Afro-Celtic: The ancient Celts and their African roots

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Linguists say a study of Irish and other Celtic languages has produced possible evidence that when the Celts invaded Ireland and Britain there were already Afro-Asiatic speakers here. Celtic languages – Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh – incorporate grammatical traits found in Afro-Asiatic tongues that are otherwise unrelated, according to research published last week in Science magazine.

Other Celtic languages that were spoken in continental Europe and have since died out did not have these grammatical quirks. Afro-Asiatic languages are currently spoken in countries across Northern Africa and the Near East. This points to the possibility that there was early contact between Celtic and North African populations in the British Isles.

Orin Gensler, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said the similarities would be explained if, when Afro-Asiatic people learnt Celtic from the new immigrants, they “perpetuated aspects of their own grammar into the new language”. Gensler has studied many grammatical features found in both Celtic and Afro-Asiatic languages. He found many of the shared features were rare in other languages.

Linguists have discovered surprising differences between Celtic languages and related languages such as French, while seeing striking resemblances between Celtic and Afro-Asiatic languages that are spoken in countries including Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

Gensler examined features of the languages such as the order of words in a sentence. In Gaelic and Welsh the standard sentence structure is verb subject-object, which is a rare sequence. This is also the case in many Afro-Asiatic languages. Celtic languages that used to be spoken in continental Europe had the verb in the final or middle position.” – The Science Magazine

The Celtic Church and the Influence of the East (1923) by Rev. John Stirton, B.D., F.S.A. (Scot.), who notes: “S. Ninian, carrying from S. Martin at Tours the enthusiasm for monasticism and culture of the East, and, later, S. Patrick, likewise imbued with monastic zeal which he had acquired both at Lerins and at Tours—returned to their respective countries, Scotland and Ireland, and founded religious settlements which, before many years should elapse, were calculated to wield an influence universally felt not only in the British Isles but on the Continent of Europe….We thus see that the influence of Asia Minor and of Egypt came to the early Celtic Church in Britain from Gaul in two streams which eventually met and merged into one; the first came from S. Martin through S. Ninian to Whithorn, in Galloway, whence, through S. Finnian it passed to Moville in Ireland and from Moville through S. Columba to Iona and the Celts of Scotland in 563 A.D. The second originated at Lerins and through S. Martin at Tours and S. Patrick it passed to Ireland, where it joined the other….There seemed to be a peculiar affinity between the tribal or clan system of the Celts and the monasticism of Egypt. The monasterium or collegium both in Egypt and in Celtic Ireland and Scotland consisted of a number of huts which were the dwellings of the clerical and lay monks and their families, for many of the latter were married…

The Coptic Church and Egyptian Monasticism by De Lacy O’Leary: “The formation and development of monasticism did not take place in Alexandria which was Greek-speaking and participated in Greek culture, but amongst the native Coptic-speaking Christians of Egypt, which strictly denotes the Delta, and Thebais or Upper Egypt, the whole area watered by the Nile between Aswân and the Mediterranean coast. The formation of monasticism took place in two stages: first came the solitaries, some, but by no means all, of whom were hermits or ‘desert men’; then came the formation of coenobia or monastic communities, at first simply groups of disciples gathered round some well-known and revered teacher.…The monastic life of Egypt became famous throughout the whole Christian Church, and for a long time Egypt was regarded as the ‘Holy Land’ in preference to Palestine, because there could be seen the multitudes of saintly ascetes, and Christians came as pilgrims from all parts to see and hear them. Amongst these were St. Basil the Great, the founder of Greek monasticism, Hilarion, who introduced monasticism into Palestine, Rufinus and a Roman lady named Melania who spent six months in Egypt in 373. Then in 386 St. Jerome and a wealthy widow named Paula visited the monasteries of Egypt, and of this visit St. Jerome has left us an account (Epistle 108). Palladius, Bishop of Helenopolis, spent the years 388-99 and 406-12 amongst the monks of Egypt, the former period in Thebais, the latter in Nitria.”

