Enter the world of Ogham, an ancient Irish script which is still somewhat shrouded in mystery... though here at the Ogham Academy, we're doing our best to make it a little clearer each week - be sure to join the mailing list so you don't miss out! This is a quick introduction to its history and origins, geographical spread, and how to 'translate' modern words and phrases through the Ogham script.
Ever wondered what Ogham is and where it came from? This ancient Irish script dates back to the 4th century, at least, allowing early Irish people to record our ancestral lineages in a unique visual alphabet. Learn about its mysterious origins, letters, and how to translate (transliterate!) and write simple words in Ogham.
History & Origins of Ogham
While its origins remain enigmatic and complex, scholars believe that Ogham was used primarily for inscriptions of names and tribal associations carved on stones for monumental purposes, allowing our ancient Irish ancestors to record our history, through lineage and genealogy.
Common wisdom states that the earliest extant specimens of the ancient Irish script belong to the late 4th Century, that is, the end of the 300s Common Era, according to leading expert David Stifter (AELAW 2022, p. 6). However, he also says:
Ogam could as well be suited for the language of the 1st or 2nd centuries A.D. as for that of the 4th century. (Ibid. p. 7).
Because we can't prove this with archaeological evidence, we must content ourselves with an earliest provable time period of the late 300s, at about the same time as the coming of Christianity to Ireland. This has led some to argue that the Ogham was a Christian invention, but we would point out that the lack of evidence is not evidence, and urge people not to presume while so much remains obscure.
The Geography of Ogham
Ogham is mainly associated with Ireland, where it was developed and first used. However, the stones inscribed with this ancient Irish script have also been discovered in other regions associated with 'Celtic' language and culture; primarily Scotland and the Isle of Man (whose languages are also descended from the Primitive Irish which Ogham was originally created to express), but also Wales, Cornwall, and Devon (places to which Irish tribes travelled and settled). Historical evidence up to the early Middle Ages period points to strong cultural connections between these Celtic regions, suggesting a shared use of Ogham in all parts of insular Britain and Ireland.
All in all, there are around 500 Ogham inscriptions which have survived and are known to us from the Monumental Ogham tradition, with the majority - about 400 - of these located in Ireland.
The stones are mainly, but not exclusively, found in the South of of the island (Munster), with the counties of Kerry and Cork holding the highest density. Many monuments have also been identified though in counties Waterford (where we are based in the Ogham Academy!) and Wexford, and spreading northward to counties Kilkenny and Kildare.
However, there are few counties in Ireland that do NOT contain an Ogham stone, or have not had one found there originally.
Image shows a screenshare of the Historic Environment Viewer at Archaeology.ie
Known Ogham Stone locations are indicated by yellow dots (total: 401) - does not show those in NI
Translating Modern Words into Ogham
If you'd like to learn how to write in Ogham, we have an introduction article on that Here.
For this piece, we would take care to point out that it is important to begin with a translation into the Irish language (whether you choose modern Irish Gaeilge, or an older form, is up to you), and then you will be able to transliterate the Irish word through the Ogham alphabet.
It's important to note that Ogham is not a language itself, but an alphabet, an ancient Irish script... so we cannot translate Ogham as such, only transliterate (definition: to write or print a letter or word using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or script).
If you had a significant word or phrase you'd like to use, for example in an Ogham tattoo, or a piece of Ogham art, or Ogham jewellery, it is important to get the Irish translations correct first. Some common translations through Modern Irish - which we recommend using as it is our living language and an expression of Irish culture in it's truest form currently - might be:
- Family — Clann
- Friendship — Cairdeas
- Happiness — Sonas
- Prosperity — Rath
- Love — Grá
- Health — Sláinte
- Blessing — Beannacht
- Courage — Misneach
- Strength — Brí
- Peace — Síocháin
- Hope — Dóchas
- Gratitude — Buíochas
- Faith — Creideamh
- Beloved — Ionúin
The oldest way to write the Ogham is from bottom to top along a central line, but it can also be written from left to write over a middle line, as it was in the Manuscript tradition.
Once you have chosen your words, or a suitable phrase (and if you need more help with the translation from English to Irish we recommend you Consult the Foclóir Here), you can simply make use of our free guide to the Ogham Alphabet, and transliterate it to the letters of our ancient Irish Script.
Ogham inscriptions are of unique importance, because they are the only 'written' evidence we have to memorialise the evolvement of the Irish language, and our ancestral and tribal histories.
You can help us to keep Irish traditions alive by learning what you can of this ancient Irish script, and making use of it in your everyday personal life.
Sources for Learning the Ancient Irish Script:
- 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.
- The Irish Pagan School - Ogham Courses by Lora O'Brien
OGHAM - Quick & Easy Reference Guide
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