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The Celtic Ogham: An Ancient Tree Alphabet that May Disappear Before Showing its Roots


In secluded fields, on the walls of churches, and beneath construction sites, stones have been found with intricate markings that rise from the lower left up to the center and then down to the lower right. This is the ancient Celtic Tree Alphabet known as Ogham (pronounced owam). Archaeological linguists have managed to translate the symbols, yet no one knows for certain how or why this language came into existence. Efforts are being made to preserve the relics, however, the stones are weathering and crumbling at an alarming rate.

Attempts to Preserve the Unique Inscriptions

There are roughly 400 stones known to contain Ogham markings, 360 of which are in Ireland. The rest have been discovered scattered across Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The oldest relic is believed to date back to the 4th century AD, but one must assume that earlier examples existed on perishable mediums, such as wood, possibly as far back as the 1st century AD.

Ogham stone located within a 12th century church at Ardmore Co Waterford.

Ogham stone located within a 12th century church at Ardmore Co Waterford. ( mike65ie/CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

For the most part, the messages contain names of people and places, perhaps to demarcate boundaries and property. These old, weathered rocks are covered with lines and slashes, cut directly into the stone. Before the realization that Ogham was a distinct language, many believed the cuts to be merely decorative.

One of the major problems facing archaeologists in their attempts to preserve Ogham stones is the unique physical style of the inscriptions. "Most inscriptions on stone are in the face of the stone," said Nora White, an archaeological linguist studying Ogham. "But with Ogham, it wraps around the angled edge of the stone."

Ogham stone, Aghadoe church, County Kerry.

Ogham stone, Aghadoe church, County Kerry. ( Jeremy Keith/CC BY 2.0 )

This unique reading experience is part of the allure of the Ogham writings, however, it makes it very difficult to capture the inscriptions for posterity - an ordinary photograph or drawing cannot capture an entire passage. Fortunately, recent technological advances have allowed researchers like White to create three-dimensional scans of the stone pillars. 3-D models of the known stones are quickly being captured and preserved as part of the ‘Ogham in 3-D Project,’ an initiative sponsored by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies’ School of Celtic Studies.

Celtic Respect for Trees

The ancient Celts worshiped trees as spirits or as objects inhabited by spirits. Much of the Celtic mysticism revolves around the magical properties of different trees. For example, the birch tree is often considered the primary tree. A feminine power, the Druids believed that the magical properties of the birch included protection of children, creativity, and purification. Another important tree was the mighty oak. A masculine power, the magical prosperities of oak were linked to security, strength, and loyalty.

‘The Druid Grove.’

‘The Druid Grove.’ ( Public Domain )

The Celtic respect for trees affected many aspects of their lives and is considered to be fundamental to the Ogham script. The markings center along a long vertical reference line, the ‘stem,’ which is then crossed by characters comprised of lines or slashes known as ‘twigs’. The first letter in this alphabet represents the ‘B’ sound and is made with a single straight line perpendicular to the stem on the right side. The name of this character is Beighe or birch tree and would look like this: I

Legends Behind the Language 

Of the 20 characters that make up the Ogham alphabet, five are made up of straight-line twigs on the right side of the stem. In addition to Beighe, there is Luis (II), Fern (III), Sail (IIII), and Nin (IIIII). These characters represent, respectively, the letters L, W, S, and N; the names of the characters translate to herb, alder, willow, and letters.

Although researchers have been able to decode Ogham, there is still a great deal of debate over the reason behind its invention, especially because the Latin script, and to a lesser extent Greek script, were in common usage at this point in time.

Legend has it that the language was first arranged as a result of the fall of the Tower of Babel. The great Fenius Farsa, King of the Scythians (Scythia is the classical Greek name for the Central Asian dominions) heard the fate of Nimrod’s people and came at once. In the King’s retinue were 72 scholars who hoped to study and make sense of the confused languages.

The Ogham alphabet.

The Ogham alphabet. ( Anárion/CC BY 1.0 )

Unfortunately, by the time they reached the plain of Shinar, the cursed people had all dispersed. King Fenius thus sent his scholars out to the far edges of the known world in order to learn the multitude of languages. The search lasted for ten years and Fenius remained near the ruins of the Tower the whole time, waiting for his loyal servants to return with their findings. Once the search was complete, the King created a special language known as Bérla tóbaide . It was made up of the best elements of each of the confused languages. He also devised the Beithe-luis-nuin, a perfect writing system to accompany the new language. This script was commonly referred to as the Ogham.

‘The Tower of Babel’ (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch.