This writer continues: “In due course monasticism spread abroad and was copied in other lands; indeed one of the most striking features in its history is the rapidity with which it developed and then spread. As the movement passed westward along the Mediterranean various settlements were founded in some of the islands, the most secluded places available where there were no deserts. One of these was founded about 400 at Lerins (St. Honorat) and became a great centre of monastic activity, sending out missionaries and founding monastic colonies in other lands. There, it is said, the young Patrick was trained and, if this be so, it would help to explain the presence of several Egyptian details in the Celtic Church of Ireland, for the monastery of Lerins was organized and conducted on Egyptian models. Thus it came about that the Irish Church was monastic rather than diocesan. There were a few diocesan bishops, but the ruling dignitaries of the Celtic Church in Ireland were abbots who kept a bishop in their monastery ready for use at ordinations and consecrations, but otherwise living as an ordinary monk. The old Celtic monasteries of Ireland did not resemble the medieval abbeys of England: like the Egyptian coenobia they were simply villages where the huts of the ascetes were gathered round a modest oratory used for the week-end Eucharist. There were no deserts in Ireland, but it was the fashion to call the place where a monastery stood a desert, and so we find the term ‘Disert’ or ‘Desert’ in many Irish place-names, as Disertmartin, Disert in Westmeath, Killadysert in Clare, and many others….In spite of its remoteness the Celtic Church of Ireland retained direct contact with the monasteries of Egypt. In the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris there is still preserved a guidebook for the use of Irish monks travelling to Egypt in order to visit the Fathers of the desert. As late as 1320 Simon FitzSimon and Hugh, Franciscans of Dublin, made the pilgrimage to Egypt and left us a record of their journey.”[1]

The nexus between the early Celtic Church and the monastic tradition of the Middle East has also been noted by the Rev. John Stirton in his essay The Celtic Church and the Influence of the East (1923), in which he relates: “The illuminations of those splendid manuscripts the Book of Kells (seventh century), now in Dublin, and of the Gospels of Lindisfarne (seventh century) are all Eastern in character. In these, and in the Book of Deer, the figures of the Evangelists reflect the Eastern type, and the Egypto-Greek title o agios is attached to some of them. A Roman origin is impossible, because not a single Italian MSS can be produced, older than the ninth century, having a close resemblance to those of this country. The illuminations resemble Assyrian or Egyptian work. Much of the Celtic ornamentation is similar to that found in early Syriac, Egyptian, and Ethiopic MSS by a resemblance in the delineation of birds and animals to Egyptian fresco painting, in the manner of drawing the wings, in the conventional representations of eagles, lions, and calves, also in the swathed mummy-like figures of Christ. The theory of such an origin is facilitated by the early commercial intercourse which is known to have existed, and to which reference has been made, between this country and the East, and by the frequent expeditions recorded to have been made by early Christian pilgrims of the Celtic Church to the Holy Land, and by the immigration of foreign ecclesiastics.”

There is clearly a strong Egypto-Scottish connection which can be traced back at least as far as Scota (c.1500 B.C), an Egyptian Princess of the Hyksos Pharaonic Dynasty, from whom the ancient Scots claim their heritage.

[1] The Legacy of Egypt, 1942, edited by S.R.K. Glanville, pp.317-325.
[2] Prof. William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Placenames of Scotland, 1926, p.256.
[3] Alexander Stewart, A Highland Parish or the History of Fortingall, 1928, p.10.
[4] Ward Rutherford, Celtic Lore: the History of the Druids and their Timeless Traditions, 1993, p.114.
[5] According to the Rev. Robert Taylor in his work The Diegesis: being A Discovery of the Origin, Evidences, and Early History of Christianity, 1844, p.238: “The Pythagorean doctrines are still traceable in the Christian Scriptures: the Christ of St. John’s Gospel is evidently a Pythagorean philosopher. Ye must be born again (John iii.), is the characteristic aphorism of the Pythagorean school.” Taylor also notes that the Jesuit, Nicolaus Serarius, asserted that the first Christian monks were Essenes. p.55.
[6] James Bonwick, Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1986, USA reprint, p.282.
[7] Rev. John Williams Ab Ithel, The Traditionary Annals of the Cymri, 1867, p.166.

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One thought on “Afro-Celtic: The ancient Celts and their African roots”

  1. Hi

    I enjoyed reading your article, Afro-Celtic: The ancient Celts and their African roots ,June 11, 2014 – its a subject that interests me.

    ? Can you let me know the date or issue number of the science magazine where you found the following information (below), Can I find this magazine online? or would you be able to tell me where I can get it.

    Thanks a million, Diana?

    Linguists say a study of Irish and other Celtic languages has produced possible evidence that when the Celts invaded Ireland and Britain there were already Afro-Asiatic speakers here. Celtic languages – Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh – incorporate grammatical traits found in Afro-Asiatic tongues that are otherwise unrelated, according to research published last week in Science magazine.

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