First published in Journal Of Ogham Studies magazine, June 2016
It is not well known amongst those interested in Celtic Spirituality that the modern interpretation of the Irish Ogham alphabet is largely based on the ideas of Robert Graves, following the publication of his magnum opus The White Goddess. Those in academia generally have different ideas about Ogham in general and most differently on the possibility of there being a lunar Ogham calendar or indeed the attributing of arboreal or plant characteristics to the entire 20 or 25 letters of the alphabet. As a generalisation, it appears that some people with an interest in Ogham, including many writers and druidic orders, seem happy enough to go with the ‘accepted wisdom’ that can be found in many books and on the internet. However, I believe that a re-evaluation of the kennings and the general ethos of the beith-luis-nin or Ogham alphabet, based purely on the evidence and not whimsical notions, is long overdue. Firstly, we must thank Graves for a re-introduction of Ogham into modern culture and specifically the area of Celtic Spirituality.
However, much of his work was erroneous and speculative, which he admitted himself subsequent to the publication of The White Goddess. One of his prime sources for his 13 month lunar calendar was O’Flaherty’s Ogygia (published in an English translation in 1793). Of course scholars were and are aware that there are actually 15 consonants, which instantly destroys Grave’s theory, based on a mistake in O’Flaherty’s work. Any tree calendar, viable or not, is an entirely modern invention. There is no evidence that I have found in academic work or translations of the ancient manuscripts that suggest that such a thing ever existed prior to Graves’ suppositions. Having dismissed the idea of the calendar, let us now turn our attention to Ogham as a tree alphabet. Scholars such as McManus tend to dismiss Ogham as a tree alphabet, citing the fact that only eight of the letters actually refer specifically to trees. Although this is in fact correct, as McManus himself acknowledges, the kennings often allude to trees or could possibly do so.
Another scholar, MacCoitir, has re-interpreted the old-irish kennings, specifically in reference to trees – which gives a complete list of trees and bushes, not including plants. Having studied his work, I find his arguments and re-interpretation to be convincing, however given the cryptic nature of the three Bríatharogam (word-ogham) lists, it remains somewhat open to question. It would be nice to say that there is a definitive and correct interpretation of the letters’ meanings and their correspondences, but unfortunately it is not that simple and the best we can achieve is a model of best fit, based on the original source material. Unfortunately, the most common Ogham list is based on evaluations of translations of medieval Irish into modern English. This standard list has not been challenged for quite some time, but that changed in 2003 with the publication of Niall MacCoitir’s work.
What MacCoitir has done is return to the early legal tracts such as Bretha Comaithchesa, cross-referencing it with the oldest extant versions of the Bríatharogaim Maic ind Óc, Bríatharogaim Con Culainn and Bríatharogaim Morainn mic Moín. He also points out that much of the terminology surrounding Ogham refers specifically to the parts of trees/bushes, which is further indication that the alphabet is almost definitely a tree alphabet. Let’s look at some specific examples. The letters themselves are referred to as feda or fid in the singular, which means respectively ‘wood’ and ‘tree’. The consonants are also called táebomnai, which translates into ‘The side of a tree-trunk’. The druim (edge/ridge) on which the letters are written was originally vertical, like a tree trunk, with the horizontal druim coming into favour with the use of paper or vellum. The spines or lines that comprise the individual letters (on the druim) are referred to as flesc, which translates as twig. So from the above terminology it is quite clear that the alphabet has a connection with trees and bushes. However, the most common Ogham lists to be found in books and on the internet includes plants – vine, ivy, heather, fern, reed and honeysuckle. For starters, reed and fern do not have either a trunk or twigs and so can be immediately dismissed so far as I can see. Heather does not have a trunk and whether you could define its low, fine growth as twigs remains doubtful. The remaining plants are not trees, they are parasitic in as much as they need a host to climb up – either a wall or a tree in most cases. On the basis that the plants mentioned above are not trees and do not possess the qualities associated with the Ogham terminology one is left with the task of looking for viable alternative interpretations, based on the source material – which is exactly what MacCoitir has done.
His first discrepancy with the standard list is not in fact the removal of a plant – it is a substitution of one tree for another, namely Nin - the Cherry in place of Ash. This was rather a bold move considering the widely accepted interpretation of nin, nuin as ‘Ash’. The word actually translates as ‘branch-fork’ which is indicative only of a tree/bush. Therefore we must rely on the three Bríatharogam for some indication of what tree it should actually be. The three word-oghams in Irish are - Costud Síde, Bág Ban and Bág maise which MacCoitir retranslates as ‘staple enjoyment or supply of the otherworld’, ‘boast of women’ and ‘boast of beauty’ respectively. These are all rather cryptic but indicate a connection with the otherworld,(realm of an sídhe), femininity and beauty. Cherry traditionally possesses these qualities but Ash does not. Hence I would have to agree that Cherry is the correct choice and that Ash should be placed elsewhere.
The next discrepancy is Muin, which is most often given as Vine as suggested by the medieval Auraicrept Na N-Éces (Scholar’s Primer). However, the word-oghams for this especially vague – Tressam fedmae, Ardam maisse, Arusc n-airlig, Conar gotha; which mean respectively ‘Strongest in action’, ‘Most noble goodliness’, ‘Proverb of slaughter/rottenness’ and ‘Path of the voice’. To further complicate matters the word Muin can mean ‘neck’, ‘love’, ‘trick’ or possibly ‘thicket’. MacCoitir suggests thicket as the most likely meaning, given it’s arboreal nature, and also points out that ‘strongest in action’ and ‘proverb of rottenness’ could relate to purgative properties which the Buckthorn tree is well-known for and Vine is not. Vines are not native to Ireland, introduced in the late Roman era, however Buckthorn has a long history of medicinal use in Ireland up into modern times. Muin is, in my opinion, the most difficult tree to place due to the vague and multiple associations, however I am confident that MacCoitir has correctly identified Vine as a medieval error.
