Scattered throughout Ireland and Great Britain are stones with markings that appear to be little more than random scratches. These parallel slashes, however, are far from random; they are inscriptions in ogham (also called ogam or ogom), a script used to write Irish in past centuries.
The questions of how and why ogham was developed have puzzled linguists and archaeologists for decades. The problem is not that no one has an explanation; the problem is that there is so little concrete evidence, beyond the cryptic inscriptions themselves, to support any of the myriad of explanations out there. Even the front-running theories are little more than well-argued speculation, and many of them attempt to ascribe indigenous cultural significance to the writing system far beyond the support for it. Was ogham used for mystical purposes? Did it have any connection to the druids? It may have, but if that was the case, we may never have the evidence to prove it.
Aside from a handful of inscribed metal and bone objects, and the manuscripts which recorded the writing system in full, ogham is mostly known from stone pillars. The texts on these pillars were carved into the edges, usually from the ground up, which allows for inscriptions of some length. If the writing went from the top down, it might run into the ground and have to break to begin again elsewhere, but when it starts at the ground it can continue along the stone's top edge and down the other side if necessary—which on some stones it does. The form of ogham is quite simple and regular, consisting of slashes radiating outward from the stone's edge or, in some cases, crossing it. Vowels are represented by short strokes on the central line itself.
The alphabet consists of twenty letters organized into four groups (or aicme) of five letters each. Each group is named according to its classifying letter, the first in the series, either in Irish (aicme beithe, aicme uatha, aicme muine, aicme ailme) or in English (B-group or B-aicme, etc.). The arrangement of alphabet is sometimes referred to as Beithe-Luis-Nin, after the most commonly accepted letter-names for the first, second, and fifth letters of the first aicme. This naming scheme is similar to that of the runic futhark (named for its first six letters), and the trait both alphabets have of grouping letters has led some to posit a relationship between the two, as will be discussed further below. In addition to these four aicme there is a fifth, called the forfeda, which consists of extra characters later added to accomodate diphthongs. These characters are a later addition, found in the Auraicept na n-Eces (The Scholar's Primer, a medieval manuscript), and are only dubiously represented in the inscription record itself. The "ea" and "oi" in particular may be derived from Greek letters (chi and omicron, respectively).
Ogham was never used for lengthy texts. It is a bulky and inefficient method of writing; a reader could easily miscount the number of strokes and thus assume the wrong letter. The inscriptions on the stones are all short, consisting of names in the genitive case (e.g. "of Toictheach son of Sagi Rettos"). What precedes the first "of"? The myths and legends say that ogham stones were used to mark graves; another possibility is that they were boundary signs. Whether or not anyone was buried at the foot of an ogham stone is difficult to say, since many of them have been moved. In any case, "stone," "boundary," or "grave" can be imagined as the omitted word. Other artifacts which have ogham markings usually only feature a couple of letters.
Applying dates to ogham in general and specific inscriptions in particular is difficult. All of the ogham stones appear to have been carved some time between the fourth and the eighth centuries CE, perhaps a little later in the case of inscriptions in Scotland, with a peak in the fifth or sixth century. Hugh O'Neill Hencken, however, while excavating a crannog at Ballinderry II, discovered an artifact which threatens these accepted dates. The item is a rectangular bone die, similar in design to several others which have been found. On this die, however, the number five is not represented by five dots, after the pattern of the other dice and this die's remaining sides; instead the die is marked with three horizontal slashes extending from one edge. Some scholars have raised the possibility that this should be read as the ogham symbol for the letter F, which commonly took the place of V. In the Roman system of numerals, of course, V represents five. Although this interpretation is somewhat tortuous, no better explanation for the unusual marking seems to be available. Hencken himself took this to mean that the maker of the die knew both ogham and Roman numerals. The Ballinderry II crannog has been tentatively dated to the second century CE, well before the earliest known ogham stone inscription.
Dating stone inscriptions, however, is a chancy business at best. Those that are still in situ are usually free-standing, divorced from any kind of structural context such as a town that might supply a more specific date. Many of them have been moved from their original locations, such that they now form the lintels of doorways or even church altars. In these cases it is all but impossible to assign a date to the inscription. Linguistic evidence can offer some help in dating via certain morphological characteristics of the language, but the Irish were fond of deliberately using archaisms in the form and spelling of the inscriptions, which only clouds the matter further. Few of the people named in the inscriptions are attested elsewhere in Irish or local history, so even that opportunity for placing the stones in time is lost. For most of the stones, only a tentative guess at a century can be made, if that.
