Mike Aquilina

Teas and Isis

Wednesday October 08th 2008, 7:28 pm

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!