Gort is commonly identified as Ivy, again listed as that in Auraicrept Na N-Éces (Scholar’s Primer). This word actually means ‘field’ and the word-oghams are Milsiu férai, Glaisem gelta, Ined erc and Sásad ile; meaning ‘Sweetest grass’, Greenest pasture’, ‘Suitable place for cows’ and ‘Satisfaction of all’ respectively. These meanings are again rather vague but would tend to indicate a tree (if any) that can be associated with fields and cows. Firstly, Ivy is not a tree, it does not grow free-standing in fields and it is not eaten by livestock. Gorse or furze, in contrast is commonly found in fields, it is a small tree that has traditionally been used as fodder for livestock, including cows. Gorse was also valued on good land as beneficial due to its multiple uses – such as fodder, bedding, dye, beer, fertilizer and hedging. This is a much better fit than Ivy, which itself might often have been confused with another parasitic climber Honeysuckle – Edlenn and Edeand being similar in pronunciation.
Onn was identified as Gorse or Heather by the medieval glossators, however the word in Old Irish clearly means ‘Ash tree’. The word-oghams are Congnaid, congnamaid ech, Fétham soíre and Lúth fían, meaning ‘Wounder/helper of horses’, ‘Smoothest of Craftmanship.’ and ‘Sustenance of warriors.’ At first these correspondences may appear to be not much help, but ash was used extensively in carpentry, hurley making, for spears and as fodder for horses (dried leaves). Ash fits at least two of the word-oghams where as Gorse is a far harder fit.
Úr is often given as heather, a small low-growing shrub, but the word means ‘clay’ or ‘moist/fresh’. This would appear to fit well with the first of the word-oghams Úaraib adbaib; Gruidem, guirem dál, Sílad cland and Forbbaid ambí, meaning ‘In cold dwellings’, ‘Most devoted sharing’, ‘Propagation/dripping of plants’ and ‘Shroud of a lifeless one.’ Elm is native, like heather, but it is a tree and is especially well adapted to damp and cold conditions as well as being full of sap. In modern Irish the elm is referred to as crann úr, which further strengthens the argument for the placement of Elm here instead of Heather.
Of the five supplementary letters, used for rendering Greek and Latin words, MacCoitir disagrees on two of the commonly accepted list. The first is Uilen (UI), which means ‘elbow/angle’. The word-ogham tuthmar fid or ‘most fragrant tree’ is presumably why it is often given as Honeysuckle. Of course, Honeysuckle is not a tree, but Juniper (which is also fragrant, especially when burned) is a small tree, which is actually also referred to by the medieval glossators in the context of this letter. According to Fergus Kelly crann fir is the Juniper, the word fir or fiar having the meaning ‘bent or twisted’ which fits with its characteristic as well as the word Uilen of similar meaning.
The second of the supplementary letters he replaces is Emancholl (EA), which means ‘twin of hazel’. It is frequently listed as Beech, which can easily be dismissed as a poor choice. Beech was introduced into Ireland in the late medieval period by the Normans/English, it is not native to Ireland and only became widely established by the time that the Ogham alphabet was no-longer in common use. Hazel on the other hand is native to Ireland and fits no worse with the word-oghams for this letter, which are totally cryptic.
So, having presented my own interpretation of the evidence presented, mostly by MacCoitir, I hope I have argued a strong case for re-evaluation of the commonly accepted Ogham list. I would suggest that although a ‘tree calendar’ is clearly a modern innovation, there is a very strong case for beith-luis-nin as an entirely ‘tree’ alphabet. Many writers concur with John-Paul Patton’s belief that Ogham is a system of knowledge that extends beyond the trees themselves. I would agree with this claim, however I think the empirical evidence suggests that the root of this knowledge and usages lies in the tree list itself. I’d suggest that the lore and correspondences that exist derive in some way from the tree list and hence, selection of the correct trees is essential for the correct use of Ogham. Clearly the choice of trees could have an impact on groupings of knowledge and particularly in the use of Ogham in herbalism and as a divination tool. In that sense it is absolutely critical that the right trees are selected otherwise the entire set of correspondences for that letter will be incorrect.
I am not going to claim that these letter interpretations presented here are definitive or entirely correct. I do believe that these amendments are more likely to be the correct one than the common interpretations. I also believe that the commonly accepted list is anachronistic and at the very least, it needs a fresh look by both Celtic scholars and spiritual practitioners who actually make use of the Ogham system itself. To date, the work of McManus, Kelly, MacCoitir and Patton remains largely unknown outside of academic circles, which perhaps explains why most modern spiritual practitioners continue to use a long established Ogham list that most probably is incorrect. I would like to see thorough re-evaluation by academic and spiritual organisations and a new consensus reached on what the correct attributes of all questionable letters are. Basic definition is an area of Ogham that has been taken for granted and hence almost completely overlooked until recently. However, given the immense impact acceptance of a new list would cause, it is an area of Ogham studies that urgently needs attention.