Scholars do not even have that many examples to generalize from. Only a few hundred examples of ogham stones have been found to date, the vast majority of which are in Ireland. Nearly a third of these are in County Kerry; together with the other southern counties of Cork and Waterford, this accounts for 249 of the stones, or well over half. Examples are known in the north as well, in counties such as Armagh and Tyrone, but these are often isolated cases. This southern bias is continued on the other side of the Irish Sea; there are forty inscribed stones in Wales, primarily in the southwestern area now known as Dyfed, and five in Cornwall. The two in Scotland and one in England are rather more dubious. In addition to these numbers, there are 27 stones in Pictish Scotland, most of which have not been translated; they bear ogham inscriptions together with Pictish symbols, and while they contain some Irish words and Pictish names, the remaining language is unknown to date, and may be the Pictish tongue itself. The occurance of ogham inscriptions coincides with areas of Irish influence, and all the stones save for the Pictish ones are inscribed in Irish, though no few of the Welsh stones also feature a Latin translation. Southwest Wales, Dyfed in particular, was settled by Irish colonists who were from Co. Waterford. The people from whom they derived, the Érainn, had spread across southern and southwestern Ireland—namely, from the very counties in which the greatest concentration of ogham stones are found. These settlers were certainly there by the end of the third century, at which point they established a line of Irish kings, and they maintained communication with their former home for several centuries. This provides a clear and likely explanation for the abundance of stones in Dyfed. The later Pictish stones may have come about due to the combined influences of the Columban Church and the Dál Riada kings, the latter of which ruled in Scotland but descended from fourth-century Irish colonists.
Ogham would therefore seem to have originated in Ireland. But when was it developed, and from what source? And did it begin in Ireland at all? These are the questions which archaeologists, linguists, and historians debate endlessly. James Carney imagines that ogham began on the continent, as a means of passing encoded messages which the enemy could not read. Damian McManus, though, dismisses this proposition as being supported by only the flimsiest of evidence, consisting primarily of unattested Gaulish letter-names and the proposed derivation of the name from the Gaulish deity Ogmios, mentioned by Lucian. In fact, the prevailing mythological explanation is that the Irish god Oghma created the system of writing. The name "Oghma" may be a cognate of "Ogmios," or it may be a direct borrowing from the Gaulish.
Ogham cannot have been a completely indigenous development, as the system is clearly alphabetic and there is little to no evidence for its evolution from a more primitive local system, as there is elsewhere in the world. One suggestion is that the morphology of ogham comes from wooden tally sticks, but this cannot be proved, and at any rate the phonetic structure is foreign in origin. The usual suggested sources are Latin, Greek, and the Germanic runes. With the last of these ogham shares the characteristic that it collates letters into groups (of five in ogham, eight in runic), but this system of classification is also attested in Donatus, a Roman writer of the fourth century. Scholars sometimes speculate that Donatus was the immediate source of the ogham grouping system, but even before the discovery of the inscribed die from the Ballinderry crannog it seemed a stretch to say that the concept traveled to Ireland and was adopted rapidly enough to account for the proliferation of engraved stones there by the fourth or fifth century. Carney offers a potential solution in Quintilian, a first-century Roman writer, who refers in passing to a very similar system that appears to have been in use for long enough to be familiar to him. If the supposedly Donatan-period system dated back that far, it could have been known in Ireland in time to develop into the ogham system.
Many scholars have speculated about how ogham might have developed from the proposed parent alphabet. Carney's article "The Invention of the Ogom Cipher" is devoted exclusively to this very subject; he goes through a series of steps wherein he discards letters not needed in Irish until a round number of twenty is reached, whereupon he arranges the remaining twenty letters into a four by five grid, which he calls the Construct. From there he makes various changes, all designed to explain why certain letters (B, M, H, and A) became the classifying letters of their aicme and why the remaining four letters (which he groups into two pairs for each aicme) ended up where they did. He gives statistical data in support of his hypothesis, demonstrating how his Construct provides a better than sixty percent match for the structure of the ogham alphabet as it was later known, and declares that this was how the alphabet came into being.
