In an article printed in the preceding volume of Hermathena, I endeavoured to show, by an analysis of the Beithluisnin, that the Ogam is a cipher, a series of symbols, each of which represents, not a sound, but a letter in an alphabet of the ordinary kind, used at the same time for ordinary purposes. Now, if this conclusion be correct – and to me it seems all but self-evident – we are immediately led to ask, first, What was the real alphabet represented by the Ogam cipher? and next, Is there any evidence of the Ogam having been used for cryptic purposes?
To the first of these questions we reply by saying that the Roman letters must have formed the alphabet whose elements were represented by the feadha (rod) of the Beithluisnin. Of no other alphabet could we assert this with any grounds of probability. Roman letters made their way into Ireland before the coming of St Patrick. There were Christians there to whom his predecessor, Palladius, was sent by Pope Celestine; and we have very ancient testimony to the effect that St Patrick, in the course of his missionary labours, met with Bishops who had been in Ireland before his arrival.
These Christians cannot have been left without the books which were ’written in order that they might know the certainty of those things wherein they had been instructed. ’ Still less can we suppose that their Bishops were illiterate. The parents of Celestius received, and no doubt were able to read, the letters addressed to them by their son at an early period of his career, towards the end of the fourth century.
Nay more, I would not hastily reject the testimony of the Irish writers who claim for Cormac Mac Art, King of Ireland in the third century, the credit of having been himself an author, and superintended the collection of a body of written Laws and Chronicles.
In fact, it seems wholly unreasonable to imagine that Ireland, with its Kings and its Druids, with all its national institutions, civil and religious – for it was not a barbarous country – could have remained unaffected, for hundreds of years, by the social and intellectual influences developed in the neighbouring island during the period of its occupation by the Romans.
Supposing, therefore, that it could be shown from the testimony of the monuments themselves, or in any other way, that the Beithluisnin was in use in Ireland even as early as the first century, nothing would be done to disprove the connexion which I endeavoured to establish in my former paper between it and the Roman alphabet. And next, if the Beithluisnin be a cipher, it must have been intended to be a secret character.
What other purpose could it serve? Hence we are led to seek for evidence to prove that it was cryptic. I propose in this Paper to notice allusions to the use of Ogam occurring in ancient Irish documents of various kinds. A review’ of them will show, amongst other things, that ancient Irish writers, going back for about a thousand years, believed that the Ogam was not generally written or read, but understood and used only by the initiated: in fact, that it was a cryptic character.
The ancient Irish laws, commonly called The Brehon Laws, contain many allusions to the use of the Ogam character. They speak of Ogam cut on stones, or indestructible rocks, as evidence of the purchase or ownership of land. The stones thus inscribed are said to have been sought in mounds.
The inscribed stone is called a monument or memorial of the Seanchaidhe, who was a professional antiquary or historian, charged with duties such as are attached to the office of a notary or registrar. It is also called the memorial or monument of the tribe.
The inscription itself is called fair writing, and is distinguished from the kind of writing found in books. Such monuments were set up between two territories or estates as boundary stones; and seem to have contained the name of the owner of the land, of which the pillar-stone (Gallan) marked the limit. Gallan, or Dallan, is still a living word in the counties of Kerry and Cork, and is applied at the present day to pillar-stones which exhibit Ogam characters; and Mason, in his ’Parochial Survey of Ireland,’ vol. iii. p. 611, note, observes that ’The stones inscribed with the Ogam character, and occasionally met with through the country, are generally supposed to have been landmarks.’
in his Glossary, gives the word Gall, and explains it as a pillar-stone.
His etymology, however, is questionable:
i.e. a pillar-stone, e.g. nis comathig combatar selba co cobrandaib gall
’they are not neighbours till their properties are [provided] with boundaries
[?] of pillar-stones. ’ Gall, then, means four things, i.e.
first gall, a pillar-stone: it is so called because it was the Gaill that
first fixed them in Ireland, etc.
Edited by W. Stokes, LLD, p. 84)
ancient d so often passed into g, that the word might be more naturally
referred to dal, a division. The following passages, which may be taken
as representing many others of similar import, substantiate the greater part of
what has been stated above:
many ever-burning candles are there by which perpetual ownership of land is
secured? i.e. How many conditions like an ever-burning candle secure the
ownership of the territory in perpetuity to the occupant? Memorials (cuimne)
of the Historians, of ancient writings, in ancient mounds, i,e. if it is
secured in the memorial of the tribe (tuath), or in the memorial of that
fair writing; and that is to be sought for in the old mound. (MS in
other passages, in the same tract, where proofs of ownership are enumerated, we
when poems record it; i.e. when it has been
chanted in the long poem, or when it has been recited in the language of the
historians. When it has been written in writings; i.e. in the books. When
it has reached security of stones; i.e. when it has been determined to
have indefeasible securities for the restora- tion [of the land after the term
of tenancy has expired].
joint memorial of two territories; i.e. the common memorial that stands
between the two territories; i.e. the Ogam in the Gallan
(pillar-stone), or, it might be the evidence of two neighbours in the two
adjoining territories that will prove the man’s possession.
decide by the recital of a rock; i.e. that the name of the man who bought
[the land] be in the bond of Ogam; i.e. that the Ogam of the purchase be
in the flag of a mound [or grave]. That it be written; i.e. that it be in
old writing. In the presence of credible witnesses; i.e. that it be
recorded [or kept] by credible persons. Darkness; i.e. to be without
recital [of the name], without poem, without Ogam.
a law on taking lawful possession, the following passage occurs: ’Land which
the chief divides after the death of the tenant, where a hole is made, where a
stone is put’. It is thus explained by the commentator:
a hole is made; i.e. a mound wherein a hole is sunk in the division of
the land. Where a stone is put; i.e. a pillar-stone, i.e. after
its being enclosed, i.e. the boundary stone; there is a hole and a stone,
and the chief’s standing stone there, in order that his share there may be
The mention of the Ogam in the second of these passages, in conjunction with poems, as a proof of title, points certainly to an early period. But we must not insist too much upon this fact, seeing that in the same list of proofs reference is made to writings such as were found in books.
The reader will also notice that the use of Ogam as an evidence of proprietorship falls in with the notion that this was a cryptic character. It seems natural to suppose that when a bargain was made, the Seanchaidhe recorded it in a character which was not commonly known – neither written nor read by ordinary persons.