‘The Tower of Babel ’ (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch. ( Public Domain )

This fantastic tale is not the only legend that exists to explain Ogham. Modern researchers also have a plethora of beliefs to explain the language’s purpose, and while they are not as extraordinary as the Legend of Fenuis Farsa, they are equally disputed.

Some scholars argue that Ogham was created so that the Irish could communicate without the British knowing what was being said (the Brits were the Celts’ enemy, even in the first centuries AD). Another hypothesis argues that the alphabet was composed by early Christian missionaries in Ireland because they found it difficult to capture the sounds of Gaelic with the Latin alphabet. Still another posits that Ogham was originally a secret hand signal language of the ancient Druids that ultimately made its way into permanence by being carved into stones. This idea rests on the similarity between the groupings of one to five twigs for a sound and the five fingers of the person passing on messages in a secret sign language. However, few academics believe this last hypothesis to be credible.

Ogham alphabet, Plumbridge.

Ogham alphabet, Plumbridge. ( Kenneth Allen/CC BY SA 2.0 )

Archeologists continue working to find as many Ogham stones as possible and to create digital copies of them. Once the preservation of Ogham is secured, the business of comparing the messages with other ancient texts and symbols will begin in earnest in order to unveil the secrets behind the mysterious Irish tree language.

Ogham stone in the ground of Ratass Church in Tralee, Co. Kerry. ( Jaqian/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top Image: Ogham sticks ( A Walk Around Britain / Flickr )

By Kerry Sullivan

References:

Ager, Simon. "Ogham"  Ogham Alphabet . Omniglot, 2016. Web. 09 July 2016. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ogham.htm

Giaimo, Cara. "Preserving Ireland's Ancient, Mysterious Tree-Based Alphabet."  Atlas Obscura . Atlas Obscura, 19 May 2016. Web. 09 July 2016. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/preserving-irelands-ancient-mysterious-treebased-alphabet

Joelle. "Celtic Tree Calendar - Ogham Alphabet."  Celtic Paths . Joelle's Sacred Grove, 1998. Web. 09 July 2016. http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/Celtic/tree.html

 

Comments

Suppose there is no actual alphabet at all? First all of the signs ARE THE SAME SIGN- a line. Grouping of lines is no proof at all of the representation of a sound or "letter". It could represent a record-like the number of days doing penance, or weeks, or years. Or the number of times my wife visited Tescos, anything, and the frequent groupings claimed are what exactly? Certainly not an alphabet or writing at all, IMHO.

Ogham was the first lost script to be deciphered. The key was found in a 1300s text called the book of Ballymote. Ogham is easy to learn and adaptable to many languages. I would often leave secret messages for my children to decipher as to where the goodies were hidden.

Several prisoners used it to get out secret messages as the police as yourself don't recognize it as writing, but just a bunch of haphazard chicken scratches.

Ogham is not just confined to Ireland, it's also found on the Iberian Peninsula, South Africa and North America from the east coast to the Mohave Desert in southern California. As yourself American archaeologists fail to recognize Ogham even if the trip over it, so don't feel bad.

Granted, this article does not give enough detail for anybody to understand the script.

OK For the Horse Creek Petroglyph, I have looked at lines that are reasonably long and also limited the study to those lines largely in line wth the camera…

In total I looked at 98 lines

The 5.1 degree alignment dominates with 22 lines aligning to this value – this is similar to that seen in Australia and European geometric artwork

The next most common is the 9.3 degree alignment with 12 lines aligning to this value

Then the next most common line is a 1 degree alignment at 11 times.

The 9.3/18.6 lunar cycle is represented 18 times

The 13.66/27.32 sidereal month pair appears 10 times

The pattern matches perfectly the statistics seen in Australian geometrics with over 70% of the lines aligning to the standard series….

 

Dr. Derek Cunningham
Author: The Map that Talked

Thank you Sir. While you were on that I was trying to track down any other recently suspected sites for possible "Celtic" Symbolism. It is funny how all the indigenous have stories about those that were here before them. I highly suspect Circumpolar Winds and Currents as the possible origin of all those that came before on every Continent.

Travelling round the northern latitudes does make for a much shorter trip…..and it makes sense because most of the early trips would have been coastal until they had worked out the general shape of Earth.

The thing I notcied about current theory, which argues every single time we see a common link anywhere in the world, is archaeologists have only one tool in their bag. They always argue that it must be just a coincience. How do you work with a theory like that?

….also no need for the sir stuff. I’m from Scotland and where I live we’re down to earth.

 

Dr. Derek Cunningham
Author: The Map that Talked

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