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What is Ogham - How is it Used?

celtic writing system ogham alphabet ogham history ogham origins ogham stones Sep 30, 2022
what is ogham and how is it used - an ogham stone and a crude christian cross side by side in an irish graveyard.

Ogham remains a somewhat mysterious Celtic writing script, to this very day. It was created in ancient Ireland, most probably during the 4th Century CE, and based upon the oldest known version of the Irish language – Primitive Irish.

Our earliest examples of the script are found carved into ogham stones. These inscribed stone slabs were used by Gaelic Irish tribes to record our history. 

Ogham is a unique system of notches and lines, used to represent the sounds of the Primitive Irish tongue. It is a written alphabet, not a language in it's own right - an important distinction.

Learn more about ogham and discover why it’s becoming more popular today.


Ogham, a mysterious Celtic writing system

Although we have some dedicated modern scholars researching the ogham now, particularly with regard to the archaeology and linguistics, there are many research questions which still remain unanswered, and much misinformation within the public realm... which doesn't help in our understanding of the ogham at all.

Some will even claim that ogham did not originate in Ireland, though academic experts seem to have settled that question to their own satisfaction (eg. contemporary researchers David Stifter, and Nora White).

As the primary evidence we have for the original forms of ogham is still the orthodox inscriptions in stone, there remains some debate over the exact age of the writing system, given that stone cannot be carbon dated. All dating evidence we have, therefore, is contextual and linguistic.

Ogham writing may well pre-date the current evidence of the late 300s BCE, but there is no way to tell this for sure.

Given that the inventors of Ogham seem to have been familiar with the Latin alphabet as well as Primitive Irish, it seems most likely that Ogham was invented by early Christian missionaries in Ireland. They may have needed a unique alphabetic system for writing short messages and inscription in the Primitive Irish language, and later on in Old Irish.

When asking the question "what is ogham, and how is it used?", these early adopters (if not inventors) from the Golden Age of Celtic Christianity deserve our acknowledgement and respect.


Legendary Origins of the Ogham

While the exact origins of the ogham writing system are unknown, and even the name itself remains a puzzle, much has been written on the topic over many centuries.

It has been claimed that the name ogham comes from the Irish word uaigh (Old Irish úag) meaning 'grave', but this is doubtful. McManus suggested a possible etymology which is more likely, that ogham derives from the Irish og-úaim, meaning 'point-seam', referring to the seam made by the point of a sharp weapon.

Invention of the ogham script was traditionally ascribed to Ogma mac Elathan:

athair ogaim Ogma, mathair ogaim lam no sgian (i.e. Ogma was the inventor of Ogham, its efficient cause is hand or knife) - Auraicept na n-Éces (7th Century).

It was written that Ogma, a god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, created the first Ogham alphabet while carving out the first Ogham staves for magical use. Ogma was skilled at speech and poetry, and the Ogham Tract records that his alphabet was designed specifically for the educated, excluding "rustics and fools". This, however, is likely to be more a reflection of the elitism of Medieval Christian scribes, than of Ogma himself.

According to another Medieval legend, ogham was created during the time of the biblical Tower of Babel, being discovered (or compiled) and taught to humans by the mythical Scythian King, Fenius Farsa.

In this tale Fenius journeyed from Scythia to study the confused languages at Nimrod's tower (the Tower of Babel). The Gaelic scholars who travelled with him left, and sought out the scattered languages, while Fenius remained at the tower to work.

After ten years they returned, and Fenius was able to create 'the selected language', in a couple of different versions, from the best parts of all the confused tongues. He named it Goidelic for his friend and colleague, Goídel mac Ethéoir.

The story goes that he also created the Beithe-luis-nuin (the ogham) as a perfected writing system for his languages, and dedicated each of the letter names to his 25 best Gaelic scholars.


The Ogham Alphabet: Beith-Luis-Nin

The Feda (ogham letter names) themselves are known collectively as the Beith-luis-nin after the letter names of the first two, and last, letters in the first grouping. This is similar to the way the modern Latin alphabet is named for the first and last Greek letter names, Alpha and Beta.

As evidence for its earliest known use, we have orthodox inscriptions dating from approximately the 5th to 7th centuries CE. On these we see four groups of five letters each, to a total of twenty letters. These groups are called the Aicmí (singular, Aicme).

When seen on stone, the Feda (singular, Fid), or letter names, are made up of between one and five horizontal strokes or lines placed relative to a stem line (called the Droim), which usually runs vertical on the stone.

The first and second Aicme are distinguished by their orientation to the stem line, the first facing right, and the second facing left. The third group has lines which cross the stem line at an angle, and the fourth group - representing the vowels - has one to five scores or notches on the stem line.

In this vertical recording of ogham, it is read from bottom to top - "as a tree is climbed". These orthodox inscrip­tions were usually carved along the edges of the stones, but we do have some instances where a stem line was drawn into the stone face. Words generally begin at the bottom left-hand corner of the stone and move up, across the top, and then down the right-hand edge, if required.

There was a fifth group of five/six supplementary letter names (the Forfeda, 'extra letters') added to the later manuscript sources which taught and used the ogham. In the older orthodox inscriptions, however, only the first of these shows up with any frequency of use. It is marked by two diagonal scores crossing each other on the stemline, in an X-shaped letter.