If a dispute arose afterwards about the ownership, the Seanchaidhe of that time would have been able to read the inscription.
It would have been a part of his official business. But the forgery of an Ogam would not have been an easy matter in those days. This can hardly be regarded as a conjecture. In the tract on the names, qualifications, and privileges of the seven degrees of Poets, we find that men belonging to the literary hierarchy were bound to study the Ogam character.
we come to treat of the Ogam monuments themselves, the reader will see that many
of them have been found in caves in the interior of raths. These were perhaps
the mounds (ferta) spoken of in the ancient laws. The meaning of the word
fert is not fixed. It commonly means a tomb or grave; sometimes an earthen
fence or dike thrown up by the spade...
the poet attached to a tribe or family failed to receive the remuneration due to
him for one of his compositions, the Irish
law directed him to seek his remedy by the following curious procedure:
an Ogam alphabet be cut [on a four-square wand], and an Ua alphabet;
i.e. let the writing begin in the name of God. And the efficacy of this is
to inscribe a Cross in the first edge for a notice; the name of the offence in
the second edge; the name of the offender in the third edge; and encomium in the
fourth edge. And let the wand be set up at the end of ten days by the poet of
the trefocul. Or, [it is necessary] that the notice should be at the end
of ten days. If he [the poet] has neglected [to set up] his wand, and has made a
satire, he is liable for the Eraic for a satire. If he has made a
seizure, he must pay the fine of an illegal seizure. (H. 3, 18, p. 424)
The trefocul here spoken of was a kind of poem, each measure of which consisted of three words – two words of praise, followed by one word of satire; and this was considered the highest praise. The weight of the testimony borne by the Brehon Laws to the use of the Ogam character is unquestionable. These laws, as they have come down to us, are genuine documents, which were employed by judges in the discharge of their duties, and by jurists in giving instruction in their law-schools.
the question as to the time at which they assumed their pre- sent form, how much
is the substance of the Ancient Law, and how much has been added by
comparatively recent Brehons and commentators, has not yet been decided; neither
can it be, until the language
Meanwhile, with all readiness to acknowledge their genuineness and antiquity, I see no reason to admit that the notices of Ogam contained in them refer to a period anterior to the introduction of Roman letters and Christian civilization; and point, in confirmation of this view, to the fact that no mention of Ogam occurs in the text of the Book of Aicil, or in that of the Senchus Mor, supposed to be the oldest codes of Irish law.
For the present, I venture to avow my belief that the commentaries are for the most part as recent as the tenth or eleventh century; and that even in the texts, however ancient may be the substance of the laws, we do not meet with such a prevalence of the ancient grammatical forms as, according to Zeuss’s view, would characterize the language as Old Gaedhelic.
Let us now turn to the ancient Irish tales and poems, to gather from them what information they supply with respect to the use of Ogam. They speak frequently of Ogam as employed to record the names of deceased persons on sepulchral monuments. The following is the formula commonly used in such cases: ’The grave was dug, the funeral games were held, and the Ogam name was inscribed on a stone erected over his grave.’
In other passages, mention is made of Ogam used to convey information, in such a way that the communication was understood by the initiated, whilst it was unintelligible to ordinary persons. Ogams of this kind were generally cut in wood. We also meet with instances in which Ogam is said to have been used for purposes of divination or incantation. Whilst the occult nature of the Ogam is thus frequently and plainly brought under our notice, I have not met with a single passage which is inconsistent with this view.
ancient Irish writers, whatever be the value of their testimony, believed, one
and all, that the Ogam was a cryptic mode of writing. The following passage is
taken from an account of the death of Fiachra, the son of Eochaidh
Muighmhedhoin, and brother of Niall of the Nine Hostages. The whole story has a
very pagan aspect:
the men of Munster gave him battle in Caenraighe. And Maidhi Meascorach wounded
Fiachra mortally in the battle. Nevertheless, the men of Munster and the Erneans
were defeat- ed by dint of fighting, and suffered a great slaughter. Then
Fiachra carried away fifty hostages out of Munster, together with his tribute in
full, and set forth on his march to Temar. Now when he had reached Forraidh in
Uibh Maccuais in West Meath, Fiachra died there of his wound. His grave was
made, and his mound was raised, and his cluiche cainte (funeral rites,
including games and dirges) were ignited, and his Ogam name was writ- ten, and
the hostages which had been brought from the south were buried alive round
Fiachra’s grave. (Book of Ballymote )
Petrie has drawn attention to the following very ancient story preserved in the
Leabhar na h-Uidhre, which details the circumstances connected with the death of
Fothadh Airgthech, who was for a short time monarch of Ireland, and was killed
by the warrior Cailte,
the foster-son of Finn
Mac Cumhaill, in the battle of Ollarba, fought, according to the 'Annals of
the Four Masters', in the year 285. In this tract, Cailte is introduced as
identifying the grave of Fothadh Airgthech, at Ollarba, in the following words:
The ulaidh (carn) of Fothadh Airgthech will be found at a short distance to the
east of it [the iron head of a spear buried in the earth]. There is a chest of
stone about him in the earth. There are his two rings of silver, and his two
bunne doat [bracelets?], and his torque of silver on his chest; and there is
a pillar stone at his carn; and an Ogam is [inscribed] on the end of the pillar
stone which is in the earth. And what is in it is, Eochaid Airgthech here.
(Leabhar na h-Uidhre)
But Dr Petrie does not seem to have noticed some circumstances mentioned here which claim our attention. First, the fact that the Ogam was inscribed on the end of the pillar-stone which was in the earth, and therefore intentionally concealed from view.
Why should this be, unless there were something disgraceful connected with the birth, life, or death of the person who was buried there? Next, the epithet Airgthech appears to declare the nature of the stigma thus secretly recorded. Airgthech means a robber or plunderer.
