Intro to Ogham

Image source: Public domain

Ogham is a very old form of Celtic script most likely created by Druids and used from the 1st  through 9th centuries. It was a type of alphabet using various hash marks and lines. There are roughly 400 surviving inscriptions on stone monuments throughout Ireland and Western Britain, with the largest number being in Pembrokeshire, Wales. It’s thought they were likely written on pieces of wood as well. On the inscriptions, the script is mostly used to describe personal names. The etymology of the word is thought to mean “point-seam”, referring to the seam made by the point of a sharp weapon. The script is read from bottom to top, or left to right.  There are four primary “aicmi”, which means the type of strokes. There is the right side, left side, across and notches. Each symbol is not only representative of an individual letter but also a tree or another object. The system overall worked as a pneumonic device likely for many various meanings and representations. The “tree alphabet” as it is, has been used to create a modern astrological tree calendar. The tree calendar is based on the work of writer and Gaelic Celtic revivalist Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess written in 1948 and is completely modern and fabricated. I view his system of tree astrology in much the same way as any astrology. It’s very interesting and fun to entertain but by no means genuine, no matter how coincidental the similarities. With that said, it is very clear that for as many symbols that do represent a tree, this undoubtedly reflects the Celtic reverence of trees. They most certainly had a strong basis in their belief structure. It’s incredible to think our ancestors inherently revered the very life giving plants needed for our existence, while not yet having the true scientific evidence proving or explaining exactly why.

Historically, there are a few suggestions of origin of the Ogham, all of them clouded in mystery.  The main theory accepted by scholars is that it was a way for Celts or Druids to communicate in secret during the British Isle’s period of Roman occupation which lasted from around 1 CE to 410 CE. It seemed to have especially flourished on the borders of Britain and Ireland, possibly as a means of secret communication. The Celts on Ireland were free while the ones in Britain remained under Roman rule and this situation would easily give means to the existence and usage of such a text. The script was named after its supposed divine mythological Irish discoverer, the Irish god, Ogma. He is rumored to be descended from the Gaulish god Ogmios associated with eloquence of speech and his name meant “smiling face”. Ogma was the brother of the Dagda and inventor of the Ogham alphabet in their stories. In the battle of Magh Turedh, Ogma is also a heroic fighter and seems to represent the ability to rouse warrior’s emotions by the same eloquent speech that Ogmios represented. He was sometimes associated with a triad including Lugh and Dagda. Together they were the “tri dee dana” or three gods of skill. Ogham is also mentioned in the tale of CuChulainn when he writes a message on an oak sapling.

Image source: Spirit of Old,

Some people cast Ogham wands as a way to answer questions they may have about the future. The basis for this is in the Irish Mythological Cycle. In one story, a druid named Dalan takes four wands of yew, and writes ogham letters upon them. He used the tools for divination, which was simply an inspired way to foretell the future or answer a question. The tale doesn’t explain how the sticks are handled or interpreted.

“Then, at the last, king Eochaid sent for his Druid, and he set to him the task to seek for Etain; now the name of the Druid was Dalan. And Dalan came before him upon that day; and he went westwards, until he came to the mountain that was after that known as Slieve Dalan; and he remained there upon that night. And the Druid deemed it a grievous thing that Etain should be hidden from him for the space of one year, and thereupon he made three wands of yew; and upon the wands he wrote an ogham; and by the keys of wisdom that he had, and by the ogham, it was revealed to him that Etain was in the fairy mound of Bri Leith, and that Mider had borne her thither. Then Dalan the Druid turned him, and went back to the east; and he came to the stronghold of Frémain, even to the place where the king of Ireland was; and Eochaid asked from the Druid his news. Thither also came the horsemen, and the wizards, and the officers who had the care of the roads, and the couriers of the boundaries, to the king of Ireland, and he asked them what tidings they had, and whether they had found news of Mider and Etain. And they said that they had found nothing at all; until at the last said his Druid to him: “A great evil hath smitten thee, also shame, and misfortune, on account of the loss of thy wife. Do thou assemble the warriors of Ireland, and depart to Bri Leith, where is the palace of the son of Celthar; let that palace be destroyed by thy hand, and there thou shalt find thy wife: by persuasion or by force do thou take her thence.” –Tochmarc Etaine, Version D (11th century)

