twenty ogham letters
ogham letters manuscript style
The Celtic alphabet known as
Ogham (pronounced "Oh-m" or "Oh-wam") was invented,
according to the medieval Irish Book of
Ballymote, by Ogma
Sun-Face, son of Elatha.
It comprises three sets of five consonants and one set of five vowels, a total
of twenty letters.
The primary manuscript sources for
information on Ogham are The Scholars Primer (Auraicept Na
of the Forfeda (De Duilib Feda na Forfid) and the Book of Ogham (Leber
These sources are quoted in the 12th century Book of Leinster and
the 14th century manuscript, the Book of Ballymote, which can be found in
the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.
This information in Book of Ballymote is
thought to have been copied from a much earlier 9th century manuscript. It
is from this text that the descriptions and characters have largely been
page from Book of Ballymote 14th
Ogham stone Cloonmorris Co. Letirim, Ireland
The earliest known form
of Irish is preserved in Ogham (Old Irish spelling 'ogam') inscriptions which
date mainly from the fourth and fifth centuries of our era.
information preserved in Ogham is sparse, as the inscriptions contain little
more than personal names on boundary marking megaliths, but it is sufficient to
reveal a form of Gaelic much older than Old Irish, the earliest well-documented
variety of the language.
There are numerous
accounts in the ancient literature which suggests that Ogham was a type of
writing and signalling using signs that was used only by the bards,
druids and warrior
intelligentsia and was not understood by the common folk or uneducated people.
The druid could use the ridge of his nose etc and stroke across it in different
ways with his fingers to denote the different symbols.
The name Ogham or Ogam was derived from that of the Celtic god of literature and
eloquence, Ogma, who is credited with it's invention. Ogma has the epithets
"honey mouthed" and "eloquent".
He has been linked with
the Gaulish God Ogmios
whose "golden speech" was recorded in Gallic artwork as a fine gold
chain linking the tip of his tongue to ears of a group of followers.
Ogham Stone Craig, Co Tyrone, Ireland
Stone Drummin Co Roscommon, Ireland
letters are constructed using a combination of lines placed adjacent to or
crossing a midline.
An individual letter may contain from one to five vertical
or angled strokes.
Vowels were sometimes described as a combination of dots.
midline was, most often, the edge of the object on which the inscription was
carved, this is called a 'Druim' which means ridge or spine.
Ogham is read from bottom to
top on boundary markers, left to right across page on manuscripts.
In keeping with Druidic concepts, each of the Ogham's twenty letters bears the
name of a tree-- A: 'Ailim' (Elm), B: 'Bithe' (Birch), C: 'Coll' (Hazel), for
example. This is not surprising unless one considers that not all of the twenty
plants of the Ogham were found in the post-Christian Celtic world of the British
Isles. This fact would seem to verify the theory that Ogham is an ancient system
which adapted itself to the Roman Alphabet as it became prevalent in the ancient
to Curtis Clark, "If one were to pick a region where the plants of the
Ogham were best represented, it would be the valley of the Rhine River, home of
the Iron Age La Tené culture that is regarded to be ancestral to the
This is the Ogham alphabet, read up and down, as it is shown on megaliths and
boundary markers....the z sign is usually known as 'st' (Straif) in Irish Ogham
Stone, Ballyquin, Co. Waterford, Ireland
Sometimes the Ogham is written straight across, as in manuscripts, and looks
There are 369 verified
examples of Ogham writing surviving today. These exist in the form of gallán
(standing stones) concentrated in Ireland but scattered across Scotland, the
Isle of Man, South Wales, Devonshire, and as far afield as Silchester (the
ancient Roman city of Calleva Attrebatum).
Stone, Knockboy, Co. Waterford, Ireland
|Similar markings, dating
to 500 BC, have been found on standing stones in Spain and Portugal. It is from
this area of the Iberian Peninsula that the Celts who colonized Ireland may have
come. The discovery of similar carvings in the state of West Virginia in the
United States, has caused some speculation that the Celts may have come to the
New World as early as 100 BC.
The word Ogham
(pronounced OH-m) has been used to refer to:
An alphabet of
twenty-five characters used for stone and wood inscriptions in Celtic Britain
An alphabet of
twenty characters reportedly used for divination and hand-signing in Celtic
A group of twenty sacred trees that give names to the letters of the Ogham
A calendar of thirteen months named for certain sacred trees.
In the Book of Ballymote, the invention of Ogham was achieved when "Ogma
Sun-Face raised four pillars of equal length", and it was upon these
pillars that the characters of the letters were etched.
Ogham, and the mysteries associated with it, were kept a strict secret amongst
the scholar/ druids
or 'swineherds' as they are commonly referred to in myth, and much also in myth
shows the secrecy. Mider's
abode on the Isle of Man was guarded by three cranes who called out to all who approached
"Enter not! Stay away! Go on by!"
Stones, Mountmelleray, Co Waterford, Ireland.
One Ogham symbol could mean many different whole
words for example 'B' meant Birch, Beginning, White, River Barrow, Pheasant(Besan),
Mother Goddess, Fertility etc. The Medieval monk historians who mastered
Ogham used it to write sacred or secret messages on objects.
It was rarely used in its letter form purely to
spell out names except on boundary markers or ceremonial monuments, as it would
take up too much space that way. However it was used as symbols also
amounts of the same symbol meant different things seven 'B's carved into a birch
was a warning of a woman's kidnap for example. It was carved into Alder
only for funerary measuring and was much feared when carved into the
Alder. The Alder measuring wand was known as a Fe. (Also
known as the cursing stick)(2)
The most famous Ogham system today is the Tree
Ogham, which was split up into: Eight Chieftain trees, eight peasant trees and
eight shrub trees.
Information, Articles and
Stories about Ogham
Ogham Tree Alphabet
List of the Ogham Alphabet
Ogham Tract - Auraicept na N-Éces
the Ogam Bethluisnin by Charles Graves
the Celtic Tree Zodiac by Peter Berresford Ellis (outside link)
2: Lady 'Speranza'
Wilde's - Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. published