Again, is it not perplexing to find that the person called Fothadh Airgthech in the story is named Eochaid Airgthech in the Ogam inscription? It is not impossible that may have been substituted for a name very like it, by the error of the transcriber. But it is also possible that the Ogam name inscribed on the pillar-stone was not the name by which the monarch was commonly known.
and his brother, Fothadh Cairptheach, are mentioned in the ’Annals of
Clonmacnoise’ as joint monarchs of Ireland. But it is added that they ’were
none of the Blood Royal’. Tighernach does not mention either of them as kings
of Ireland, evidently because he regarded them as usurpers. Fothadh Airgthech
slew his brother Fothadh Cairpthech, and reigned, if he ever
is yet another circumstance which throws a shade of doubt or discredit on this
story. Antiquaries do not believe that silver ornaments were in use in Ireland
in the third century. The torques and armlets of that time are believed to have
been of gold. In the ancient tract entitled the Dialogue of the Sages
(Agallam na Seanonae), this same Cailte, who is said to have lived till the
coming of St Patrick, and to have communicated to him much of the ancient
history of Ireland, gives an account of Finn’s
marriage with Aine, the daughter of Modhurn, king of Scotland, and of her
subsequent death. It ends thus:
Finn had her for six years after that, and she bore him two sons – Iollan
Faebarderg and Aedh Beg. She died in giving birth to Aedh, and she was buried in
this mound near us. Her tombstone was raised over her grave, and her Ogam name
was written, and her cluiche cainte were held. (Book of Lismore)
similar notice of a monumental inscription placed by Finn and his followers over
Art and Eoghan, two sons of the king of Connaught, who served in Finn’s host,
and were killed by foreigners at the strand of Rory, in Ulster.
the Fiann, said Cailte, both high and low, great and small, king and knight,
raised a loud shout in lamentation for the brave and valiant champions. And a
mound was dug for each of them; and they were put into them; and his own arms
along with each. Their tombstones were raised over their graves, and their Ogam
names were written then. (Book of Lismore)
is not stated that their names were written in Ogam (tri Ogam), but that
their Ogam names were written. A like account is given of the burial at
Benn Edair of Edain, the wife of Oscar,
son of Oisin.
She died of grief at seeing the dreadful wounds of her husband after the battle
of Benn Edair.
shed floods of tears, and raised a loud and piteous cry of lamentation. Then she
went to her own bed, and her heart broke, and she died straightway of grief for
him who was her husband and her first love, though a spark of life still
remained in him. Finn was filled with sorrow for this, and so were the Fiann
of Erin, said Cailte; and we carried her to the fairy mansion of Ben Edair for
burial, and we spent that night around
again, when Etercomol was slain by Cuchulainn,
we read in the Tain bo Cuailgne, that his Fert was dug, his lia,
or headstone, was set up, his Ogam name was written, and his funeral rites were
celebrated (Leabhar na h-Uidhre, p. 69, col. 1); and the same
formula occurs at the end of the tale called the Elopement of Deirdre with the
Sons of Uisnach.
(Transactions of the Gaelic Society, Deirdre,
Dublin, 1808, p. 129). The Book of Leinster preserves a poem attributed
to Oisin, in which return is made of an Ogam inscription of the same kind:
An Ogam in a lia, a lia over a leacht,
In a place whither men went to battle,
The Son of the King of Erin fell there,
by a sharp spear on his white steed.
That Ogam which is in the stone
Around which the heavy hosts have fallen,
If the heroic Finn had lived,
would the Ogam be remembered.
the valuable work on Christian Inscriptions in the Irish language, just
completed by Miss Stokes, we are presented with a poem by Enoch O’Gillan, of
which the following are the first two stanzas:
Ciaran’s city is Cluain-mic-Nois,
A place dew-bright, red-rosed.
Of a race of Chiefs whose fame is lasting,
hosts under the peaceful clear-streamed place.
Nobles of the Children of Conn
Are under the flaggy brown-sloped cemetery;
A knot (snaidm) or branch (craobh) over each body,
a seemly, correct Ogam name.
Inscriptions in the Irish Language, chiefly collected and drawn by George
Petrie, LLD, and edited by M. Stokes, p. 8)
It appears, then, that Christian chieftains were buried at Clonmacnoise with Ogam names inscribed on their monuments. Only one Ogam inscription has been found there, so far as I know. It bears the name of COLMAN in letters of the ordinary kind, followed by the epithet bocht, written in Ogam characters, from right to left. This single word, meaning poor or needy, and written in a form which was doubly cryptic, seems to have been intended to express disparagement.
An instance in which Ogam is said to have been used for the purpose of conveying information occurs in a poem by Oisin, in which he relates a tale of his father Finn. Finn happening to be with a party of his Fiann on Slieve Crot, in Munster, a noble youth, accompanied by a beautiful lady, came into his presence, and announced that he had travelled from Norway and Lochlann, but had met no man able to beat him at chess. Finn accepted his challenge, and the stranger staked his wife against fifteen of the Fenian women who were present.
stranger won the game, and immediately disappeared, enveloping himself and the
sixteen women in a magical mist. Finn resolved to follow him to Norway, but
desiring to let his followers know whither he had gone, he cuts an Ogam
A pillar stone there was on the rugged hill,
Whither the hosts were wont to come –
Finn knotted an Ogam in its edge,
That no man should be ignorant.
A year were they (the Fiann) without tidings of their king,
All that time they were distressed,
Until they came to Dun Crot,
When they had left Finn of the keen blade.
Mac Lugach found in the pillar stone
An Ogam which he understood,
That Finn had gone in search of his women
Eoghan, the King of Lochlann.
& Smith MSS, RIA, p. 444)
the writing had been intelligible to everyone, there would have been no reason
to mention that it had been found and understood by Mac Lugach. In
Cormac’s Glossary, under the heading ORC TRÉITH,
a strange story is told of Finn and his fool Lomna. The fool having discovered
that his master had been dishonoured during his absence from home, and not
Finn, understanding the Ogam, manifested his displeasure in such a way that the woman who had wronged him became aware that Lomna had divulged her secret. She quickly avenged herself by procuring the murder of the fool; and the story goes on to record a conversation between the woman’s paramour and the decapitated head of the fool, whom he had slain (Cormac’s Glossary, edited by Whitley Stokes, LLD, p. 130).
The secret nature of the Ogam character could not be more plainly indicated than it is in this passage.
Corc, son of Lugaidh, King of Munster, was banished by his father, and fled to Scotland about the year 600. There his person and rank were recognized by Gruibne, the Druid and Poet of Feradach, King of Scotland. The Druid, observing an Ogam in the shield of the prince, by whom his life had formerly been saved in Ireland, asks him, ’Who hath supplied thee with the Ogam which is in thy shield? It is not luck he hath brought thee.’