McManus, however, condemns this sort of effort as a trap into which many scholars fall, a mere exercise in letter-juggling:
The tyranny of the cipher theory is that it has always tended to highlight the naturalness of any proposed derivation of Ogam at the expense of an investigation of the possible creative input of the framers of the system. The general approach has been to juxtapose the MS [manuscript] record of the values of the Ogam characters and the letter-sequence of the preferred prototype, to seek one-to-one correspondences, to emphasize their naturalness, and to accound for any unnatural features by a series of what are often inexplicable, ill-motivated or random reshufflings of the letters of the original. Most attempts to outline the successive stages in the development from the prototype to Ogam amount to no more than exercises in anticipating what one knows became the alphabet in its final form. (22)
He stands adamantly against those who, like Carney, would treat ogham not as an alphabet in its own right, a writing system adopted by a people for their own use, but as a means of encoding the Latin (or Greek or runic) alphabet. Carney admits outright that he sees ogham as a code rather than a writing system; he deliberately points out that he never refers to ogham as an alphabet, but always calls it a cipher. McManus's defense against this view is that there comes a point in any letter-shuffling where adaptation to the target language, Primitive Irish, must be conceded. At that point he sees the intervention of "a creative individual or school" whose efforts the cipher theorists completely ignore.
The difficulty of discussing the origins of ogham comes from the lack of evidence for its development. Where is the early ogham? Barring perhaps the Ballinderry II crannog die, there is no evidence for the development and introduction of ogham. Whatever proof there was must have been recorded on material that has since perished—wood, perhaps, or paper—or it was never recorded at all.
Support for the latter idea is, of course, hard to find. Archaeology can tell us about society from the physical remains that are left behind, but when there are no such remains the task becomes extremely difficult. One proponent of the theory that nothing was recorded, though, is Julius Caesar, who states in De Bello Gallico that the druids, the Celtic keepers of divine law and ritual, were prohibited by their profession from writing any of their knowledge down. This stricture could account for the lack of substantial records about who and what the druids were. Almost everything that is known about them comes from classical ethnographies like Caesar's or the literature written down in the medieval period, neither of which is a terribly informative or reliable source. The prohibition against any writing obviously relaxed at some point, as the Celts did leave the ogham inscriptions and Latin or insular-script manuscripts, but how did this come about?
John MacNeill argues persuasively on the basis of linguistic evidence that the traditions which brought about ogham inscriptions and manuscripts were entirely separate: the ogham tradition, he believes, was always pagan, whereas the manuscript tradition was Christian. Despite the time period of ogham inscriptions, which is a close match for the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, the pagan nature of ogham seems reasonable; for one thing, it was not a Christian custom to bury people in isolated places with cryptic marker-stones (if that is indeed what the ogham stones were meant to be). Also, the attribution of magical properties to the process and product of writing is common among many older religions. Using such stones as boundary-markers or gravestones would not be unreasonable for such groups. Was it the druids who created these inscriptions, though? This question may be impossible to answer, except through speculation. Caesar said they would not write their teachings down, but creating semimagical symbols might have been permissible.
The magical nature of ogham is potentially supported by the manuscript keys which give letter-values to the individual symbols. As stated above, the customary arrangement of ogham is called Beithe-Luis-Nin, after the first, second, and fifth letters of the first aicme. These terms are not meaningless; they, along with all of the most commonly cited letter-names (as quoted in, for example, the Auraicept na n-Eces or the Duil Feda), refer to trees—in this case, birch, rowan, and ash. This system of naming is widely accepted and quoted in many sources that give a brief overview of ogham, ranging from scholarly works to popular books.
Howard Meroney, however, calls this acceptance into question. The Irish terms assigned to the letters are not well-attested elsewhere as tree names, and in some places highly conflicting translations for them are given side-by-side. The tally of trees in the Auraicept na n-Eces is, in Meroney's opinion, particularly unreliable: "Taken separately, indeed, the glosses render seventeen of the twenty-five names with a diversity which no woodsman could reconcile and no grammarian should trust" (21). The manuscripts often seek to explain the source of these names through complex or even tortuous kennings; other times they give up entirely and just present the meaning as a thing not to be questioned, however illogical it is.
But the tree names are not the only ones proposed by the various manuscript sources that gloss the ogham alphabet. There are mentions of the letters being named for "heroes in the school of Fénius Farsaid," for example. The Auraicept lists a number of naming systems, some based on unrelated words, others along a scheme of sows, fortresses, oxen, colours, etc. These varied oghams may be an invention of the manuscript writers (and the manuscripts may not be at all a reliable source under any circumstances), but it is not unreasonable to think that those who invented and taught the alphabet did so with the mnemonic aid of kennings or related names. Something of the sort shows up among American children learning their letters: "A is for Apple, B is for Boy," and so on. Meroney suggests there may have been a series of changes which brought the ogham kennings from a set of unrelated words, like those we use today, to the elaborate system seen in the manuscript record.
