Ogham is an ancient Celtic form of writing. The ogham 'alphabet' consists of twenty letters, to which a further five were later added to accommodate Latinate introductions to the language.
Many people think of the ogham as a tree alphabet, but this is not strictly true. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that most (though not all) of the names of the letters are also the names of trees. There are other, more recent reasons, which are discussed below.
Although in one system of ogham the letters do represent trees, there were many other systems as well - body ogham, hound ogham, cow ogham, work ogham, river-pool ogham, and so on. However, the link with trees is early and elemental as ogham were considered to be branches of the Tree of Wisdom, and were used as a means of teaching.
The original twenty characters are divided into four groups (aicme). These consist of one to five straight lines or notches cut to, or across, a stem line (druim). Where the stem is horizontal, the letters are read from left to right. Where the line is vertical, it was the usual practice to write from top to bottom. Inscriptions that followed the outer edge of a stone slab or the inner edge of an arch generally began bottom left, went upward, across the top, and down the right-hand side.
The proper order of the letters is now uncertain. The chart below gives what is considered the original order, but the letters of the first group are sometimes given in the order beith-luis-fearn-saile-nuin.
H bbeith BEH b birch
D l luis LWEESH l rowan
T n nuin NEE-uhn n ash
C f fearn FAIR-n f alder
Q s saile SAHL-yuh s willow
B hhuathe HOO-ah h hawthorn
L d duir DOO-r d oak
N t tinne CHIN-yuh t holly
F c coll CULL c hazel
S q cuairt COO-ert cú apple
M mmuinn MUHN m vine
G g gort GORT g ivy
P p ngetal NYEH-tl ny/p (?) reed
Z z straif STRAHF ss (?) blackthorn
R r ruis RWEESH r elder
A aailm AHL-m a pine
O o onn UHN o gorse
U u ur OO-ruh u heather
E e edhadh EH-yuh e aspen
I i ido EE-yoh i yew
The suggested pronunciations are open to question, as they do not quite accord with what is known of Celtic languages. 'C', however, is always hard (Celtic is pronounced 'Keltic', for example), and 's' is always soft ('his' would be pronounced 'hiss' and not 'hiz'). The letter 't' is represented by a word that gives it in its palatal (slender) form of 'ch'. Furthermore, 'cuairt' (given as 'quert' by some), 'ngetal', and 'straif' are seemingly redundant and may represent phonemes that are no longer in use.
A number of modern commentators have stated that ogham is an impractical script for anything longer than inscriptions carved on stone. The twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, however, are far more complex in form and they are as nothing compared to Sino-Tibetan ideographic symbols used for religious texts. And there is written evidence to suggest that whole books were written using ogham script inscribed on wands of wood that were threaded together.
The Celtic peoples could and did read and write. Indeed, they were widely renowned for many centuries for their learning. As well as ogham, they also used the scripts of other peoples. Most commonly used were Greek letters although, as Latin became a common language, they used Latin letters as well. The belief that Celts were illiterate stems from a misreading of Cæsar who merely stated that the Druids would not commit their teachings to writing.
Neither the Greek nor the Latin alphabets were properly suited to the many dialects of the Celtic language. It is possible that the native script was devised for this reason. Its origins, however, are shrouded in mystery and most references to it are found in the Irish myths and sagas where it is intimately linked with magic and the wisdom of the Druids.
The bulk of extant ogham scripts, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries AD, are carved on stones, a vertical corner acting as the stem. There are nearly 400 known inscriptions, some found in Wales and Scotland. The largest concentration, however, is to be found in County Kerry, Ireland, where there are 121 of them. This has led to suggestions that ogham originated here, but it could be that this is where the use of ogham survived the longest.
Claims that ogham is of great antiquity are to be treated with caution. However, it did not come into existence fully formed in the fifth and sixth centuries AD simply to be used as a form of lithic inscription. Indeed, the extant forms suggest the tail end of their use as a form of lettering. This, combined with the antiquity of some of the tales in which ogham features as an integral part of the action, tends to suggest an origin at least several centuries BC, if not earlier.
In myth, the invention of ogham is ascribed to Ogma, a Sun deity of eloquence and literature. A son of the Dagda, he was skilled in dialects and poetry as well as being a warrior. He also had a role in conveying the souls of the dead to the Otherworld.
For all the uncertainty that surrounds ogham, we do know that the script is closely linked with druidic learning. It certainly makes a useful basis for a mnemonic system – essential to Druids who committed their entire teachings to memory.
There have been a number of attempts in recent decades to try to understand more about the use and nature of ogham. This is largely based on two problematical sources. The first is that of the Druid revivalists, principally Iolo Morganwg. His work is so coloured with invention that it is difficult to be certain about any of his historical claims.
The second source is The White Goddess by Robert Graves. Central to his book is an exploration of the meaning of the poem 'Cat Goddeu' (The Battle of the Trees). From this, he derives a tree calendar and a number of other ideas, which have often been repeated as if they were undisputed fact from ancestral times. There is no basis in history for believing there was ever a tree calendar per se.
That trees are associated with different times of the year, with different aspects of the cycle of the seasons, and with the hero tales of the Sun God is beyond question. That most ogham letters are named for trees is also beyond question. But the obsession with making neat lists and associations is a modern, linear, Roman view of the world. Celts were easy going and organic in their thinking. They knew the world flowed and changed and that you could not compartmentalize things so easily. That is why Druids took so long to train. That is why they never stopped learning.
There is tantalizing evidence that Druids used ogham for divination, but there is no reliable description of how this was done. It is possible it was achieved using a pattern known as 'Fionn's Window'.
The 'window' could be marked on the ground or on a cloth; a divination made from where objects fell that were thrown onto the pattern. Adjacent to one drawing of Fionn's window is another circle that is quartered with elongated cuneiform shapes. These resemble metal rods found just outside Colchester in the grave of what is thought to have been a Druid.
Any systems of divination that use ogham today are modern inventions. This does not mean they do not work. Some have been developed after years of study. But they should never be taken as 'ancient wisdom'.
The cards, rods, sticks, or whatever else is used are merely aids. They act as keys to unlock what lies within the mind of the diviner rather than being inherently able to divine the future. To use ogham efficaciously requires long study as well as a deep understanding of and sympathy with the Celtic psyche.
Whether or not ogham was used in ancestral times for divination, and to what extent it represents a form of encoding knowledge, we will never really know. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that it is intimately connected with the tree, which stands at the heart of all that is druidic.
If nothing else, the ogham script gives us a starting point for work with trees. As you learn each character, you can learn about the tree it represents. This, in turn, provides the opportunity to begin thinking about the way in which Celtic peoples viewed the world - as a universal and flowing interconnectedness, a deep forest of mystery into which we must all travel, a place where the very letters they used are living branches of the great and sacred trees that watch over us.
© Graeme K Talboys
This article first appeared in Prediction magazine, November 2003.