the twenty ogham letters

Ogham 

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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. In 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 nEces), Values of the Forfeda (De Duilib Feda na Forfid) and the Book of Ogham (Leber Ogam). 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 drawn.

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page from Book of Ballymote 14th Century A.D.

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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. The linguistic 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.

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Ogham Stone Craig, Co Tyrone, Ireland

 

Ogham Stone Drummin Co Roscommon, Ireland

The 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. The 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 world. 

According 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 Celts."

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 systems.  

Ogham Stone, Ballyquin, Co. Waterford, Ireland


Sometimes the Ogham is written straight across, as in manuscripts, and looks like this...

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). 

Ogham 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 and Ireland.

An alphabet of twenty characters reportedly used for divination and hand-signing in Celtic paganism.

  A group of twenty sacred trees that give names to the letters of the Ogham alphabet.

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!"

Ogham 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 Stones

The Ogham Tree Alphabet

Basic List of the Ogham Alphabet

The Ogham Calendar

The Ogham Tract - Auraicept na N-Éces

On the Ogam Bethluisnin by Charles Graves

On the Celtic Tree Zodiac by Peter Berresford Ellis (outside link)

Stories:  The Green Champions

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2: Lady 'Speranza' Wilde's - Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. published 1888.

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