Tree Ogham: The Sacred Alphabet

The ogham alphabet is a bit of an anomaly in the Celtic world. Writing was a very late addition to Celtic society. When the Celts first began writing religious inscriptions, they usually used the Roman alphabet. So what, then, to make of this mysterious alphabet, found most often on roadside markers and memorial inscriptions? Incidences of the alphabet might appear to be utilitarian, were it not for a few small but intriguing clues.

The Celts aversion to committing religious learning to writing was noted by several observers. Caesar remarked on this taboo:

They commit to memory immense amounts of poetry … they consider it improper to commit their studies to writing … lest it should be vulgarized and lest the memory of scholars should become impaired.

This characteristic reticence remained even after years of Roman rule. Although the Gaulish Celts eventually learned to make written correspondence and keep written records of mundane public affairs, this was always done using Roman or Greek characters. These languages were also used to inscribe the names of deities, often Roman-Celt hybrids and, occasionally, to record Roman-style curses or other invocations to the gods.

The druids, however, remained steadfast in their refusal to make religious records. Curiously, however, they do seem to have developed their own sacred alphabet, which was used publicly mainly between the fourth and eighth centuries, almost exclusively for funerary inscriptions.

The alphabet is called ogham and is most thoroughly recorded in the medieval Irish Book of Ballymote, where it is credited as the invention of Ogma, the Irish god of eloquence. The alphabet recorded in the Book of Ballymote has twenty letters, with five vowels and three sets of five consonants, although the book refers to numerous variations, each with its own letters and styles.

The eleventh century monks who penned the Book of Invasions also refer to the ogham alphabet. However, they record it as the invention of the Scythian King Fenius, who is claimed to have created the script shortly after the fall of the Tower of Babel, by collecting together the best of the world's languages.

Very little is known about the exact origins of ogham or its possible religious or ritual uses, but there are many hints that the alphabet had mystical meaning and may have been used for divinatory and other ritual purpose. The Book of Ballymote describes its use as a secret sign language by druids and other elite members of society, who may have used it to communicate with one another where open speech may have revealed secret knowledge to outsiders.

It is perhaps not coincidental that written ogham appears only as the great colleges of druidry began to decline and the practice of druidry became more open and prone to vulgarity. Written inscriptions in the ogham script are found most often in Ireland, almost invariably in funeral inscriptions.

Although ogham appears only relatively recently in the archaeological record, it appears to be quite ancient. The letters are similar in construction to the Norse rune alphabet, and the two are referred to in older texts somewhat interchangeably. Mythologically, the ogham is associated with the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, where it is used for communications, curses, and divination. In the story of Midir and Etain, Etain's druid husband Codal uses ogham letters carved into yew staves to discover the whereabouts of his wife and her lover.

Another indication of the ogham's age is its association with the druids' sacred trees. Each letter of the alphabet is named for a different tree, not all of which are native to Ireland.

Ogham letters are formed using combinations of vertical diagonal strokes placed on a midline, written bottom to top (left to right in written manuscripts), with each letter comprising one to five strokes. The midline was not always inscribed but was often created using an edge of the inscribed object.

The following letters, with their corresponding trees, compose the ogham alphabet:

  • Beth (birch)

  • Luis (rowan)

  • Fearn (alder)

  • Saille (willow)

  • Nuin (ash)

  • Huatha (hawthorn)

  • Daur (oak)

  • Tinne (holly)

  • Coll (hazel)

  • Quert (apple)

  • Muin (vine)

  • Gort (ivy)

  • Ngetal (reed)

  • Straif (blackthorn)

  • Ruis (elder)

  • Ailm (silver fir)

  • Onn (furze)

  • Ur (heather)

  • Eadha (poplar)

  • Ido (yew)

  • In the sixth century, the following group (forfeda) containing an additional five letters was added to the alphabet, most likely reflecting changes in the language:

  • Eabab (aspen)

  • Oir (spindle)

  • Uillende (honeysuckle)

  • Ifhin (gooseberry)

  • Emoncholl (double hazel)

  • The Celtic tree ogham has been and is still used as a tool for divination. How it was used by the ancients is unknown, but the method may have been similar to Norse divination using runes. Later mythological stories mention divinations made by carving ogham letters into staves of yew, but they are silent on the details.

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