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Teas and Isis

In the New York Review of Books, William Dalrymple (of just renown) explores The Egyptian Connection — the genetic link between the ancient Christian cultures of Egypt and of the British Isles.

One of the earliest known Insular gospel books, the Cuthbert Gospels, is bound and sewn in a specifically Coptic manner, which Michelle Brown believes indicates “an actual learning/teaching process” linking Egypt and Northumbria. The same process is hinted at in the Book of Kells, which contains an image of the Virgin suckling the Christ child clearly taken from a Coptic original: the virgo lactans was a specifically Coptic piece of iconography borrowed from the pharaonic image of Isis suckling the infant Horus. The Irish wheel cross, the symbol of Celtic Christianity, has recently been shown to have been a Coptic invention, depicted on a Coptic burial pall of the fifth century, three centuries before the design first appears in Scotland and Ireland.

A growing body of evidence suggests that contact between the Mediterranean and early Christian Britain was surprisingly frequent. Egyptian pottery —perhaps originally containing wine or olive oil—has been found during excavations at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the supposed birthplace of King Arthur, while the Irish Litany of Saints remembers “the seven monks of Egypt [who lived] in Disert Uilaig” on the west coast of Ireland. Travel guides in circulation in early Christian Britain gave accounts of the Egyptian monasteries.

We’ve dipped our toe into these waters before.

Thanks to Joe Heim for the link. He and his California colleague Paul Crawford have been giving me a tuition-free education via email!

3 thoughts on “Teas and Isis

  1. I have put you in my favorites…Best file. I have been here before but forgot the addy. Thanks for the interesting posts.

  2. Do you know which travel guides give such an account? I remember in H.V.Morton’s “Through lands of the bible” — itself a picture of a vanished world — a similar general reference, when he went to visit the Nitrian desert.

  3. Off and on for the past twenty years, I have tried to pick up the loose ends on this Egyptian-Irish monastic connection, Tom Cahill mentions it in his “How the Irish Saved Civilization” without too much to back up the claim. This article by Dalrymple, who is a favorite of mine, is a beaut………I’m already chasing down his sources. I guess I have to get the book on the Lindisfarne Gospel as well. Thanks! Your blog is a favorite.

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