Ogham stone with incised Celtic
Ogham is an early form of Old Irish and the first known Irish writing. The characters comprise a series of lines and notches that are scored across a long stem-line often on standing stones. In the majority of cases the inscription is read from the bottom up, and usually names the person being commemorated along with their ancestors and the carver of the inscription.
Ogham is often referred to as ‘The Tree Alphabet’ because each letter takes the name of a tree. This has led to much speculation that poetry involving trees was used as a means of passing on secret knowledge and messages.
The subject of Ogham has always been one of some controversy. This is because only secondary textual evidence exists to explain the uses and purpose of Ogham writing. Physically the evidence is comprised of inscriptions on stone pillars and slabs that serve as commemorative memorials and grave markers. The main textual source of information comes from the Ogham Tract (Duil Feda) in the Book of Ballymote. Compiled in the 14th century, parts are believed to have been copied from an earlier 9th century text. It contains legends about the origins and uses of Ogham, along with descriptions and drawings of extensive variations on the basic Ogham alphabet and characters.
There are numerous mentions of Ogham in legend and folklore which conflict with the archaeological dating of the inscriptions found. These texts suggest that it was used as secret language and for use in magic, in as much as the runes were utilised in Germanic countries. Unfortunately, or perhaps fittingly, the scarcity of clear evidence means that the uses of Ogham are very much a matter for interpretation.
Over 350 Ogham stones are known, with the majority found in southern Ireland from Kerry to Waterford and in South Leinster. They also occur in small numbers in western Scotland, the Isle of Man, and in Cornwall at Lewannick, where Irish settlers from Munster landed and founded communities. While the stones in Ireland are written purely in Ogham, those in Britain often have the Ogham inscription repeated in Latin carved in Roman characters on the same stone.
The largest concentration of Ogham stones outside Ireland is found in Wales – particularly in Dyfed – with a handful in northern Wales and Anglesey. Dyfed was settled by the Deisi tribes from Waterford who brought with them their tradition of carving Ogham stones, which can be found at Bridell, Nevern and St Dogmaels, and near the Irish crannog at Llangorse.
Ogham stones were thought to date from the late fourth century AD up to the eighth and ninth centuries and many are associated with early Christianity. Frequently they are found in Christian church and burial sites known as cillin, and in some cases crude Christian crosses have been carved into the stones beside the Ogham.
This tradition may be an amalgamation of earlier pagan customs under the influence of missionaries such as St Ciaran of Saighir and St Declan of Ardmore who are associated with southern Ireland. Their approach to paganism was less confrontational than St Patrick’s, whose region of influence contains only a handful of Ogham stones.
The power shift from the Celtic Church to the Church in Rome is likely to have spelled the death knell for Ogham as a favoured form of inscription. Some of the stones were dug up and inverted, while many others were removed for use as building material for Christian souterrains. Ireland’s Ogham stones have frequently been found in these underground tunnels and chambers where they were use as roofing slabs and support pillars.
Writers such as Binchey and Carney have suggested that Ogham may have been used as early as the first century BC. There is little archaeological evidence to support this claim; however, the dating of the stones is difficult and many were attributed to the fourth century AD because it was believed that Ogham was modelled on the Latin alphabet of that period. It is now known that a Latin alphabet divided in a similar way to Ogham was already in use five centuries earlier, in the first century BC. This, combined with the wealth of secondary textual evidence may well support Binchey and Carney’s theory on the pagan use of Ogham.
Early Ogham inscriptions on grave markers and memorials often contain the name of the deceased’s tribe as well as the individual’s name. It is probable that they acted as territorial markers for powerful families and tribes in the manner described in the saga of the Tain Bo Cualinge. The hero CuChulainn deliberately takes ‘the spancel-hoop of challenge from the pillar stone at the ford’ and flings it into the river, thus forcing the three sons of Nechta Scene to come out and give challenge. The power of Ogham is revealed when CuChulainn himself leaves a spancel-hoop fixed to a standing stone with an Ogham-carved peg. The Ogham is a ritual challenge that reads: “Come no further, unless you have a man who can make a hoop like this with one hand out of one piece.” (Kinsella - The Tain). The druids interpret the message as a geiss or portent according to the rules of war, and since none can meet the challenge the invading war host is forced to take a long detour to avoid breaking the geis.
