Ogham; The Secret Code of our Ancestors

One of the most intriguing mysteries we have inherited from our early Irish ancestors, in my opinion, is the lack of historical documentation they left behind. It is generally accepted, nowadays, that theirs was an oral tradition. Histories were handed down through the centuries in the form of story, song and poetry by bards and druids, amongst  great secrecy. They were recorded not in books, but in brains; shared not by reading, but by mouth.

I don’t dispute that.

What I would say, is that the oldest documents recorded which were not ‘written in stone’… or clay…or tablet form, for the most part, seem to stretch back no further than 4000 years. Those we have are usually copies of much older content, made when the original began to crumble. Google it; there are all kinds of extravagant claims out there. I’m simply making a point; documents were generally written on materials which were perishable. They served a purpose at the time, and weren’t intended to last foreverThey decayed with time. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the lack of evidence means only that they did not survive, rather than they never existed at all.

So it is, I believe, with Ogham. There are all kinds of conspiracy and intrigue surrounding this ancient art of communicating. Some scholars believe it was designed as a secret code, unintelligible to users of Latin, ie the Christians. Others believe it originated as a set of secret hand signals by the Druids, or that it was developed by the early Christians, the sounds of the primitive Irish language being far too difficult to transcribe into Latin.

What do we KNOW?

Ogham flourished in the 5th and 6th Centuries, although some inscriptions have been dated as far back as the 4th Century AD. In early Medieval times, it was most often used used on stone markers, normally indicating property and land boundaries, and graves of the dead. The language used at this time was mostly Primitive Irish. Early inscriptions used the edges of the stone as the ‘stem-line’, and were read from the bottom left, across the top of the stone, and down the right-hand edge towards the bottom.

Ogham stone found built into a church wall in Tralee, Co Kerry. (from Wikimedia Commons)
Ogham stone found built into a church wall in Tralee, Co Kerry. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to see images of ogham inscribed stones, and  here for specifically Irish ogham stones.

The Book of Oghams (in Irish, In Lebor Ogaim AD1390) lists over a hundred variations of Ogham which must be learned by all poets(Fili), and claims that they were also used to send messages, and for magical purposes; to keep lists, business transactions, and numerical tallies of possessions, and that these were made on wood or metal.

Mythology

Mythology claims Ogham was invented by Ogma mac Elathen, one of the Tuatha de Denann, brother to the Dagda and half-brother to Lugh. This would take its creation right back to at least four thousand years ago. Its not an unreasonable theory to me; it seems perfectly feasible that as long as mankind has existed, they needed some form of communication for the occasions when they couldn’t speak directly face to face. Even cave-men found a way to do this, recording what was important in their lives in spectacular paintings on their cave walls. Thousands of years later, we are still able to understand these messages, and appreciate them today… a simple and universal language untouched by the centuries, and all that happened within them.

Birch bark is white and very distinctive; any markings inscribed on it would show up clearly. Image (c)Johiah Garber, Dreamstime
Birch bark is white and very distinctive; any markings inscribed on it would show up clearly. Image (c)Johiah Garber, Dreamstime

It is claimed in the Ogham Tract (another name for the Book of Oghams) that not only was Ogma a great warrior and King Nuada’s champion, but he was a skilled poet and public speaker too, for which he attracted epithets such as ‘Honey-Mouth’ and ‘God of Eloquence’. Apparently, he created the Ogham alphabet when he needed to send a message to Lugh warning him of the possible abduction of his wife by the Sidhe; he sent  a birch branch with 7 ‘b’s inscribed on it, meaning ‘seven times will your wife be abducted into the Otherworld unless protected by the birch’. The letter ‘b’ is therefore said to be named after the birch tree. Note here that the message was inscribed on a branch, a perishable material.

However, the Lebor Gebála Erenn states that after ten years study of all the languages of the world, legendary Scythian King Fenius Farsa and 72 other scholars amalgamated them to form the Ogham script. The 25 letters of the alphabet he named after his top 25 scholars. Which would kind of make its origins even older.

Beith-Luis-Nin

A page from the Book of Ballymote
A page from the Book of Ballymote

Ogham (pronounced oh-um) is the alphabet attributed to an ancient form of the Irish language referred to as Primitive Irish, which later on in the 6th century was superseded by Old Irish. Beith-Luis-Nin (pronounced beth-lweesh-nin) is the actual name of that alphabet, derived from the names of its first few letters. It comprises 20 symbols, or letters, each corresponding to the sounds made in that language. Much of what we know about it has been taken from a document called The Book of Ballymote (in Irish, Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta),which seems to serve as the Irish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It documents 150 different versions of the Ogham alphabet which must be learned during the first three years of a bard’s training. 

Each letter (feda) is grouped in a series of 5, called a family (aicmí). Each aicmí is named for its first letter. A fifth group (forfeda) consisting of another 5 letters, was added at a later date. It is said that the groups are arranged in order of where the sounds are made in the mouth, ie the feda of the first aicmí (b) would be produced at the front of the mouth, and so on to the more guttural sounds made further back in the throat. There is one group of vowels, and three groups of consonants.