Ogham Stones

There are roughly 400 known Ogham monumental inscriptions which exist in Ireland, but there are also remaining examples in Wales; Devon, Cornwall and elsewhere in England; the Isle of Man, and Scotland; bringing the total to around 500 (Stifter, 2022). The tradition may have been carried abroad by Gaelic settlers.

Though there are many examples in Scotland which feature Pictish inscriptions, these may be indications of a scholastic tradition, as in the Irish examples below.

Prior to the 'classical' ogham stone inscriptions that were being carved primarily through the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries CE, we can theorise that there may have been a period of carving into wood or metal, which has not survived the way ogham stones have.

In Ireland, ogham stones have been found in every county. However, they're most commonly seen in the southwest of the island: in counties Kerry, Cork, and Waterford. The densest cluster is in the barony of Corca Dhuibhne, on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry. We know of about 60 ogham stones that originated there, many of which seem to be territorial markers.

When we consider what ogham was used for, the stones feature strongly. The orthodox inscriptions on stone recorded the personal names of individuals, often beside their parentage, grand-parentage, or their tribal connections. Sometimes we can even see what may be more ancient (or aspirational) connections to mythical beings, such as the god Lugh.

Inscriptions vary between using Primitive Irish, Old Irish, and the Latin alphabet.

Each ogham stone may have served as a memorial or boundary marker, as well as indicators of land ownership. There is even record in later legal texts that a land claim isn't valid without an ogham stone stating the right.

We genuinely don't know how much of a part ogham played in the spiritual, magical, memorial, or actual burial activities of those who carved the seemingly sepulchral inscriptions.


How was it used?

Besides the recording of personal names from the 4th century onwards, the later texts in manuscript sources which provide us most insight into the use of ogham are Auraicept na n Éces (the Scholars' Primer) and In Lebor Ogaim (The Ogam Tract). These works supply a key to the alphabet where all of the letter names are translated into tree names, among other lists of associations.

Early scholars took the meaning of the ogham letter names literally, leading them to believe that the ogham script was based solely on the name of the tree from which each letter originated. Thanks to the work of Damien McManus, and other modern scholars, we now have a much clearer understanding.

Early Irish sagas and legends suggest that Oghams were used for short message exchanges on wooden or metal objects. Some of these references seem to be deliberately obscure or cryptic in their meaning, while others may contain bardic or folk memories of genuine magical use.

There is some indication that ogham was once employed for keeping records or inventories, such as genealogical records or numerical tallies of property ownership. There has also been suggestion that ogham was used as a way of communicating by using fingers or hands, but this is tenuous at best.

We know for sure that ogham was used primarily to write the Primitive Irish language (in the 'orthodox' monumental inscriptions, during the 4th to 6th centuries CE), and later when Primitive Irish developed into the Old Irish language (in the scholastic ogham, mostly during the 7th to 9th centuries CE).

The term 'scholastic' cited above is used to describe later Medieval inscriptions that were most likely inspired by the manuscript sources, rather than representing an unbroken line of use dating from the original monument tradition. So, those examples are named for what is more likely to have represented a scholarly study of the earlier manuscript tradition, and even the ogham stones themselves.

Unlike orthodox ogham, many of the medieval inscriptions record five or even six Forfeda, those supplementary letter names mentioned earlier. It is the scholastic inscriptions which are most likely to be carved on stems cut into the faces of the stones, rather than along their edges.

Right down to the 16th century, we have examples of ogham in marginalia and notes in manuscript sources. On a gravestone from 1802, found in County Tipperary, there is a more modern example of a sepulchral inscription using the ogham.


How is it used today?

Reducing the ogham to mere tree association is a curse. Robert Graves has a lot to answer for, when it comes to misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the ogham, and tree folklore in general. His book, The White Goddess, has heavily influenced New Age and Neopagan approaches to ogham, though he has long been academically discredited. In turn, his work was largely drawn from the theories of the Irish antiquarian archaeologist R. A. S. Macalister (1870 - 1950), though Graves went far beyond Macalister's original scholarship.

Quite simply, Robert Graves fictionalised the folklore. He made up a lot of stuff about the Middle East in Stone Age times, moon goddess traditions, ancient Egyptians, and all sorts... eventually highlighting tree association surrounding ogham, to the exclusion of any other lists of associations. Of which there are many.

He proposed that the tree folklore and the order of the ogham letter names formed an 'ancient seasonal calendar of tree magic'. And serious modern scholars, especially those who view the ogham as a potential source for spiritual, magical, or divinatory connection, have been dealing with the fallout from that misinformation ever since.

Many of the letter names do have a correlation with tree names. There is even some tree folklore and tree associations woven through, when you read the original Medieval bríatharogaim (poetic 'kennings'). However, it does not constitute enough of a focus to warrant the exclusion of all else the ogham is, or may have been. 

For an example of quality Contemporary Pagan scholarship on the ogham, which incorporates information on the spiritual, the magical, and divination using the ogham, we recommend Erynn Rowan Laurie's book, 'Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom'. [That is an Affiliate Link, fyi, for a few cents to us at no cost to you!]

We honestly cannot recommend many other NeoPagan books on the ogham, if any. If anyone tries to sell you any Celtic Tree Association, or Calendar of Tree Magic nonsense, please just leave that where it is!


Online Resources for Learning Ogham

OGHAM - Quick & Easy Reference Guide

>>> Free PDF Download

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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