Ogham Divination and Charms

As discussed in earlier chapters, it is clear that the ogham alphabet was used in a sacred context and that it was likely used in some form for divinatory purposes. Unfortunately, the circumspect druids never managed to pass their secrets along, and so we are left to guess how ogham divination may have been accomplished.

In the story of Midir and Etain, Etain's husband seeks to recover his lost spouse through the services of a druid, who divines the location of the absconded lovers using staves of wood carved with ogham characters, a practice similar to rune magic used in the north. Reconstructions of ogham divination are largely based on Roman descriptions of the northern practice, using meanings for the characters derived from the druid uses and beliefs about the sacred woods.

Modern ogham divination is carried out by means of a set of twenty or twenty-five staves, or twigs, each carved with one of the ogham letters. The especially ambitious assure that each twig is of the correct tree or plant, but often a simple set of birch twigs will be used. To perform a divination, a set of twigs is scattered onto a specially inscribed diagram or on a mat or canvas on which a diagram has been drawn. This is usually a series of concentric circles marked for the past, present, and future; however, in this practice there are many variations, some of which are quite complex.

The diagram used in most ogham divination is known as the “Shield of Fionn,” after the magical shield of the hero. Fionn used his hazel shield to gather the wisdom of the giant Balor while protecting himself from the venom that dripped from Balor's head.

The staves are scattered on the mat and interpreted according to where they fall. The general interpretations are given as follows:

  • Beth (birch): New beginnings, purification

  • Luis (rowan): Protection against magic

  • Fearn (alder): Divine communication, omen

  • Saille (willow): Balance, healing, intuition

  • Nuin (ash): Healing, protective magic

  • Huatha (hawthorn): Fairies, youth

  • Daur (oak): Strength, endurance, seership

  • Tinne (holly): Protection, survival, unexpected things

  • Coll (hazel): Wisdom, illumination

  • Quert (apple): Bounty, youth, Otherworld encounters

  • Muin (vine): Rebirth, renewal

  • Gort (ivy): Marriage, fertility, intoxication

  • Ngetal (reed): Disruption

  • Straif (blackthorn): Limitations, obstacles, restrictions

  • Ruis (elder): Grief, betrayal

  • Ailm (Silver fir): Purification, protection

  • Onn (furze): Abundance

  • Ur (heather): Rest, suspension

  • Eadha (poplar): Speech, communication

  • Ido (yew): Death, renewal, Otherworld affairs

  • In moden divination, the letters are notched into twigs or slices of wood or are printed on paper cards. A simplified divination can be performed by simply drawing a three from a bowl in response to a query.

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