This essay is meant as an introduction - if you have any questions or remarks please send me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
About ten years ago I came across a book called Celtic Tree Mysteries by Steve Blamires. Now, I'm interested in Celtic stuff, and I love tree and mysteries, so this was the right book for me. Through this book (which in my humble opinion is quite a good start if you want to learn more about this subject) I learned about the Ogham alphabet. This early medieval Irish alphabet has become quite popular in modern Celtic Pagan and Druid circles, mostly as a means of divination, but also for other magical purposes.
As I said, the alphabet is early medieval Irish. It might have been developed when the first Christians came to Ireland and brought the concept of writing with them, but there is no actual proof of that. We have about 400 known inscriptions on stones, most of them names. The functions of these stones is unclear, but most researchers are of the opinion that they mark borders. Other uses of Ogham have been found in manuscripts, and these provide more insight.
Contemporary information on the Ogham is sparse; what has been written about it can be read in high medieval and late medieval manuscripts. These manuscripts are:
The Book of Leinster (12th century)
The Book of Ballymote (1391)
The Book of Lecan (1416)
These manuscripts refer to older sources: The Scholar's Primer, The Values of the Forfeda and the Book of Ogham.
The Scholar's Primer says that Ogham was only to be used by learned men - would they be monks or druids? The act of reading and writing was very elite in the early Middle Ages, so we can be sure that the average Irish farmer wouldn't have been very familiar with Ogham.
The exact origin of Ogham isn't known, but there some interesting myths and stories have been written down.
In one of the manuscripts we find a legend about the origin of the Ogham: it was developed by Fenius Farsaidh, with the help of Goidel Mac Etheoir and Iar Mac Nema and a whole host of scholars. After the destruction of the Biblical Tower of Babel, Fenius went to search for the letters all over the world that together would make the most perfect language. Each letter was named after a linguist who best devoted his time to this task. Note that 'Gaelic' or 'Goidelic' (the name of the Irish language) comes from Goidel Mac Etheoir, one of the scholars that developed Ogham.
Apart from this legend, another link has been made by modern scholars with the Celtic Irish god Ogma, who may be compared to the Celtic Gallic god Ogmios. The names of these gods seem connected to Ogham (which, by the way, means something like 'idea' or 'notion'). The Romans liked to compare foreign gods with their own gods and they dubbed Ogmios the 'Celtic Hercules', or at least an older version of their Hercules. According to these Roman sources, Ogmios was depicted as an old but strong man with one end of a chain through his tongue, the other end being attached to the ears of an eager public. This has been explained as the power of eloquence, or the power of words, in which the strength of this god lies. There is no direct connection between Ogham and Ogma/Ogmios, but could there be a divine element to the development of Ogham, keeping this part of mythology in mind?
Purpose and meaning
The ancient Celts were mostly an illiterate people. It was the Roman world, and Christianity after that, that brought the written word to those parts in Europe that apparently had no use for it before. This is also the reason why we use the letters we have today instead of systems like the Ogham. Our letters are derived from Roman scripture, and more directly from the letters in medieval manuscripts (especially those made under Charlemagne). To be honest, Ogham isn't a very practical script - so what was it used for?
Based on where the Ogham has been found, it appears that this alphabet had a few specific uses. First of all, as has already been noted above, Ogham has been found on standing stones, or monoliths. They are said to mark borders, and by doing that they also marked someone's property. This might also be the reason why mostly names and short phrases ('of the clan of x', etc.) are found on these stones, instead of actual texts. There could also be some cryptic message in all this, since not many people were actually able to read Ogham, even in that time - but as far as I know this has been lost.
Ogham that has been found in manuscripts seems to have a different function. It has mostly the purpose of learning, remembering and making connections.