But was there ever any significance to the names beyond simple mnemonic devices? The Auraicept classifies trees into three groups of eight: chieftain trees, peasant trees, and shrub trees. There is no immediately discernible pattern between the groupings listed there and the standard arrangement of names in the Beithe-Luis-Nin. Again, there is little to no evidence that can help answer this question of significance; even with Meroney's theory, no one can recreate what system of names the druids themselves used, if they even agreed on a single system. With most of their lore available only in fragmented, corrupted form as seen in medieval literature, it may be impossible to ever know what magical significance could have been assigned to the letters. That there was such significance is not impossible; many early cultures assign power to the name of a thing, and writing that name is another form of power.
The Auraicept offers one other clue which may point at how and why ogham developed. After listing a number of kenning systems, it begins to describe a different set of systems, beginning with what it calls "Foot Ogham":
The fingers of the hand about the shinbone for the letters and to put them on the right of the shinbone for group B. To the left for group H. Athwart the shinbone for group M. Straight across for group A, viz., one finger for the first letter of the groups, two for the second letter, till it would reach five for the fifth letter of whichever group it be.
It then goes on with Nose Ogham, "similiter to right and left, athwart, across," and Palm of Hand Ogham.
As mentioned before, the Auraicept may not be the most reliable of sources. It was written in the twelfth century, well after the decline of ogham inscriptions and the adoption of Christianity, and the claims it makes may again be the invention of scribes fascinated with their colorful pagan past. If, however, this description contains any seeds of truth, it may offer an explanation for why there is no artifactual evidence for the evolution of ogham. Positions of the body, unless captured in artwork, leave no archaeological record behind. If the druids did indeed use some kind of finger-language before they ever recorded ogham on stones, it could result in exactly the kind of confusion scholars suffer from today.
This explanation offers several benefits. Ogham is an inefficient method of writing, but as a sign language it might be passable, since the position of the hand could be read fairly easily as a coherent unit, instead of as isolated lines. It fits the form of the alphabet fairly well, both in the groupings of five (which suits five fingers) and in the parallel arrangement of the strokes. Use of it is different enough from writing that it might have been acceptable to the druids while allowing them to preserve a measure of secrecy; they could transmit necessary information without as much fear of eavesdroppers.
Carney and others refer to ogham as a cipher, as detailed above. McManus condemns this theory as limiting and awkward. It may depend, however, on whom the cipher was designed to foil. To call ogham a cipher of Latin seems illogical; it was not used to write Latin, and developed most visibly in the areas farthest from Roman influence. On the other hand, treating ogham as a cipher of Irish, intended to keep secrets from the Irish themselves, can resolve some of McManus's objections. That it was based on another alphabet is clear, and Latin seems as good an ancestor candidate as any (better, perhaps, with the consideration of Donatus and Quintilian, and their system of groupings). If it was not just adopted but adapted, however, with the goal of using it for Irish clearly in mind, calling it a cipher of Latin does not seem to fit. It may have instead been a cipher created by the druids and used to convey information they wished to keep secret from the uninitiated among their own people, without committing their knowledge to paper. As such, perhaps it developed on the continent before traveling to Ireland, where it acquired concrete form; chances are this will never be known for certain. But this explanation allows for the creative input McManus finds so lacking in the ideas of the cipher theorists; the odd arrangement of letters within the aicme may have had significance to ogham's druid inventors, a significance which is now lost.
Foreign origin may disappoint those people today who would like to claim ogham as an indigenous development, entirely divorced from that Roman influence that so thoroughly permeated the Mediterranean world and parts of northern Europe. The discrediting of the mystical tree names may be similarly disagreeable to them. However, it is possible that ogham was an alphabet created and used by druids for the specific purpose of confounding their own people and keeping their arcane knowledge safe. Whether this was the case or not will remain debatable; this kind of explanation is, by nature, the sort which will leave no little or no trace of itself in the world. If the druids did invent ogham to confuse the uninitiated, they have succeeded admirably.
Auraicept na n-Eces: The Scholars' Primer. Trans. George Calder. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995.
Carney, James. "Invention of the Ogom Cipher." Eriu 26 (1975): 53-65.
Hencken, Hugh O'Neill. "Ballinderry Crannog No. 2." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 47C: no. 1.
MacNeill, John. "Notes on the Distribution, History, Grammar, and Import of the Irish Ogham Inscriptions." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 27C (1908-1909): 329-344.
McManus, Damian. A Guide to Ogam. Maynooth: An Sagart, 1991.
Meroney, Howard. "Early Irish Letter-Names." Speculum 24: 19-43.
"Ireland's Ancient Code," by Marie Brennan, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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