see any possible connections, here? And then there is always the Irish legend of Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Also, a bog body of what is believed to be a failed ancient Irish King, was noted as having hair gel made of resins from pine trees from Basque or Iberia. Is the connection getting stronger for you, yet?

  2. So if I were to cite this article, who would give credit to? I don't see a full name anywhere or an email address.

  3. Hi Amanda, Delighted you like the article. Please contact me at if you wish to cite it, etc. With my best wishes.