Experience the power of the Irish alphabet, Ogham! Understand its complex symbolism with this guide, made for both beginners and experts alike.
Ogham is an ancient Irish alphabet consisting of a series of straight lines and notches, each representing a letter in the Irish language. Developed in Ireland originally for one of our earliest languages, known as Primitive Irish, it has since become part of modern Celtic culture even beyond this island, used to express spiritual meanings and energy in both written and oral communication.
This guide is designed to help beginners understand the basics, as well as providing native Irish insight for those who already feel they are more experienced.
Introduction to Ogham
Ogham is an ancient form of writing that dates back to the 4th or 5th century, possibly developed as early as the 300s Common Era, or even before (expert opinion differs on exactly when). The original alphabet Ogham was primarily used for etchings on stones and probably wood, but later evolved into an even richer textual system as it became integrated with the elite seats of learning in Ireland through the Medieval Manuscript Tradition.
The alphabet now includes the symbolic representation of trees and their individual energies, as well as many other lists for colour, bird, and fort associations, among others. Please note that carefully - the Ogham is NOT just about trees. Renowned Ogham Scholar Damien MacManus noted in 1988:
It has become a commonplace of Irish scholarship to regard all the Irish letter-names as names of trees and no other aspect of Irish letters has contributed more to the derailment of a serious study of the history of Ogam than this.
The Ogham alphabet holds rich and deep wisdom, which we are only just beginning to fully appreciate in contemporary spiritual practices. Each letter represents a sound in the Irish language, as well as an idea or message, a key to wisdom which can be studied and developed into a spiritual, magical, or divination, system and practice using the Ogham.
Our earliest source of information on the letter names of the alphabet Ogham dates from the Old Irish period. We can't know exactly when they first came to be used, but many experts would date them to correspond with the creation of the Ogham alphabet itself.
Interpretation of the Alphabet: Ogham Letters
While the individual letters of Ogham have distinct meanings and can be used to represent linguistic sounds as described above, or even align with physical objects such as trees, pigs, crafts, rivers, geographical locations in Ireland, and more, they each also possess deeper symbolic connections.
Each of the letters could represent both a physical or an emotional expression, with their precise meaning potentially derived from related lists called Bríatharogaim (sometimes translated as 'kennings') provided within the manuscript tradition. The alphabet Ogham letter names themselves are also vital to understanding this ancient and mysterious tradition.
Damien MacManus states that 'the letter-names, being the means by which the values of the symbols were memorised and transmitted, represent the mainstay of the tradition.
For instance, when we look at the first letter in the final group of the original alphabet, which is Ailm, we see that it represents:
A - Loudest groan, Beginning of an answer, Beginning of calling
This could be interpreted to refer to the start of life, a divine power using their voice, or to focusing chaos.
By uncovering these layers of interpretation - which requires in depth study and building a deep relationship with the alphabet in its truest forms in order to access the inbuilt wisdom - we can gain an overall understanding of the complete power of Ogham and its ability to communicate complex esoteric information.
This is not, however, a simple process, as the New Age and Neo Pagan 'Celtic Tree' books or online courses would have you believe.
Internalising the Meanings of the Alphabet Ogham
To really understand the symbolism of Ogham and learn how to harness its power, it’s important to internalise the meanings behind each symbol.
The purpose of the Bríatharogaim or 'kennings' was to hint at the names of the letters by reference to what was regarded by their authors as the primary meanings.
You can study them for yourself in the work of Damian MacManus (highly recommended!) or indeed go back to the ancient texts by referring to the Auraicept na nÉces directly.
If you'd like to get access to a simple guide to get you started, which includes the alphabet Ogham symbol, letter, name, and a brief divination meaning for each letter, we have created a free downloadable guide for you to do just that.
Understanding Its Relevance In The Modern World
The Ogham alphabet may have been a practical tool or a powerful set of symbols used by ancient Celts, but its relevance still resonates in the modern world.
Its intricate meanings and symbolism can enrich any spiritual or magical practice, provide wisdom and understanding through divination, be used to inspire creative projects, or simply as a tool and a guide to help center and balance your life.
From bringing protection, inner peace, and joy into your daily life, to healing negative energy with tranquil Ogham patterns and practice, you can tap into the ageless understanding of Irish spirit by building a strong relationship with the alphabet, to truly reap the benefits that Ogham can bring.
Trustworthy Alphabet Ogham Sources:
- Laurie, Erynn Rowan. Ogam Weaving Word Wisdom. Immanion Press, 2016.
- McManus, Damian. A guide to Ogam. Vol. 4. An Sagart, 1991.
- McManus, Damian. "Irish letter-names and their kennings." Ériu 39 (1988): 127-168.
- Stifter, David. Ogam. Language| Writing| Epigraphy. Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2022.
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