’What is in it?’ said Corc. ’This is what is in it,’ answered the Druid: ’If thou come to Feradach by day, that thy head be off before evening; if by night, that it be off before morning.’ (Book of Leinster.)
Observe that the prince cannot read the Ogam on his own shield. But the Druid is able to decipher it. This story reminds us of the sealed letter which Bellerophontes carried with him to Lycia, unconscious of their fatal import. Note, too, that in the Edda, mention is made of Runes on shields (Edda Rythmica, Brynhildar-Quida, I, Stroph. xv). Corc’s shield was probably made of alder wood.
following is the only passage in which I have read of an Ogam cut upon iron:
went forward to the Dun; and the youth (Cuchulainn) alighted from the chariot in
the green The green of the Dun was on this wise. There was a pillar-stone upon
it, and an iron ring round the pillar; and this was a ring of championship; and
there was an Gam name in the menuc[?], and this was the name that was in
it: ’Whoever comes on the green, if he be a champion, he is enjoined not to
depart from the green without giving challenge to single combat.’ The little
boy (an Mac Beg) read the name, and he put his two hands to the
pillar-stone as it stood with its ring, and cast it into the pool, and the water
closed over it. (Book of Leinster)
instructed in all military exercises and accomplishments, is able to read the
Ogam. It was only addressed to persons of his class – to knights. Keating says
that one of the conditions which each warrior was obliged to fulfil previous to
his admission into the ranks
of the Fiann was as follows: No man could be admitted into the Fiann until he
had become a bard, and had mastered the twelve books of Poetry. In the Tain
Bo Cuailgne we meet with curious instances of the use of Ogam, which I give
at length, in order that the reader may see the reasonableness of the inference
which I draw from them:
the great hero of this war, coming to a certain pillar-stone, at a place called
Irard Cuillenn, makes a ring out of a rod, writes an Ogam in it, and then throws
it over the pillar, so as to encircle it. The invading army, led by Fergus Mac
Roich, coming up to the place, the ring is found by their scouts, Err and Inell,
with Foich and Fochlam, their two charioteers. These were the four sons of Irard
mac Anchinne, who always went in advance of the host to save their brooches and
garments from the splashing of the mire and the dust raised by the troops in
their march. Finding the ring which
Cuchulainn had cast, they gave it into the hand of Fergus,
who read the Ogam which”was in it. ’For what wait you here?’ said Queen
Maeve, coming up. ’We halt,’ said Fergus, ’because of this ring. There
is an Ogam in its menuc, and this is what it signifies: Go no further
till a man is found who with one hand will cast a ring like this, made of a
single rod; and let my master Fergus answer.’ ’It is true,’ said Fergus,
’it was Cuchulainn who cast the ring; and it was by his horses the plain was
so closely grazed. Then he gave the ring into the hand of the Druid, and spake
the following poem...’
this passage the occult nature of the Ogam is plainly indicated. The scouts
could not read it. They were obliged to bring it to Fergus, who possessed all
the attainments of an accomplished knight, in order that he might decipher it,
This is made more evident in the later and more developed version of the story,
as we find it in the Book of Leinster, pp. 59 and 60:
(the king) took the ring into his hand, and put it into the hand of Fergus, and
Fergus read the Ogam name that was in
A ring here, what doth it declare unto us?
A ring: what doth its mystery conceal?
And what number of persons placed it here?
Were they few or were they many?
If ye should march past this to-night,
And not remain here in encampment,
The Hound of all terrors will surely visit
On you your contempt and dishonour of him.
It will bring evil on the hosts
If they pursue their march beyond this.
Discover now, 0 Druids!
this ring was made.
of the Druids.]
He disables champions, the champion who placed it.
Utter discomfiture he brings on heroes.
To check [the advance of] the chiefs of men assembled,
One man placed it with his one hand.
’Tis the work of a man whose anger was roused,
The hound of the South in the Creeve Roe.
’Tis the knot (snaidm) of a champion, not the tie of a fool;
’Tis his name that is in the ring.
To inflict the calamity of hundreds of combats
Upon the four provinces of Erin,
Unless it be for this, I know not
this ring was made.
the delivery of that poem, ’By my word,’ said Fergus, ’if ye disregard
that ring, and the royal champion who made it, without making a night’s
enclosure and encampment here, unless a man amongst you
shall make a ring like this, [standing?] on one foot, and with one hand and one
eye, like as he has done, whether ye be laid under the earth or in a fortress,
he will inflict wounds and death on you before it is time to rise to-morrow.’
following passage is taken from the Book of Leinster. The corresponding
portion of the text is found in the Leabhar na H-Uidhre, page 58:
And he came to the lake of a great wood by Cnoghba-of-the- Kings, on the north, which is now called Ath n-Gabhla. Then Cuchulainn went into the wood, and alighted from his chariot, and cut down a fork with four prongs, root and branch, at a single stroke. He shaped and fashioned [?squared] it, and put an Ogam name upon its menuc, and he threw it with an unerring cast, from the hinder part of his chariot, from the tips of his fingers, so that two-thirds of it went into the ground, and only one-third remained above.
It was then that the two [four] guides above-mentioned, viz., the two [four] sons of Tocan came up to him whilst thus employed and they strove which should be the first to wound and behead him. But Cuchulainn turned upon them, and cut off their four heads on the instant, and he fixed the head of each man on one of the prongs of the fork.
And Cuchulainn sent the horses of that party back the same way to meet the men of Erin, with their reins loose; with the gory trunks, and the bodies of the warriors dropping blood on the frames of the chariots: because he thought it not honourable or becoming him to take the horses, or clothes, or arms of the men that were slain.