Theories on why Ogham continued into the Christian period are varied. Two possibilities are; a display of Church power over a previously powerful system of Celtic paganism, or a means for carvers to increase the potency and symbolism of grave markers by using a once-magical script. An echo of this practice may be found in the in the occasional carving of the name of a pagan deity as the tribal or deceased’s ancestor – such as that of the goddess Dovinia of the Corcu Duibne tribe in Kerry. This may also explain why the use of Ogham gradually faded out as the authority of Rome became dominant.
Another use of Ogham was the carving of aspen Ogham wands that were placed in the tombs of great warriors at burial. This may be connected with the practice of using a ‘fe’ aspen rod that bore Ogham inscriptions, for measuring out corpse and graves. Such rods were greatly feared and were only touched by the person who carried out the duty.
Due to the impracticality of using Ogham for recording long passages of text in detail, it is more likely that it was utilised in a similar manner to Egyptian hieroglyphics and early Germanic runes, representing ideas and concepts rather than simply words and individual letters. To a visually imaginative and creative race like the Celts, such a system of ideograms would seem far more vivid and interesting than the orthodox method we are accustomed to using.
Mythology and folklore
Ogham is found in widespread use in Irish mythology as a tool for divination ands spell casting. It is the preserve of the Aes Dana and educated nobles, and this elitism helps to explain why common folk regarded it as the language of magic and power.
In legend Ogham was said to have been created by Ogma, the son of An Dagda. Ogma was both a warrior and the god of eloquence and literature, and fought the second battle of Magh Tuireadh where he slew the Formi, Indech, son of the goddess Domnu.
Ogham is often used for divination in mythology as well as pseudo-history. In the Seanchus Mor (The Irish Law Tracts), a method of divining the guilt of a suspected criminal is described. The crannchur, ‘casting of the woods’, used three marked lots representing innocence, guilt, and the Trinity. They are drawn and replaced until either the innocent or guilty lot is taken. The text does not say how the lots were marked, but Ogham is a strong possibility as it was used elsewhere such as on the bone and wooden dice/lots found at Ballinderry, Co. Offaly.
A mythological method of divination is found in the tale of ‘The Wooing of Etain’, where the druid “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 that Etain was in the sidhe mound of Bri Leith”. (Rolleston; Celtic Myths and Legends).
This form of divination bears a strong resemblance to the historical Germanic method mentioned by Tacitus in 98AD. After casting lots, the priest “picks up the three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the the signs previously scored on them.”
In the Fennian Cycle there is the tale of the Fianna’s fool Lomna. He realises that Fion’s wife is unfaithful and leaves a cryptic message carved in Ogham on a four-sided frame of wood. Despite Lomna’s murder, Fionn finds the message and translates it, learning of his wife’s infidelity and the location of her assignations that helps him to hunt down her lover.
The story Baile MacBuain contains a library of ‘rods of the poets’ on which the legends and tales have been carved onto hazel and aspen in Ogham. The poets of Ulster and Leinster carve the tragic story of the lovers Baile and Aillinn in Ogham onto wood taken from the trees growing over their grave. When the rods are eventually brought together at the library in Tara they magically spring together and cannot be separated.
At the end of ‘The Children of Lir’ there is an interesting archaeological tie-in when the monk buries the bodies of the De Danaan children under a mound and then marks it with an Ogham stone.
These are only some of the tales and legends concerning Ogham, which still remains an elusive subject with a melting pot of theories surrounding it. For people as unconstrained and creative as the Celts it seems fitting that Ogham should remain a topic of discussion and controversy that stimulates creative interpretation of the known evidence.
- © Brian Lavelle