Ogham signed by the Druids

I thought it might be interesting to look at ogham. Ogham is a form of Celtic writing that was used in inscriptions from about 300 AD to 600 AD. It is formed using simple furrows across a line or an edge in stone to form the letters.

A secret druid language

It has proved most interesting but after hours and hours of reading I have found myself struggling with too many disputed possibilities. Therefore I am going to apply Occam’s Razor (no more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary). It is undoubted that ogham was used as a secret language in post Roman Britain and because of that there is much folklore surrounding it. Understanding where the word, ogham, comes from is also difficult but may help substantiate the belief that ogham was a secret druid language.

FARDEL Stone, from Devon, England (THOMAS, Charles. And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994  Fig. 16.6) showing ogham inscription
FARDEL Stone, from Devon, England (from THOMAS, Charles. And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994)

Ogham is known from about three hundred insciptions, found mostly in Ireland but also in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. They are mostly grave markers. It is also explained in detail in several later manuscripts so there has never been any problem with translating the inscriptions.

Some scholars suggest that ogham was used as a secret sign language by the Druids after the Romans had invaded Britain and was only used in public inscriptions when the influence of the druids was in decline. There is an ogham inscription on a sandstsone slab on the Isle of Man, which reads Dovaidona Maqi Droat, meaning Dovaidona son of the druid!

Ogham alphabet

The ogham alphabet uses between one and five lines scribed across an edge for its letters and this provides strong evidence that it was used as a secret sign language. In forming the letters of the sign language one, two, three, four or five fingers from the left or right hand were placed across a line on the body, to either side, accross or at an angle. There are references to cos-ogham (leg ogham) probably using the shin; sron-ogham (nose ogham) probably across the bridge of the nose; and a slightly different finger form.

Ogham is based either on Latin or Runic text. It did not arise independently as a text but was used as representation of a spoken language. The link to the druids comes because the inscriptions are found mainly in Ireland or places in mainland Britain not conquered by the Romans and in places of later Irish settlement. However another idea was that it was used by early Christians as a script or sign language that could not be understood by the pagans around them in late Roman Britain.

There are 100 variants of written ogham described in the Lebor Ogaim (The Book of Ogams also known as the Ogam Tract) an Old Irish book on the ogham alphabet.

The magic of ogham

The magical, Druidic associations of ogham have been enhanced by the letters’ traditional links with the magical properties of trees. The first letter, Beith, from Old Irish, Beithe, represents the birch-tree, the Druid symbol for the Bards, and is the bringer of promise, light and new beginnings.

The origin of the name

The origin of the name of the text, ogham, is based on several suggestions. One idea suggests that it comes from the old Proto-Indo-European word ogmo for furrow or track, consistent with the way it is written. But this would suggest that it pre-dated Roman Britain, which is unlikely.

Another popular suggestion is that it got its name from the Celtic poet god, Ogma Grianainech (Ogma Sun Face). He is also known as Ogma Milbel (Ogma Honey-mouth), the god of eloquence, healing, fertility, and prophecy. It is he who is credited with inventing the ogham text.

Ogma, is the Celtic version of the Gaulish god, Ogmios. Ogmios, who wore a lion skin and carried a club was the Gaul’s equivalent to the Greek god, Herakles. But where Herakles was known for conquering his foes with strength, Ogmios, conquered his foes with eloquence. Symbolically, Ogmios is depicted as leading his willing followers with a golden thread from his tongue to their ears.

If ogham got its name from Ogma Sun Face, then it is more closely related to pre-Christian Celtic beliefs than it is to Christian symbols. So for me, I am happy to think that ogham is the secret alphabet of the druids, named after their god of eloquence, and to move on.