The Ogham Alphabet
The Ogham Alphabet, courtesy of Omniglot – a comprehensive guide to writing systems and languages

Each feda looks like a set of lines crossing, or attached to the right or left side of a central vertical line, called a ‘stem-line’. Vowels sometimes use dots rather than lines. An inscription on a stone would be read from bottom left upwards. In a document, the stem line is horizontal, and the characters read from left to right, top to bottom, as you are reading this. Another ancient document, Auraicept na hÉces (650-700AD) describes the reading process thus;

“Ogham is climbed (i.e. read) as a tree is climbed, i.e. treading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand before and one’s left hand last. After that it is across it and against it and through it and around it.”

The Tree Alphabet

Ogham is sometimes called The Tree Alphabet
Ogham is sometimes called The Tree Alphabet

The Tree Ogham (in Irish ogham craobh) is divided into three categories; eight chieftain trees, eight peasant trees and eight shrub trees. The first letter, Beth (pronounced beh) is the silver birch; next is Luis (lweesh) which is the rowan, or mountain ash, and Nin is the common ash. This aspect of the ogham alphabet has proved especially popular with the new age revival of druidism.

For a full list of the 20 trees which comprise the Tree Alphabet, along with an explanation and a representation of the associated Ogham symbol, click here.

Finally, for a bit of fun click here to see your name written in Ogham symbols. I think I’ll start using mine on my book covers, lol!

Ali Isaac - my name in Ogham script
Ali Isaac – my name in Ogham script

 

 

 

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41 thoughts on “Ogham; The Secret Code of our Ancestors

  1. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    A terrific piece – there are literally millions and millions of people around the world who are delighted to claim Irish ancestory – my own mother was half Irish on her father’s side and I am married to a great guy from Waterford – so that’s my claim. Irish culture is not just about bars dotted around the world with shamrocks in the window and Guinness on tap, or dyeing the rivers green on St. Patrick’s day to celebrate the parade. The ancient Irish culture was very sophisticated and those who were learned enough took that knowledge throughout Europe. if you love history and mysteries you will love this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooooh… you are a very educated Ape! I have never heard of the Incan knotted strings, but it does sound interesting. In Ireland, a knotted rope was used to strangle and ritually sacrifice someone… if they really did sacrifice people, of course, which as we know is questionable…

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  2. Hi Ali, Another great post. Thank you for all the historical background! Before I finish training as a bard, I’ll start learning the ogham as well. I found someone who hand makes the symbols on wood which I can feel. I really resonate with what you said that the fact that ancient ogham writing hasn’t been preserved, doesn’t mean it never was used that long ago. I definitely agree. It’s more and more recognized, even within modern druidry, that ogham is not just a tree alphabet. It is also very much true that in some modern understandings and practices of druidry, old ways have been instructive of and mixed in with the new, and in that case many associations are given to the ogham symbols that might not have been associated with them in the past. If anyone’s interested in learning the ogham alphabet and present-day associations there’s a good book out on the subject which you can find on smashwords. Ogam
    Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie. That’s the one I will begin learning from, but there are many many other books out there to take your pick from!

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    1. Here’s what Laurie says about her approach to learning ogham/ogam: “My take on ogam has little to do with the more commonly
      known vehicle of the so-called tree alphabet. It is based
      instead on language and the possible original meanings of
      the letter names. … Ogam is a key to
      memory within the system, aiding in the interpretation of
      dream and vision, offering images for omen seeking, and
      helping give context for the Fili’s personal spiritual and
      ritual practices.
      The images found within the ogam alphabet remind
      us of the early Irish tales, evoke the stories of queens and
      heroes, poets and seers. They situate us within a world both
      mythic and natural. The feda or letters of the ogam are keys
      to the universe next door.
      Open the gate and walk through.”

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      1. I like that. I’m glad she doesn’t make much of it as a Tree Alphabet. My gut feeling is that using the names of trees may just have been an aid to memory and learning in the first place.

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    2. Thanks Éilis, I will have to check it out! I was amazed when I learned there were 150-ish varieties of Ogham… no doubt all used for particular different occasions. Its great that someone can carve the characters into wood so you can feel them.

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      1. YES! Shouting with laughter! Chortling with glee! Oh, I know! I read about Ogham when I was writing my first novel, and I had to distill it down to just a couple of points for that story…and if I live long enough to write it, Ogham will have a larger role in another novel. Oh, this is a wonderful short reference piece!

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  3. Great, in-depth post! 🙂 I watched a documentary on this one, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how those in history communicated and recorded what they needed to.

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      1. Oh, blimey, it was a while ago! 😀

        It was actually about historical stone circles, and the languages carved into them.

        Sorry I can’t be more help! I love watching documentaries, but am not so good at remembering the titles of them!

        Like

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