A Brief Introduction to the Ogham


fol. 170r of the Book of Ballymote (AD 1390), part of the Auraicept na n-Éces, explaining the Ogham script. the page shows varianst of Ogham, nrs. 43 to 77 of 92 in total, including shield ogham

It’s been a while since I’ve updated.  On December 19, 2015, I finished the first draft of my first novel, working title The Lesser Evil.  So, so glad to have reached that milestone.  I quietly celebrated, enjoyed the holidays, and regrouped my energies.  Toward the end of January, I turned my attention back to the collection of twenty short stories I’ve been working on  the last couple years, each based on a particular letter of the ogham alphabet (pronounced “OH-um”).

I thought it might be an interesting experiment to do a series of posts about this ancient Irish alphabet system and its individual letters.  I’ve always been interested in my Irish roots and the peculiar mindset that goes with them.  The ogham (as it’s known in Modern Irish, ogam in Old Irish) is an old door that opens into even more ancient mysteries of that psychology.

The earliest evidence we have of the ogham dates to the Fourth Century A.D., and according to the way such things are reckoned in scholarly circles, it probably existed at least a century or two before that, back even before Old Irish, into Primitive Irish.  Unlike the Roman, Greek, or Cyrillic alphabets familiar to most of us now, the ogham did not consist of distinct, individual glyphs but four different sets of tally marks made relative to a central stem line or spine called a droim, and this numerical character has led some scholars in recent decades to believe it was a cipher or secret code of some kind. Tally systems have existed since the Stone Age.  The crux of current thinking is that ogham’s chief importance was as a signary and that the letter sounds were assigned a numerical value and superimposed upon an already existing depiction system.

Druids and bards were the lore keepers in Celtic tribes before Christianity gradually edged them out, and that lore was preserved in completely in oral form.  Written ogham, it seems, was reserved mainly for boundary stones, memorial stones, and magical talismans.  But the Christian monks preserved the knowledge of ogham that came to them centuries after the last of the druids died out wrote in terms of a classification system for concepts that would lend itself to the memorization of lore. In the medieval manuscript known as the Auraicept na n-Éces — “the scholars’ primer” — there are listed various “oghams”: Bird Ogham, River Pool Ogham, Fortress Ogham, Color Ogham, and the like.  I think of the individual letters actively freighted with meaning by this framework designed to aid memory, the emphasis on the lore itself as a living tradition, embodied in people who typically studied ten to twenty years to fulfill their vocation.

Unlike written text, oral information transmitted by people dedicated to perpetuation was perhaps paradoxically less open to interpretation but also less likely to become rigid and static. For an example of the latter, the argument can be made that through writing and the notion of “proper English” (or any other language), the natural process of language evolution has been slowed or halted (though the internet is now giving that crystallization a run for its money).  For an example of the latter, look at the various written holy texts of the world — without the benefit direct transmission through the minds of trained, living vessels required to memorize perfectly and possess deep understanding of the things committed to memory, adherents in the succeeding centuries have been left to piece meaning together through far less direct means.

I got a small taste of this principle when I was a court stenographer.  Though the job of “keeper of the record” was nothing as demanding as spending two decades perfectly memorizing the equivalent of a small library, it was  rigorous in terms of knowledge and focus.  As steward of the record, I functioned as a living conduit for every word that was was said, with ears to hear and intelligence to judge whether something was heard indistinctly, as well as a voice that could interrupt and slow down a speaker or ask them to repeat if necessary.  When, to cut costs, the county courts began to replace stenographers with audio recording devices operated by technicians, there were a number of complaints about the transcripts created from these recordings after the fact.  Over the years several attorneys told me they hated those recording systems and the garbled accounts they could produce; according to them, crucial chunks of the transcripts were often missing or didn’t accurately reflect the true meaning of parts of the proceedings.   Such is the value of a human mind’s direct engagement in the transmission of source material.

The particular value the Celts of antiquity placed on oral transmission of knowledge and the way in which they chose to incorporate a writing system give us some clues, over a thousand years later, as to their thinking and psychology.  Something I attempt to explore through short stories inspired by each individual ogham fid or letter.


Writer, harpist, genealogist, language geek, Hibernophile, astrologer, recovering court reporter...

Posted in Ogham Flash

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