Then the hosts beheld the horses of the party who had been in advance of them, and the headless bodies of the warriors dropping down blood copiously on the frames of the chariots. The van of the host halted for the rere to come up; and they all raised loud cries, and clashed their arms..., ’What have we here? said Maeve.
will tell,’ said they, ’The horses of the party who always went before us
are there, and their headless bodies in their chariots.’ Then they held a
council, and they concluded that these were the tracks of an army, and the
contact of a great host; and that it was the Ultonians that had come. And the
counsel they found was to send Cormac Connlonges mac Concobar
to discover who it was that was in the ford. Because if it were the Ultonians
that were there, they would not kill the son of their own lawful king. Then
Cormac went forth; and the number of the company that he took was three thousand
armed men, to find out who was in the ford. And when he came thither, he saw
nothing but the fork in the middle of the ford, with four heads on it dropping
nobles of Erin came to the ford, and they all began to view the fork. It was a
matter of surprise and wonder to them who it might be that had set up the
trophy. ’What was the name of this ford hitherto with you [Ultonians],
Fergus?’ said Ailell. ’Ath n- Grena (Ford of the Sun),’ said
Fergus; ’and Ath n-Gabhla (Ford of the Fork) shall be its name
henceforth for ever, because of this fork and this deed,’ said Fergus. And he
spake this poem:
Ath-Grena will now change its name,
By the deed of the hound [Cu-chulainn] red and furious;
Here is a fork of four prongs,
Which is a hindrance to the men of Erin.
On two of the prongs are signs of valour,
The head of Faech and the head of Fochnain;
On the other two prongs are
The head of Eire and the head of Innill.
What Ogam is this in its menuc?
Tell us, 0 ye Druids most learned.
And who was it that hath marked it in it?
number helped to plant it?
of the Druids.]
Yonder fork of terrible import
Which thou seest there, 0 Fergus,
Was cut by one man, whom thou didst once love,
a single sweeping stroke of his sword.
He fashioned and brought it on his back.
Even this was no trifling achievement.
And he planted it down there,
That one of you might pluck it up from the earth.
Ath n-Grena was its only name until now;
Well is it remembered by your people;
Ath n-Gabhla shall be its name evermore,
this fork which you see in the ford.
(Book of Leinster, pp. 59 – 60)
The Ogam seems to have intimated that it was Cuchulainn who had killed the scouts and set up the trophy as a challenge to the enemy, defying any single man amongst them to pluck up the stake which he had planted with one hand. From the first stanza of the poem, it appears that Fergus understood the Ogam, which was unintelligible to the rest of the host.
He had been Cuchulainn’s friend, and master: and possessed all knightly accomplishments. But he refers to the Druids to confirm his interpretation. This is not the only instance where Cuchulainn gives a notice or challenge to his enemies by means of an Ogam. At Magh Mucceda he cuts down an oak, and writes an Ogam on its side, and this is what was on it when found by Ailill’s host: ’Whoever passes this shall be slain by a hero of one chariot.’ (Leabhar na h-Uidhre, p. 63)
knew that in the host of Ailill and Maeve there were men who could read Ogam –
Fergus Mac Roich and the Druids, if not others. If the Ogam was a cryptic mode
of writing, we might expect to find it employed in divination, I am able to give
instances of this kind from tales which are certainly as ancient as others from
which I have quoted:
Eochaidh Airem, according to the Irish Annalists, monarch of Ireland about one hundred years bc, was visited at Temar by a youthful stranger, who announced himself as Midir of Bri Leith. Bri Leith was a famous fairy hill and mansion in the County of Westmeath, in which dwelt Midir, a hero renowned for his gallantry. The king inquired of him his business. Midir answered that he came to play a game of chess with the king.
The king consented. Midir won the game, and as winner of the stakes claimed permission to embrace the Queen Etain. The king was compelled to consent, else he would have been branded with falsehood, which was in those days the greatest dishonour that could be laid to the charge of a king. Then Midir threw his arms around the queen, and f1ew with her out of the palace, no one could tell whither.
some time had gone by, Eochaidh sent his Druid Dallan to search for Etain...
That day he travelled westwards until he reached the mountain which is called
Slieve Dallan; and he abode there for the night. Then the Druid was grieved that
Etain should remain concealed from him for a whole year; and he made four wands
of yew, and
wrote an Ogam on them; and it was revealed to him, through his keys of poetic
This extract was made for me by Professor O’Curry, from a tale entitled ’Tocmarc Etaine’ ’The Courtship of Etain’ preserved in one of the MSS which formerly belonged to Mr Monck Mason, written about the year 1450. There are fragments of the beginning and end of the same tract in Leabhar na h-Uidhre; but this part has not been preserved in that MS.
Copies of this tale are also to be found in the Yellow Book of Lecain and in the MS H. 1. 13. The Courtship of Etain is named in the Book of Leinster as one of the principal tales which a duly qualified poet was bound to know, and be able to recite to kings and chiefs (O’Curry’s Lectures on the MS Materials of Ancient Irish History, p. 584).
example of the use of Ogam for the purposes of divination occurs in an ancient
tale entitled ’The Exile of the Sons of Duil Dermait’. In this tale we are
told that three personages mentioned in it disappeared mysteriously, and that
Cuchulainn was enjoined to discover them. It is stated that he accordingly went
from the palace of Emania
to his own town of Dun-Dealgan (or Dundalk), and that, while taking counsel with
himself there, he observed a boat coming to land in the harbour. This boat, it
seems, contained the son of the King of Albain (Scotland), and a party who came
with presents of purple, and silks, and drinking cups for King Conor
Cuchulainn, however, being at the moment in an angry mood, entered the boat, and
slew all the crew, till he came to the prince himself. The tale then proceeds:
me life for life, O Cuchulainn! Thou dost not know me,’ said the prince.
’Knowest thou what carried the three sons of Duil Dermait out of their
country?’ said Cuchulainn. ’I know not,’ said the youth; ’but I have a
sea-charm, and I will set it for thee, and thou shalt have the boat, and thou
shalt not act in ignorance by it.’ Cuchulainn then handed him his little
spear, and the prince inscribed an Ogam in it.
then, according to the story, went out to sea, and his talisman directed him
unerringly to the island, where the objects of his search were detained. The
following passage, taken from Cormac’s Glossary, is perhaps the most
curious and important of all those in which allusion is made to the use of Ogam
by ancient Irish writers:
then, is a wand of aspen, and gloomy the thing which served with the Gaels for
measuring bodies and graves; and this wand was always in the cemeteries of the
heathen, and it was a horror to every one to take it in his hand, and everything
that was odious to them they marked on it in Ogam.
Sorrowful to me to be in life
After the King of the Gaels and Galls.
