Ogham: The Secret Code of our Ancestors
One of the most intriguing mysteries we have inherited from our early Irish ancestors, in my opinion, is the lack of historical documentation they left behind. It is generally accepted, nowadays, that theirs was an oral tradition. Histories were handed down through the centuries in the form of story, song and poetry by bards and druids, amongst great secrecy. They were recorded not in books, but in brains; shared not by reading, but by mouth.
Ancient texts were sometimes carved in stone, or imprinted on clay tablets. But generally, texts were written on materials which were perishable. They served a purpose at the time, and weren’t intended to last forever. They decayed with time. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the lack of evidence means only that they did not survive, rather than they never existed at all.
So it is, I believe, with Ogham. There are all kinds of conspiracy and intrigue surrounding this ancient art of communicating. Some scholars believe it was designed as a secret code, unintelligible to users of Latin, ie the Christians. Others believe it originated as a set of secret hand signals by the Druids, or that it was developed by the early Christians, the sounds of the primitive Irish language being far too difficult to transcribe into Latin.
What do we KNOW?
Ogham flourished in the 5th and 6th Centuries, although some inscriptions have been dated as far back as the 4th Century AD. In early Medieval times, it was most often used used on stone markers, normally indicating property and land boundaries, and graves of the dead. The language used at this time was mostly Primitive Irish. Early inscriptions used the edges of the stone as the ‘stem-line’, and were read from the bottom left, across the top of the stone, and down the right-hand edge towards the bottom.
The Book of Oghams (in Irish, In Lebor Ogaim AD1390) lists over a hundred variations of Ogham which must be learned by all poets(Fili), and claims that they were also used to send messages, and for magical purposes; to keep lists, business transactions, and numerical tallies of possessions, and that these were made on wood or metal.
Mythology claims Ogham was invented by Ogma mac Elathen, one of the Tuatha de Danann, brother to the Dagda and half-brother to Lugh. This would take its creation right back to at least four thousand years ago. It's not an unreasonable theory to me; it seems perfectly feasible that as long as mankind has existed, they needed some form of communication for the occasions when they couldn’t speak directly face to face. Even cave-men found a way to do this, recording what was important in their lives in spectacular paintings on their cave walls. Thousands of years later, we are still able to understand these messages, and appreciate them today… a simple and universal language untouched by the centuries, and all that happened within them.
Birch bark is white and very distinctive; any markings inscribed on it would show up clearly. Image (c)Johiah Garber, Dreamstime
It is claimed in the Ogham Tract (another name for the Book of Oghams) that not only was Ogma a great warrior and King Nuada’s champion, but he was a skilled poet and public speaker too, for which he attracted epithets such as ‘Honey-Mouth’ and ‘God of Eloquence’.
Apparently, he created the Ogham alphabet when he needed to send a message to Lugh warning him of the possible abduction of his wife by the Sidhe; he sent a birch branch with 7 ‘b’s inscribed on it, meaning ‘seven times will your wife be abducted into the Otherworld unless protected by the birch’. The letter ‘b’ is therefore said to be named after the birch tree. Note here that the message was inscribed on a branch, a perishable material.
However, the Lebor Gebála Erenn states that after ten years study of all the languages of the world, legendary Scythian King Fenius Farsa and 72 other scholars amalgamated them to form the Ogham script. The 25 letters of the alphabet he named after his top 25 scholars. Which would kind of make its origins even older.
Ogham (pronounced oh-um) is the alphabet attributed to an ancient form of the Irish language referred to as Primitive Irish, which later on in the 6th century was superseded by Old Irish. Beith-Luis-Nin (pronounced beth-lweesh-nin) is the actual name of that alphabet, derived from the names of its first few letters. It comprises 20 symbols, or letters, each corresponding to the sounds made in that language.
Much of what we know about it has been taken from a document called The Book of Ballymote (in Irish, Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta),which seems to serve as the Irish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It documents 150 different versions of the Ogham alphabet which must be learned during the first three years of a bard’s training.
Each letter (feda) is grouped in a series of 5, called a family (aicmí). Each aicmí is named for its first letter. A fifth group (forfeda) consisting of another 5 letters, was added at a later date. It is said that the groups are arranged in order of where the sounds are made in the mouth, ie the feda of the first aicmí (b) would be produced at the front of the mouth, and so on to the more guttural sounds made further back in the throat. There is one group of vowels, and three groups of consonants.
The Ogham Alphabet, courtesy of Omniglot – a comprehensive guide to writing systems and languages
Each feda looks like a set of lines crossing, or attached to the right or left side of a central vertical line, called a ‘stem-line’. Vowels sometimes use dots rather than lines. An inscription on a stone would be read from bottom left upwards. In a document, the stem line is horizontal, and the characters read from left to right, top to bottom, as you are reading this. Another ancient document, Auraicept na hÉces (650-700AD) describes the reading process thus:
“Ogham is climbed (i.e. read) as a tree is climbed, i.e. treading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand before and one’s left hand last. After that it is across it and against it and through it and around it.”
Ogham is sometimes called The Tree Alphabet
The Tree Alphabet
The Tree Ogham (in Irish ogham craobh) is divided into three categories; eight chieftain trees, eight peasant trees and eight shrub trees. The first letter, Beth (pronounced beh) is the silver birch; next is Luis (lweesh) which is the rowan, or mountain ash, and Nin is the common ash. This aspect of the ogham alphabet has proved especially popular with the new age revival of druidism.
Finally, for a bit of fun click here to see your name written in Ogham symbols.
Ali Isaac – my name in Ogham script