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Scholastic ogham notably involves artificial expansions of the alphabet, such as the forfeda group, and many variations or cryptographic substitutions for the classic ogham alphabet. Scholastic ogham develops from about the 7th century and remains in use for notes in manuscripts until the 16th century.
Manuscript tradition of ogham notably records Bríatharogam, i.e. medieval kennings of letter names. The most notable source of such kennings is In Lebor Ogaim, preserved in a late 14th-century manuscript.
Gaelic poetry and grammar
Even after it ceased to be used as an everyday alphabet for writing, ogham continued to be used as the basis for teaching grammar and the rules and metrics of poetry in the Gaelic language. The medieval work The Scholar's Primer or Auraicept na n-Éces, laid down the basis for poetic composition in the Irish language for the trainee poet or file, and looked to ogham or more exactly the Beith-luis-nin for guidance. This was because the ogham alphabet was felt to be peculiarly suited to the needs of the Irish language.
In addition the training of the poet or file, involved the learning of one hundred and fifty varieties of ogham – fifty in each of the first three years of study. It is clear that most of these are the same as the one hundred or so different ogham alphabets found in The Ogam Tract or In Lebor Ogaim, which was included along with the Auraicept in the Book of Ballymote. Most of these alphabets are cryptic varieties of doubtful practical value, but some were word lists which could have given the poet a convenient vocabulary at his fingertips, while others indicate a link to tally or counting systems. Perhaps their main value was simply to train the mind in the use of words and concepts, as word play and 'punning' were a major part of Gaelic poetry.
So central was ogham to Gaelic learning that until modern times the Latin alphabet was taught in both Irish and Scots Gaelic using the letter names borrowed from the Beith-luis-nin, along with the tradition that each name was that of a different tree. The following is the list from Dinneen's Irish–English Dictionary, published in 1927 A: Ailm (Elm); B: Beith (Birch); C: Coll (Hazel); D: Dair (Oak); E: Eadadh (Aspen); F: Fearn (Alder); G: Gath/Gort (Ivy); H: hUath (Whitethorn); I: Íodha (Yew), L: Luis (Rowan); M: Muin (Vine); N: Nuin (Ash); O: Oir (Broom); P: Peith (Dwarf Elder); R: Ruis (Elder); S: Sail (Willow); T: Teithne (Furze); U: Ur (Heather).
Manuscript traditions on pragmatic use of ogham
Manuscript tradition, especially medieval Irish mythology, also gives accounts on uses of ogham not known from the archaeological record  Most of these involve ogham being used for short messages or inscriptions on wood. There is only one reference to ogham being inscribed on metal, which occurs in the epic story 'The Cattle Raid of Cooley' or Táin Bó Cúailnge. A stone pillar has a ring of iron with an ogham inscription on it stating that it is taboo ( geasa ) for a warrior bearing arms to approach without challenging to single combat. The great Ulster warrior Cúchulainn responds to this challenge by throwing the pillar, inscribed ring and all, into a nearby pond.
The rest of the references are to inscriptions on wood. One such is in the tale involving Cúchulainn's search for the three sons of Duil Dermait. Cúchulainn sees a boat coming to land in the harbour at Dundalk. He boards it, killing all the passengers except the king of Alba (Scotland), who gives him the boat and sets a sea charm to help him in his quest. In return, Cúchulainn gives him a little spear ( sléigin ) with an ogham inscription on it and tells him to take Cúchulainn's seat in the court of the king of Ulster at Emain Macha in the meantime. The inscription seems to involve a signature unique to Cúchulainn, which will guarantee that the king of Alba will be believed when he says that Cúchulainn sent him (unless of course there is something unique about the spear). These examples suggest that objects were inscribed with individual 'signatures' for the purposes of identification. As well as confirming that a message came from a particular individual, being able to identify objects as a particular person's property would obviously be very useful.
