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The Celtic Tree Alphabet?

celtic writing system ogham history ogham letters Nov 29, 2022
Tree roots in a forest, representing the Celtic Tree Alphabet

You open an article and begin to read... "The Celtic Tree Alphabet is often referred to as the Faery Triad. It is believed that the letters represent the month of the year and that each month represents a different tree. During Beltane, a Celtic festival, people danced around a birch tree to celebrate Eostre. The birch tree was one of the first trees to bloom in the Spring. It is considered a tree of femininity and purity. The tree is also associated with healing and new beginnings. The Rowan tree is also considered a tree of life and protection. The Yew tree is also considered a tree of life, but its toxic parts make it unsuitable for construction."

This sounds pretty, and interesting, but unfortunately, it is a whole pile of bullshit. When I rant about misinformation on the ogham, this is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. 

However, when you're reading stuff like this, there are often bits and pieces of relatively accurate information mixed through, which makes it incredibly difficult for the beginner to figure out what's accurate, and what's not. For example:

Historically the Celtic Tree Alphabet is the ancient script that was used to write early Irish and other Brythonic/Brittonic languages. It was used by Druids, Celtic priests who inhabited much of Western Europe and Britain. In ancient Celtic culture trees were viewed as powerful and special and assigned to particular letters of the Ogham alphabet. In medieval times some letter names became tree epithets. This was the case with the Elder tree and the Willow tree. It was believed that the tree was inhabited by faeries and could not be destroyed without the wrath of the faeries. The Willow was also associated with wisdom and adaptability in Celtic culture.

So, let's break all of that down a little and see what can be relied on, and what can't, with regard to the 'celtic tree alphabet'. 


What is the Celtic Tree Alphabet, Exactly?

When people are talking about this, they mean Ogham. Or it can be spelled Ogam, if you're referencing the older Irish. This is an alphabet, a writing system, that had developed in Ireland by at least the 300s Common Era (CE) to visually express the sounds of the 'Primitive Irish' language.

This writing system was used on Ogham inscriptions to record names and tribal associations, probably for memorial and ancestral honouring, but also perhaps as boundary or territorial marking. Or maybe a bit of both. No harm having an oul ancestor spirit out guarding your tribal borders, am I right?! 

The height of this 'Classical' Ogham inscription use was around the 400s to 600s CE, and it spread beyond Ireland. Travelling with the tribes who left this island, or learned by visitors here and brought back to their homes, the Ogham alphabet is also inscribed onto stones in Wales, Scotland, and even England.

After this came the 'Scholastic' period of Ogham use, from about the 700s CE onwards. While monks were in monasteries being tasked with recording classical writing and alphabets from the Greek and Roman scholastic traditions, they were keen to preserve our own Irish writing system and make sure it featured in the Manuscripts of the Medieval age (as we now call it) which they were creating, copying, and preserving. 

So the Ogham had some extra letters added to it (the Forfeda), to include the newer sounds of the evolving Irish language, bringing the alphabet from the original twenty to the newer 25, or 26. Some of these extra letters had appeared on earlier Ogham inscriptions (most notably Ébad), but they were being used in a different way by the time they appeared in manuscripts.


Why do they call it a Tree Alphabet? 

The letters themselves could indeed be connected to trees, as the word fid, plural feda, shows a direct connection to wood and trees in Old Irish (Click to see the eDIL link here).

A number of the letter names are directly from tree names; such as Coll (hazel), Beith (birch), Dair (oak) and Sail (willow). But there are many more that have nothing to do with trees; like Lus (plant, herb, vegetable), hÚath (fear, horror, terror), Tinne (metal rod, ingot), or Gort (field, pasture).

And while there are tree association lists relating to the letters to be found in the Medieval manuscript tradition, we also find various other association lists right there too, such as the Fort Ogham, the River Ogham, the Bird Ogham, the Colour Ogham, etc. 

Trees, while an important part of the Ogham tradition in some respects, are not in any way the whole story, as some dodgy NeoPagan sources would have you believe because it sells books and courses. 


But what about Celtic Astrology based on Trees?

'Celtic Astrology' is not a thing, unfortunately. Robert Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985), a poet and novelist whose father was involved in the Gaelic Revival in Ireland, did us all a great disservice by writing a book called the White Goddess which was possibly only ever supposed to be viewed as fiction or fanciful notions.

It was picked up and run with, however, by the NeoPagan revival, treated as a scholarly source book, and this is where a lot of the current misinformation stems from.

If you want to have a look at some Irish based star stuff, this is a good source. The author (Morgan Daimler) is based in the USA, but has worked with native Irish traditions extensively).


Where do the Fairies come in?

Look, I realise this whole article has busted some potentially dearly held misunderstandings and beliefs, but here we go again. 

The Ogham is nothing to do with the Irish Fairies, or the Fairy Faith tradition in Ireland.

If you want to learn the real deal about all of that, my 2021 book The Fairy Faith in Ireland: History, Tradition, and Modern Pagan Practice can be found here. That'll set you right.



Make sure you're on our community mailing list so you continue to get access to genuine information and resources, because that way you'll soon learn to distinguish good sources from bad for yourself. 



OGHAM - Quick & Easy Reference Guide

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In this Guide you will find a brief history of the Ogham, and the Ogham letters laid out across two A4 sheets, for easy printing and quick reference or reminders as you learn.
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