Book of Ballymote illustrating “Fionn’s Wheel”, circa 1380

Another method of casting the Ogham wands requires a cloth marked out with “Fionn’s window” or “Fionn’s wheel” in which a circle with 5 sections or rings is drawn. Each section represents the Ogham aicmi. A person who is seeking the answer selects wands or runes from random out of a bag and throws them onto the window. The reader, sometimes the same person seeking an answer, sometimes not, then looks at the symbols and where they fell on the cloth for an answer.

There are no historically written accounts based in reality or in mythology with steps on how to truly perform this sort of divination. There are simply echoes of whispers passed down through generations. It’s completely and irrevocably open to interpretation. Other forms of divination said to be inspired by Ogham are “Kerry Stones” or “Gypsy Runes” where there is one central eye stone placed in the center of a space and the remaining stones, runes or wands are thrown towards it. Wands or runes are essentially very similar to tarot. We can assume reading the results of the casting depends largely on the skill of the reader much in the same way tarot does. Tarot was first recognized sometime around the 15th century and has roots as far back as ancient Egypt. They both have striking similarities and have played a role in various cultures around the world for centuries.

Image source: Public domain

“Our Heracles is known among the Gauls under the local name of Ogmios; and the appearance he presents in their pictures is truly grotesque. They make him out as old as old can be: the few hairs he has left (he is quite bald in front) are dead white, and his skin is wrinkled and tanned as black as any old salt’s. You would take him for some infernal deity, for Charon or Iapetus – any one rather than Heracles. Such as he is, however, he has all the proper attributes of that God: the lion’s skin hangs over his shoulders, his right hand grasps the club, his left the strung bow, and a quiver is slung at his side; nothing is lacking in the Heraclean equipment. I thought at first that this was a mockery of the Greek Gods; that in taking these liberties with the personal appearance of Heracles, the Gauls were merely exacting pictorial vengeance for his invasion of their territory; for in his search after the herds of Geryon he had overrun and plundered most of the peoples of the West.

However, I have yet to mention the most remarkable feature in the portrait. This ancient Heracles drags after him a vast crowd of men, all of whom are fastened by the ears with thin chains composed of gold and amber, and looking more like beautiful necklaces than anything else. From this flimsy bondage they make no attempt to escape, though escape must be easy. There is not the slightest show of resistance: instead of planting their heels in the ground and dragging back, they follow with joyful alacrity, singing their captor’s praises the while; and from the eagerness with which they hurry after him to prevent the chains from tightening, one would say that release is the last thing they desire. Nor will I conceal from you what struck me as the most curious circumstance of all: Heracles’s right hand is occupied with the club, and his left with the bow – how is he to hold the ends of the chains? The painter solves the difficulty by boring a hole in the tip of the God’s tongue, and making that the means of attachment; his head is turned round, and he regards his followers with a smiling countenance.

For a long time I stood staring at this in amazement: I knew not what to make of it, and was beginning to feel somewhat nettled, when I was addressed in admirable Greek by a Gaul who stood at my side, and who besides possessing a scholarly acquaintance with the Gallic mythology, proved to be not unfamiliar with our own. “Sir,” he said, “I see this picture puzzles you: let me solve the riddle. We Gauls connect eloquence not with Hermes, as you do, but with the mightier Heracles. Nor need it surprise you to see him represented as an old man. It is the prerogative of eloquence, that it reaches perfection in old age […] If you will consider the relation that exists between tongue and ear, you will find nothing more natural than the way in which our Heracles, who is Eloquence personified, draws men along with their ears tied to his tongue. […] His weapons, as I take it, are no other than his words; swift, keen-pointed, true-aimed to pierce the mind.” And in conclusion he reminded me of our own phrase, “winged words.” -Lucian of Samosata (Assyrian, 125 – 180 CE)

For more information check out A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus or Ogham: The Secret Language of the Druids by Robert Ellison!

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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.

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