A very interesting connection exists between ogham and Cornwall in two literary references which tie ogham into the Cornish legend of Tristan and Iseult. The first of these is in a lay written by Marie of France which speaks of Tristan cutting and squaring off a branch of hazel on which he writes his name to alert Iseult to his presence. The second reference is found in the version of the Tristan legend by the Englishman Thomas of Ercildoune (ibid, p108) which describes how Tristan engraved his name in strange runes on small bits of wood, putting them in a stream so that they would flow down to where Iseult could see them. While it is true that neither version directly refers to ogham there are good grounds for believing that ogham was the 'strange runes' used by Tristan. First of all, the cutting, squaring off, and writing of names on bits of wood sounds compatible with how ogham was probably used. Second, ogham fits better into the cultural milieu of the story than the runes. Iseult is from Ireland, and Tristan first meets Iseult when spending some time there, so it is quite plausible that they would use ogham for writing to each other. The story also reflects the reality of links between Ireland and Cornwall, visible today in the surviving ogham inscriptions. It is not hard from this to see how the Cornish could include a reference to the strange Irish writing in one of their stories. The story may ultimately be of Irish origin anyway, transmitted through those same links.
Some of the messages are referred to as being written in a cryptic form of ogham called Ogam fortgithe. One such reference comes in the story of Corc son of Lugaid, who arrives in Scotland after being banished from Ireland. He is befriended by Gruibne, poet to Feradach, king of Scotland; who notices a cryptic ogham inscription ( Ogam fortgithe ) on Corc's shield. He informs Corc that the inscription says that if Corc should arrive at Feradach's court by day, he is to be killed by night; if he should arrive by night, he is to be killed by morning. To protect Corc, Gruibne changes the inscription to say that if Corc should arrive by day he should be given Feradach's daughter by evening, if by night, he should have slept with her by morning.
The use of ogham to convey a cryptic message is also found in the story of the Gaelic warrior Finn McCool and his fool or clown Lomnae. Lomnae notifies Finn of his wife's infidelity by cutting an inscription on a four sided rod and handing it to Finn. The message does not directly accuse Finn's wife, but is instead a series of metaphors: ‘A wooden stake ( an alder stake in one version) in a fence of silver, hellebore among edible plants, husband of a wanton woman, a cuckold among the well taught Féni, and heather on Úalann of the Luigne’. Finn understands the message, but Lomnae pays for telling, as Finn’s wife has his head cut off. It should be noted that the wording itself is what is cryptic here, not the writing in ogham.
Much has been made of the cryptic nature of the inscriptions. Graves and Vendryes, in particular, argue that the inscriptions on wood are fundamentally different from those on stone, being secret and magical in character. McManus rightly argues that there is no evidence of such a sharp distinction, and as we have seen, there are enough examples to prove that inscriptions on wood were not necessarily for magical reasons. There are hints of ogham being written cryptically, but this is not the same as saying it was written for magical purposes.
The issue of ogham being used for magical purposes is the subject of a tedious argument among scholars over whether it was the alphabet itself that was considered magical, or whether it was simply a tool used by those who practised magic. This argument is related to the issue of whether the alphabet was invented by Christians or pagans, with it being presumed (perhaps wrongly) by both sides that magic would be a major motivation for a pagan inventor. What can be said with certainty is that there are clear examples in the literature of ogham being used for magical purposes. However, what can also be said is nothing to indicate that magic was ever the main reason for inventing ogham.
The best known reference to magic is in the tale Tochmarc Étaíne when the druid Dallán locates the missing woman Étaín Eochaid through inscribing ogham on four rods of yew. The inscription and his 'keys of poetry' ( eochraib écsi ) reveal to him that Étaín has been taken to the síd or mound of Brí Léith by Midir. This process seems to have involved some form of divination or cleromancy. According to Dinneen (1927) divination was practised using an ogham-inscribed wooden lamina or tablet known as a fiodh-lann and McCullough (1911, p251) mentions a reference to fidlanna being used in this way in 'Adomnán's Second Vision'. It is interesting to note that the general Irish term for the casting of lots is crann-chur, literally 'the casting of wood'; probably originating from the traditional use of sticks or pieces of wood to draw the lots. This is not enough evidence in itself of course, to say that the term originated from a connection with ogham.
Another often quoted example of magical use concerns the fé or rod of aspen. The fé was kept in pagan graveyards to measure corpses and graves and was regarded with fear and dread. Everything that was regarded as hateful was written on it, apparently for the purposes of setting a curse, or else to keep evil sprits away from the dead. Other magical uses include a charm to cure a man of impotence by writing his name in ogham on an elm wand and striking him with it (Charles Graves,1879), and the mention in the Ogam Tract of the use of ogham to determine the sex of an unborn child.