Dim is my eye, wasted my flesh,
the fe was measured on Flann.
a rod of aspen was used by the Gaels for the measuring of the bodies, and the
graves in which they were interred; and this wand was always in the cemeteries
of the heathen, and it was a horror to every one taking it in his hand; and
everything that was odious with the men was struck with it, as the proverb says:
fe fris ’a fe to it’! for the wand of aspen is odious. Therefore, says
Morann, in the Briathar Ogam, aercaid fid edath, i.e., the reproach which
attached to the rod whose name is fe.
whole passage connects the use of the Fe with notions of superstition, and
carries us back to times when Paganism still subsisted in Ireland. The wand was
kept by the Gaels in the cemeteries of the heathen. It was in every way odious.
It was made of aspen, an unlucky tree. It was used for a gloomy purpose, to
measure corpses and graves. And it had symbols of what was hateful cut upon it.
It seems, too, that a baleful charm was supposed to have been wrought by
striking with it whatever was itself an object of detestation. What M’Curtin
says of the Ogam craobh in general helps us in some degree towards the
explanation of all this:
Irish antiquaries have preserved this Ogam in particular as a piece of the
greatest value in all their antiquity, and it was penal for any but those that
were sworn antiquaries either to study or use the same. For in these characters
those sworn antiquaries wrote all the evil actions and other vicious practices
of their monarchs and great personages, both male and female, that it should not
be known to any but to themselves and their successors, being sworn antiquaries
as aforesaid. (Treatise
on the Irish
practice of striking with an Ogam-marked rod is mentioned in a medical MS of the
date 1509, in the Library of the Royal Irish
As regards the stanza in which reference is made to the death of Flann, it must be observed that it cannot have been introduced by Cormac Mac Cullinan himself, The Flann here mentioned can hardly have been any one else but Flann Sinna, King of Ireland, who died of the plague in the year 914, eleven years after the death of Cormac.
The poem must have been interpolated by a subsequent editor of the Glossary, and this is not improbable. A collation of the MSS of Cormac’s Glossary has shown that considerable additions have been made to it by later hands; and further, the interpolator could hardly have been a friend or follower of Cormac, who was killed in battle, fighting against Flann Sinna. The words which state that the wand was odious, as being made of aspen, refer to a phrase in one of the verbal Ogams contained in the Ogam Tract.
As the Fe, said to have been kept in the cemeteries of the heathen, was used to measure the body of Flann, who was a Christian, we are left to infer that an old Pagan custom had been transmitted from ancient to modern times. It may be worth our while to consider whether the Fe has any relation to the Scotch Fey, or the Icelandic feigr. But I abstain here from etymological speculations.
These are our testimonies. But before we draw conclusions from them we are bound to consider the circumstances which determine their weight. Many of these pieces are found in MSS dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and there is reason to believe that the substance of them was more ancient, even by hundreds of years. Still there remains a question as to the credibility in matters of detail of stories professing to record events which are referred to the third century, or even to the commencement of the Christian era, when we find that these tales are full, not only of exaggeration, but of manifest fiction, and are written in a turgid style, which distinguishes them from historical narrations.
Professor O’Curry assigned a high, perhaps the highest, place in the list of
our ancient Irish historical tales to the Tain bo Cuailgne, from which I
have made so many extracts, I confess that I find it difficult to give it
the,praise which it has received as a great prose Epic, or as a piece the main
statements of which respecting matters of fact are substantially true. I fancy
that I see in it traces of comparatively modern thought; and am rather inclined
to concur in the judgment pronounced by the learned scribe who copied it into
The following is the colophon which he appended to his transcript of the Tain; ’A blessing on every one who shall faithfully study the Tain as it is here, and who shall not add to it in any other shape... ’ Nevertheless, even admitting that the element of fiction abounds in the tales from which our quotations have been taken, their concurrent witness sufficiently proves the existence in the minds of their authors of a belief that the Ogam was in use in times long anterior to their own; that it was a cryptic character; and that there was something peculiar in the form of the Ogam names inscribed on sepulchral monuments.
The first twenty characters of the Ogam craobh are peculiarly well suited for cutting on wood; whether on the edge of a square stave, or on a round rod; seeing that all the strokes are rectilinear, and admit of being cut either exactly at right angles with the grain, or obliquely across it. The same may be said of the first, second, and fourth of the forfedha, or diphthong symbols. Anyone who tries will find that if a stroke coincides in direction with the grain, it will not be easy to make it with a clean ending, and of the proper length. Such a stroke will require an additional cut at the end to finish it.
That the Ogam craobh was first used in this way before it was employed in inscriptions on stone is extremely probable. According to the apocryphal account given in the Ogam Tract, the first Ogam was cut upon a birch wand: and the passages which I have quoted from ancient Irish romantic tales indicate that the practice of cutting these characters on wood was common. The testimony of Martianus Capella, ’Barbarians carve runes on tablets of ashwood’, proves that Runes were cut upon planed ashen tablets in the fifth century. The practice may therefore have been considerably older.
And Saxo Grammaticus speaks of letters graven on wood as having been formerly recorded upon paper. Now the Ogam character is at least as well suited for this purpose as the Rune. It is simpler than the Twig-rune, and looks like an improvement upon it, after passing through the intermediate and imperfect state in which it appears in the first Beithluisnin.
First came the Twig-rune, with its upright stem and side branches inclined at an acute angle to the stem; or, perhaps” the Hahel-run, described in the Alcuin MS. These, according to my view, suggested the primitive Ogam with its upright stem, and its branch-strokes meeting the stem obliquely or at right angles; and from this finally the transition was easy to the perfect Ogam craobh.
All that was necessary was to substitute a single stem-line, or the edge of a squared stave, for the straight line formed by placing the stem-strokes of the rune-like Ogams so as to be continuous. Let us next consider what was actually written in Ogam upon wood. Was it only a name, or a sentence of a few words? or was it something more, as Professor O’Curry and others have asserted?
