Ogham: Respecting An Ancient Alphabet

First published by Pagan Dawn November 2020

I felt compelled to write this following reading a recent speculative and inventive piece on ogham (Old-Irish ogam). I have to admit I was quite dismayed initially, having spent a large portion of my Druidic studies on ogham, I was more than a little displeased by what I read. I am not a reconstructionist but I have to say that some efforts in the field of Irish (and also Welsh) language and culture are little more than cultural appropriation as they come from a place of ignorance, although well-meaning. It often becomes clear that inventive people often have not read the source material, do not understand the language at all, how to pronounce it or how to use it. Therefore I have to question their right to transform and mutate an ancient tradition and expect it to be taken seriously or given any legitimacy at all.

Sticking with Irish, the basis of ogham – the language has changed greatly over time. Irish now has several more letters than it used to. Up until the creation of the new modern alphabet An Caighdeán Oifigiúil ("The Official Standard") you would never see letters W, X, Y, Z, or H, J, K. Irish has 4 modern dialects so spellings still vary, however in the 1960s the old semi-Roman script was abandoned for modern standard European letters, but you can still see the occasional road sign or shop sign in the old script which made use of a dot, called a bualte (pronounced bwill-cha) to represent H.

The modern alphabet in Gaeilge (Irish language) was called Beith-Luis-Nin (like ABC - literaly B-L-letter) and uses the following letters only - a á b c d e é f g h i í l m n o ó p r s t u ú. For loan words one can use j k q v w x y z although you rarely see them, as they are used for just a handful of words. This is the starting point from which we should try to understand ogham, a word that has no English translation. Please note that the modern Irish word is ogham and not ogam, which would be a much older form. If you are going to use Gaeilge at all it is best to try and be consistent – using entirely old forms or entirely modern forms, wherever possible.

My own Gaeilge is poor, perhaps the level of a 4 or 5 year old, however, I know enough to know when the language is being abused! Ogham has 20 letters in total – no Z, no Q no W etc! For additional Latin sounds the Forfeda were created (the last group of 5) ae io ui ó ea at an unknown later date. Try writing English words with only 20 letters and you will soon release that Gaeilge, and certainly not ogham, should be not be interchanged with English and used willy-nilly, like some kind or word toy.

This language and system is far older than English – the ogham system is at least as old as 4th century CE and probably much older. Gaeilge is many thousands of years old, like its distant cousin Welsh or rather (Cymraeg / y Gymraeg) and should not be bastardized by well-meaning but ignorant misuse! The same applies to ogham, which unfortunately has suffered greatly in this area.

Mis-spelling of the letter names is common in books on ogham, as is the inclusion of letters that don’t even exist in Gaeilge – Q, W, Z for example! The use of word- oghams (Bríatharogam plural Bríatharogaim) the two word meanings, often referred to as ‘kennings’ has been extended and messed with into modern times. The original word-oghams were written in Old-Irish and translated into Middle-Irish, presumably by Irish monks. These texts are found in the ‘Book of Ballymote’ and other places, the most famous being Auraceipt na n-Éces (‘The Scholar’s Primer’), first published in 1917 and translated into modern English by George Calder. I have a copy of this myself, although few people have actually read it, that I know of.

The 3 lists from which we derive some understanding of ogham are briatharogaim: Morainn mic Moín, Mac ind Óc, Cú Chulainn. Whether these 3 lists actually relate in any way to Morainn, Angus MacOg or Cuchulainn is unknown, but these are all poetic and when translated into English have questionable meaning or relevance. This has led to a century or so of argument about correct interpretation. Scholars cannot even agree on whether or not ogham is a tree alphabet.

However Old-Irish words associated with the construction are almost all tree related – feda the groupings of 5, means wood; fid for individual letters means tree, nin has a dual meaning of letter or branch fork; tábomnai the word for consonants also means the side of a tree trunk; flesc the lines of the letters themselves also means twig and the line that the letters are drawn on is druim – which means back or edge.

The druim runs from bottom to top traditionally – you start the word at the bottom! On paper it is acceptable to work from left to right instead but never, never, ever - top to bottom, on paper, wood or rock! One should never try to write English or other non-Irish words in ogham, apart from being a misuse of the system, it doesn’t work for many words anyway – try writing LOVE in ogham and you just can’t but you could write the Irish word for love which is grá!

While it may be pleasant or amusing to play with and extend the various ogham types such as cow-ogham, bird-ogham etc., this is not a silly game, these had a real purpose in ancient Ireland and one should not trivialize or bastardize a tradition that is unique throughout Europe. If you wish to explore ogham I suggest you learn something about it before you begin to play with it – anyone with an ounce of sense does not jump into a Ferrari after one driving lesson, taken in a Fiat 500! Feel free to explore ogham, revive it and add to its usage (if you have the skill to do so) but please do so with respect and from a position of knowledge and understanding, not one of ignorance and folly.