As well as purely magical uses, there are references to ogham being used to send messages which have a magical aspect to them. The most famous of these is mentioned in the epic story The Táin Bó Cuailnge. This involves the Ulster hero Cúchulainn, while standing on one leg, using one hand, and having one eye closed, writing an ogham inscription on a withe which he then casts over a pillar stone. His rival Fergus mac Róich reads the inscription, which declares that none shall pass unless a similar feat be performed, Fergus excepted. Fergus gives the inscribed withe to the druids, asking them to interpret its secret meaning, but they have nothing to add to Fergus' interpretation. Fergus states that if this message is ignored, the withe on which the inscription is made will return magically to Cúchulainn, who then will kill one of the company before morning. Cúchulainn leaves much the same inscription on two occasions shortly afterwards. Again we are faced with the dispute about whether ogham itself was providing the magic, or whether it was just an unwitting tool.
Charles Graves (1879, p213) provides a good example of the different aspects of ogham combined in one. When a poet failed to receive payment for one of his compositions Irish law directed him to cut a four square wand, and write on it in ogham 'in the name of God'. On one side a cross was to be inscribed, the name of the offence on the second, the name of the offender on the third and an encomium (or praise poem) on the fourth. The wand should then be set up at the end of ten days. If the poet made a satire without doing this he was liable for a fine. This is an interesting combination of the Christian and pre-Christian. A cross is inscribed in the name of God, but the praise poem gets its power from the poet or file, whose supposed powers are certainly pre-Christian in origin.
Record and tally keeping
The few indications in the literature of ogham being used for other inscriptions than names or brief messages are rather vague, but there is evidence to point to ogham being used to keep records of names and lists of various kinds. The clearest example appears in the story where Conn the King of Ireland is visited by the spirit of the Celtic god Lugh, who gives him the names of the future Kings of Ireland, from Conn himself to the end of time. The list is so long that Cesarn, Conn's poet, is unable to memorise it and writes it down in ogham on four rods of yew, each eight sided and twenty four feet long. The ogham is not involved in any way in the supernatural appearance of Lugh and is only mentioned in respect of the practical task of recording information. Ogham would have been concise enough to record genealogical lists, especially if each rod had eight sides to it as in this case. The excessive length of the rods mentioned here is because every name until the end of time has to be written down. In reality, most genealogies would have been of a much more manageable size!
The Ogam Tract or In Lebor Ogaim in the Book of Ballymote points to other possible uses of ogham for record keeping. This includes lusogam ('herb ogham'), which may have been used in medicine, or biadogam ('food ogam') which may have used as part of housekeeping duties. Other varieties strongly suggest property or business transactions, for example conogam ( 'dog ogham') or dam-ogam ('ox ogham'). Unlike other lists, each letter in these forms does not stand for a separate name, but for a different aicme or group. Damogam is described thus: “Bull for group B, one bull, two, three, four, five bulls (for B,L,F,S,N); Ox for group H, one ox, two, three, four, five oxen (for H,D,T,C,Q); Bullock for group M, one bullock, two, three etc.; Steer for group A, one steer, two, etc.” This list is significant as it involves numbers as well as names, suggesting that counting is going on and indicating a role as a tally system and record of property. Another example of this is Ogam usceach ( ‘Water-ogham’) regarding various types of water source as follows: Group B: One stream for B, and so on to five for N; Group H: 1 Weir for H, 2 for D and so on; Group M: 1 River for M, 2 for G and so on; Group A1 Well for A, 2 for O and so on.” Sources of fresh water were valuable, and it would have been very helpful to keep a record of the number and type of water source on one’s lands.
A bundle of ogham rods recording such lists would not have been too cumbersome to carry from place to place in the travelling schools of the poets or filed, or kept in the various crannogs or hillforts of the chieftains. It is also likely that ogham could have had a role in recording trading transactions and legal judgements of various kinds. Perhaps the names of those involved were cited together with the nature and number of objects concerned. These records could have been kept in a similar way on rods to provide legal proof of what had occurred.