He held the belief ’that the pre-Christian Gaedhils possessed and practised a system of writing and keeping records quite different from and independent of both the Greek and the Roman form and characters.’ He maintained, in fact, that the Ogam character was employed to record historical events and even sustained historical or romantic tales among the Gaedhils, long before the supposed introduction of the Roman letter, about the time at which the Gospel of Christ was brought among them by lettered scholars of Continental education.
in support of this hypothesis he endeavaured to show that histories and tales
were inscribed in Ogam on staves or wooden tables. If he could have adduced
satisfactory proof of this, it is not likely that he would have attached much
importance to the testimony of the following romance, on which he has commented
at length in his lectures:
About the commencement of the first century of our era, two lovers, Baile mac Buain, an Ulster chieftain, and Ailinn, a Leinster Princess, died suddenly of grief; each having been deceived by false tidings of the other’s death. Out of the grave of Baile a yew tree presently sprang up; and from the grave of his beloved Ailinn, an apple tree. In seven years, the two trees grew large, with leafy heads bearing a resemblance to the two lovers whose graves they over-shadowed, They were then cut down by the poets, and each was made into a tablet (tabhall filedh).
one were written the Visions, and the Espousals, and the Loves, and the
Courtships of Ulster: in the other the tales of like import relating to the
kingdom of Leinster. In the time of Art, King of Ireland, that is, about a
hundred and fifty years afterwards, these tablets, being brought face to face,
flew towards each other of their own accord, and became joined so firmly that
they could not be separated. They were thenceforth preserved
amongst the precious things kept in the treasury at Tara, till the palace was
burned in the year 241.
The reader will smile at finding an argument respecting the use of letters in Ireland some eighteen or nineteen hundred years ago founded in all seriousness on this romantic tale.
The writer of it had probably read the story of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and that of Polydorus in the Aeneid; and was thinking of the waxed tabulae, commonly used during the Middle Ages, as well as in the time of ancient Rome. The reader may see in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy one of these tablets, still preserving some legible characters; and will be interested in reading Dr Todd’s description of it, printed in the ’Transactions’ of that Society.
I suspect that the taibhli filedh, so often mentioned by Irish writers, were nothing more than tables of this kind. But there may have been something peculiar in their formation, as we find the following entry in a Catalogue of the contents of the library of St Gall: ’Six wooden staves covered with wax (once handbooks of Irish sayings) which retain full accounts.’
Who could imagine all the love stories of two kingdoms scored in Ogam on the edges of staves? Cartloads of timber would not have sufficed for the purpose. Even Professor O’Curry seems to have been prepared for the incredulity of persons who, like myself, will say that the letters inscribed on these mystic tablets ’could not well have been Ogam’ (O’Curry’s Lectures on the MS Materials of Ancient Irish History, p. 466).
The external evidence bearing on this question is as follows: The tale of Baile and Ailinn is found in a MS written about the year 1511. I am not aware that any other copy of it exists. And allusions to the yew of Baile and the apple-tree of Ailinn are contained in two poems in the Book of Leinster (written about AD 1130).
One of these is ascribed to Ailbhe, daughter of Cormac mac Art, who must have lived in the middle of the third century. The other poem is attributed to Flann mac Lonan, chief poet of Ireland, who died AD 918. But the poems do not mention the taibhli (tablets): so that we have no evidence confirming that part of the story as it is told in a MS of the sixteenth century.
is not a sufficient foundation on which to rest an argument respecting the use
of letters or Ogam in Ireland fifteen hundred years before. The romance of Baile
and Ailinn may be an ancient one; but we cannot trust to it as supplying
’evidence of the existence in Art’s time of what was then believed to have
been a very ancient book, and, of course, of the existence in and before Art’s
time, at least, of letters among the Pagan Gaedhils. Still less can we
accept it as proving that wooden tabulae existed at that period filled
with long tales written in Ogam. Professor O’Curry indeed believed that the
taibhli filedh (poet’s tablets) were made of long flat pieces of wood
which folded up like
Here is what he says: ’In a very ancient article in the Brehon Laws, which prescribes the sort of weapon of defence which the different classes of society were allowed to carry on ordinary occasions to defend themselves against dogs, etc., in their usual walks, a passage occurs which throws some light on this subject.
The article belongs to the Christian times, I should tell you, in its present form, as it prescribes a slender lath, or a graceful crook, for a priest, while it assigns to the poet a Tabhall-lorg, or tablet staff, in accordance with the privileges of his order, etc.’
Professor O’Curry goes on to state that Tabhall-lorg is only a modernised or Latin-Gaedhelic form of tamh-lorg (a headless staff), and quotes a passage from the Agallamh na Seanorach in support of his views. ’Where are the seniors and Antiquaries of Erin? Let this be written in Tamhlorgaibh Filcadh (headless staves of Poets), and after the manner of professors, and in the language of the Ollamh; so that every one may take his copy (or share) with him to his own territory and land of all the knowledge, and all the history, and all the topography, and all the deeds of bravery and valour that Caeilte and Oisin have related. And it was done accordingly.’
I confess I do not believe that each of the Antiquaries of Erin was able to carry away all this learning in his walking-stick. And I am equally sceptical as to Professor O’Curry’s etymology. I say this although I am aware that waxed tablets such as the Romans used might have been large enough to contain a considerable amount of writing. Dr Todd has reminded us that in degenerate days, when a wholesome discipline was no longer kept up in schools, a pupil under seven years old would not hesitate to break the master’s head with his writing table, if a hand was laid upon him.
may be rash to deny that the tabhall-lorg was something ’different from
the tabhall filedh. But we must be slow to admit that long histories were
written in Ogam characters on either one or the other. We have no trustworthy
evidence of it. If we may believe the testimony of one of the ancient writers
who compiled the Acts of St Patrick preserved in the Book of Armagh,
wooden staves, bearing characters upon them, were in use in Ireland in the fifth
came from the field of Arthice to Drummut Cerigi, and to Nainnu Toisciart and
Ailech Esrachtai; and he saw among them eight to nine men carrying tablets,
written in the manner of Moses’ tablets (i.e. engraved). (Book of Armagh,
trans. C. and J. Matthews).
Now it will be observed that the’ persons who bore these staves were Christian followers of St Patrick, who came to Ireland attended by men of different nations – Romans, Britons, Gauls, and Lombards. And there is nothing in the narrative to indicate that the use of such staves on this occasion was uncommon.
On the other hand, the natives in whose minds they created alarm were pagans, who would have expressed neither fear nor surprise if inscribed staves of this kind were in use amongst themselves. This is a testimony of great antiquity – the very MS in which we find it was written in the year 807; and the fragmentary notices from which the passage is taken were collected by three persons of whom the latest died about the middle of the eighth century.