But there are also certain stories in which the Ogham has a more magical purpose. From these old sagas we learn that Ogham was not only written down on stone, but also on wood. This is a material that doesn't last, so there is no physical evidence, but it seems plausible that this was actually done in reality. There is even one instance where Ogham is written on metal. In the Book of Leinster we find an medieval legend in which an Ogham text on an iron ring around a stone says: 'Whoever comes to this meadow, if he is armed, he is forbidden to leave this meadow without requesting single combat.' The only thing stopping someone from simply leaving the meadow without a fight is the text itself - therefore it must hold some magical power. The semi-divine hero Cú Chulainn has another solution; he throws the stone away, with ring and all. In another instance, Cu Chulainn gives a small wooden spear to the king of Alba (Scotland) inscribed with Ogham - it says that the king is allowed to take Cú Chulainn's seat at the court of Ulster.
There is slight evidence of the use of Ogham as divination in Irish myth, and this is what Ogham is used for today by many Celtic Pagans and Druids. In an Irish legend, a druid writes down Ogham letters on yew sticks and then uses them for divination, but it gives no further details. Nowadays, what is most popular is to make a branch for every letter and then use this set of branches in several ways. This can be done by blindly drawing one or several sticks and then interpret the meaning of the letter(s). Another way is to throw the branches on 'Finn's Window' (based on the round diagram that can be seen on the parchment page from the Book of Ballymote here depicted) and draw a meaning from how the branches fall.
The technical details
So, after reading all this, you're probably wondering what this Ogham alphabet actually looks like. I'm not a linguist, but I'll give you an outlining that'll hopefully give you more insight.
The Ogham Alphabet doesn't have the sort of letters that we are familiar with. Its essence is lines; smaller lines that are placed in a series across a longer line. Ogham can be found on standing stones, where this line goes from bottom to top (and from top to bottom on the other side) . It can also be found in parchment manuscripts, where it goes from left to right.
The notches on the long line, the actual letters, are called 'feda', which means 'wood'. Is this just a figural way of speaking, since the long vertical line on a stone with the notches on each side does sort of look like a tree? Or is there more behind this? I don't know this - then again, I can't actually read Old Irish, excepts for the few words that are needed to understand the Ogham alphabet, so perhaps someone else can help me out here.
On to the letters and their order:
B L F S N H D T C Q M G nG St R A O U E I EA OI UI IO AE
That makes 25 letters, of which the last five letters (the so called forfeda) were added at later times - so it appears the oldest version of Ogham had twenty letters.
Keeping these twenty letters in mind, there are four families/series, or aicmí (plural of aicme), that each contain five letters: Aicme Beithe starting at B, Aicme hÚatha starting at H, Aicme Muine starting at M, and Aicme Ailme starting at A. Note also that a neat quarter of these letters is a vowel and three quarters exits of consonants.
There is some confusion about the order of the first five letters. In many texts it says BLFSN, but in some other text it says BLNFS. As far as I know, it was Robert Graves in his famous book The White Goddess, who used the sequence of BLNFS first. This has probably to do with the poetic and mythological value he added to each letter, and also with his introduction of the so-called Ogham Tree Calendar. [The tree calendar gives a certain period or time of the year for each letter, e.g. 24 December - 20 January for Beithe. This is a strictly modern invention, though that shouldn't say everything about its value.] The White Goddess has had a huge influence on many modern pagan and witchcraft traditions, and I think that it's from this source that the BLNFS-sequence has seeped into the modern use of the Ogham alphabet. However, it seems that more historically authentic sources stick to BLFSN, so that's the sequence I'm sticking with, too.
Some note about the later forfeda: IO was original P - for some reason this letter was replaced in later times, leaving the alphabet without a proper P-sound. AE was originally X or CH.
The 'Tree Alphabet'
So what about the name 'tree alphabet'? Actually, the Ogham was also a bird alphabet, colour alphabet, river alphabet, etc. It appears that there were many systems that were used for remembering the letters of the Ogham alphabet. Of all these systems (several hundreds, they say), the tree system has been most popular since early times. So, every letter got a tree attached to it, and by memorizing the trees, one was able to memorize the letters. A mnemonic aid of some sorts. Then again, we can't rule out a deeper, perhaps even magical, meaning for using such a system.