There is direct evidence for the existence of a system of ogham hand signals. The ogam tract In Lebor Ogaim mentions two forms of finger spelling; cossogam ('foot-ogham') and sronogam ('nose-ogham'). Cossogam involves putting the fingers to the right or left of the shinbone for the first or second aicmi, and across it diagonally or straight for the third or fourth aicmi. One finger is used for the first letter, two for the second, and so on. Sronogam involves the same procedure with the ridge of the nose. Placing the finger straight across the shinbone or nose for the fourth aicme mimics the later, manuscript form of the letters. Another alphabet, basogam ('palm-ogham') is mentioned which seems to involve striking the hand in various ways against wood. Probably the angle of the hand indicated the aicme while the number of strikes indicated the letter. The inclusion of these alphabets in the Tract shows that a connection between the ogham letters and fingers was still known at the time the Book of Ballymote was written in the Middle Ages.
Further evidence of the possible use of ogham hand gestures comes in the form of various literary references to finger signs. Plummer (1910 p cxvi) cites several works which mention the use of finger signs, including the Life of Saint Brendan.
Here the evidence is much more ambiguous as the use of the word ogham was sometimes used in later stories to refer to writing in the general sense, rather than in the ogham script. The best known example is found in The Voyage of Bran. Bran spent so long on his seafaring travels in the otherworld that several hundred years had passed in Ireland. On arriving back to Ireland he decided that it is unwise to disembark from his boat after one of his comrades leapt ashore and was turned to ashes on the spot. Instead he wrote his adventures in quatrains in ogham for the crowd gathered at the shore and departed, never to be heard of again.
Another instance of writing on wood which might possibly refer to ogham is found in the story of the lovers Aillinn and Baile Mac Buain. The lovers come to a tragic end and are buried separately. An apple tree grows out of Aillin's grave and a yew tree out of Baile's. Both trees are cut down by the poets of Leinster and Ulster respectively to make writing tablets. The tablets are taken to Tara and the stories inscribed on them are recited for the High King Cormac Mac Art. He is much taken by the beauty of the stories and asks to see the tablets. On taking them into his hands the two tablets immediately spring together and become entwined about each other like woodbine. The reference to wooden writing tablets has been cited as evidence that ogham was used in this way, but this does not really follow. Firstly, ogham is not directly mentioned in the tale, and secondly the story is itself originally a borrowing from international sources, according to Ó hOgáin ( 1991, p43).
A more interesting reference is found in the story of Aethicus of Istria who sailed from Iberia to Ireland circa 417 A.D. ( Beresford Ellis p165). He is said to have remained in Ireland for some time, examining the Irish books he came across. These he described as 'ideomochos' meaning strange or unfamiliar. This has been taken to mean that Aethicus had perhaps seen some collection of ogham rods. This is a more trustworthy piece of evidence, but again it is too vague in itself to prove anything specific.
None of these examples add up to any conclusive evidence that ogham was ever used in a literary way to record poems, stories or any kind of sustained narrative, and the likelihood is that it wasn't. The nature of the alphabet itself militates against any use of it in this way.
- McManus § 8.2, 1991
- McManus §7.12, 1991
- Dinneen;Thompson, p92
- note there is no J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y, or Z in the modern Irish alphabet
- McManus § 8.10, 1991.
- Vendryes, 1941, p108
- see Dillon, 1946, p78
- Beresford Ellis, Peter, The Druids, Constable & Co., London (1994)
- Dillon, Myles, The Cycles of the Kings (1946)
- Dinneen, P.S. Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, Irish Texts Society (1927)
- Graves, Charles, 'On the Ogam Beith Luis Nin', Hermathena 3, (1879), 208–244
- McCullough, J.A. The Religion of the Ancient Celts, Edinburgh (1911)
- McManus, Damian, A Guide to Ogam, Maynooth, (1991)
- Ó hÓgáin, Daithí, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition, (1991)
- Plummer, C Vita Sanctorum Hiberniae Vol. 1 Oxford, (1910)
- Thompson, F The Supernatural Highlands, (1976) Edinburgh
- Vendryes, J 'L'écriture ogamique et ses origines' Études Celtiques 4, (1941), 83–116