Unless we pronounce the whole story to be a fabrication, we must accept it as an authority to prove that in the middle of the fifth century wooden staves, in form not unlike the short straight swords of the Irish, were used for writing on. And further, it indicates that the practice was brought into the country by Christian missionaries from other lands...
In pagan times, the Druids combined in their own persons all the functions of priests, philosophers, and poets, and therefore held in the State a place with which great power and important privileges were connected. But it seems probable that when Christianity was established in Ireland the Druids were conciliated, or at least their opposition was neutralised, by giving to their order an establishment similar to, and co-ordinate with, that which was provided for the ministers of the Christian Church.
rites were suppressed; religious functions were committed to the Christian
ecclesiastics; and the duties of exercising judicature, promoting letters, and
keeping the public records, was entrusted to the order of poets. In process of
time, the parallelism hetween the two hierarchies became complete. As the
Medieval Church had its seven orders, so there were seven grades of poets –
The Ollamh, the Anrath, the Cli, the Cana, the Dos, the Mac Fuirmidh, and the
Fochlach. And the laws prescribed the course of study which they were required
The learned have divided the Gaedhelic writings into four classes, and these are their names:
I. Senchus Mor, and Breatha Nemeadh, Ai Chearmna, and Ai Chana form the first: and CANOIN is the name of this division, because of the greatness of the knowledge and explanations these writings contain.
II, The thrice fifty Ogams, and the Remenda, i.e., Rem nena, and the Duile Feadha, and what appertains to them, constitute the second division. GRAMIDACH is its name, because of the greatness of its good knowledge: for correct speech is a search for knowledge.
III. The Feasts, and the Reliefs, and the Destructions, and the thrice thirty Tales, and the three score subordinate Tales, together with what appertains to them, constitute the third division, which is called STAIR, because narratives and acts are related in it.
Bretha Cai (the judgments of Cai), with their supplements form the fourth
division; and RIM (Enumeration) is its name. (Book of Lecan)
An acquaintance with the whole of this extensive course of study was required from the Ollamh; and we learn from a tract on the names, qualifications, and privileges of the seven degrees of poets that the Fochlach, a member of the seventh or lowest order, learned in the first year fifty Ogams, and Uraicept na h-Eicsin, with its preface and its Remenda, and ten Dreachts, and six Dians, thirty Tales, etc,
we have traced the Ogam into the possession of the literary class, as a branch
of the learning which they were legally bound to profess. So far then we have
verified the statement quoted above from M’Curtin. And when we remember how
many proofs these poets gave of their preference for what was obscure and
occult, it seems quite credible that they used the Ogam for cryptic purposes.
The Disputation of the two Sages furnishes a notable example of their
desire to keep to themselves a monopoly of their learning, such as it was.
and more obscure to the people were the words in which these two Files discussed
and decided their dispute, nor could the kings or the other Files understand
them. Conor and the other princes at that time present at Emania said that the
disputation and decision could be understood only by the two parties themselves,
for that they did not understand them. (Book of Ballymote)
poets are said to have been deprived on that occasion of functions which they
had previously possessed; and the commentator on the Senchus Mor tells us that,
in the revision of the laws effected in the time of St Patrick their functions
were again limited and defined.
abolished these three things among the poets when they believed, as they were
profane rites, for the Teinm Laegha and
The Fedha here mentioned were the Beithluisnin; and the Duili Fedha seem to have been a portion of the Uraicept, or some other treatise on Ogam. The Book of Leinster written about the year 1130, contains a short paragraph, in which is given a complete Beithluisnin, including the Forfedha, together with rules as to the use of the latter characters in words containing diphthongs and triphthongs.
This passage has little interest beyond what is connected with the fact that it is the most ancient manuscript authority which has come down to us on the subject of Ogamic orthography. The Ogam marginal notes in the St Gall Priscian were written, as I think I have proved (Proceedings of the Royal. Irish Academy, vol. vi., p. 199), in the year 874. But there is at the end of the Gospel of St John, in one of the Stowe MSS, a single word in Ogam, which I read as DINOS, and which, I suspect, is the Ogam name of the scribe Dimma Macc Nathi, who wrote the copy of the Gospels in the Trin. Coll. Dublin MSS, known as the Book of Dimma.
This signature of DINOS is by far the oldest specimen of manuscript Ogam which is known to exist, if we are right in believing that the Book of Dimma was written for St Cronan of Roscrea, who died in the year 620; and that if DINOS is not the Ogamic equivalent of Dimma, the two MSS were written about the same time, as the handwritings seem to prove... The writer was a peccator, guilty of some crime for which he was doing penance in a pilgrimage, and this may have been the reason why his signature is presented under the double veil of a backward-written Ogam. It is true that scribes delighted to show their learning by writing colophons in Greek, Runic, and other characters differing from those used in the transcript which they made.
it must be admitted the explanation first offered is by no means an improbable
one. In what precedes I think I have succeeded in showing from ancient Irish
documents, that the Ogam was regarded by their authors as a
I argue, moreover, that its alleged use for the superstitious purposes of divination and incantation is in accordance with the notion that it was something occult and mysterious. And I have adduced reasons for the belief that the Ogam names inscribed on monuments were different in form from the ordinary names of the persons commemorated.
In executing my task I have fairly set before the reader the passages which appeared to me to contain statements or allusions tending to elucidate the subject which I had in hand. I have left a few unnoticed, which were identical in substance with others which I have quoted; but I have kept back nothing that was doubtful or at variance with my own views.
In dealing with the Irish texts, I have used translations made for me five-and-twenty years ago by Professor O’Curry. As he knew my opinion with respect to the antiquity of the Ogam to be different from his own, he would not have failed to confront me with facts and testimonies overthrowing my theories, had he been himself possessed of any such materials.
an examination of our manuscripts or monuments should open up fresh sources of
information, I shall welcome the discoveries which scholars may thus be enabled
to make, whether they are consistent with or opposed to the conclusions put
forward in this Paper. I do not expect to find that we have Ogam monuments
belonging to the centuries BC. But I am sanguine enough to believe that the
deciphering of our Ogam inscriptions will furnish results of considerable
importance, confirming portions of our history which have hitherto remained
without that kind of attestation which is supplied by monuments and coins.
Source: Charles Graves - Hermathena Vol 3. c.19th C.
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