ORTHODOX CELTIC MONKS, THE
FIRST IN AMERICA?
By Fr. Alexey Young
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." 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.
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."
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.
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." 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."
Three Celtic Chi Rho's (the Greek letters - "X" and "R" - for Christ) also
appear on this petroglyph
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."
Another inscription, called the Horse Creek Petroglyph (in Boone County,
West Virginia), also yielded a Christian translation and the use of the
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 Papal 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."
* 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).
These archaeological "finds" in West Virginia and elsewhere, which 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 Celtic Orthodox Church. Because that authentic and rich
flowering of Orthodoxy, especially in The Celtic Orthodox Church, 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.
"Who Discovered America? A New Look at an Old Question," National
Geographic, December 1977.
"The Voyage of Brendan," by Timothy Severin, ibid.
"Christian Messages in Old Irish Script Deciphered from Rock Carvings in
W. Va.," by Dr. Barry Fell, Wonderful West Virginia, March 1983
"Light Dawns on West Virginia History," by Ida Jane Gallagher, Wonderful
West Virginia, ibid.
Telepneff, Fr. Gregory, The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs: The
Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism, 1998
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