One of the most common questions we get asked here at the Ogham Academy, and in our classes over at the Irish Pagan School, is 'did the Druids use Ogham?'
TLDR: Nobody really knows for sure. Sorry!
But let's at least make an attempt, given what we do know, to answer it for ye.
What is a Druid, exactly?
Firstly, we'll need to clarify what we mean by the term Druid. To set the parameters for this article, we are discussing historical Druids in Ireland, rather than NeoPagan Druidry, or anything from the various cultures of Britain, or Continental Europe.
In ancient Ireland, Druids were a high-ranking class of people who served as scholars, scientists, judges, priests, magicians, doctors, teachers, lore keepers, poets, and philosophers. They were equal in status to the kings and queens, by all accounts, but stood somewhat outside of the social hierarchy, in order to perform their functions well.
The word Druid likely comes from Old Celtic *derwos "true" (from PIE root *deru- "tree," especially oak) + *wid- "to know" (from PIE root *weid- "to see"). (Etymology Source). In Old Irish it became drui, then into Modern Irish (Gaeilge) as Draoí, which still means magician or sorcerer, a 'user of magic'.
Druids and Ogham
Besides their religious and spiritual functions, Druids taught people about their heritage, served as tribal historians, and advised on political issues. As such, if for no other reasons, they may well have used Ogham in a legal or ancestral manner, and potentially even incorporated into life rites services.
"Ogham stones appear to have primarily served as memorials and/or boundary markers as well as indicators of land ownership." - Ogham in 3D
Timewise, Druids seem to have been around a little earlier than the Classical Ogham period (5th to 7th Centuries), however, top Ogham linguistics scholar Prof. David Stifter believes that: "Ogam could as well be suited for the language of the 1st or 2nd centuries A.D. [Common Era] as for that of the 4th century." - Ogam; Language, Writing, Epigraphy (AELAW, 2022)
There are many references to, and stories about, Druids which have survived through Medieval Irish literature. Though this material was recorded well into the Christian period in Ireland - hence Druids often appear as the foes of Saint Patrick, using magic to oppose the conversion to Christianity - there are elements of older native material woven throughout.
This may be indicative of an oral tradition which pre-dates the written records from monks in monasteries. However, those monks wrote some pretty Pagan stories and mythology, regardless of their own beliefs about the truth of it or not. They seem to have functioned quite faithfully as the folklore collectors and historians of the time.
Sadly, there is no official record of the Druids using Ogham for divination purposes (though we do have references to them 'casting lots', which may indicate the same thing. There are also stories which show the Ogham being used in magical spells, but again, the source material can't be taken at face value.
There is an intriguing quote from the Medieval 'Scholars Primer', Auraicept ne n-Éces, which states:
"The knowledge and sight of letters is a way for revealing knowledge."
Ogham is an alphabet, first and foremost, a writing system consisting of 20 letters. Even without categorical proof on the matter (either way), 'revealing knowledge' was definitely within the remit of Druids. So, we at the Ogham Academy tend to come down on the side of a probable yes, when asked 'did the Druids use Ogham?'
You may take it as you will, from there.
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