The meaning of the letters connected to the trees was further developed in the uses of kennings, or phrases, known as the Bríatharogham. Three of these lists are known:
Bríatharogham Morainn Mac Moín (who was a human judge)
Bríatharogham Mac Oengus (god)
Bríatharogham Cú Chulainn (semi-divine hero, we've already noted him in connection to the Ogham)
The translations of these kennings can be found below, under each individual letter.
The separate letters
Literal meaning: birch, (a) being
Tree: birch (beithe)
Book of Ballymote: Now Beithe has been named from the Birch owing to its resemblance to the trunk of that tree. Of withered trunk, fair-haired the Birch.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Faded trunk and fair hair/withered foot with fine hair.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Browed beauty, worthy of pursuit/beauty of the eyebrow.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Most silver of skin/greyest of skin.
Literal meaning: flame, herb
Tree: rowan (caertheand)
Book of Ballymote: Luis is named from Mountain Ash (caertheand) as it is the old Gaelic name for rowan. [Delightful] for eyes is Mountain Ash owing to the beauty of its berries.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Delight of eye, quicken-tree; to whit, the flame/luster of the eye.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Strength of cattle/sustenance of cattle.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Friend of cattle.
Literal meaning: alder
Tree: alder (fearn)
Book of Ballymote: Fearn, Alder, the van of the warrior band for thereof are the shields.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Shield of warrior bands, owing to their redness/vanguard of warriors.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Protection of the heart, a shield/protection of the heart.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Guarding of milk, or milk bucket/milk container.
Literal meaning: willow
Tree: Willow (saille)
Book of Ballymote: Tthe colour of a lifeless one that is, it has no colour, owing to the resemblance of the colour to a dead person.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Hue of the lifeless/pallor of a lifeless one.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Beginning of loss, willow/beginning of honey.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Strength of bees/sustenance of bees.
Literal meaning: branch fork, loft
Tree: ash (uinnius)
Book of Ballymote: Nion, Ash-tree, a check on peace is Nion for of it are made the spear-shafts by which the peace is broken.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Checking of peace/establishing of peace.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Flight of beauty, a weaver's beam/boast of beauty.
Word Ogham of Oengus: The flight of women/boast of women.
Literal meaning: horror, fear
Letter: (silent) H
Tree: white thorn
Book of Ballymote: A meet of hounds is Huath (whitethorn), or because it is formidable owing to its thorns.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Pack of wolves/assembly of pack of hounds.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Difficult night, hawthorn/most difficult at night.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Whitening of face/blanching of faces.
Literal meaning: oak
Tree: oak (duir)
Book of Ballymote: Duir, Oak, higher than bushes is an oak.
Word Ogham of Morainn: highest of bushes/highest tree
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Kneeling work, bright and shining work/most carved of craftmanship
Word Ogham of Oengus: Craft work/handicraft of a craftsmanship.
Literal meaning: metal bar, ingot.
Tree: holly (cuileand)
Book of ballymote: A third of a wheel is Tinne, because holly is one of the three timbers of the chariot wheel.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Third of a wheel/one of three parts of a wheel.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: A third of weapons, an iron bar/one of three parts of a weapon.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Fires of coal/marrow of (char)coal.
Literal meaning: hazel
Tree: hazel (coll)
Book of Ballymote: Coll, that is everyone is eating of its nuts.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Fairest of trees/fairest tree.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Sweetest of woods, a nut/sweetest tree.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Friend of cracking/friend of nutshells
Literal meaning: bush
Tree: apple (aball)
Book of Ballymote: Shelter of a wild hind is is Quert, that is, an apple tree.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Shelter of a hind, lunatic or death/sense [the time when a lunatic's sense comes back to him]/shelter of a lunatic.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Excellent emblem, protection/dregs of clothing.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Force of a man/substance of an insignificant person.
