Of Ogham and Trees

I have been re-visiting aspects of The Concrete Shaman (‘Celtic Shamanism’ — Druidry Course) workshops we run at the Cornwall School of Mystery and Magick and in particular some aspects of the Ogham Alphabet. As with all ideas, it is in the revisiting of them that new insights can be gained.

When I first taught some of the ideas behind the Ogham I know I was possibly very challenging of the whole ‘Tree Alphabet’ idea. If you choose to look-up Ogham on-line the first references you will see relate to the idea of Trees and Calendars, for which we can attribute ‘blame’ to Robert Graves and his White Goddess.

Graves’ poetry and writing may be celebrated in many circles, but there have been numerous challenges to a lack of scholastic rigour in much of his ‘Celtic Re-discovery’. Not that this is a particular problem since bardic creativity is to be celebrated.

There is, however, the need for a clear distinction between what is presented as ‘inspired’ and what is ‘claimed’ to be historical.

Much of modern Druidry has been influenced by the ‘creative histories’ of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams). Graves and Williams can be accused of inventing so much that they claim to have ‘researched’, however, if we can find relevance and meaning in what we read then surely that’s OK?

My issue with reducing Ogham to a Tree Calendar is that it glosses (literary pun intended) over some of the more interesting possibilities.

Ogham (pronounced Oh-Ham — no ‘g’) is an alphabet that was used for monumental inscriptions. Most monumental ogham is found in Ireland, but there are examples in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall — as well as in the USA (but that’s another story).

What we know about the alphabet comes from writings of 13 & 14th Century Christian Monks.

Ogham is one of the few alphabets written and read vertically from the bottom to the top.

Its twenty letters, called feda ( ‘trees’) group into four aicme (‘family, tribe’) of five letters each.

Each letter is simply a cluster of one to five straight lines, scratched along the (usually) vertical edge of a stone.

The first family (B — L — V/F — S — N) has lines drawn to the right of the edge-line

The second family (H — D — T — C — Q) has lines drawn to the left.

The third (M — G — NG — ST — R) draws its lines diagonally across both sides of the edge.

And the fourth family (the vowels A — O — U — E — I) is drawn either as short marks on the edge itself, or straight across both sides of the edge.

In terms of monument markings ‘right’ is the same as ‘south’, and ‘left’ is ‘north’, thanks to the ancient tradition of orientation by facing east.

Some useful reference points

Book of Ballymote, circa 1390 C.E.

In it multiple books are combined including Lebor Ogaim (“The Book of Ogams”), also known as the Ogam Tract, which an Old Irish treatise on the ogham alphabet.

The Ogham Tract is independent of the Auraicept, and is our main source for the Bríatharogaim. The Ogam Tract also gives a variety of some 100 “scales” of variant or secret modes of writing ogham (92 in the Book of Ballymote), for example the “shield ogham” (ogam airenach, nr. 73).

Even the Younger Futhark are introduced as “Viking ogham” (nrs. 91, 92).

Some of these are word lists based on the alphabet, and some seem to involve a numerical system of tallying.

The Auraicept na n’Eces or ‘Scholars’ Primer’ dates from the 12th Century and claims to be copied from 7th Century sources.

Branch Ogham (above) and Letter-Rack Ogham (below) from the Book of Ballymote

The Ogham Alphabet as we are mostly familiar with it…

Now here’s the thing.

Only five of the twenty primary letters have tree names that the Auraicept considers comprehensible without further glosses…

beith “birch”

fearn “alder”

saille “willow”

duir “oak”

coll “hazel”

All the other names have to be glossed or “translated” with a plant names.

In Early Irish literature a Bríatharogam (“word ogham”, plural Bríatharogaim) was a two word kenning that explained the meanings of the names of the letters of the Ogham alphabet

Three variant lists of bríatharogaim or ‘word-oghams’ have been preserved, dating to the Old Irish period….

  • Bríatharogam Morainn mac Moín — Ogham Tract (Lebor Ogham 14th Century)
  • Bríatharogam Maic ind Óc — Ogahm Tract (Lebor Ogham 14th Century)
  • Bríatharogam Con Culainn — (16th Century)

These three ‘translations’ are …

So why are we limiting ourselves to Ogham Feda (Trees) to TREES?

It is suggested that the training of the Gaelic poet or file involved learning one hundred and fifty varieties of ogham; fifty in each of the first three years of study.

More importantly, if Ogham is to be used as an oracular system limiting the letters to tree-lore (however wonderful that is) sure this places restrictions the potential depth and breadth of the ‘system’.

We may never discover the original meanings of some of the Ogham ‘layouts’ that appear in the Book of Ballymote, but to me there is a difference in saying ‘Look here’s the original document and that means’ and ‘look at this original document, I’ve no idea what the authors of it really meant, BUT I can use inspired-poetic licence to create a framework for me now.’

Fionns Window from the Book of Ballymote

Fionns Window is a particular example of one of these ‘interesting frames’. Called by some revivalists a ‘mandala’ and hence something that ‘must be for meditation’.

Do we really know that’s what it was for?

Or are we giving our poetic, inspired-selves licence to ‘play with possibilities’?

Originally published at www.emrysydewin.com on August 13, 2018.

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Writing about personal development, the mind and future histories. New articles every Monday. Website : www.dralanjones.com

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Dr Alan Jones PhD FRSA

Dr Alan Jones PhD FRSA

Writing about personal development, the mind and future histories. New articles every Monday. Website : www.dralanjones.com

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