Literal meaning: not certain - neck, ruse/trick, love/esteem
Tree: vine (finemhain)
Book of Ballymote: Highest of beauty is Muin, that is, because it grows aloft. That is, a vine-tree.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Highest of beauty, strongest of effort, Muin equals back of man or ox for it is they in existence that are strongest as regards effort./strongest in exertion.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Pack of wolves with spears, three vines/path of the voice.
Word Ogham of Oengus: The condition of slaughter/proverb of slaughter.
Literal meaning: field (as in: garden)
Tree: ivy (edind)
Book of Ballymote: Gort, that is ivy, greener than pastures is ivy.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Greenest of pastures, sweeter than grasses, due to associations with corn fields/sweetest grass.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Pleasing oil, corn/sating of multitudes.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Size of a warrior/suitable place for cows.
Literal meaning: slaying
Tree: broom (cilcach)
Book of Ballymote: nGetal, broom or fern, a physician's strength is broom.
Word Ogham of Morainn: A physician's strength, panacea equals broom/sustenance of a leech.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: beginning of heroic deeds, healing/beginning of slaying.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Robe of physicians/raiment of physicians.
Literal meaning: sulphur
Tree: blackthorn (draighin)
Book of Ballymote: The hedge of a stream is straiph, that is, blackthorn.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Careful effort, strongest of red, straiph equals sloe which gives strong red dye on metal/strongest reddening (dye).
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: An arrow's mist, smoke drifting up from the fire/seeking of clouds.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Increasing of secrets/increase of secrets.
Literal meaning: red
Tree: elder (trom)
Book of Ballymote: The redness of shame is Ruis, that is, elder.
Word Ogham of Morainn: intensest of blushes, it I reddening of a man's face through the juice of the herb being rubbed on it/most intense blushing.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Arduous anger, punishment/glow of anger.
Word Ogham of Oengus: redness of faces/reddening of faces.
Literal meaning: pine (?)
Tree: fir or pine
Book of Ballymote: Ailm, a fir tree, a pine tree.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Loudest of groanings, that is, wondering. Ailm or A for that is what a man says while groaning in disease or wonder/loudest groan.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Beginning of the weaver's beams, ahh/beginning of calling.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Beginning of answers/beginning of an answer.
Literal meaning: ash-tree
Tree: furze (aiten)
Book of Ballymote: Onn that is furze.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Helper of horses, wheels of a chariot, equally wounding; whin/wounder of horses.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Strength of warriors, fierceness/[equipment] of warriorbands.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Gentlest of work/smoothest of craftsmanship.
Literal meaning: earth, clay, soil
Tree: heather (fraech)
Book of Ballymote: Ur, that is heath.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Terrible tribe, in cold dwellings; mould of the earth, or heath/in cold dwellings.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Completion of lifelessness, the grave/shroud of a lifeless one.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Growing of plants/propagation of plants.
Literal meaning: unknown
Tree: aspen (crithach)
Book of Ballymote: Horrible grief, that is, test tree or aspen.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Distinguished man or wood/discerning tree.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Kinsman to the birch, aspen/brother of birch (?)
Word Ogham of Oengus: Additional name for a friend/exchange of friends.
Literal meaning: yew-tree (?)
Tree: yew (idhad)
Book of Ballymote: Yew.
Word Ogham of Morainn: Oldest of woods, service tree, yes/oldest tree
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: strength or colour of a sick man, people or an age/energy of an infirm person.
Word Ogham of Oengus: Abuse for an ancestor or pleasing consent/fairest of the ancients.
Literal meaning: unknown
Tree: apsen (critchach)
Word Ogham of Morainn: Fair-swimming letter.
Word Ogham of Cú Chulainn: Fairest fish.
Word Ogham of Oengus: [admonishing?] of an infirm person.